I am sure this story has many things to say to us, but today, let us see what it has to say to us about what it means to touch somebody, or to be touched. Touching is surrounded by mant taboos in our society. On Sunday mornings I stand at the door of the church and greet the members of the congregation by touching them. But, how I touch each of them is carefully regulated by an unwritten, but well known, law of decorum. How I greet the congregation under that unwritten law of decorum depends on their age, sex, social standing, and their relationship to me as a person. Those who are under six, I may pick them up and kiss them. If they are female and over sixteen, I don't do that. The adult males I will greet by touching their hands, or elbow, or perhaps even their shoulder, but no more lest people think odd of it. Those who are over sixty and related to me, I may embrace them -- carefully -- if they are not too sophisticated. And, on and on, the unwritten code of decorum goes. You know the rules better than I do because I do not always abide by the rules. The most common form of greeting by touch is the handshake, which is a form of greeting that became common in the 18th Century. It was also used in ancient Rome as a pledge of honor. Some say that the handshake was the earliest form of greeting by primitive people. The open extended right hand was intended to show that two people who were meeting had no weapon. It meant: "I come in peace. I mean to bring you no harm; see, my weapon hand is empty." (You could be in trouble by trusting this system if you happen to have a left-handed enemy.)
What does it mean to touch -- or to be touched? It means love. Perhaps that is why we are so cautious about touching. Perhaps this is why we have hedged it about with so many rules and regulations. It is an expression of intimacy that says: "I am open and vulnerable to you. I need you and want to be needed by you." One has to trust and love in order to do that. When I look around and see all of the wounded and isolated people no one has touched for a long time, and who have touched no one for a long time, it makes me very sad. When no one touched us, we may be greatly admired and highly respected, but equally deeply rejected as a person. We need to be touched in order to be reassured that we are loved. The need to be touched is built into the human nervous system. Slice into life at any age or stage and you will find the need to be touched expressing itself in a wide variety of ways. The need is there when we are born, and it continues until we die. For instaance, the clinical history of what happens to little children in hospitals who are seldom touched by human hands is tragic.
When my children were young they came to me in the evenings when I came home to touch and be touched. They wanted to sit in the chair with me -- but they became too old and I got too wide for that. Sometimes I brushed the children aside and asked to be left alone because I was tired and weary of people Do you know what they would do when I did that? (You mothers know!) They turned quickly to their mother, or to each other, or to the dog; and they would sit closeto each other or touch by fighting intensely or loving the dog inordinately; not only to fulfill the normal human need to touch, but to compensate for having just been rejected by their father. If we live in a world where somebody touches us, we can survive many jostles and rebuffs in life.
Age does not subdue the need to be touched. We sometimes forget that elderly people need to be touched too. In fact, the need is often intensified in old age because of deprivation. Have you ever stopped in the hall way of a nursing home to speak and shake hands with people sitting there in their wheel chairs? When you are ready to break off the conversation and be on your way many of these patients will not release your hand. They want you to stay. They love to be touched. Nobody has more beautifully or more classically depicted this need in the elderly than Donna Swanson in her free verse poem, "Minnie Remembers." I never read it but what I see my mother and grandmother, and a thousand elderly people I have known in my ministry through the years Listen.
My hands are old.
I've never said that out loud before, but they are.
I was so proud of them once.
They were soft, like the velvet smoothness of a firm, ripe peach.
Now the softness is like worn-out sheets or withered leaves.
When did these slender, graceful hands become gnarled and shrunken?
They lie here in my lap as naked reminders of the rest of this
old body that has served me too well -- if not too long.
How long has it been since someone touched me?
Twenty years I've been a widow.
Respected. Smiled at. But never touched.
Never held close to another body.
Never held so close and warm that loneliness was blotted out.
I remember the first boy who ever kissed me.
We were both so new at that.
The taste of young lips and popcorn, the feeling deep
inside of mysteries to come.
I remember Hank and the babies.
How can I remember them but together?
Out of the fumbling, awkward attempts of new lovers came
And as they grew, so did our love.
And, God, Hank didn't seem to care if my body thickened
and faded a little.
He still loved it, and touched it.
And we didn't mind if we were no longer 'beautiful.'.
And the children, they hugged me a lot.
Oh, God, I'm lonely.
Why didn't we raise the kids to be silly and affectionate,
as well as dignified and proper?
You see, they do their duty.
They drive up in their fine cars.
They come to my room to pay their respects.
They chatter brightly and reminisce.
But they don't touch me.
They call me 'Mom' or 'Mother' or 'Grandma.'
My mother called me Minnie.
And my friends called me Minnie.
Hank called me Minnie, too.
But they're gone.
And so is Minnie.
Only Grandma is here.
And, God! She's lonely!"
