My heart is becoming more elastic these days – not tougher, I hope, but more willing to be stretched, more willing to love on less-than-ideal terms, to accept conditions that I would not prefer, and to take the risk of loving anyway. As happens so often, the Apostle Paul is leading the way, and I am falling in behind him through his first letter to the church in Thessalonica.
But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored more eagerly to see your face with great desire, (I Thessalonians 2:17).
All of Paul’s fatherly (and even motherly!) instincts are being thwarted and throttled by sheer geography – the limitations of time and space. He was able to send Timothy in his place (3:2), but, reading the whole letter, I see that Paul was deeply concerned for this body of new believers. They were experiencing suffering, and Paul was eager to build into hearts a firm foundation so that their faith would not falter. He was grieving this separation, BUT . . . his grief was being tempered by his view of God and of ultimate things — which was made crystalline and clear the day he lost his sight on the Damascus Road.
In these days of growing-up boys, of empty bedrooms and full schedules, in these middle years of saying good-bye for good to loved ones who are populating heaven and exiting my Christmas card list at an alarming rate, I want to embrace Paul’s view of space and time. I want to let Paul’s three little prepositional phrases teach me how to love:
- For a Short Time – Paul knew that he would inhabit his “earthly tent” for a season. All the heart ache and anxiety of shepherding a flock from a distance would one day be just a memory. For him the reality of the day when all his fledgling churches would be united in the New Jerusalem — where the tabernacle of God will be with men — was not just a cardboard promise for discussion in a classroom or a topic for intellectual discourse over coffee. He was hanging his heart on a better hope than Christmas break or Sunday dinner “when we all get together.”
Likewise, when I long to lay eyes on my college-aged son, or when I grieve the loss of dear friends, I want to remember that these days of missing their smile, of lacking the reassurance of their prayers and the benefit of their wisdom; these days of “great desire” are just “for a short time.” We “sorrow not even as others who have no hope,” (I Thessalonians 4:13).
- In Presence – I can hear Paul’s longing to be with his spiritual children, but I can also picture him turning his heart toward heaven and handing it over: “Thank you, Lord, that it’s only geography.” His prayers to the Father were not hindered by separation. His faith in God’s ability to keep His own was absolute.
When I am tempted to worry about my children who have left the nest, I want to be faithfully turning those worries into prayers for God’s protection, prayers that God “would establish their hearts blameless in holiness, “ (I Thessalonians 3:13).
- Not in Heart – Paul found grace to love these new believers unselfishly. Open-handedly releasing them to Timothy’s care, he confessed to them his frustrated desire to be part of their day-to-day discipleship. Paul became skilled at putting his desires under God’s jurisdiction.
When, at age 83, my friend and prayer partner left Maine for warmer climes, I mourned the distance, I mourned the stretches of time with nothing but phone calls and emails to sustain our friendship, but Paul is showing me a better way. We are reading I Thessalonians together, we challenge each other to memorize Scripture, and her prayers for my family are among my most valued spiritual blessings.
Separation, longing, and “good-bye’s” are part of the “groaning” that comes with living on this fallen planet, but thanks be to God, He is “the God of hope” and can use the truth of His Word to demonstrate the reality that conditions here are fleeting – “for a short time.” Our times of separation are painful, but in the body of Christ, we are apart “in presence” only – “not in heart.”
This post originally appeared at Reflect.
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