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.

Abstinence as a Rite of Passage

hands

By Joe LaGuardia

There is something to be said about the importance of rites of passage in a person’s growth and development.   A rite of passage is the act of crossing a threshold–traditionally going from adolescence to adulthood–by way of ritual, self-sacrifice, crisis, or sacrament.

As such, most rites of passage require some sense of suffering and decision.  Baptism, for example, has been a historic rite of passage for Christians.  In getting baptized, we recognize our choice to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus.

Every world religion and culture has some sort of rite of passage that thrusts young people into a life of sacrifice and obedience.   Each rite communicates that people are interconnected and that valor is a virtue to be cherished rather than scorned.

Why is it, then, that our modern society tends to downplay rites of passage?  We no longer ask our young people to sacrifice something for a greater cause; we buy or consume whatever we need without suffering through delayed gratification; we rarely say “no” to demands that far outweigh the benefits of the many; and we avoid suffering in everything we do–from marriages to careers.

There was a day when you had to earn a living by hard work, stay in a marriage even it didn’t meet expectations, and remain faithful to one career even if it was boring.  Loyalty is no longer the norm.

When I was a teenager, the biggest rite of passage that tested one’s muster was not body piercings or tattoos.  It wasn’t some solo adventure in the wilderness with a match and canteen of water.  Even baptism was easy and fun–it was more party than imposition.

No, my rite of passage was abstinence.  It was having to wait until marriage before being able to satisfy all of those natural desires that hormones inspire.

There were two or three Christian retreats I went on during high school that promoted abstinence before marriage.

I recall one in particular in which we all pledged to remain virgins until marriage on the first night of the retreat.  Then, on the next night, when the preacher was going on about the Second Coming of Christ, we all regretted taking that pledge.  Hey, if Jesus was going to come back tomorrow, then why wait?

We prayed a very specific prayer after that night: “Lord, we want you to come back, but can you at least wait until after we’re married?”

I won’t lie: Abstinence was rough.  It was the “narrow way” for all of us who followed Jesus in our youth.  We suffered.  We had to “deny ourselves” although our sexually active peers seemed so happy.

Abstinence required leaving the party early, avoiding certain people who didn’t share the same values, and putting up with an overabundant sense of teenage angst.  It also required a circle of friends that kept us accountable.

It was a pledge that we barely kept; but, by God, it was a rite of passage that toughened us up in the long run.  We were better for it.

These days, there are many opponents to abstinence.  Some cite psychological or emotional reasons for why its “unhealthy” to deny the body its natural courses in life.

Some argue that abstinence keeps people from “experimenting” and learning about their bodies.  I guess the notion is that if we “experiment” before marriage, we will avoid marrying someone who is not compatible.

Nonsense.  The safest sex is no sex, and for once I think that we need to keep abstinence as a rite of passage in a world in which rites are scarce.  Scripture tells us, “Discipline yourselves. . .Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:13, 14-16).

God calls all of us to be holy through discipline, righteous living, and self-control.  Let’s not abandon every practice in which we have to sacrifice our desires.

A sense of value and strength comes from obeying God, especially when God is calling us into an adulthood in which Christ–and not our every emotional or physical whim–is Lord.

Song of Solomon: Scripture that makes you squirm

I can’t pinpoint any one embarrassing moment in my life, but I can say with all confidence that attending the movies with my parents was a comprehensive experiment in the art of embarrassment.

Whenever a bad word was uttered, my father would groan like a frog.  I always thought it brought more attention than the word deserved, but he considered it a thorough warning.   When we saw Goodfellas, I thought he was going to have a heart attack.

You could only imagine how embarrassing it was when we saw a romance scene.  Oh, how I hated those moments.  Awkward.

I am sure that’s how Jewish boys and girls of old felt when it was Song of Solomon day at the local synagogue.  They probably squirmed in their seats when the rabbi read something like, “With great delight I sat in my beloved’s shadow, and his fruit was sweet…” (2:4).   For its time, it was as graphic as any R-rated film that, according to the Oxford Study Bible, was likened to a “feast for the senses.”

The Song of Solomon is still one of those books preachers rarely preach on, and it is an oddity in scripture since it defies all biblical genre.  It is not prophetic or wisdom literature.  It is not history. There is no mention of God anywhere.  At best it is a duet in which a groom and bride celebrate their love for one another.  A book that was, according to feminist scholars, penned by two lovers in search of divine oneness.

That describes the English version.  The original Hebrew captures all the nuances and word plays that would even make Hugh Hefner blush.  No wonder ancient rabbis considered it “forbidden.”

Yet, it was included in the Bible by the skin (no pun intended) of its teeth, so the Church had to sanitize it somehow.  Medieval scholars found that interpreting the Song as an allegory (a spiritual message) of God’s love for the church was the best option.  It wasn’t about physical romance after all, they argued, and a long, thankful sigh could be heard from parents everywhere.

With that taboo out of the way, the Song became rather valuable during the medieval era.  One scholar, Origen, wrote a ten-volume commentary on it.  French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, preached some 86 sermons on the first two chapters alone.  Jewish mystic Rabbi Akiva compared the book to the Holy of Holies and argued that it sufficed as a temporary sacred place for long as the temple remained unavailable.

Whether the book was a literal duet or an allegory of God’s love, there is still a fresh word in this amazingly contemporary book.  It’s dialogue expresses a type of faithfulness and fidelity for which we all long.  In our fly-by-night sex-saturated society, a fresh poem that speaks to God’s eternal love might be the type of gospel-message we need these days.

Come to think of it, there is something in the Song for everyone.  For married couples, its rich vocabulary has the power to ignite the embers of intimacy and fan the flame of passionate romance from an earlier time.

The Song reminds singles of their faithful attention to a God who comes to all of us as Spouse.  It also celebrates the type of purity that St. Paul championed in his letters to the Corinthians.

For people who despair over love lost, the Song resonates with broken hearts and the pursuit for wholeness: “Upon my bed,” the Song’s bride wrote in grief, “I sought him whom my soul loves…and found him not” (3:2).

For all of us, the Song can bring us some good seat-squirming experiences now and then as it reminds us just how intimately God longs to be with each of us.  Allow our love for Him to be the second part of the duet in all our hearts.