Mark 8:22-26 – A Ministry of Touch

“Healing” by Ivan Filichev

They [Jesus and his disciples] came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.” (New International Version)

Spirituality is, of course, a matter of the spirit. It is also a matter of the body. It may be lost on us that the way our spirituality is expressed is through our very real physical selves. A disembodied spirituality is really no spirituality, at all.

Christianity is profoundly physical. A core doctrine of the Church is the incarnation of Christ, God becoming man. Jesus has a real flesh and blood body. His physical body was the vehicle by which he did the will of God. Christ’s earthly ministry directed attention to people’s holistic needs – including the physical body.

So, perhaps it ought not surprise us when Jesus intentionally and literally touches people. From one person to another, Jesus was attentive to the power of compassionate and healing physical touch. For healing does not happen from afar; it is close enough to be personal, touching the spirit, the emotions, the mind, and the body.

In today’s Gospel lesson, some folks came to Jesus with a blind man in tow. They were evidently concerned and close enough to the man to beg Jesus to touch him. Yes, touch him. The small group of people were looking for a tangible reach from Jesus.

Just the other day, I visited a dear lady in the hospital for which I’m a Chaplain. As I began to speak with her, she reached out her hand, and I took it. I then realized that she was blind. This patient, in the dark because of her eyes, and in a strange unfamiliar place, needed more than a verbalized healing prayer from me. She needed a very real physical connection. The ability to compassionately touch another person has tremendous power.

“To touch is to give life.”

Michelangelo

Skin-to-skin contact is vital for our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Sensory deprivation is a real thing, and it’s a pervasive problem, especially during a pandemic.

We now know that whenever we feel unusual stress and pressure in our lives that the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. One of the biggest things actual physical touch can do is reduce the abnormal stress, allowing the immune system to work the way it should. What’s more, touch helps calm our heart rate and blood pressure, enabling us to have a more regulated way of life.

Jesus took the blind man by the hand and walked him outside the village. Let’s pause on that factoid for a moment. There was a man who literally walked with Jesus, hand-in-hand, for perhaps a few miles. I wonder what he experienced, just in that walk. What seems clear to me is that this event of walking was part of the man’s healing. He quite simply needed this bodily experience with Jesus.

I find it a bit humorous that some commentators struggle with the process of Christ’s healing the blind man, as if Jesus himself was struggling with trying to heal the guy. However, by taking the approach of an embodied spirituality, we can discern that this man required a great deal of touch from Jesus. The spitting, the putting the hands on the eyes, and then doing it again, was all deliberately tactile and just what the man needed for his healing of both body and soul.

Christ’s physical body was an instrument of grace. And our own bodies are meant to bless others with appropriate and compassionate touch. I realize this gets complicated with social distancing practices and concerns with health during a pandemic, yet we can still be agents of healing through simple acts of touch, including the following:

  1. Hug others. Hugs are healthy. I completely understand that some people aren’t huggers, and we ought to be guarded hugging others we don’t know very well. I usually ask before I hug someone outside of my family or church. Unfortunately, many people have had bad experiences being touched, and my heart goes out to them. Yet, the need for meaningful and positive touch still remains both for us and for others.
  2. Pet the dog. My wife’s little dog is a prima donna. He drives me nuts sometimes (maybe most of the time). Yet, because of his disposition, he is the perfect little gentleman when in a care facility or in public. He likes the attention. If you have a pet, let other folks pet them. I’m a busy guy, but when it comes to taking time for neighborhood kids to pet the dog while I’m walking him, I’m all in. It is a simple ministry that anyone can do.
  3. Hold hands or offer light touch. This can and perhaps should be a liberal activity within most families. It can also be done with others. It’s not weird to do this, even in some contexts with strangers. For example, when leading someone in the hospital to their appointed place, depending on the circumstance, I place a light hand on the back or shoulder. Hospitals aren’t exactly destination vacation spots, so folks can be nervous when in them. Simple ways of appropriate touch help calm the anxiety.
  4. Fist pumps and elbow bumps have replaced handshakes, and that’s a good thing. Fist and elbows just aren’t the same thing as a good old fashioned tight handshake, yet it is still an opportunity to touch. Some touch is better than no touch. Don’t give up on practicing ways to physically connect, even if those ways aren’t ideal.
  5. Use your eyes. There are just going to be some circumstances and places where you cannot offer an actual physical ministry of touch. So, use your eyes. Imagine in your mind offering a hug or a handshake to the person and intentionally focus that picture to your eyes. Since our physical eyes communicate a lot, the other person will pick it up.

Every day is an opportunity, for the believer, to walk with Jesus along our life’s journey. As we allow Christ to touch our lives, we, in turn, are able to touch others both spiritually and sometimes even physically through compassionate ministry.

May you know the grace of being touched by Jesus, and the blessing of touching others with the love of God.

Nehemiah 1:1-11 – A Prayer of Solidarity and Confession

These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said,

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.

