by Liz Carter
‘As we are gathered, Jesus is here…’ So goes a (slightly dated) worship song. It’s all about the people joining together, the congregation united in worship, the sense of harmony. The gathering.
But what if we can’t gather? What if the very word ‘gathering’ sends us into a great sadness, because the physical act of gathering with others is impossible for us?
I’ve lived with a long-term lung condition all of my life. Over the years, it’s progressed, caging me in further and further, robbing me of my career and those dreams of youth; dreams of travel and far-flung skies and running on lonely beaches, the wind in my hair. Some days now, I’d be lucky to manage a few steps before I collapse on the sand, spent and breathless. I live within four walls for weeks at a time – sometimes, even, for months, when infections have hit me particularly hard. On days like these I can barely gather myself, let alone with others. I cannot gather up my clothing or my home or my thoughts, and when visitors come my desperate thoughts remain unsaid in my pain-soaked exhaustion.
In the last year I’ve been very ill. I’ve been better over the past couple of months, but there were weeks and months on end when I didn’t make it to church at all. I didn’t gather together with others for worship. Does that mean Jesus wasn’t there? Does Jesus only show up with the gathered ones, the ones who can make it, the ones who are healthy?
Over the years, I’ve learned something about what gathering means, and what it means to come together to share life and to pray and praise. I’ve discovered that gathering goes far deeper than the physical presence of a few folk in someone’s front room.
The book of Revelation talks about a great multitude from every nation, every tribe, every tongue, every people, gathered together around the throne. They worship together all day and all night, clad in white and digging into the depths of who God is. I recently attended a seminar about worship, and the speaker introduced the idea that when we worship we join in with this song around the throne, this endless song which never ends. As well as that, we join together across cultures and nations, class and race divides, one voice around the world as we join together in the song which is always sung. This great harmony which climbs walls of hatred and oppression and shatters the bondage of poverty and injustice. Walls crumble as we join hands across our boundaries and barriers, and give glory to the God we love.
Here is a real gathering. A gathering of millions upon millions, myriads upon myriads, of those gone before, those living in the groaning pain of the now, those waiting in agony and in hope. We can all join in the gathering, the weak and the strong, the lesser and the greater, those who have nothing at all. Because God cannot be defined by boxes of words or concepts, and because God longs to pour fullness of life on all of us, whoever and wherever we are – so certainly cannot be restricted to church meetings and festivals.
I’m so grateful that God is bigger than I know.
I’ve discovered something else about gathering, too, and it’s something I am so thankful for. I remember a time when I was in hospital with very painful and serious double pneumonia, and it was in a city far from where I lived. It was a lonely time as well as agonising; hours were struggled through and wrestled with without let-up and with few visitors. I felt un-gathered, with nothing to ground me or bring me into company with others. I wasn’t even allowed to leave my room, for fear of cross-infection, so I remained in my pen, walled in by my own body.
It was a time social media was taking off. I’d recently joined Facebook, and hadn’t realised the effect it would have on my life, in those early days of poking people and playing silly games with farms and fishes. In this time, I began to understand the power of online gathering, as people from across the world joined with me in my suffering, stood with me and prayed with me, joined hands with me and worshipped with me. Since then, I’ve gathered hundreds of times online with hundreds of people in hundreds of situations, and Jesus has been there with us, despite our presence being only of the cyber type. That’s why I’m so grateful for the work of YouBelong and other organisations that seek to gather people online, to build up and to encourage and equip people who perhaps wouldn’t be able to gather elsewhere.
So I gathered with the world and joined in the song, and I gathered with the online people and joined in with care and justice and peace and mercy and holiness. Somehow, in my un-gathered cage, I learned to gather more profoundly, and found God at the very root of it all, present by the Spirit in gatherings un-gathered and gathered, present with one and two and a million, gathering up my own pain in tender arms of love and rivers of joy.
Liz Carter is an author and blogger who likes to write about life in all its messy, painful, joyous reality. She’s never known life without pain and sickness. She likes Cadbury’s and turquoise and lives in Shropshire, UK with her husband, a church leader, and two crazy teens.
Liz is the author of Catching Contentment: How to be Holy Satisfied, which was published by IVP in November 2018. This book digs into the lived experience of a life in pain, and what contentment could possibly mean in difficult circumstances.