Virtual Hugs: Can we survive?

The Human Touch

’Tis the human touch

in this world that counts,

The touch of your hand and mine,

Which means far more

to the fainting heart

Than shelter and bread and wine.

For shelter is gone

when the night is o’er,

And bread lasts only a day.

But the touch of the hand

And the sound of the voice

Sing on in the soul always.

– Spencer Michael Free

The inability to hug each other must be the most de-humanizing caution of this pandemic. So says absolutely every person I’ve met with in the past months: “I hate it that we can’t hug!” Forget masks. Nothing is more dissatisfying than a virtual hug. 

I skimmed Bible sites for thoughts on touch, but most quotes emphasize what not to touch. (Much like my high school teachers told us.) When a woman touched Jesus’ cloak, he felt power go out of him.

My birth family was loving, yet fairly anti-touch. One showed respect for another person by keeping a distance. Only in retrospect did I realize I had absorbed the unspoken rules concerning what distance was appropriate for approaching which category of person: aunt, cousin, friend, best friend, next door neighbor, neighbor two-doors down, unknown relative at a funeral, unknown relative at a wedding, shoe clerk, relative who married someone questionable. We practiced a refined culture of social distancing long before it became “a covid thing.”

Then I went to a college with Jewish students. Everybody was touching everybody. People I didn’t know, wasn’t related to in any way, hugged me. I was frozen in shock for at least one semester. I did manage to hug someone back before graduation.

Now I understand why there are more “Don’t Touch” warnings in the Bible, and not so many “Okay to Touch.” There are Biblical warnings about not touching because the people who wrote it were touching everything all the time! No encouragement needed.

So my life-long ease into the wonders of touching continues. Now I’d say that the power generated from a good solid hug, or back rub, or handing hands, is necessary for physical, mental, spiritual health. I’m guessing that is why we are covered, head to foot, with the sense of touch. Greeting each other from a distance is bad, but not hugging? How can we possibly keep our humanity?

Touch with our eyes. Look deep.

Touch with our voices. Speak gently.

Touch with our sense of smell. Breathe in deeply.

Touch with our ears. Listen carefully to each other. To birds, To music, To silence.

Touch with prayer.

–Alice Barrett

“Sometimes I Wonder Which Side God is On.”

The title of this post is from “The Longest Day,” a 1962 movie about D-Day from the points of view of the American army and the German army. During the movie each commander on each side says, “Sometimes I wonder whose side God is on.” Back in 1962, this was a lightbulb-flash moment for me. Everyone thinks God is on their side, even the “bad guys.” I was thirteen.

The lectionary readings for the UCC on July 28 brought this up, once again, in 2019. The first reading was from Hosea, and is one that many of us would rather skip over because God is vengeful, cruel, and misogynist. The second reading is from Luke and Jesus describes God as a father who would care for you no matter what. Reading them together is spiritual whiplash.

Our nation, and Christianity is experiencing a fissure. The U.S. has had fissures since the beginning. Now the fissure is wider because it is now so simplistic. Evil is defined by which political party you belong to, which church you go to. In skimming Biblical commentaries I found a “RedState.something” site. Its headline: Jesus was NOT a Refugee or an Immigrant.  A Huff Post column was headed: Guess What: Jesus was a Refugee. Do these people all read the same New Testament?

Which of God’s sides am I on?

Thanksgiving dinners are no longer long heated debates about issues; they are very short: Who did you vote for? Trump or Hillary? Who is a true Christian? Jerry Falwell or Desmond Tutu. Everything after that is a shouting match.

The motto of the United Church of Christ is “God is still talking.” In which case, the Bible is still being written. What will we write? What stories will we hand down? Which images of God will we bring forth?

How will our nation, our Christianity, ever reconcile and heal? Which teachings of our faith will aid in the healing? [By that I do not mean everyone agrees on everything.] Or do we want our side to “win?” 

Miroslav Volf in his book “Exclusion and Embrace” says he was asked about cetniks, the Serbian guerrilla force who was responsible for atrocities in his native country. Someone asked if he could embrace one of these fighters.

He answered, “Can I embrace a četnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” 

Him and me both.

The New New Testament, 3019 C.E.

If, as the United Church of Christ says, “God is still speaking,” it must also be true that the Bible is still being written. What will be in the New New Testament?

The present Bible was started 3,400 years ago (depending on how you count). It was completed around 90 C.E. or 1,900 years ago. So, it was written over a period of 1,500 years. The specifics are debatable, but you get the picture. A long long time.

I’m thinking ahead about 1,000 years. Should humanity have not committed suicide by then, some scholars may wonder what 20th-21st century Christianity looked like.

The Bible Bible is a wondrous book of tales, contradictory rules, questionable history, sex, ponderings about divinity and humanity, poetry, love, crime, conflict, hope, all seen through the lens of a people’s relationship with their God. So will the next one be.

Logically, the New New Testament (NNT) should begin 90 C.E., when the last one ended, but my current number of brain cells can’t cope. I will start using the method I’m most familiar with: off the top of my head.

Let’s go with the obvious first: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, sections of at least one of his books will be included. 

Marvelous tales: Lewis’ friend, J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories would fit in with David and Goliath and the Ark stories. As would A Wrinkle in Time.

No doubt the scholars will come across the Left Behind series, which would not show up in my Bible version, but will no doubt end up in some version.

And whose stories will be told? Dorothy Day via columns from the “Catholic Worker;” Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the work of Reconciliation in South Africa; Simone Weil, creepy but popular; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; MLK, Jr. 

In the Psalms section: Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is 19th century, but I love him and it’s my bible. W.H. Auden, Carolyn Forche, Denise Levertov, David Whyte.

I’d wait another 200 years to see whether Joel Osteen’s writing stands the test of time, or that of Tammy Faye Bakker, or Rick Warren, or Oral Roberts. 

My Books of the Bible are shamefully English-language centered, but that’s what lives at the top of my head.

I suspect that the NNT will not be limited to Christians. The search for the divine is not limited; the People of God are no longer a small group, but an encompassing people. 

I encourage you to create a list of Books/ Stories/ People/ Poems for the NNT. It is an exercise in Seeing Biblically. The world we live in is full of “biblical life,” that is, the stories of how people struggle with the idea of the Divine. The Bible is not dead, but passed along in thousand-year chunks. Future people will learn from us, so let’s think about it now.