As a child, my mom grew up in a home where not much physical affection was shown. I always admired the love between my mom and her mom, my grandmother. But as a child, my mom has said that there were times when she really long to be held by her mom, longed to sit on her mom's lap but it never happened. Perhaps it was the culture at the time. I suspect that others who may have grown up in my Mom’s era might have had a similar experience.
Sue Gerhart in her book Why Love Matters describes her Mom’s childhood in a similar way. Sue’s grandmother was a Victorian character who expected much and gave little. She was physically unapproachable.
One of the vows my mom made was that her own children would never have to go through the same experience and that it would be her mission in life to show as much physical affection to her children as possible.
Today, as we explore what Gary Chapman refers to as the Five Languages of Love, we explore the second language of love, Physical Touch or Physical Affection. I think I have told the following two stories before, but a good story is always worth hearing more than once.
The first was the story of a little baby abandoned and left to die by it's mother / father. It was found and taken to a Methodist Children's home in a town not far from where I grew up. Thee the doctors did not think the prognosis was good. They expected it would be a few hours and the baby would die. All they could do was love the child in it's final few hours of life in this world. For the next week around the clock they held and cared for the child. For a whole week except for brief periods when the child was washed and changed, the child was in somebodies arms. A week later the doctor couldn't believe the recovery and the only explanation he could give was the power of physical touch and care that had brought this baby back from the brink of death.
The story is in fact not so miraculous as one might imagine. Sue Gerhart, in her book Why Love Matters, writes that scientific studies have shown that physical touch has the ability to strengthen a babies immune system. It also has the ability to lower cortisol levels within a babies system. Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones, and in children, it has also been shown that high levels of cortisol can act like a poison in a babies brain if it is present for too long. Further studies have also shown that physical touch can help to regulate a babies mood which would help a person in later years as an adult in being better able to regulate one’s own mood under stressful situations.
It is clear that physical touch as a language of love is so important in the lives of little children as they grow and develop into mature adults. Those who don’t receive adequate loving touch as children are at a severe disadvantage to those children whose parents and grandparents have used physical touch as a key language of Love.
The 2nd story is one that a former colleague, the Rev. Alan Storey, told about a congregation member who would greet him in a strange way at the door every Sunday, holding onto his hand for as long as possible. In going to visit her in her home one day, asking her about this habit she had of holding onto his hand at the door for as long as possible, he found out that his hand was often the only human contact she would have in a week and that sometimes she would go to the hairdresser, not because she needed her hair done, but because she simply needed to feel the touch of another human being.
In some ways, physical touch is one of the first languages anyone learns in life. Touch comes before sight and before speech. The language of love of physical touch is therefore a key love language for many people, even if it might not necessarily be their Primary Love Language. But as we have noted in the introductory sermon, for some people physical touch is their Primary Language of Love. You may give such a person gifts, spend quality time with them, do loving acts of kindness or service towards them and speak with kind and affirming words, and all of these things may be deeply appreciated, but for some people, if you really wish to speak to their hearts, it may also require reaching out and touching them, on the hand, perhaps on the shoulder, perhaps by giving a hug. For such people until there is some physical contact, the sense of love for them may not feel complete.
Jesus clearly knew the power of human touch as a way of communicating love to other people. The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus reaching out to touch people, or indeed of people reaching out to touch Jesus.
Two of the most moving of those stories, are firstly, the story of Jesus being confronted by a man with leprosy. We all know that lepers were shunned by society. They were so dangerous to have around, that they were forced to live by themselves outside of towns and villages. If they did come into contact with other people, they would have to stand at a distance. For such lepers, their lives would have been lived, often for many many years, completely devoid of human touch and physical affection.
And so when this leper comes before Jesus, asking for Jesus to heal him, it of deep significance that as part of this healing interaction, Jesus actually reaches out to touch him. In doing so, Jesus recognizes that it is not just a deadly skin condition that this man is having to deal with, but also almost certainly a deep inner barreness and emptiness.
I was interested to see that one of the concepts that Gary Chapman speaks of in his books on the 5 languages of love, is the concept of a love tank. We all have an invisible love tank. When that love tank is full, we feel energised, we feel we have an inner strength that enables us to engage positively with the outside world. But when our love tank is empty engaging with life becomes just that much more difficult. It can affect our moods, our emotional and our physical sense of well-being.
