Earlier I wrote about how my battle with COVID-19 formed me spiritually. Although my time in the intensive care unit lasted only 24 hours, I’m still unable to fully process the experience, even after several weeks removed. That night I only slept about 20 minutes. It was the first—and hopefully only—time I’ve been afraid to fall asleep. I worried I might not wake up again. I was not afraid of my eternal destiny, but for my family and friends, and what it might mean for them.
When the sun came up, I was exhausted, physically uncomfortable, weak, and lonely. In my most vulnerable physical state, when I needed close family and friends to be close to me, they were not allowed due to COVID restrictions. That afternoon, as I began collecting my belongings while the nurse walked me through my discharge paperwork, I began to feel hot and flush. My fever spiked, which pressed pause on the departure plan. The doctor was called and a few more hours of waiting ensued. I was growing impatient and discouraged by the minute. I just wanted to go home.
Due to COVID precautions, ICU nurses are required to “gown up” before entering a patient’s room, putting on a fresh set of protective medical equipment over their scrubs—plastic gowns, head coverings, medical gloves, booties over their shoes— repeating the process countless times a day. While we waited to hear back from the doctor regarding my discharge, my nurse, Brenda, was about to leave to the room. Wanting to ensure we didn’t forget anything before she began the arduous process of gowning down, she asked, “Can I get you anything else? Motrin? A blanket? More water?”
Before leaving my room, she turned back to me one last time. “Would you like me to rub your back?”
“Yes.” I blurted out without thinking.
Laying on my side, she came around behind me, my bare back exposed due to those silly hospital gowns. During my hospital stay, I had remained uncharacteristically calm. Even the nurses commented on my peaceful demeanor, which was due primarily to the fact that the whole ordeal seemed so surreal to me, like an out-of-body experience. But when her hands touched my back, the emotional volcano erupted; tears left my eyes at a force I’d not yet experienced in my adult life. I cried. More accurately, I wept violently. I was startled by the intensity of my emotion, and I’m quite certain I startled Brenda as well. Another nurse down the hall had heard the noise and popped her head in to ask if everything was all right. For 15 minutes Brenda rubbed my back while I continued to weep. My deep, dark emotional currents all met at the confluence of that backrub. For 15 minutes, nurse Brenda rubbed my back while I continued to weep. My deep, dark emotional currents all met at the confluence of that backrub. Click To Tweet
Between the emergency room and the ICU, nurses served me in all sorts of helpful ways—taking my blood pressure and temperature, administering an EKG and a CAT scan, providing me with potent medicine and sticking me for my IV port—all of these important elements of the healing process. But the great irony of it all was that it was the compassionate touch of Brenda rubbing my back that was the most healing. I’d read the studies on the importance of touch on humans’ neurological, physical, and emotionally development. I’d preached on the healing power of Jesus’ touch. I’d written on how Jesus healed others through touch. But now it was my turn to experience it firsthand. My fever didn’t leave me the moment Brenda touched my back, but she gave me something greater: a clear sense of solidarity, connection, calm, and care that I desperately needed in that room.
As I wrote in my new book, A Time To Heal, a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry was expressed through his acts of healing. We see examples of his healing acts through his words. We read of times where he healed with his spit (quite disturbing and shocking for us today given our continuing global pandemic). And, of course, was read of numerous examples of healing that came about through his touch.