Somebody touches me and life takes on meaning; nobody touches me and I am enveloped by a pervading sense of loneliness that is beyond words.
The human touch is so basic that it has been called "The Mother of the Senses." In a world filled with stress and strain, we reach out to our loved ones for comfort, but if by reason of indifference or preoccupation they fail to respond, we begin to look for some meaningful substitute for intimacy. We feel pain when nobody touches us, and we subconsciously begin to cast about for some surrogate, though less meaningful, experience to compensate for what we need, but do not have. Perhaps the most common substitute for the human touch is pets -- dogs and cats. I have noticed that many nursing homes now have inhouse animals for the patients to pet--to touch.
Desmond Morris, in his book, "Intimate Behavior," reminds us that in the United States we spend billions of dollars annually on more than a hundred million dogs and cats. Blocked in our human contacts by cultural restrictions, we redirect our intimacy to a love substitute -- pets. If those closest to us cannot supply us with what we need, and it is too dangerous to seek intimacy with strangers, we make tracks to the nearest pet shop, where for a small sum we purchase ourselves a bit of animal intimacy. Pets are innocent. They ask no questions, and they cause no questions. But these additional, or substitute, sources of intimacy are, at best, poor replacements for the human touch. I am not suggesting that we ban pets, because I doubt that the absence of pets would remedy the fears and inhibitions that compose an iron curtain around our lives. For instance, I doubt if the ubiquitous elderly lady in every community, who has forty-nine cats, were to suddenly discover that all of those cats had disappeared, that she would take to stroking the postman when he comes by. When the need to touch or to be touched is blocked, for whatever reason, we nearly always find some substitute. Late-life love affairs are not at all uncommon in assisted living and nursing homes.
How often do you suppose people go to the hairdresser, the barbershop, the shoe-shine parlor, or to the doctor, or to a masseur or a masseuse just to be touched in a socially acceptable way. What does it mean when somebody touches us -- or fails to touch us?
Many years ago I did a sermon on "Touch" in a South Alabama County Seat town church. One of the school teacher members stopped at the door and waited to tell me her own poignant story of the need to be touched. She taught first grade in a section of town where many of the children came from homes where emotional deprivation was common. She said that she had always tried to compensate for what these children lacked in whatever way she could; and for years she had stood at the door each afternoon and touched each child as they left school. Of late, some of the boys had been playing games with her by ducking their heads and running out so she could not touch them. But, she said, the interesting thing was what they would do when they were successful in evading her touch. They would stop and back up so she could touch them. Going or coming, we need to be touched by someone who cares who we are and what happens to us.
The meaning of touch is deeply ingrained in the history and practice of the Christian Church. Paul wrote Timothy: "I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you THROUGH THE LAYING ON OF MY HANDS . . . " In ordination I was made a minister by the imposition of the Bishop's hands on my head. The authority to preach and to administer the sacraments was given by touch. Likewise, candidates for church membership are confirmed by the "laying on of hands." Both authority and grace are given by touch -- "The laying on of hands."
Leprosy in these modern times is rare. I doubt that any of you have ever seen a leper. Yet, there are many who live and die in the same isolation as a leper, because they play it safe. They do not let their feelings show and people get the signal that they are "untouchable." Nobody touches us and we die deep down inside -- a little bit every day. You brush elbows every day (but do not touch lives) with people who are entombed in an emotional cocoon from which they will never be set free until somebody touches them -- until somebody cares. Love cannot live at arm's length. There never has been an adequate substitute for the outstretched hand -- the outstretched heart. You cannot heal the hurts of the human heart from across the street any more than you can set a broken arm, or remove an appendix, or deliver a baby from across the street. Redemption for us all awaits that critical moment when the word becomes flesh -- when love reaches across the barriers and the taboos, and somebody touches us. None of us will ever amount to anything until we know that somebody cares, until we reach out in the dark and find somebody there. Somebody touches me and I live -- nobody touches me and I die.
There are two experiences from my personal background that have both haunted and guided me for more than half century, They are not experiences easily shared except with those who are on the same wave length with me. I will risk sharing them with you today.
When I was a student at Northwestern University in the mid-fifties, I served a little Swedish Methodist Church on the southside of Chicago. One of the most senseless murders that took place in Chicago while I was there happened near my little church on 111th Street South. The whole event started with a little boy named Jimmy, who was born to two parents who did not want him. And it did not take Jimmy long to find it out. Jimmy never knew what it was like to be hugged and held close. By the time he entered the first grade, he had become so unmanageable that his school teachers were afraid of him. Nobody decent ever had anything to do with Jimmy. He never belonged to the Scouts; he never went to Sunday School. He had never seen the inside of a church except the two times that he broke in the church.
