We’re home for the holidays for the first time in a few years. My eyes have gaped thirsty at pumpkin patches and fall leaves and Christmas wreaths, the stuff that marks seasons in this hemisphere. This coming back to an old home, it’s like they all say. We don’t quite fit in. We are overwhelmed by the choices. We miss references to fads that have come and gone. We want to be faithful in this holding pattern until we return to another continent and our job description, but we don’t always know how. But for all its awkwardness, time at home grants me a whole lot else I’ve been missing: faces in the flesh.
Some of our favorites moved last week, so we showed up at 9 am to load a trailer and cart their life from one space to another. They served donuts on a counter cluttered with the last of the kitchen junk drawer. They kept saying thanks for the help, but I wondered if they really knew how much this all meant to me.
When we left the US a few years ago, I expected to miss the fan-fared things, and I have: her wedding, his third birthday, the family gathered for Christmas without us. But it surprised me how much I ached to be present in the routine parts of life and how much I have been restored by showing up for the un-fan-fared moments. Over the last few months, we’ve begged our people to let us help, and we’ve torn up bathrooms and laid wood floors and stacked boxes and played with kiddos because it’s a delight to be shoulder to shoulder again.
Screens and soundwaves give the illusion of presence. We can scroll through the still shots of another’s day, or view the clips of someone’s big moment. We can even get phone calls and pictures and news from our community in Africa, logging the changes that are happening while we are away. Social media promises a sort of omnipresence. Sam and I often say, “Skype makes it so much easier! We’re thankful for technology that keeps us in touch!”
But, if I’m honest, there’s no substitute for presence, and technology makes me pretend otherwise.
It’s a question worth asking: how can I live fully present with the people physically in front of me, no matter which continent I’m on? In the West, we catch ourselves looking across the ocean, to a team of pastors whose community and work we share. In the South, we’ve looked back across the same ocean, to friends and families and memories they’re making without us. The temptation is always to live present in spaces where my body is not.
To be present is to be absent somewhere else. And this is the tension of living in two worlds.
The houses start dripping with Christmas lights, and I’m rehearsing not so much the comfort of Jesus Emmanuel but the challenge of Him. Jesus, to be called Emmanuel, limited Himself to one place in one time. The expansive, almighty God who is present everywhere at once contained Himself in two hands, ten toes, a mouth. He embraced absence from the heavenly realm because it mattered that much to show up in earthly flesh.
There’s wonder in it: Jesus boxed Himself in by a body and granted dignity to days lived in the limits of skin. He gives mere presence great meaning. He redeems its limits. Jesus Emmanuel—God confined—put presence in its proper place, affirming both its incredible value and its undeniable restrictions.
Some days I have doubted that our presence in a village can matter, so I call upon Emmanuel who folded Himself into a frame and lived decades in a small town in an obscure region. He has attached great worth to it. And other days I resist presence in one place and long for the omnipresence that belongs only to the Creator, so I call in confession upon Emmanuel who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but took the form of a servant. My form. Our form.
This Christmas, we’re gathering around a twinkling tree and a fire. Maybe we’ll even see snow. Next year, we’ll be cooking in a concrete block house under a sweltering sun in the tropics. And the God-with-us keeps coming, quieting all my fears of living present in each moment, in each space.
Jesus, Yours is the way of presence, of being confined by a body; let me not resist it but walk in it.
What presences and absences do you hold in tension? Do you tend to devalue your presence or to pretend omnipresence? How does Jesus’ incarnation—His dwelling in flesh—inform your presence in your space?
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