Thursday, October 29, 2009

The miracle of touch

An Anglican colleague this week told me an interesting story of an invitation he had several years ago to stay with friends in America. During this time he was asked by the local priest to help with the morning services. And so it happened that one specific morning he was sharing from the gospels, talking about Jesus’s ministry of healing. In his sermon he told the congregation how healing was one of the sure signs of the coming of God’s kingdom – also of how Jesus, while healing different people, made a special effort to embrace and touch them with compassion and love.

To make his own sermon more tangible, my friend, who is a very warm and approachable person, on this specific morning left the pulpit and started to walk from person to person, touching and embracing them just as he imagined Jesus would have done. As a stranger among them he felt more free and entitled to take this risk than he perhaps otherwise would have.

For him it was immediately clear that the people in the congregation were not used to this kind of expression of affection, but that they were also not overly suspicious of his unconventional action. In fact, from their warm and appreciative expressions he could see that they were willing to receive his unexpected and spontaneous gift of loving touch and to embrace it with open arms and hearts.

However, to his surprise the local minister came to him afterwards with an almost bewildered look on his face. Although not angry or overly upset – he was more surprised and uncertain about what had happened - he informed my friend that what he had done had been a total novelty in the church. He also explained clearly why such a thing had never happened before. Apparently many, even within the safe space of the church, felt reluctant to reach out and touch indiscriminately for fear of - listen to this - trespassing a law that protected people from sexual harassment or harm.

My friend, coming from a context where sharing in a personal way was part and parcel of the service, was completely taken aback by the minister’s reaction and especially by the reasons he offered. This however did not inhibit him. It also did not change his conviction that what he had done in a moment of spontaneity, was important and also uplifting and healing for the members of the congregation. So the following Sunday he repeated the ritual. This time, according to him, the reaction was even more positive, if not overwhelming.

In fact when he left after a month there was a visible change in the atmosphere of the service, as well as the attitude and well-being of the members. Apart from showering him with goodwill and affection, his perception was that they were also more free and relaxed in relating to one another. Even the minister eventually came to give him a hug and thank him for what he observed as his invaluable contribution to a significant change in the life and culture of the congregation. And that: because one person simply dared to follow the example of Christ … to reach out and embrace.

While we are cautious not to intrude or abuse another’s personal space or privacy, as Christians who believe in the power of love, we should also be brave enough to reach out and draw others close, especially where the other person’s eyes tell us that they need to be healed.

Carel Anthonissen

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