The NEED For Loving Touch

Standard

A few years ago mom and sister, sensing my need for physical touch, made giving me a hug on Sunday evenings as I left for home and another week out on the road. It was a small gesture, a single suture on a gaping wound of loneliness and years of an unmet need for more intimate human relationship, but—nevertheless—it was something that kept me at least partially sane.

Not everyone is the same in regard to how they handle isolation. However, it is known that solitary confinement is extremely detrimental psychologically and is equivalent to torture for some. It is even worse for children deprived of healthy touch and, according to research, babies in orphanages with inadequate human interaction die at a rate of 30 to 40% and even survivors of the negligence often suffer terrible life-long consequences as a result.

We live in a culture that celebrates connectivity and social media. Unfortunately, those things, seeing words on a screen or having a “friends” list of thousands, do not fill the void or need for real physical interactions and touch. When my hopes of meaningful human connection faded away with another crushing rejection my mind slid back into solipsism—the ultimate aloneness, a disconnect from belief in anything outside of my own mind or imagination—the nightmarish hell put into words by Trent Reznor:

Yes I am alone
But then again I always was
As far back as I can tell
I think maybe it’s because
Because you were never really real
To begin with

I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
And it worked
Yes it did

The reality is that healthy people live for connection and survive periods of aloneness on their hopes of future intimacy and interactions. We were created for relationship, both with each other and with the one who walked with Adam in the garden. It is through relationships that we gain our personhood and purpose. The lack of real community, of physical touch and healthy interaction, has come at a great cost and, sadly, few seem ready to take the necessary action to change this for those most in need.

Some of the reason for this neglect is a misconception about the true meaning of the Gospel message…

“All you need is Jesus”

This is one of those religious clichés that is true in one sense, yet is completely untrue the way some people use it and is often nothing more than an excuse for their real indifference.

People need more than words to thrive.

Yes, we do not live by bread alone and we always depend wholly on God’s grace at all times. However, that doesn’t mean we do not have need of food, clothing, shelter or many other things that make our life complete.

Those who spiritualize and who dismiss the human needs of others should be locked for a week in a box naked, without food or sunlight, and then they can discuss what “all you need is Jesus” means to them as someone who was without anything else.

For those who think their offering mere words about an abstraction of Jesus are an indication of their faith and is doing enough, I will offer the words of James:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

If I could have a dollar for all the times that people expressed sympathy for my circumstances, and then assured me that things would magically work out for me without doing anything to help, I would probably be a millionaire. The whole book of James tells me that such people who do not offer anything in the form of concrete help, despite what they might profess, do not really know Jesus and are still in need of salvation themselves. Christian faith that does not express itself in meeting needs both spiritual AND PHYSICAL is not real Christian faith.

“The word became flesh…”

One of the deficiencies of the theological indoctrination that I received in the denomination of my birth was a lack of explanation for the full significance of incarnation. Incarnation tends to be explained as a historic event, that Jesus provided an example to follow, and yet very little is said about the what this says about the human condition and need for touch.

The incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is the centerpiece of what John says at the start of his Gospel account and is something that has great significance as far as how it relates to church life. Jesus came so that the Spirit, something not physically defined and the same Spirit “hovering” over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, could be made one with human flesh and so that through that we also (the church together as the “body of Christ”) could become the incarnation of Christ.

This idea that the Gospel is about an abstraction, some kind of spiritual experience or journey and theological/theoretical construct that has little to offer in physical substance, is wrong. It is part of the issue that early Anabaptists would’ve had with Luther and Protestantism. It is also something Orthodox Christians cannot accept. There is no salvation without incarnation. We cannot live the Chrisitan life alone or without real and tangible love for other Christians.

Christianity is something that must be communal, it must involve actual physical interaction with other members of the body and our partaking of the real flesh and blood of Christ together with other believers, or it is not real. Faith is, as James clearly says, something that changes how we interact with each other in the material world, it should remove barriers (like favoritism or separations within the body between higher and lower social/religious/economic tiers) and make us do something about the physical needs of other Christians.

