The Touch

In June, Stuart and I celebrated 36 years of marriage—which includes the three years when we hated each other. I was at a funeral this week and it reminded me of the first day and moment that our marriage began to resurrect from the dead. Stuart and I had been separated for about two years when the woman who had been a second mother to him died in Crozet. We traveled separately to the funeral from Minnesota. It was January of 1995, slightly cold but sunny so we gathered outside the church with the family. Stuart and I at that time in our lives were like magnets that repelled each other because it was so hard to talk without contempt and hurt infecting our interaction. We were both, however, feeling great grief for this woman, her daughters and grand-daughters, and it seemed to alter the polarity between us. As we walked into the small chapel and down the aisle with the family, we spontaneously reached out for each other’s hand. It was not pre-meditated, at least not by us. The touch communicated much more than any words could have in that moment. It was about being human, vulnerable and confronted by death.  It changed something. There was a shift. After we got back together, we both talked about how that moment of touch changed the anatomy of our relationship.

David Brooks, in his 2018 article in the NY Times called, Now Is the Time to Talk About the Power of Touch, makes the case that not only is human touch essential for life, it engages the emotions and wires the fibers of the brain together. But he writes, “It seems that the smarter we get about technology, the dumber we get about relationships.” We have underestimated the power of human touch—both positive and negative- in communicating with each other.

Abraham Verghese, a physician at Stamford, has been advocating for using this old fashioned tool in the practice of medicine. In fact, he believes that the most important innovation in medicine in the next 10 years will be “the power of the human hand- to touch, to comfort, to diagnose, and to bring about treatment. This tool is transformative, transcendent and at the heart of the patient-physician relationship.” It is a communication of care that cannot happen in any other way. Our penchant for screens, tests and reports will not replace therapeutically touching and talking with the patient.

If you’re into Bruce Springsteen, you know that he had a great song called, Human Touch.  “In a world without pity, do you think what I’m askin’s too much, I just want something to hold on to, And a little of that Human Touch. When all the answers don’t amount to much. Somebody that you could just talk to and a little of that Human Touch.”

This is the human need that God answered in Jesus. The appearances of God of the Old Testament were in a cloud with the Israelites and Moses could talk to Him and see his back, but as creatures we yearned for the closeness of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve walked with God every evening. The mighty acts of God were visible, but in terms of presence and relate-ability, the human race was having a hard time. God, in his mercy, became a human so that we could see, hear and touch Him and experience his character and love. As Jesus Christ, he came to touch and be touched in mutual vulnerability. He came to resurrect the close relationship of the Garden.

In our gospel in Mark 5 today, we have two women who are touched by Christ. One is a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years and the other a little girl who is dying after only 12 years of life. Jesus comes close to both and touches them—resurrecting them to new life. We are so used to seeing compassion from Jesus with those he heals, that we might not pause enough to hear the small, touching nuances of the passage. Stopping while in a hurry to save the girl to find the woman, addressing the woman as daughter, telling her to go in peace. With the child, he takes her tenderly by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up.”

But there is another point to this story that is relevant to us. Neither the woman nor the girl did anything to deserve Christ’s healing or touch. Martin Luther says, “There is nothing but mere awkwardness and unworthiness here…There is no preparation, no work; yet the poor woman is there and hopes to obtain great things from the Lord, that he would release her from her sickness. How could she earn anything under such circumstances, or how could she because of her disease be worthy of anything? Of course she was worthy, but only to receive and not to give; for at that time she was not able to give the least thing.” The little girl also was dead when Christ healed her. She was not able to give anything. She was a receiver only.

Both of these women would know that their resurrected life was not through their own power but through Christ alone. They did not have the power to be whole on their own.

Both Stuart and I are sure that our resurrected marriage was through God’s power and not our own. When Stuart touched my hand in the church in Crozet, I had not done anything to deserve his touch. I did not pay him to touch me. I did not tell him if he touched me, I would then agree to touch him. There was no contract or bargain made. It was beyond us and through us. We were both receivers in that moment. Receivers of a new marriage, centered in Christ’s power to love, not ours.

Now if you are like me, you will now apply this story as law in your life. You will touch your spouse, your children, your parents and who knows who else, hoping and praying for the magic of touch to transform hearts and relationships. But it doesn’t work that way. It is grace—which means that it appears in the least likely places through the least likely people. You can not manipulate it or manage it. You do not control it or create it. This is a love outside of yourself that cures, connects and resurrects. Grace can only be received. It is true, however, that for Jesus to touch us he has to use someone close to us—a human. We are made to respond and grow through loving touch.

What is engendered when we are touched? Trust. Trust is the basis of belief and what Jesus is calling us to. He tells the woman that her trust has made her well. As Jesus says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” It is a reminder that God’s fidelity is greater than our ability to see it. God will provide in the end. Thy will, not mine, be done. But God in his mercy knew this was a tall order and sent himself as Jesus Christ to be seen and touched so that we might believe. Jesus is the face of God for us to trust.

I will end with the prayer that Martin Luther used after this scripture. In it, we hear the falling to our knees as the woman did with trust and faith, knowing we are not the givers of life but the receivers of God’s life and love; living the life that God has given us today to be lived, yet trusting that our resurrection, and that of our loved ones, is on its way- in God’s timing and design.

Behold, here is an empty vessel that needs to be filled. Fill it, O Lord! I am weak in faith, strengthen me; I am cold in love, warm me and make me burn, that my love may flow out to my neighbor. I have not a firm, strong faith, at times I doubt, and cannot wholly trust in God! Alas, Lord, help me, increase in me my faith and trust.