There is a television series I haven’t seen, but its title is captivating in the midst of the most isolating time in world history. As we are in many places still under stay at home orders, we are by necessity living alone. The series Alone Together is about two quirky personalities in marriage. On this theme a key statement of encouragement given through media is “we’re in this together, ” meaning that we agree to isolate ourselves from one another. But can we? Are we alone together? Or are we just alone?
Churches have sought to pursue how the church can be alone together. Services are live streamed. I have seen communion offered as part of those services. Is it a worship service if we are alone together? One service leader said the Holy Spirit is not limited so that we can be alone together in worship because of His presence and work, but is that true? Does the Holy Spirit work in a video worship service when each is alone, when the service has been taped in the same way as when we are together? Now, the Holy Spirit is always at work, but is that a worship service or just another way He could work? Hebrews 10:25 commands us, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Are we meeting together when we are socially alone, isolated from one another, our only connection the common “show” we are watching?
Now, I am not encouraging civil disobedience. The COVID-19 virus is highly contagious, and for some it is a deadly disease. With its high contagiousness and no effective therapy or vaccine, it must be respected. With a contagious and potentially deadly disease, it is not loving to put others at risk by assembling together. There may be suspicious reasons for its development. Government may be exercising a control and power over our lives and information that could be used for other times and other purposes. But still it makes sense at this moment for this disease to socially distance so that it doesn’t overwhelm us and our ability to provide good medical care at any one time.
My concern is that you really can’t be “alone together.” My concern is the way life will change following the crisis. There may be parts of our spiritual lives lost that will never be fully regained. My concern is that there is a priceless moment in this isolation we must each pursue. My concern is that we will accept alternatives to gathering together after the crisis that will be weak and ineffective in their spiritual value.
As I think about this time of being alone together, I am drawn to a parallel time in the Apostle Paul’s life. 2 Timothy is an incredibly poignant letter written by the Apostle Paul while he was in prison in Rome for (we think) the second time. Nero was Emperor, and Christians were targeted for one of the fiercest times of persecution in church history. Nero had targeted Christians to distract from his weaknesses and failures, even to the point of allowing Rome to burn by his negligence. It was during this time that we believe the Apostle Peter was crucified. It was during this time we believe Paul would be beheaded. Everything in the letter speaks of the knowledge of the Apostle Paul that this is the last letter he will write. The Apostle Peter wrote 2 Peter at the same time, with the same knowledge. It is important for us to note that both these letters give the most explicit endorsement of the Bible as the Word of God, authored by men writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They both compel us to embrace the Bible as the authoritative and sufficient Word for the church until Jesus comes to take her home.
As Paul faced trial for saying Jesus is Lord in the time of the Emperor’s madness, no one stood with Paul. Key members of Paul’s leadership team were disbursed to other parts of the Empire in ministry. Christians in Rome were too afraid or too isolated to feel safe to stand with the Apostle Paul. We can feel the weight of his being alone when he writes in 2 Timothy 4:16, “At my first defense no on came to stand by me, but all deserted me.” Even while the church around the world desired to stand with Paul, he could not be “alone together.” There is something irreplaceable to the work of the Holy Spirit when we are together that no desire or effort can bridge when we are not together.
There is something being lost right now as we can’t be together. Texts, emails, even Zooms may be communication and connection, but they cannot reproduce what only the Holy Spirit can do among us when we are together. There is a sadness and loss to this time which we must acknowledge and grieve. Church leaders might with good intent hype these as ways in which the connection continues, but in fact they fall short. I thought of these as I saw a news story describing what happened in Italy when people were allowed for a short time to leave their apartments and homes. I watched a picture of two grandparents with their grandchildren running to them, both full of such joy and excitement. It was profound. Just that simple gesture of joining together in joyful hugs, full of such passion, told you all you need to know to understand you can’t be “alone together.” I suppose they might have had some way of video calling, but nothing replaces being together. It is good for the substitutes and the bridges in this time that connection through social media can bring, but it all falls short of being together.
As the Apostle Paul spoke of this time with no one standing with him, he went on to share how he was never fully alone. Paul wrote in the next verse 2 Timothy 4:17-18, “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Paul says he was never truly alone, for standing with him was the Lord Jesus Himself. How good it is to know that no matter what, we are never truly alone. Jesus is with us. We can draw near to Him. We can lean on Him. We can draw from Him. As Paul wrote in Philippians 3:10, there is a fellowship with Jesus that comes through sharing suffering with Him. David, in the most loved Psalm 23, wrote in verse 4 of the presence of Jesus, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” We are alone together with Jesus by the Holy Spirit. He will never leave us or forsake us.
