The Healing Power of Invited Physical Touch

I had a really, really beautiful moment at church this past Sunday.

For starters, I woke up not particularly enthusiastic about going to church. Taylor and I were out of town Friday and Saturday, so all I wanted to do on Sunday was veg out in my robe and read. Sometimes I do skip church to do that, but that morning I sort of felt that thing that told me I should fight the urge to stay home and get myself to church.

Have you ever felt that? Not necessarily about church—just about things in general? That “you should really do this” feeling not motivated by guilt, but by your spirit (perhaps the divine) nudging you to do the thing you don’t feel like doing?

And you know that feeling you feel after you push yourself to do that thing you didn’t want to do and it turns out to be exactly what you needed? Like when you’re feeling down and you know you should go for a run or get yourself to the gym and you muster every last bit of energy it takes to get dressed and get your butt out the door, and after your run or work out you feel like A MILLION BUCKS because it was EXACTLY what you needed?

That was church for me on Sunday.

And I will say, I don’t always feel that way. A lot of times church—well, worship services—can feel…forced. Not every time, but when it does feel that way it can suck the life out of me.

Anyway, yesterday had every potential to be that because it was “Healing Sunday” and we’ve all watched those videos about people praying healing over others and have felt that similar feeling of skepticism. Now granted, I know people (who know people) who have experienced miraculous healing, and I don’t ever doubt personal stories, but oftentimes they’re the exception, not the rule, right? And sure, I’ve done my share of praying healing over people, but it’s always been a very timidly asking God specifically “IF IT BE YOUR WILL” (ya know, just in case it doesn’t happen, you can easily brush it off as a “well it just wasn’t God’s plan.”)

But this “Healing Sunday” was different, mainly because I’m not physically suffering from anything that needs healing. However, when invited, I felt that same weird tug to head toward the front of the room for prayer—the same one that got me out of the house—you know, like the gentle but firm tug of a small child pulling on mom’s hand, guiding her toward the kitchen for a desired snack.

It had been a while since I invited someone to pray over me, and I think I just really, really needed it. As I walked up toward the altar and waited in line for my turn, I caught a glimpse of one of the clergy women praying for those kneeling in front of her. She wore a white robe, or vestment, beautiful dark-brown skin, and a gorgeous set of perfectly-placed braids. I watched as she placed her hand on congregant’s shoulders and foreheads in a way that looked tender yet confident. How did she manage to do that so effortlessly? Her eyes shut tight as she prayed boldly into the ears of women, men, children, and the elderly. Strangers rested their weary heads on this woman’s soft belly as tears rolled down both of their faces. The scene was so intimate and personal. How could this be possible between two strangers?

Anticipation grew as I approached my turn to kneel. She began praying over me, holding my what suddenly felt fragile head in her hands. As she prayed that I would be reminded that God delights in both my weakness and in my strength, I felt her warm hands graze over and squeeze my shoulders.

When she asked God to give me wisdom on my journey, she rubbed the part of my neck that was exposed because of my ponytail. I was gripped when she kept her hands under my ear, over the dried out, bumpy skin that often flares up because of my nickel allergy. In any other situation, I would’ve pulled away self-consciously and explained that what she’s feeling is an allergy and not contagious in any way, but she didn’t seem to care or question if my skin allergy would rub off on her. So I let her hover her hand there, feeling exposed yet unbelievably cared for. I felt like one of those lepers that Jesus reached out and touched time and time again without fear of contamination. When she finished blessing me with her words—”in Jesus’s name”—she lightly kissed the top of my head, the way I imagine Jesus did to those who came to him in desperation—a simple yet profoundly loving and reassuring gesture.

All of these details brought tears to my eyes.

Afterwards, all I could think about was the fact that we live in a time when it feels like every week we hear of a new physical or sexual abuse scandal in the church. So much so that the thought of physical touch oftentimes leaves people cringing and uncomfortable. Even writing the description of how this woman embraced me felt awkward at first.

However, after my experience with this beautiful stranger, I couldn’t stop thinking about the healing power of invited physical touch—the kind that made up so much of Jesus’s ministry. It’s easy to forget about the gift of loving physical touch when it seems like the only kind of touch we hear or talk about is the kind that humiliates, oppresses, shames and even kills. As I pondered on this polarization, I wondered if perhaps loving and invited touch can be seen as act of sacred resistance.

What if those of us who were ready, able and willing were intentional about inviting and offering loving touch more often? What if we did so as a response to the atrocities that have been going on behind closed doors for far too long? 

The purpose of this post is to offer a simple reminder: embrace a trusted person today—whether it’s the laying of hands for prayer, a simple hug, or a kiss on the forehead—use your hands as a means of sacred resistance; your body to show love in a way that seems so foreign and uncomfortable. You may realize that you needed it more than you thought.