He touched ailing eyes. He stroked crooked limbs. He felt the eyes of a blind. He held the hands of a dying little girl and Peter’s mother-in-law. He reached out and embraced the bodies of lepers, knowing full well it made him ceremonially unclean. He placed his hand on the coffin of a boy during a funeral procession and returned him alive to his mother. Sometimes other people touched him and were healed, like the desperate, hemorrhaging woman—and he blessed her for doing so. I knew Jesus healed people through touch, but in the midst of my research for the book, it surprised me just how central physical touch was to his healing ministry. I knew Jesus healed people through touch, but it surprised me just how central physical touch was to his healing ministry. Click To Tweet
After reflecting upon that back rub by Brenda, I was reminded of Father Damien, the Dutch Catholic priest who felt called by God to serve lepers on Molokai, a remote Hawaiian island designated for the community of outcasts. Lepers were required by law to live out the remainder of their days in quarantine. Father Damien knew lepers needed to experience the love of Christ, rather than hopelessly waste away in isolation. In 1873, as a young and healthy 33 year old, he voluntarily joined the colony. He was warned by his bishop, who gave him the opportunity to turn back and accept another less dangerous priestly assignment elsewhere. Damien was undeterred. He touched them, served them, cared for them. He administered the sacraments, and built homes and a hospital. Nine years later, he contracted the disease; eventually the disease took his life. He ran toward others’ pain until he could no longer feel it himself.
In John 11, we read the famous story of Lazarus being raised from the dead in the little town of Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As learn of the intense emotions of Mary, Martha, the townspeople—even Jesus. After his own intense tears, Jesus raised his voice and shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43). As Lazarus walked out, wrapped from head to toe, Jesus then said, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go” (v. 44).
Who was Jesus was talking to? Who, exactly, was to take off the grave clothes?
The townspeople, Lazarus’ friends, his family members.
Jesus could have taken them off himself. He could have spoken the words and they could have peeled off of Lazarus with a dramatic flair. Instead Jesus invited others to join in the healing process. The touch of the townspeople, those who knew Lazarus, helped their friend experience freedom and health again.
And the invitation from Jesus is the same today: Jesus invites us to join him in his redemptive mission of healing.
Physical contact has been, how shall we say, a touchy subject lately. Over the past few years, the #MeToo movement has revealed the evil of sexual harassment and abuse that has wounded and traumatized countless individuals, especially women and children. This exposure, painful as it is, has helped bring awareness, truth, and justice in situations of immense evil and horrific pain.
Additionally, in an effort to help mitigate the virus, social distancing and quarantining has been wise and necessary. But what resulted is that we’ve lost touch with many people around us, literally and metaphorically. I am a hugger. I can count four hugs I’ve given or received from non-family members in over a year. I miss freely giving and receiving hugs, without even the thought if doing so might cause harm to myself or others. Fortunately, we will emerge from this touch-averse reality one day, hopefully soon.
These distancing practices have been, and continue to be, necessary, at least for now. But I hold a deep concern that the pendulum will swing far to the other extreme. In light of #MeToo and the pandemic, I fear we may be tempted to be fearful of all touch, that we will be tempted to refrain from physical contact entirely, that permanent physical distancing will lead to missed opportunities for healing. While we must act wisely, appropriately, and remain sensitive in situations that involve physical touch, we must not be afraid of it, or refrain from it entirely. In light of #MeToo and #COVID19, I fear we may be tempted to be fearful of all touch, that we will be tempted to refrain from physical contact entirely, that permanent physical distancing will lead to missed opportunities for healing. Click To Tweet
If we eliminate the healings that occur through Jesus’ touch in the Gospels, we eliminate much of his ministry altogether. By fearing all contact we may fail to engage in compassionate and wise opportunities, we may miss significant situations which can usher in healing, much like the way Brenda did for me.
Most certainly, we need equal measures of wisdom, courage, and compassion in the days ahead as we seek to respond redemptively to the evils of #MeToo and the unique realities of social distancing in a pandemic. As restrictions are loosening and more people receive vaccinations, we must press in to think intentionally and carefully about what appropriate and compassionate touch will look like the days ahead, lest we lose touch with future opportunities for healing.
We may not be gowned up in an ICU room like Brenda, or unwrapping grave clothes in first-century Bethany, or ministering to lepers on Molokai like Father Damien. But we join with Jesus in our everyday, ordinary lives by wisely and compassionately looking for appropriate opportunities, at the right time, to provide healing touches in his name.
The world is wounded and in need of healing. As we remain hopeful and begin to see signs of emerging from the pandemic, may we recognize the invitation from Jesus to help remove the graveclothes so others can they live in freedom and health once again.