Holding Hands

By Joe LaGuardia

In our professionalized American culture, we do not often hold hands.  Holding hands is reserved for couples in love or, in a brief welcome of mutual greeting, in the shaking of hands of a colleague.  Sometimes you don’t even get that — the “fist bump” is quickly becoming the in thing as people are weary of spreading germs, especially during flu season.

Other cultures are not as hesitant as ours.  When I traveled to Ghana, Africa, during a mission trip, I learned that friends hold hands.  It was jarring to see people holding hands everywhere as they did business, walked down the street, or simply spent time together.  When we ministered to children, all they wanted to do was hold hands.  All I wanted to do was protect my space.

By now, there is enough research to show that holding hands–the power of touch–has a powerful healing quality to it.  In fact, there is an entire research institute at the University of Miami devoted to studying the effects of touch in medicine and therapy.

Jesus also knew the value of touch–consider his willingness to place his hands upon the eyes of a man born blind (John 9), or his embrace of children who were usually seen but not heard (Matt. 19:13).  In one instance, a women was healed of a life-long bout of hemorrhaging because she touched his robe (Matt. 9:21).

My guess is that we do not touch often because we have a thing about personal space here in the West.  We fear that if touch goes too long that it is creepy at best and a threat of harassment at worst; yet, in ministry and community, we claim that we are to be the “hands of Christ” because we insist that touch and proximity have the power to heal and transform.

Two recent instances of holding hands has been especially meaningful to me.  The first was when I had to escort an elderly woman–a parishioner at our church–who needed help walking across an uneven, grassy yard.

She suffers from memory issues, but she is faithful in attending church and Bible study.  For one such study, we changed the location to the music building, and she parked on the other side of campus.  When I saw her going to the wrong building, I met her and told her of the new location.  When she saw the expanse of field, she feared that she might fall.

I told her I would hold her hand as she walked the field, and we had a delightful time talking and walking together as I guided her step-by-step across grass, over roots, and around anthills.

“Last time I held hands with a handsome man like you, I was a teenager,” she said.  I was flattered, but regardless of the compliment, we made each other’s day in that moment of friendship.  Joking aside, there was deep meaning and healing for this widow who lived alone for years and relied on brief hugs and handshakes at church for affirmation and support.

“For some elderly people, shaking hands with the minister on the way out of service is the only human touch they receive for weeks on end” –Oswald and Jacobson, The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, p. 103.

The second instance happened (and happens) whenever I meet with another parishioner, Ace, who had a fall this past week.  Ace is quickly becoming my hero because of his joy, positive spirit, and loving presence no matter what situation he finds himself in.

Ace is the patriarch of a large Vero Beach family and is father to more people than just his children.  He is an uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend to many, and he is known for encouraging people and being a faithful, listening ear to those in need.

As I have gotten to know him, I have found that he has a big smile that can light up a room–even if its a hospital room (I visited him in the ER last month, and I was greeted with that smile–thus, he is now my new hero!).

I visited with him this past week, and I was again greeted with a smile.  He is having trouble walking and maintaining his balance; his daughters have been staying with him around the clock.  But he smiles.

And Ace likes to hold hands. When I first met him, I would shake his hand like everyone else, but found that he doesn’t let go.  Sometimes, after you shake his hand, he offers his left hand and expects you to take it–not for another handshake, but to hold it and have some conversation.

In these moments, I have found that I — the minister who is called to provide a healing presence for others — have been ministered unto.  His smile and hand offer blessings that you have to experience (first-hand?!) to understand.

There is indeed something healing about touch, something deeply moving about holding hands that embodies the love of Christ and stresses the incarnate presence of God in human relationships and the spiritual bonds that brothers and sisters in Christ ought to share with one another.

It is not uncommon for me to be accused of being too Pollyannaish, of being mushy at times.  I grew up in a large, Italian family who knows the value of hugs and the healing power of affection.  We are all, for instance, “momma’s boys” in the LaGuardia clan, and that is more Christian–more Christ-like–than we’d like to think.

I doubt that our culture will ever become the hand-holding one that defines places like Ghana, and for many the “fist-bump” will be more than enough intimacy between friends, thank you very much.  But in those moments of ministry, holding someone’s hand can make a day, transform lives, and work miracles that go beyond expectations.

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A tale of two desperate souls

There once was a guy named Jairus. He was a real faithful churchgoer and leader in his community.  He had a daughter, 12 years old, who was dying.  She was the apple of her father’s eye.  At one time they played games together, then it was off to school and family vacations to Six Flags.  Now her breathing became more shallow, her skin color pale.

And there was a peasant from Galilee who was said to have the ability to heal.  Jairus heard that the peasant was in town, but he also heard that the peasant caused quite a stir at some churches.  There were the conflicts with the deacons and pastors, and there was that healing on the Sabbath.

Jairus was desperate, however, and he had to try something.  It was his daughter.  He may have to do some explaining at church come Monday–he may actually have to step down as Sunday School teacher–but at least there was a chance that his daughter would be healed.

On the day the peasant came to town, Jairus took off work and made his way to the street corner where the peasant was preaching.  There the Galilean was, with his dark, deep-set eyes and sandwich-board sign that had something or another about repentance and God’s kingdom.  A crowd had gathered.

Tears welled up in Jairus’ eyes even as he noticed that some of his church members were in the crowd.  Yes, he would have some explaining to do.  But, before Jairus knew it, he was on his knees begging the peasant to come and heal his daughter.

Can you imagine–a church leader begging at the feet of some street preacher?  The peasant only nodded in agreement.

It was at that moment that something strange happened.  A woman who had been ill for 12 years pushed her way through the crowd and touched the peasant.  People were disgusted that she had come into contact with them.  They knew her from around town, kicked her out of some of their churches in fact.

She was one of those people who were so full of sin and sickness that she really didn’t belong anywhere.  People avoided her; and, when she went to the local diner, families moved to different booths while children pointed, snickered and starred.

Thankfully, the law of the land kept her from going anywhere important.  She couldn’t get a job either so she lost her healthcare benefits long ago.  How convenient.

Like Jairus, she was desperate so it was worth upsetting a few people to get to the peasant.  She touched him and was healed; he turned and caught her eye.  And, like Jairus, she too fell on her knees before him.

That’s when Jairus’ employees greeted them: “Jairus,” they said, “It’s your daughter.  She died.”

For the first time the peasant spoke to Jairus:  “Do not fear, only believe.”

How can Jairus believe at a time like this?  He believed his whole life.  He went to church every weekend and led committees.  He taught Sunday school and served as deacon, and his faith just didn’t seem to help.  He might as well laugh at this peasant, but he wasn’t in a laughing mood.

How can Jairus take advice from a man who let a sinner woman touch him, much less talk to him?   If this peasant affiliated with the likes of her, then maybe he should rethink his strategy.

Then something miraculous happened.  The peasant — this rabble rouser from the other side of the tracks who got into more fights with pastors than Jairus knew what to do with — healed Jairus’ little girl with four words, “Little girl, get up.”

Four words and that was it.  No questions asked, no tests taken, no churchgoing required, no doctrines debated.  It was just a little girl healed, two desperate and fearful souls humbled at the feet of a Galilean, and another day in the life of God’s miraculous, inclusive, and impartial presence.  A miracle if there ever was one.