Feeding people with platitudes does not make you Christ-like or spiritually-minded. No, it is only living in denial of the needs of others, profoundly unloving and disobedience. Yes, certainly, the point of Christianity goes well-beyond mere humanism or making the world a better place to live for others. The kingdom is something that cannot be defined in the material world. That said, Christianity without any fleshing out or being an incarnation of the Spirit ourselves, like Christ, in our Communion together and providing for the physical needs of others is truly not Christianity anymore.

Those who spiritualize physical needs really should consider the question of why Jesus came in the first place. Why didn’t God just send his good news message on tablets of gold from heaven?

The answer is that our body is not something bad or that God has given up on. We are not a mind with a body as many seem to perceive themselves. No, the body and mind are as interwoven as soul and spirit. Sure, you may be able to intellectually conceptualize things like love and theorize about salvation. But the reality is that we do have physical needs, what happens to our bodies does have an impact on our minds, and thus we should take care of our own bodies and also be concerned with the physical well-being of our fellow Christians. The incarnation is important because we are creatures of flesh and with real physical needs. We need other Christians to flesh out Christ today for the same reason Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Jesus to know that he had truly conquered death.

Not just talk, touch…

There is no shortage of advice in the world and much of it unsolicited. Tell a person about your needs and you are bound to get an earful of their opinions. They, like those who claimed faith without works, think that they can talk away your problems and/or need a way to dismiss your needs when you do not take their bad advice. They can say, “Well, he should just listen to me and then things might go better.”

Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

That is not to say that we should never give any weighty advice. However, when our advice is not accompanied by helpful action, then it will simply be adding another burden to someone already struggling under the weight of life. Having real faith, embodying Christ, means offering real substantive help to those who ask. Again, there might be a place for speaking against sin, there is also a good case to be made for teaching people how to help themselves, yet we also need to get our own hands dirty sometimes and help to dig people out of the mire they are in or at least lift their load until they can get their feet under them again.

Jesus said, “Give to those who ask” (Matthew 5:42) And, given that he does offer himself to anyone who asks, it is very likely meant those words take be taken literally. He didn’t say only to give what rationally makes sense to you at the time, he doesn’t say to give only money or time, he tells us to give and our willingness to give is the true measure of our faith. It is our job, as Christians, to give of ourselves for the salvation of others, that is what marriage is about and why we should attend church—and be all the more involved when those in the church need Jesus more than we do.

The point of Christianity is to be part of the body of Christ, to do what he did for others and the “greater things” he promised would come as a result of his leaving. We are to touch and heal the wounded like he did.

The need for non-sexual physical touch…

In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for men to hold hands with other men nor a scandal for men and women to exchange a familial kiss. But somehow here, in the United States, we have managed to sexualize everything and this is especially true fundamentalist Mennonite/Protestant sects. In fact, I have had a young woman from such a setting, in her early twenties as I recall, worried about somehow defiling herself just to be in my physical presence and unsupervised. And that, needless to say, made the conversation extremely awkward.

This aversion to touch does not seem to be found in Scripture. Jesus healed using physical touch, he allowed a woman to wash his feet with her hair and there is (at least according to less sanitized translations) a description of a disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23) while they ate in a reclined posture. There is no indication in Paul’s letters that the “holy kiss” was a gendered practice, he mentions both men and women in his list of those to greet, nor that it was only for their time. It certainly doesn’t seem like physical touch was such a big deal for Jesus and early Christians.

Consider the following:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27‭-‬30b NIV)

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12‭-‬13 NIV)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15‭-‬16 NIV)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:5‭-‬8 NIV)

And did I mention that Jesus touched?

That last passage, in particular, may give us some of the reason why the incarnation matters. We need more than an abstraction, more than a book or voice from heaven, we need touch. The church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, needs to be physically intimate in the same way that Jesus was to those he loved. There is healing in touch, it is healthy to touch, and Jesus touched.