“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’

“The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants.O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”

In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer. (New Living Translation)

I believe that nothing of eternal significance happens apart from God. Jesus said it clearly: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV) 

There is simply no substitute for a close relationship with God. The will of God can only be accomplished through the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer is not a passive activity. If done well, prayer takes time, a great deal of effort, and a sense of priority. It is quite possible that biblical praying can be the most challenging, exhausting, laborious, and rewarding thing we do.

Through prayer we can become filled with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom to make godly decisions, and access spiritual power that can melt the hardest of hearts and change the minds of the most stubborn of people. 

In prayer we have the privilege of expressing our concerns and needs, as well as having God’s agenda revealed to us for what to do. Our personal and communal holiness is in direct proportion to the great task of prayer.

When faced with the reality that his hometown, Jerusalem, was in trouble, Nehemiah, the king’s wine steward, prayed. In prayer he owned the problems Jerusalem faced. He owned it through a prayer that emphasized and reminded God of the covenant with God’s people; he confessed the sins by which Israel violated that covenant; and he held onto the promise that God would lift the curse on the city if the people would only repent.

Nehemiah had a compassionate heart that was attentive to what was going on in his native land. Hearing the tragic news of the city’s condition, he immediately wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed.

Nehemiah was profoundly disturbed by the news that Jerusalem was in trouble. Rather than being preoccupied with himself and his own situation as an exile in Babylon, Nehemiah sought to do something about the security and spiritual health of his people.

In his prayer to God, Nehemiah was genuine, persistent, confident, humble, and submissive to God. He did not distance himself from the sins of the people, but clearly identified with them through a prayer of confession.  That confession was intense, honest, real, and urgent.

Sin always needs to be identified, acknowledged, and pardoned. If it isn’t, there is no hope for things to be different.

There is a season for everything. Hunting seasons may come and go, but it is always open season for prayer.  And Nehemiah’s prayer is a solid biblical model for us to emulate. We have our challenges. Like Nehemiah, let’s own those challenges through prayers which are biblically focused, compassionately offered, and spiritually curious to know and do God’s agenda for the church and the world.

Let us continually have a spirit of prayer to God in everything we say and do – prayerful spirits that above all seeks God’s will and implementing that will through God’s love.

Almighty and gracious God, we lower our heads before you and confess we too often forget that we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you and your incredible mercy. For these things we ask your forgiveness and strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may witness to the love of Christ in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us to closely and tightly in your good strong hands. Build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 34:1-8 – Deliverance from Trouble

I will praise the Lord at all times.
    I will constantly speak his praises.
I will boast only in the Lord;
    let all who are helpless take heart.
Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness;
    let us exalt his name together.

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me.
    He freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy;
    no shadow of shame will darken their faces.
In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened;
    he saved me from all my troubles.
For the angel of the Lord is a guard;
    he surrounds and defends all who fear him.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.
    Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! (New Living Translation)

Gratitude and praise are more than a nice thing. They have the power to spiritually form us, emotionally buoy us, and mentally change our brain chemistry for the better – not to mention connecting us with divine help.

Today’s psalm is a song of thanksgiving. The psalmist intentionally recalls being delivered by G-d from trouble and hardship. And he invites us to experience G-d’s salvation, as well.

Desperate people who are between a rock and a hard place need divine help. The Lord is able to intervene in both small and large ways. David, the psalmist, crafted this psalm in a time when he had no resources available to him. He was alone with nothing but the Lord. And that was plenty. Even a little bit of G-d is enough to thoroughly rescue.

Take note of the verbs used to describe G-d’s activity in helping David: “answered” “freed” “listened” “saved” “surrounds” and “defends.” These multiple actions of the Lord were all activated through David’s initiative with one single verb of his own: “prayed.”

It is one thing to pray because of expectation or routine. It is altogether a different thing to pray out of desperation from the depths of your gut.

So, when David encourages us to taste and see that the Lord is good and to take refuge in G-d, he is calling us to pray – to know something of God’s promises, presence, provision, and power and to actively ask, seek, and knock for help.

David, the psalmist, really wants us to experience prayer. He desires us to cry out on behalf of ourselves, as well as lifting up others to G-d. Yet, truth be told, helping those with afflictions and sickness through prayer is something we don’t always handle well.

We might too quickly and reflexively dispense our homespun opinions and ideas, as if we are experts on another’s situation, rather than hurrying to G-d in prayer. In our pride, we believe that if folks will just follow our recommendations that all will be well.

And then there are the silly and even hurtful things we say to others in their distress, rather than interceding for them before G-d. We may toss out a flippant and simplistic statement like, “God will heal — just pray.” Then, we leave them to do that alone. And sometimes, even after prayer, medicine, and doing the right thing, change doesn’t happen, and nobody knows quite what to do.

We can also be guilty of reducing trouble to only the physical when the trouble might be emotional, mental, relational, or any combination thereof. These are the hurts and troubles plaguing us all, because we live in a broken world where everyone needs redemption.

