Does absence make the heart grow fonder? I believe it does. It’s not just a cheesy line used in the best selling Rom Com’s nor is it merely a happily-ever-after line from a Disney classic. I think it’s true to say that when we are separated from people for whom we deeply love and care our hearts burn within us. I hope you at least see this in your marriage. I know that I do. I hate being away from my wife plain and simple, even if only for short time periods. We see this truth emerge when we see a family member or friend who we have not seen for a long period of time. Given these two simple examples I just really don’t think anyone will have scruples over me saying it—Yes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
I’ve been thinking about that in light of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Especially in light of the social distancing recommendations, which I think are wise recommendations that would be silly to ignore. We are experiencing something relatively new, some uncharted territories if you will. In particular this is true for the church. I am not able to recall a time in my young life in which churches have adopted measures that for lack of better terminology—ask you not to gather with the larger body. I do think these measures are wise and I do not believe this is a political maneuver. The recommendations are very temporary and are designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, not the prevention of worship. In fact, for many worship will still continue—just in a unique way. Well, maybe not for some mega churches whose ‘attendees’ enjoy weekly worship in isolation at home in their pajamas with a bowl of cheerio’s in front of their MacBook. Not because they are medically unable to attend a corporate worship, but because it’s more convenient or comfortable. Yeah, I’m not really a big fan of that. But that’s for another day—for a lot of folks we are doing this ‘internet worship service’ not out of convenience but because of a viral threat that prevents us from gathering together for a few weeks. I think it is the wise and right thing to do, but I’m not happy about it. I’m not happy about it because I will miss gathering in one location with the family to worship.
Now I have said already that the circumstances, to my knowledge, are novel to a majority of us. Yet, I can find some similarity with the Psalmist in the 42nd Psalm…
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? —Psalm 42:1-2, ESV.
This Psalm is attributed as a musical composition arranged by the Sons of Korah, who were Levitical descendants that served in the temple through musical worship. However some scholars (most notably is Matthew Henry) in the past have attributed this Psalm to King David during the period of time when his son Absalom rebelled against David and ran him out of Jerusalem; thus David was prevented from going up to the temple to worship before the presence of The Lord. Whether it be that the sons of Korah are echoing the pain of their ancestors who were rebellious against Moses (Numbers 16) or the pain of King David who is barred temporarily from the temple the point is rather clear—the person singing this Psalm is longing to return to corporate worship that for some reason he or she has been temporarily barred from.
In fact ‘longing’ may be too light of a word. The Hebrew language here is pretty vivid. It casts the metaphorical imagery that compares his desire to be back in the assembly of worship to the panting of a deer looking for water. Let me help paint the picture. Imagine you are a deer who has been wandering the parched dry land. Dry and painful throat with a feeling of cotton mouth; head pounding and feeling feeble you hear a sound that could be likened to a heavenly orchestra—it’s the sound of a flowing stream. Using what is left of your strength you fight through the mental fog and trace the sound as it grows louder and louder. You think you are getting close. In fact, you even smell the water. What sounded like a trickle now sounds like a roaring river. Finally, you stumble upon what is like a crevice in the rocks. Your face pressed hard against the crevice you can even now feel the spray as the water bounces of the rocks below. But there is a big problem—you can smell the water, you can clearly see it, you can feel it’s spray…but you are unable to reach your head far enough down into the crevice to drink from that flowing stream. All you can do is press your face against the crevice and pant for that flowing stream. And that feeling in your heart right now…that is the affection with which the Psalmist is longing to return to the worship assembly of The Lord.
I guess my question is rather simple. How will the people of God respond when the restriction is removed. Oh in a short amount of time an earthquake will split the rocks allowing you to climb down and finally drink from the flowing stream. The Coronavirus will fade onto the pages of history books and the people of God will return to the corporate assembly of worship. For the next few weeks will we sing the song of Psalm 42 as we attempt to participate in worship through live streams and what not. Will the people of God pant like a deer pants for flowing streams instead of responding in fearful anxiety? As we pray for God’s merciful and abundant grace to protect all people and to remove COVID-19 from the face of the earth will we also pray with a longing of heart “When shall I come and appear before God?”
Praise The Lord for the technological ability to carry on the preaching of the Word and the exaltation of His name through an internet feed. But I’m going to miss gathering with the local church I belong to. In the meantime I will trust that The Holy Spirit is continuing His good work even in this time of absence (or quarantine for some) and when we eventually return to corporate worship—our hearts to the glory of His name may in fact be fonder as we worship.