Touch is good and right.

The need for good old-fashioned sex…

The person, responding to my prior blog about a failure in faith and relationship, had mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (something that I alluded to in an early blog) and how people, to reach their full potential, need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. They put special emphasis on sex because it is something that the spiritualizers (aka modern-day gnostics) would say sex doesn’t matter much and/or is something almost bad even in the context of marriage.

I recall being upset with a psychiatrist for describing my interest in a young woman as being sexual attraction. It was jarring to me at the time. How dare they describe my pure and lofty intentions in such a base manner? I’m not an animal! As obvious as sexual motives are now, looking back in retrospect, I truly was in complete denial then and still have difficulty now being honest about my strong desire for sex.

In fact, I had to be reminded recently that sex, within the marriage context, is something scared and thus my desire for that is not something to be ashamed of or hide.

So why did I hate and conceal this desire to the point that I didn’t even consciously recognize my motivations anymore?

Talk to anyone outside of a religious purity culture and they will be dead honest about their sexual desires. I too would never say that sex is a bad thing even while in denial of my own motivations. But, because sexuality is often discussed in negative terms, and because there was no healthy outlet for my sexual urges for all these years and also knowing that many conservative Mennonite girls share this same shameful view of sex, burying these desires seemed the only option. I mean what kind of God-fearing woman would marry a guy who openly admitted his mixed sexual and spiritual motives?

Unfortunately, this view of sex as being bad (or a shameful compromise) is completely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.

Scripture tells us “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22) and, it is important to realize, marriage is a sexual union. The idea of “two will become one flesh” includes sex and part of that “good” a man finds in a wife. The apostle Paul, while encouraging celibacy for some, says (in 1 Corinthians 7) that those who “burn with passion” should marry rather than fall into sin. He also said that married couples should not deprive each other of sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. So maybe it is time for a more affirming and positive presentation of sexual desire?

Dividing sexual touch from the sacred is unhealthy and wrong. The marital bed is sacred. Sex, in the right context, is not shameful. Most people need this kind of physical intimacy to reach their full potential and thrive. It is not lustful or a sin to want sex. Sex is something we are made for, it is part of God’s original design and something good—we might as well be open and honest about it!

True connection is a human need…

Not everyone has the same need for intimacy and touch. However, a person doesn’t really know their need of something until it is taken away along with any hope of it. Those who minimize the importance or need for real physical connection with other people probably aren’t those who have been without it for long periods of time.

I believe, as a nearly forty-year-old virgin and one who has experienced years of physical isolation, that this is a big problem that is not being addressed. I believe it is especially a problem for men who have no healthy outlet for physical touch. It is not as culturally taboo for women to touch or at least it is not unusual to see teenage girls hanging all over each other. However unmarried men, who need touch to be healthy just like a woman does, are often left to their own devices—alone, unneeded and unappreciated.

But I digress, both men and women need physical touch and to feel loved.

For those with their own physical needs met, even just keeping singles/widows/widowers involved and regularly invited to dinner with your family is a good start. I know that this, even as a token gesture, helped me have a more positive outlook on life as much as it happened. In fact, my being welcomed into homes in this way by a Charity-ish church every time I visited was nearly enough for me to overlook my differences with their perspectives of theology and application. Something real and tangible is better than nothing at all. And love—genuine, self-sacrificial and materially real love—truly does cover a multitude of sins:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)

It is not enough to wish a brother or sister well who is starving or naked. Likewise, it is not enough to tell those who desire to be needed and appreciated that all they need is an abstraction of Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh so that he could physically interact with and touch people. We too need to incarnate the intimacy that we desire with God through our willingness to be physically connected and intimate with those whom God loves. We need to love others and not with empty words or in religious forms. We need to love them in a way that meets their real physical human needs and in the same way as we want our own spiritual needs to be met by God.