Many times, we have no problem believing G-d will work on behalf of others. We trust the Lord for deliverance and the miraculous for them. Yet, when it comes to us, we harbor serious doubts of whether G-d will rescue us, or even wants to.

There are a lot of things we just don’t know. However, what we do know is that the God of David promises help in Psalm 34, and to redeem lives from desperate situations. And this is why David could boldly invite us to tell of the Lord’s greatness, and call us to praise G-d’s name together.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts, be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places. 

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions and from the fear of the known and unknown.

May the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen. 

John 13:1-17 – Stinky Feet Love

Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, by Leszek Forczek

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (New Revised Standard Version)

One of the reasons I like Jesus so much is that he loves me as I am, and not as I should be. Jesus loves me even with my dirty stinky feet, my herky-jerky commitment to him, and my pre-meditated sin. Jesus loved even Judas and washed his feet. Jesus serves people because they need his love, and not so that they will love him back.

I read about a man who lives in Paris. His wife has Alzheimer’s. He was an important businessman, and his life was filled with busyness. Yet, he said when his wife fell sick, “I just couldn’t put her into an institution, so I kept her. I fed her. I bathed her. Through the experience of serving my wife every day, I have changed. I have become more human. The other night, in the middle of the night, my wife woke me up. She came out of the fog for a moment, and she said, ‘Darling, I just want to say thank you for all you are doing for me.’ Then she fell back into the fog. I wept for hours to know this grace.”

Sometimes Christ calls me to love people who either cannot or will not love me in return. They live in the fog of some sort of disability, depression, poverty, or common spiritual blindness. As I serve them, I may only receive brief glimpses of gratitude. Just as Jesus loves me within my own spiritual confusion, so I desire to continue loving others as they walk through whatever fog they are in.

Lord willing, my life will be useful through my words and my witness. If God desires, my life will bear fruit through my prayers, my service, and my love. Yet, the usefulness of my life is God’s concern, not mine; it would be indecent of me to worry about that. I simply desire follow my Lord’s example.

Neither many Christians nor churches wash feet anymore. So, the following is today’s Gospel lesson put in a slightly different context:

It was just before the biggest and most important feast of the year, Passover. Jesus knew that it was finally the time for him to face the cross and die for the world’s sins. Having spent the past three years loving his followers, he now wanted to leave them with a clear demonstration of his love that they would never forget.

The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already gotten a hold of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus to those who wanted him dead and gone. But it was all according to plan. Jesus knew that his heavenly Father had given him all authority because he was his Son, and he was ready to do what needed to be done to secure salvation and return to his rightful place at his Father’s right hand.  So, Jesus got up from the meal, rolled up his sleeves, put an apron on, and ran a sink full of hot water.  Jesus told the servants to take the night off, and he began taking the dishes from the dinner table and started washing them, taking care to do all that waiters and dishwashers would do.

When Jesus came to take care of Simon Peter’s dishes and serve him dessert and coffee, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to serve me?” Jesus replied, “I know you do not understand why I am doing this since it seems like something that is beneath me to do, but later you will look back on this night and understand completely what I am doing.”

“No,” said Peter, “this is not right – you are the Master, and this is not what a well-respected rabbi does – you are only disrespecting yourself and making us all look foolish. You are not going to take my dishes and wash them.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash these dishes and serve you, you are not going to be able to follow me anymore and you will have no part of what I am doing in this world.”

“Well, then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “if that is the way it really is, then don’t just wash the dishes – come on over to my place and clean out the fridge and scrub the kitchen floor!”

Jesus answered, “A person who has had a decent meal needs only to wash the dishes so that he can enjoy the freedom of hospitable relationships with me and those around him.  And all of you here have had a decent meal, though not every one of you.”  For Jesus knew that Judas was only picking at his food in anticipation of betraying him.

When Jesus was all done washing the dishes and serving his disciples, he took his apron off, rolled his sleeves back down, and returned to the table.  He looked them all squarely in the eye and said, “Do you understand what I just did for you?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so, for that is exactly what I am.  So, now that I, your Master, and your Teacher have washed your dishes, you also should wash one another’s dishes.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I am telling you the plain truth that no follower is greater than the one he follows, nor is a preacher greater than the one he preaches about.  Now that you know that it is your task in this life to provide humble loving service, you will have God’s stamp of approval on your life if you quit thinking about how to possess and use power for your own purposes and start thinking about how to use the authority I am giving you to love other people into the kingdom of God.

Loving Lord Jesus, how shocking it was for your disciples to be served by you in such a humble manner.  But I cannot be spiritually cleansed unless I allow you to love me in an almost embarrassing fashion.  Help me not to be so proud that I neither refuse your humble loving service toward me, nor neglect to offer that same kind of service to others.  May love be the word, the idea, and the action that governs my every motivation and movement in your most gracious Name, I pray.  Amen.