Saturday, February 20, 2016

Touching People

It is sad that we've come this far. We are afraid to touch. There are so many reasons: I don't want someone to get the wrong idea, I don't want to get sick, I don't want to violate someone's space, I don't want to be sued for sexual harassment, and on and on. Problem is, we are hurting ourselves and people around us by not touching more often.

Less than a year ago, The New Yorker magazine published an article entitled, The Power of Touch. In it, Maria Konnikova lays out a convincing case for the basic need for regular human touch for healthy living. She begins by recounting the tragic story of thousands of neglected Romanian babies who, because of the dictator Ceaușescu's policies, experienced severe sensory deprivation in the first months of their lives, primarily for lack of human touch. The results were devastating. I remember seeing the news reports in the early 1990s of the kids of understaffed orphanages in cradles who rocked habitually back and forth with blank looks on their faces. It was pitiful. The article goes on to prove the essential need we all have for the meaningful touch of other human beings.

Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., a professor and Executive Editor of Greater Good, a University of California Berkeley newsletter agrees. In his article, Hands On Research: The Science of Touch, he writes:
[A]fter years spent immersed in the science of touch, I can tell you that [human touches] are far more profound than we usually realize: They are our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion.
In recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.
These are not new revelations. As Scott Heydt wrote,
In the thirteenth century, German emperor Frederick II ordered a despicable experiment that tells us today about the importance of touch. Frederick wondered what language and words children raised in isolation would learn. His servants kidnapped infants from homes with strict instructions—no touching, cuddling, or talking with the children, under any circumstances, afterward. Not to spoil your day, but do you know what happened to those babies? They died before they learned to speak! 
It seems Jesus knew this need we have for human touch. He's always touching people. One instance in particular has stuck out to me. The man "filled" with leprosy in Luke 5.

Some faces of leprosy. It is a terrible disease.
In Jesus day, sin and sickness were often considered related. There was a popular doctrine of “divine retribution.” Think of it as the Jewish version of Karma. If you were good, blessing came your way. If something bad happened, it meant you must have sinned. God was repaying. It’s interesting that those who were sick or had a skin problem or disabled or women on a period or even touching a dead body and many other things could make you “unclean” according to the OT law. Unclean. Dirty. Nasty. Pretty harsh terms. It’s easy to say to someone, “Ew, you’re dirty.” But it’s hard if you’re on the receiving end. We all played “cooties” as kids, but it’s no game to really be considered an outcast because you’ve got some condition, disease, or because you’re different. What’s bad is that in Jesus’ day, this shaming and shunning was compounded by the belief that the person was sinful—and was therefore (they believed) shunned by God. And what was at the top of the list of afflictions you didn’t want? Leprosy (there are 2 whole chapters in Leviticus devoted to leprosy!). I want you to think about what it must have been like to wake up one day and see a spot on your face. You tried to cover it but it grew. Then another spot and another. Despite desperately cleaning and treating the areas, they started festering and then rotting and then stinking. I’m telling you, today it would be bad. But then it was your worst nightmare. When you couldn’t hide them any more, you had to go to a priest to be examined. Look at Leviticus 13:
45“The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” 
The hands and feet of leprosy.
That really sucks! This means you had to leave your family & town to live a cursed existence. You were a leper. If you were lucky you might find more lepers who had formed a colony for survival. If you weren’t, you’d just be an individual outcast in your own area. Everyone shunned you. Children shrieked and ran away. Family and friends forgot and avoided you. According to Jewish Rabbinical writings, you were literally the "walking dead." You could go nowhere without shouting: “unclean!” so that people would know to stay away. And the whispers. People would imagine all kinds of reasons for why you were the way you were. The assumption was that you deserved it. You were sinful.

Jesus went against this. In Luke 5 we read:
12While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. 
The word “full” means covered or severe. Although leprosy is a general term for a whole category of skin disorders and diseases (from pigmentation issues to scabies, shingles, and measles), here it most likely referred to Hansen’s disease. All are terrible, and were much more so then. There was no effective treatment until 1940s. Until then it was a painful curse one lived with for life, which was usually cut short. This poor guy, according to Dr. Luke, was at the latter stages of this terrible disease. Imagine the desperation, imagine the despair. Then he hears about this Jesus, who claims to be the Messiah, who has healed some people. I imagine he determined in his heart he was going to try to see him. I envision he took advantage of the crowd's clamoring to see Jesus to get close unnoticed. Perhaps someone saw him and shouted, "Leper!" when he was near Jesus, and the people lurched back in horror. In the awkward silence of that moment, I think he made his move.
 And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 
That’s pretty remarkable. It's a statement of faith. He called him “Lord.” The Greek word can mean, “master,” but it happened to be the very word Jewish scholars used to translate “YHWH,” God's most holy and personal name.  At the least this is a statement of submission to Jesus’ authority, but more probably, he is claiming Jesus is God. It is likely the latter, as evidenced by his following statement: “if you will you can make me clean.” He’s not even questioning whether Jesus can. He’s saying “Jesus, you can. I know you can. The only question is if you will.” That’s impressive. Perhaps we can learn to pray like this. “Jesus you can. If you will, make me…” There’s nothing presumptuous, nothing entitled, nothing selfish about that prayer. There is only a statement of faith. Why don’t we pray statements of faith in him? 

What happened? 
13And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, 

He touched the leper

That’s risky & completely unnecessary, right? Jesus healed some people at great distances! But he intentionally touched this leper. What an amazing show of compassion! How long do you think it had been since someone “clean” had touched him. Years? Decades? Wow. I'm sure this wasn't just a quick, tip-of-the-index-finger touch. I imagine Jesus took his distorted, bulbous, festering, rotting face in his hands and brought him close to his eyes—seeing the hurting soul underneath who was created in the image of God—and smiled before he said, 
“I will; be clean.” 
Of course we know what happened next:
 And immediately the leprosy left him. 
This must have been amazing to see. I wonder if Hollywood could do it justice. All swelling & bumps disappeared, raw flesh was recovered, ugly scabs were healed, all discoloration returned to normal, the itching and stench ceased, lost fingers and toes and cartilage regrew, and the pain went away. Completely. Instantly. perfectly.

But I bet the man never forgot Jesus' touch. 

I can't heal, but I can touch. Even in this litigious, sexually out-of-control culture of ours. In fact, meaningful touch is probably needed more now than ever. And it's more effective than ever.

So touch your spouse. Meaningfully. Often. Touch your kids. Hug them, kiss them, hold hands, rub shoulders, scratch backs, scruff up hair. Never let them want for your tactile affection. It's big.

Also touch other people who need to know someone cares. Friends, fellow Christians. An arm around a shoulder, a pat on the back, and other appropriate contact is uplifting, reassuring, and care-giving. Just a handshake is a good thing, but don't stop there. And men, I'm talking to you. We've let all the cultural focus on homosexuality keep us from showing friendly healthy affection between men. It's ok.

Oh, and touch a leper or two. I'm not just talking about those literally suffering from leprosy—of which there are still many in this world, by the way—and Christians should certainly lead the way to find and treat them. (I recently heard a fascinating podcast about the last leper "colony" in the USA, and some of its members still live. It's heartbreaking what they've experienced.) I'm primarily talking about people around us who are considered unclean, and are scorned and ignored by others. Who are the "lepers" around you who need your touch?

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