The real need is for meaningful connection. We need adequate relationships to keep our minds from falling into dark and dangerous places. Studies show a correlation between addiction and lack of adequate social connection. We are not self-sufficient, we are not mere minds in a body, we need each other, to be loved and to feel the love of others.

This is why the word became flesh and why we must flesh out the Gospel with healing and healthy touch. It is on us to be the hands and feet of Jesus—faithful love requires that we do more than talk about abstractions of love.

A Community Perspective of Mass Murder

Standard

Another well-armed angry young man goes on a murderous spree and again political ambulance chasers jockey to take advantage to win points for their pet projects.

President Obama used the recent massacre at an Oregon college as an opportunity to campaign for gun control measures that would not have prevented it.  Militant 2nd Amendment gun rights advocates responded with the tired ‘good guys with guns’ arguments and arming teachers as the solution.  Others ranted about correlations between pharmaceuticals and deranged minds.  (Well, duh?) 

Those using the issue for their various (political) causes seem to be vastly misunderstanding the actual issue.  Their response is a knee-jerk reaction rather than a careful analysis of fact and their canned solutions show the functional fixedness in their thinking.  There are too many assumptions that steer the current conversation and could be distracting us from addressing the real problem.

Many seem to assume that killers are simply incurable killers and we simply need to better secure ourselves (with more guns or gun control laws) against this inevitability of angry men.  But could a killer be stopped before they stockpile weapons and act out their violent fantasies against those who they blame for their unhappiness? 

Perhaps more guns, curbs of liberty and drugs (more or less) are not the solution to the real problem?

The root issue is that a young man made a choice to act violently.  He had reasons, rational or irrational, for the choice that should be understood.  (Note, I am not saying that the choice was justified, I believe murder is always immoral and a sin.)  We should acknowledge the choice as a choice and at least explore the possibility we can help those who are tempted by violence to choose rightly.

#1) Understand the Problem is a Person

I think often there is an urge to sanctimoniously distance ourselves from the bad actors of society.  Simply labelling the perpetrator of violence as a “thug” or “monster” or “animal” allows us to build emotional wall of separation between ourselves and evil deeds.  If we were to acknowledge the humanity of the person doing the evil act we would be tying our own humanity to the evil and in a sense making ourselves responsible.

image

Fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias is an assumption that another person’s behavior is all a product of their defective character.  (And, again, I do absolutely believe in personal accountability and responsibility for choices.)  But then, what it comes to our own bad choices we always have an external excuse or justification and blame circumstance for our choices.

Killers do what we do.  Killers often feel justified in what they do like we do because they were cheated or mistreated.  They take out their jealous rage against those who they blame for their unhappiness.  It is actually their humanity, the fact that they have emotions or just desire for significance—like we all do—that they act.  The difference is that they choose to turn to acts of violence rather than grace.

The answer to the perceived offenses we endure is not hate or vengeance and love for our enemies needs to be encouraged.  We need to fight against our own urge to be consumed totally by securing our own rights and love others as we would like to be loved.  We should distance ourselves from using their evil choices to justify our own.  We must love the hurting person behind the choice before they make it.

#2) Recognizing that Social Needs are Real

The elephant in the room is the vast changes in American culture and lifestyle that correlate with the trend of mass murder.  We are linked with more and more technology, but are actually less connected (in flesh) than generations prior.  Community has been replaced with increasing individualism and isolation.  It is not a change without consequence.

image

People are not good in isolation, people have social needs and can be damaged by lack of adequate human interaction.  Just a bit of research into solitary confinement or extreme cases of child neglect quickly show the psychological consequences are profound when social needs are not fully met for extended periods.

Perhaps the ideal of suburbia is not so ideal after all?  Suburban life is not extreme isolation.  But, in many cases, it is an environment deficient of social interaction—and especially in the case of single child homes.  A child without brothers or sisters and separated from regular intimate interaction with other people is probably going to feel a deficit.