It is this that gives our time of being alone such an opportunity. We have undistracted time to seek Jesus face to face. We have time for Him to reveal Himself to us through His Word. We have time to reflect on Him. There is time for us to open ourselves to Him and seek the ways He wants to make us more like Him. There is time for us to pray with Him for our brothers and sisters in Christ as we join with Him in His High Priestly prayers. I have felt the Lord leading me to go back with Him through key events in my life. I have reworked with Him through painful times in life and have felt His comfort and healing, His wisdom and perspective. I have gone back through many times when His resurrection power was at work. I reflect on those times as the Apostle Paul did when Jesus was using moments for the Gospel to be heard. This is an opportunity the church around the world has never had together, for us to be alone to pursue our relationship with Jesus undistracted (though I know in many places homes are full of other people and family). This moment will soon pass, so don’t let it be wasted. No, you are not truly alone. Jesus is with you.
Even with Jesus, this is not the fullness of life He plans. There is fullness in the presence and work of Jesus that is only fully at work as we are together. We are part of a body in which each joint and ligament is needed to enable us to grow (Ephesians 2:21-22). We are a family called to minister the “one another’s” to each other. Welcoming, encouraging, exhorting, comforting, building up, exhorting are just a few. John tells us that there is a reality of God’s love that is only truly perceived as we are together. He wrote by the Holy Spirit in 1 John 4:12, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
I find in this time of isolation that we are getting used to being isolated from others. More and more people pass each other by without eye contact or acknowledging the other person. We have been taught to think of ourselves as being infected and to act as if the other person is infected, and it is settling into our understanding of one another. As we pass, we are more concerned to have the proper distance than we are to have a proper connection. What “normal” will be once social distancing rules are relaxed, I don’t know, but I think something will be lost of our humanness in connection that for many will never be regained.
I also think live streamed services, no matter how well produced and presented, cannot match the work of the Holy Spirit even in the most humble of worship services when people are together. There is a presence and work of the Holy Spirit in worship services that doesn’t happen other ways. It is a key reason behind the command not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. The person who modeled the heart of worship in the Bible is David. He saw the glory of God in the heavens. He meditated on His Word in the night watches. He felt the presence of the Lord in all the moments of life. But it is profound for us to understand the irreplaceable presence and power of the Lord that is revealed in the congregation gathered together in worship. David wrote Psalm 63 when he was exiled from the throne by the rebellion of his son Absalom. It is profound to note what David missed as he waited events out on the other side of the Jerusalem. David missed going with the congregation in assembly for worship. He wrote in Psalm 63:1-2, “O God, you are my. God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” For David, there was a presence and power of God in worship services that he could find nowhere else in life.
I am not saying God cannot work and hold us together in some ways through live streamed services, but they are anemic substitutions for what happens when we are together as a church in worship. This virus has brought a loss that is real. While I understand why it is done in inviting people to take communion together with the video, it is that which reminds me most of what can become ritual without reality. Maybe I am wrong, but we cannot have communion together before our TV or monitor screens and have it approach what it is to do this live together. I fear it only becomes form without reality.
What the new normal will be once this social distancing is loosened, I don’t know. The church in China went through a season with large church gatherings. Buildings were built. People flocked. But the government has now turned viciously against the church, bulldozing churches and arresting leaders. But one church leader says we know how to do this. For years we met in house churches of no more than 15. When we grew to more than 15 we divided. Will we need to have church as house churches? If we do, it will be an opportunity to see God work in powerful ways. There is something about being together before the Lord in worship that is real whether the number is 15 or 1500. The power of the Holy Spirit is not so much in great music or in great preaching. He works as lives are lifted in worship of Jesus and connected together in relationship. Let us realize we cannot be “alone together.” Let us realize we are either alone or we are together. Let us realize that together is so much more. Let us realize we may not be going back to times of full worship centers where all are gathered. We may be going to smaller house gatherings, but let us run to them. Let us embrace the way God has worked throughout so much of the history of the church and in so many countries today through house churches. Let us realize that it is Satan’s desire to isolate us from one another, but it is the Holy Spirit’s passion to join us together. Let us realize that live streaming is a poor substitute for the work of the Holy Spirit at in person worship services, no matter how humble. Live streamed may be necessary now, but falling so short. We cannot be alone and truly together.