As a teenager, his deep sense of loneliness, isolation and frustration began to manifest itself in antisocial behavior that got him into many scrapes with the law. Being unable to find any meaningful relationships with the nice people in the community, he applied for membership in one of the southside gangs -- the young "untouchables." They accepted his membership. They even let him buy the gang jacket with the emblem on the back, but they would not let him wear it, until he could prove himself to be as tough as they were. Sometime later Jimmy was with a carload of the boys as they drove down the street when they saw a sixteen year old boy waiting at the bus stop. They had never seen the boy before. Jimmy said, "Stop the car; he is mine." He bounded out of the car with a claw hammer in his hand and beat the boy to the pavement. The boy died on the way to the hospital. Jimmy jumped back in the car and they sped off. They let him put on the gang jacket right then and there, and he enjoyed wearing it for three hours, until the police picked him up. He went through a series of hearings, and finally came to trial for first degree murder. During the trial Jimmy's father was called to testify. He had to walk past the defense table on the way to the witness stand. Jimmy was sitting there surrounded by his court appointed attorneys. As his father passed by, Jimmy spontaneously stood up and reached out to touch him, -- his father drew back in revulsion and fear.
There were no photographers there, but a courtroom artist caught the scene in a line drawing which appeared on the front page of every newspaper in Chicagoland the next morning. It was a picture with no caption, for it needed none. It was a graphic, one-frame story of Jimmy's life -- forever reaching out, but never touching or being touched. Nobody touches me and I die.
The other experience comes of that same time frame, while I was doing an internship at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. It is an experience that was highly personal and mystifying. Each chaplain intern was assigned three or four wards. One of my ward assignments was to the Female Cancer Ward. It was a large open ward of about 100 beds in two rows, with an aisle down the middle. It was late one afternoon that I went back to visit a patient in the cancer ward who was to go to surgery the next day. I really did not want to go. I was tired, and it always drained me emotionally to visit that ward. But I had promised to see this patient before she went to surgery. As I pushed through the doors into the open ward, I noticed that there was a patient in bed #34 who was crying, flailing her arms, and rubbing her body.
From the moment I walked in all the patients began to look at me as if to say: "Chaplain, stop and help that woman." Nobody said anything, they just looked. Have you ever had anyone "look" you into doing something?
My daddy was good at it! I could be out in the backyard playing in the Chinaberry tree, and my sister would come and call: "Tommy, come to dinner", and I never heard it. My mother would call out: "Tom Lane, come to dinner", and I'd say, "Just a minute." My father could push open the back door and just look at me, and I would drop from the tree like a rock.
Well, the patients were trying to "look me" into stopping to help this woman. But I was tired, and I didn't want to get involved. Not only that, but we had an understanding with the Roman Catholics that we would not visit any Roman Catholics and they would not visit any protestants. (It was a sorry understanding.) Not wanting to stop anyway, I reasoned to myself: "For all that I know she may be a Roman Catholic," so I walked right on by. But, when I got to the end of the ward I discovered that my patient had been taken to radiation therapy, and I had to walk all the way back the length of that ward with all those patients looking at me, as if they were saying: "Do you mean to say that you're not going to stop and help that woman?" So, when I got even with her bed, I turned and walked up beside her and said: "I'm the chaplain. How are things going with you?" She paid no more attention to me than if I had not even been there. I repeated the introduction several times. It was becoming embarrassing . She continued to cry and rub her stomach.
The next thing that I did was not a conscious act on my part, but since I could not communicate with her verbally, instinctively, I tried to communicate with her physically. When she slowed down one of her arms, I reached out and touched her hand. The moment I touched her, she grabbed my hand and held it to her stomach. To say that this startled me is a mild expression of my momentary feeling. She held my hand to her stomach for a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity to me. She became still and quiet, and I began to hear whispers from the beds nearest by: "Look at that man of God. He has healed that woman."
This really frightened me, for whatever had happened, I, least of all, understood it. For the first time in my life I began to understand why Jesus said: "Don't tell anybody." In a matter of less than a minute the woman was fast asleep. The moment she relaxed her grip on my hand, I slipped my hand from under hers and took my leave. As I went out through the big swinging doors, I discovered that the ward clerk had been watching through the big window. She stopped me and said: "Chaplain, what did you do to that woman?" I said: "I don't know; who is she?" She said: "She came in about eighteen hours ago, and she has been crying and fighting us the whole time. I said: "Who is she?" The ward clerk said: "Oh, that is Mrs. Rodregius. She is Puerto Rican. She speaks no English and we speak no Spanish, and we have not been able to communicate with her, or get her quiet until you came in. What did you do to her?" I said, "I don't know," and I still don't know. I only know that in my own bungling way, not knowing what else to do, I reached out and touched her, and something redemptive happened, at least for the moment. Somebody touches me, and I live -- nobody touches me and I die. (By the way, it took several weeks for me to quell my unwanted reputation in that ward as a faith healer.)