4th Week after Epiphany: "Touch"

4th Week after Epiphany: "Touch"

February 07, 2021 | Ryan Arnold

Passage: Mark 1:29-39

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    The benefits of human touch are many.

    Human touch sustains us from the moment we are born. One study found preterm newborns receiving three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day, for just a few days, gained 47% more weight than premature infants who got standard medical care.

    Human touch helps us learn. Another study found when teachers pat students in a friendly way, they are three times more likely to speak up in class. Similarly, when librarians pat the hand of a student checking out a book, the student says they like the library more. And are more likely to come back.

    Human touch helps us understand feelings in others. To quantify this, researchers used a barrier to keep two strangers apart, with only a small hole between them for an arm to fit through. With arm extended, one person tried to convey an emotion, through a one-second touch of the other’s forearm. The odds of guessing the right emotion, by chance, based on the number of emotions available to select, were low: only eight percent.

    So when participants correctly identified the emotion of compassion over 60% of the time, accurately IDing feelings of gratitude, anger, love, and fear all over half the time, researchers knew they were on to something.

    The study found two notable exceptions, both related to gender, these are kinda fun. When a female tried to communicate anger to a man, via one-second touch, the man had no idea what she was doing. Similarly, when a man tried to communicate compassion to a woman, she had no clue what was going on.

    Make of those findings what you will!

    Human touch benefits us all the way to the end. As clergy we get asked to be present bedside with people nearing death, often giving communion, speaking with family, friends, sharing in prayer. But many times, it is the physical touch – the holding of a hand, or shoulder, the touching a cheek, that people appreciate most.

    To better understand this from a medical perspective I spoke to Dr. Larry Otteman. Larry is a member here, and oncologist who spent a career working with cancer patients.

    Larry told me when someone is dying of cancer, people stop coming to visit. And when working with hospice volunteers initially they don’t know what to do. His advice: Be present. Just touch them. Even if they can’t interact in any other way. It says to them you are touchable. You matter.

    During his mother’s impending death Larry recalls being there, in the room. To be out of other people’s way he held her foot, maintaining contact as she neared her end. Physically she knew he was there. Even though she couldn’t see her son, she could feel him there, with her.

    Healing Touch
    Between the beginning and end of life, perhaps most importantly, human touch has the power to heal.

    Human touch is used in massage therapy to reduce pain in pregnant women and alleviate prenatal depression. It does that in both the woman and their spouses. Which is fairly amazing if you think about it.

    Human touch is often used by doctors, integrated right alongside their more technical skills. Eye contact and a brief pat on the back, from a doctor, can boost survival rates of patients with all sorts of disease.

    This notion, that physical touch has healing properties is, as you might imagine, nothing new. And it is a central theme of our gospel today from Mark 1.

    Here we find Peter, one of the disciples traveling with Jesus. Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed. She was sick with fever. Confined to where she lay. Unable to get up. Peter was worried about his relative, of course. So Peter told Jesus of her ailment.

    Jesus then went to her,
    took her hand,
    lifted her up,
    and the fever left.

    The woman then rose.
    The woman then went about her day.

    The woman had experienced the touch of Christ.
    And in that touch, she had been healed.

    It’s worth mentioning what Jesus didn’t do.

    He says no words;
    Offers no prayers;
    Performs no command.

    There is no phone call,
    No press release expressing thoughts and prayers,
    He didn’t even wish the woman well.

    Instead, Christ was simply present in another’s pain.
    And in that presence? The woman was healed.

    Scripture is filled with examples of the power of healing touch.

    Jesus used physical touch to –
    Give sight to the blind,
    Cause the mute to speak,
    Make the leper clean,
    Raise the dead to life.

    “If only I can touch his garment,” says another woman, seeking healing from Jesus, “I will be healed.”

    She did.
    And she was.

    Today, for the first time in eleven months, we are able to worship, albeit with some limits, in person. Our local metrics have improved to a point where that is now possible. To which I can only give a hearty, Hallelujah!

    I see people here I haven’t seen in person, in a year. So exciting!

    And I’d love, really love, to give each and every one of you a great big hug.

    Would that be ok?
    We’re all friends here, right?


    Hugging probably wouldn’t be too wise, pandemically speaking.

    No hugs.
    No handshakes.
    No high fives.

    At least not yet.

    Keeping our distance, for now, is a matter of public health.
    It is, for now, a best practice to keep each other safe.
    It is, for now, how we care for our neighbors near and far.

    The last time I accepted a hug from someone outside our immediate family was a few months ago. After presiding over a funeral. One of the daughters of the deceased came over, gave her thanks, held out her arms. Instinctively I reciprocated, and we embraced. It was an entirely natural thing to do.

    For we are hard-wired to seek solace in others, by way of human touch. It builds connection, it deepens relationship. Human touch can heal, after all.

    Immediately I regretted that hug.
    Immediately I regretted that regret.

    Such is the complexity of the times we find ourselves in.

    We are so much less connected, physically, than we were last winter. And for good reason. Yet we’re worse off, in so many ways, for it.

    Mental health diagnoses are on the rise.
    Physical health, for many, in decline.

    Perhaps our deficit in contact with others helps explains a pandemic phenomenon: pet adoptions this past year are way up. In some cases double what they were before. With many shelters unable to keep pace with demand. All so we can cuddle up with a beloved pooch, or feline, to relieve our feelings of isolation, and loss of human interaction. If even just for a bit.

    While not all touch is good – boundaries matter, the #MeToo movement an important reminder of that – physical touch is an important part of what makes us tick.

    Michelangelo, the artist that painted The Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, where God and Adam, famously reach out, index fingers extended towards each other, famously said, “to touch is to give life.”


    As we begin, ever so slowly, to come out of pandemic, and return, ever so slowly, to our ways of being together, let us take a moment to celebrate.

    Let us celebrate the divine gift of touch. A gift bestowed on us by our Creator, from the first moments the universe began.

    Let us celebrate the healing properties of touch. Healing touch as modeled by Christ, who wants nothing more than for us to be made whole.

    And let us look to a time, where we can once again, be more in touch, with each other, than we currently are.

    More connected,
    more in relationship,
    more complete.

    More able to heal others, as we ourselves seek to be healed. As we ourselves seek to be more fully alive.

    Lots of love, and a big virtual hug, for now, to you all.  Amen.