If Paul had Zoom …

If Paul had Zoom installed on his smartphone in New Testament times, I wonder to what extent it would have satisfied his longing to see his friends when separated from them by hundreds of miles.

I’ve been thinking about fellowship and, in particular, about the nature of the fellowship we are experiencing now via phone and internet as we live in a lockdown situation. This took me to Paul’s letter to his friends in Thessalonica where he writes:

“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.” (1 Thessalonians 2:17, NIV)

We surely feel orphaned by being separated from friends and family at the present time. “Separated in person, not in thought”. In Greek, it reads as being separated “in face, not in heart” and of a longing to “see your faces”.

Paul goes on to say that when he “could stand it no longer”, Timothy was sent up to Thessalonica (presumably along the 300-mile Roman road up from Athens) and he came back later with the good news that their friends up north “always have pleasant memories” of Paul and his companions and that, as Paul writes to them, “you long to see us, just as we also long to see you”. (1 Thessalonians 3:1,6, NIV)

Paul came to a point where he could stand no longer being cut off from people he longed to see face-to-face. Again, in lockdown, we surely know the feeling!

They didn’t have our 21st century mail services but they could send letters like this one in 1 Thessalonians and they had couriers who travelled with them along the Roman roads. A marked contrast with our instant communication on the worldwide web’s superhighway!

These roads criss-crossing the Empire were the superhighway of the time. Galatians 4:4 talks about how “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son”. It was the right time, God’s time, and part of that timeliness was the availability of the Roman road system for the spread in person and by letter of the Good News of Jesus! Oh yes, bad things also travelled along the Roman roads and doubtless there were many first century scammers seeking out the vulnerable to rob from them and harm them just as there are on our internet superhighway. But God’s people used the Roman roads to bring the news of Jesus to people near and far.

Paul didn’t have a phone or Skype or Whatsapp or Facetime or Zoom. I think he would have been delighted to have a Zoom meeting with the folk in Thessalonica but I also think he would still have longed for face-to-face and side-by-side togetherness with them.

In so many ways, these means of communication are wonderful to have. To be able to see on screen via Zoom a gallery of the faces of church friends in their own homes rather than sitting in church looking at the backs of their heads! (My ideal church building would have seats in the round rather than straight rows all looking forward.) It is wonderfully possible for us to see on screen the faces of family members and friends far away, even those on the other side of the globe, and to converse with them.

It is all surely a true Godsend for us in the present lockdown situation! And yet, and yet, life online in general and Zoom meetings in particular do have their limitations and drawbacks.

They are very demanding of our attention and they can be quite tiring. They seem to take more energy than the face-to-face encounters we are used to. People are beginning to talk of “Zoom fatigue”. [1] This exhaustion can also happen in one-to-one communication with other video-calling interfaces, e.g. Skype, Whatsapp and Facetime but the multi-person screens of a Zoom meeting have a magnifying effect,

Why is this? One factor seems to be an effect of seeing our own faces among the faces we are looking at. We are more aware of ourselves than we would be in normal face-to-face or side-by-side communication and we are therefore less aware of the other. This makes it different from old-fashioned telephone conversations.

Another factor is that when we meet face-to-face, all our senses are involved but online we are relying only on audio and visual signals on a flat screen. It’s a bit like the experience of a hearing- or sight-impaired person in normal times relying on limited sensory input.

There is also the guilt feeling that may come if we don’t take every opportunity available to connect online with others. The pings of new messages or emails arriving can be heard at any time if our device settings allow them and they clamour for our attention and threaten to overwhelm us.

Silences don’t matter when we are physically together but online they can be disconcerting and stress-inducing.

Just having another person physically present with us, watching the same TV programme, walking side-by-side out in the open-air or sitting side-by-side on a car journey, gives us experience of a personal relationship that stirs our feelings and awakens our senses. That physical presence is missing in online communication so that we may feel that we are “alone together” rather than “together together”.

In spite of all these factors, it is nevertheless great, really great, to have this means of meeting. Let’s be thankful for it all and make as good use of it as we can.

Let’s also look forward and pray for a time to come when we can again meet face-to-face and walk side-by-side.

And beyond that, there will be a day when we meet with him and with one another. “When Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him” (1 John 3:2, The Message). We will have new physical bodies and all our senses in a world where we’ll never grow old!

Dear Father and Lord of time and space, we pray that you will help us to go through this time of restrictions on meeting our friends and family members and to use wisely and for the blessing of others the digital communication available to us. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

(This blog is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/QE3Dq7-Akrc.)

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[1] See, for example, articles on nationalgeographical.com, psychologytoday.com and bbc.com.