Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Power of Touch

The story is told by Matthew, Mark and Luke of a leper who meets Jesus. It's a great passage, if for no other reason than the fact that it gives us a little more insight into our Lord's personality. Luke tells us that the man fell down before Jesus as the Master approached. Let's not forget that it was the duty of the leper in those days to basically stay out of everyone's way. They were to make noise and yell out, "Unclean!" to warn passersby that a leper was near. They were the original "Untouchables." And they were to remain untouched. But this man did not yell a warning or run to get out of the way. This man wanted to see Jesus. And after gaining His attention, the man said something startling: "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean."

I can almost see the smile on Jesus' face as He told the man, "I am willing. Be clean." Did the leper really doubt that He would want to do it? An odd way to express his faith, but it was effective and Jesus' healing was immediate.

But easily missed is the beginning of the thirteenth verse: "Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man." Seems pretty normal, huh? But it wasn't. Leprosy was a double curse for those it afflicted. It not only caused pain and discomfort as diseases do, it also sentenced the victim to a life in exile. Families were left behind as lepers were cast out of the city. This was the only way the people had to stop the spread of the disease. So the afflicted people were forced to become nomads and beggars for survival. But beyond that, they also lost the company of anyone besides other lepers. No one in their right mind was going to touch a leper and risk getting the disease. Plus, touching a leper would make you ceremonially unclean. Contracting leprosy meant a life devoid of human contact, filled with disgusted looks and ridicule.

So here is a man who has not been touched by another person for as long as he has had the disease -- likely many, many years. And what does Jesus do? He reaches out his hand and He touched him! Jesus had no worry about getting leprosy. He had no worry about being ceremonially unclean. Jesus wanted to show the leper His love. Nothing conveys love like physical touch. Read through the Gospels and see how often Jesus touches someone or something. He was not aloof and "proper", but was close and loving; unafraid to offer a touch of His hand no matter what others might say.

I've never read Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages, but I plan to do it someday. Frankly, I've put it off because I know Chapman's premise and understand much of it already. As human beings, we express love differently. But I know that I express love through touch. To me it is the most meaningful way to give love, but moreso, it is the most meaningful way for me to receive love. At many points in my life, I've been someone who people are comfortable being around, but very uncomfortable getting close to. So when someone puts a hand on my shoulder or reaches out to touch my arm, that's when I feel loved. It's the same way in marriage. I never feel any more loved than when my wife puts her arms around me or places her hands on my arm or even just holds my hand. There is something almost magical about touch. It can convey love in a very special way.

Of course there are drawbacks to using touch to convey love. Some people take touch the wrong way and feel threatened (sometimes with good reason). I've been reading Tracey's posts at Worship Naked about getting prepared to work at a camp for disabled kids. The staff was instructed which kinds of touch were acceptable and which were not. It was odd to read about Tracey being instructed to "hug sideways" instead of the normal way, so as not to convey the wrong message to the kids. So much power in the use of touch.

So what should we do about the power of touch? Obviously we must be careful in the way we use it, but we cannot just construct an invisible "force field" around each one of us -- expressing our love for one another only from a distance. I'm not sure I know the answer here. I doubt there is an answer to cover every situation. And I'm not really a "hug sideways" kind of guy. Perhaps what we need to take from all this is simply the presence of that power. The loving touch of the Master's hand did it's share to heal the heart of a lonely leper. A loving touch from me can express the Christlike love I have for someone who is hurting or despairing or rejoicing. There's too much power there to ignore.

"Lord, help me to express my love for others in the most effective and appropriate ways possible. Give me the strength not to shy away from human touch to share the wonderful comfort and joy You have given me. And help me to use the power of touch wisely."

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