For a long time now, Wendy and I have spoken of one of our cats George as having a love bucket that will need to be filled up at least two or three times a day. George’s love bucket seems to be particularly leaky during his sleep. When he wakes up he can sometimes become desperate to be loved. Wendy and I have learned that it is often in our best interests at that moment to stop doing whatever we are doing and give him the love that he needs. And when his love bucket is full, then he is quite happy to go off and do his own thing.
With George, it is very easy to know when he has an empty love bucket. He will often begin just by sitting quietly looking up at us with his one little paw lifted up like a dog. Annie is a more complicated kitty. She doesn’t know how to ask for love when she needs it. She tends to become quite grumpy and needy, restless and often meowing at us very unhappily. We have slowly begun to learn that even though she likes to think of herself as an independent kitty, she actually needs her love bucket filled up just as much as George.
In the Gospel story, Jesus is clearly deeply aware that this leper has probably not been touched by another human being for many years. He is probably deeply aware of the empty love tank that this man carries around with him. For him to be healed, it is not just a healing of his leprousy that is needed. What he needs also is a healing and a filling of his love tank… and so Jesus crosses the divide as he reaches out to touch a man who had not been touched by another human being for possibly years, and even decades.
Master, if you are willing, you can make me clean, the man says to Jesus. Reaching out to touch the man, Jesus says to him, I am willing, be clean.
A second beautiful story in which Jesus speaks this love language of physical touch is the story of Jesus blessing the children who were brought to him.
We know the story well. People were bring their children to Jesus for him to bless them. The disciples, with their patriarchal and hierarchal mind-sets clearly thought that Jesus was far too busy and far too important to be bothered by little children. There are not a lot of passages where Jesus is indignant or angry, but this is one of those occasions. We read in Mark 10:14 When Jesus saw this he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me. Do not hinder them. For to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God.” And then in verse 16 we read: And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands upon them and blessed them. Not only does Jesus show himself to have a loving affinity for children, but the story shows how Jesus knows how to speak this primal language of love, of physical touch. It is almost as though the writer wishes us to take note of this fact because it almost gets a double emphasis. Not only does Jesus place his hands upon them, but the
passage says he took them in his arms, and placed his hands upon them: a double dose of physical touch and affection shown to these children.
It is one of the remarkable things about Jesus is that he comes across as being completely comfortable in his own skin, completely comfortable with his physical body and the physical bodies of other people. Physical displays of affection did not make him recoil with discomfort or disgust, for example, the story of the woman who finds him at a dinner party at a Pharisees house, and comes in uninvited and weeps over his feet, tears of love and gratitude and then wipes his feet with her hair. He seems completely un-phased by this very intimate and indeed public display of physical love and affection, no sense of discomfort, unlike Simon the Pharisee who seems to be squirming in the story. We see a similar thing when Jesus washes his disciples feet. Jesus is again completely comfortable touching the feet of others. My experience of holding foot-washing services in other churches I have ministered in is that touching someone else’s feet and having one’s own feet touched and washed by someone else is an uncomfortably intimate experience for many people. For some people, it is so uncomfortable that they would not participate. And one needs to honour and respect that.
It is perhaps important to say that physical touch is not the primary love language of all people. For some people, physical touch may in fact make them feel like their boundaries have been crossed, especially in cases where there may have been abuse of one kind or another. For those whose primary love language is physical touch it may well be that refraining from touch may in fact be a more loving thing to do in such instances. As much as physical touch for some people might be the very thing they need, for other people physical touch might not be what someone else needs or wants. It takes great maturity and wisdom to be able to recognise this and also a great sign of respect to restrain oneself in order to respect the boundaries of another.
In closing: Who are those in your life whose physical touch has been a healing and comforting thing to you? I remember at one of the churches I was at, when I stood at the door to greet people as they left the church, there was one older women who would give me such big and warm hugs that lasted just a little longer than a normal hug would last. I suspect that for her, physical touch was a primary language of love. It was at a time when I was going through a particularly difficult period in my life. It was the most wonderful and healing thing to be hugged at the time. Who are those in your life whose physical touch has been a healing and comforting thing to you?
What is your own relationship with physical touch? Is it a language of love that speaks to you? Of is it a language of love that possibly makes you feel uncomfortable? Who are those in your life for whom physical touch might be a primary language of love? In What way might you be able to speak to them in that language of love in a way that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable?
Lastly, the pandemic has been particularly hard for those whose primary language of love is physical touch. How has this last 2 years affected you in not being able to hug or touch other people? For some may this has been a welcome relief? For others, it may have been a very trying time indeed.