The problem is exacerbated for those who are socially awkward or shy.  Some people are able to make friends everywhere, they are outgoing, easily put others at ease and popular.  Other people struggle getting past that initial barrier of first contact, they watch frustrated as others interact with ease and feel ignored.  Nobody wants to be marginalized.

We need to start recognizing that society and lifestyle do have a part to play in the choices of individuals.  We need fewer fenced in yards, fewer spiritually empty McMansions and more opportunity for inclusion for those who would otherwise be marginalized by their natural dispositions or disabilities.  We need less individualism and more community spirit.

#3 Bringing Outliers into our Community

There are some people who are probably gone beyond hope unreachable.  There are some who have a defect that makes them almost impossible to relate to and interact positively with. 

However, I do not believe that is the case in all cases or even most cases and we could do better at finding a place for those who need a place to belong.  There is no amount of entertainment or material wealth that can fill the void of purpose caused by social isolation.  We should not underestimate the role of community in shaping individual attitudes and mental health.

I see a solution in intentional community.  A friend recently posted a story about a preschool in a nursing home.  It was a beautiful example of the social needs of elderly being met by their inclusion with children.  That is the type of mindset that could be applied more broadly. 

image

But intentional community doesn’t need to start with a collective managed structural change like melding elderly and child care.  It can start with how we as individuals interact with the outliers among us.  It starts with our being aware that there are those who are marginalized and suffering from social isolation.  If we look for it we can be a help.

It takes a change in perspective.  Perhaps the weirdo is weird only because they have no friends to help them assimilate?  Are you willing to be that weird person’s friend and bring them into your circle of friends?  Forget mass killers even, what if we could prevent one suicide by being more proactive and inclusive?  What if we could make one person’s day better?

#4 Know the Individual Power You Wield

I believe many of us underestimate our own influence.  We turn to solutions like guns and laws because we feel too small to fight the demons of our culture without them.  We look for ‘silver bullet’ solutions (pardon the expression) and forget that people are complex social creatures.  One-size-fits-all solutions are not the best answer.

We need to fight back against evil, but not with superior firepower which is often misused or increased enablement of governments that often ends in abuse.  We need to overcome evil with good.  We need to fight isolation with inclusion, beat social awkwardness with understanding and prevent the seeds that lead to violence from ever taking root.

It takes a community of willing individuals to solve community problems.  Violence against the community is intended as an attack on the community and must therefore be addressed as a community.  But the community is not those we elect to represent us, the community is us and the problems of community require us as individuals to take part in being the solution.

Stop looking side to side or over your shoulder waiting for someone else to save society from its own destruction.  Instead use your own unique talents and abilities, search out the needs in your own community and fill them.  As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and maybe even just a hug or smile can make a life changing difference.

#5 The Example of a Social Physician

Jesus was an advocate for unpopular people.  The religious people of his day criticized him for what they perceived as his lack of judgment for his inappropriate mingling with women and men who they saw as inferior.  Jesus turned the tables, he condemned the socially powerful and popular, he spoke for those marginalized by society.

There are many Gospel accounts like this…

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

We don’t like the IRS today, but tax collectors in Jesus day were traitors who had sided with the Roman occupation of Palestine and were hated by the Jews.  In the eyes of his accusers he was guilty by association.  How could a great man find company with traitors, prostitutes and other sinners?  But what is greatness without mercy to those who need it most? 

Jesus was greater because he was merciful to all people, even the least of society and we should follow the lead he offers.  We should be doctors of social ailments.  We do not excuse or offer justification for sin anymore than a doctor is an advocate for disease.  No, we, like a doctor, need to diagnose the true problem and provide the right cure.

We can exercise the same power to heal as Jesus did.  We have a choice to create a better society.  We can choose to respond to problems with love and not fear.  We need to be the solution in the same way as Jesus, by overcoming prejudice through self-sacrificial love and love for the enemies we face every day.

God bless.  Be strong.  Be a solution not a spectator.