Weekly Devotions for 8/10

Sights and Insights

Devotion for Aug. 10,2021

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! (Galatians 6:11, NRSV)

Several members from St. Matthew are taking part in a webinar series on the “hybrid church.” The webinar shares ideas of how to think about best utilizing both in-person and online capabilities for the congregation’s ministry. I am sure you will hear more about this as ideas move from brainstorming what might be possible to plans that might be enacted. The specifics will emerge over time, but essential to getting the most out of the online capacities is a change in mindset. The way things have been done in recent decades are not the only ways things can be done. New technologies do not simply mimic what is already being done in-person, but can actually create new ways to connect and learn. Sometimes that entails letting go of our preconceptions of what is necessary.

One concept that might be hard to get comfortable with is the idea of virtual presence. “Virtual” in this sense does not mean a less real form of presence, but rather a type of distanced presence. For instance, quite a few of our members watch the YouTube stream of our worship service at the same time that it is happening physically, but others watch it later. Even though they are worshipping at a different time from those who are in-person, we are all virtually present to one another in that same worship service. Being present to one another does not require doing things simultaneously.

This may seem strange, different, and perhaps less real than simultaneous in-person worship that we find more familiar. Yet it is not a new concept to Christian worship. Much of the New Testament is a collection of letters written within the early church community. For instance, an apostle like Paul would write letters to congregations that he had some relationship with but with which he was not currently physically present. These letters were intended to be read out loud within the congregation, as a way of exhorting and teaching the congregation. In having these letters read, Paul was virtually present to those congregations. He had written them at a different time and he was physically distanced from them, but his presence through his words made him very much present to the congregation. The technology of the written word created a virtual presence.

We see a bit of this reality peeking through at the end of Galatians. Galatians 6:11 would seem to come out of nowhere. The content of the verse does not connect to what is before or after it. It would seem that Paul had a scribe writing for him, presumably as he dictated his thoughts. At the end, however, he seems to have switched and written a bit himself. He seems to have written in large letters, either because that is the way that he always wrote or perhaps because he is angry with the church in Galatia. Either way, this bit of physical trace underscores the virtual nature of his presence to them. I like to think of it as similar to an Internet post written in all capital letters. As we do not have original copies of the letter, the exact details of Paul’s handwriting have been lost.

Today digital technologies perform a similar function to the technology of letter writing in creating virtual presence for the church. It is not the same as a letter, but it is not as different as we might at first think. The church has always had a virtual element. It has always been hybrid. Today we are discerning new aspects to this old reality.