by Wayne Geiger
For many years, AT&T was a household name. They were responsible for building most of the telephone networks that we use and were the largest corporation in the world. For more than a decade, they used the slogan, “reach out and touch someone.” Naturally, since they were a telecommunication company, they suggested that they do this using the telephone.
We have all been affected by these days of social distancing. To be honest, I was practicing social distancing before it was a thing. I’ve always liked my space. But, although I identify as an introvert, I find myself missing social contact. I miss hanging out with friends and seeing fellow church members. No matter your personality type, we’re all wired that way. We need to connect to other people.
One of my favorite Bible stories is the story of Jesus and a leper:
And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him,
“If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean (Mark 1:40-42).
Leprosy, also known as “Hansen’s disease”, is a painful and debilitating disease. Leprosy is an infection caused by bacteria. The disease discolors the skin, attacks nerve endings, and can affect the eyes and nose, and loss of hair.
In days of old, it was believed that leprosy would cause a person’s fingers and toes to rot off. In reality, the disease affected nerve endings which removed the suffers ability to feel pain. Thus, those with leprosy were known to step on sharp objects or even burning coals and not feel any pain. This caused infection and eventually tissue loss which affected the extremities.
Your chances of getting leprosy are pretty low. According to the CDC, about 150 people in the United States contract leprosy annually. Thankfully, the disease is preventable and treatable. One way not to get leprosy is not to eat armadillos. They are the only known animal, other than humans, known to carry the disease. Many cases in the U.S. are in the south where people actually eat the critters (on the half shell, I imagine).
During biblical times, leprosy was clearly an issue. There were many lepers mentioned in the Bible. Those who suffered from the disease were considered to be socially and religiously unclean. In that culture, they also considered the disease to be a curse from God. There are two whole chapters dedicated to leprosy in the Old Testament. Here is a portion.
As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, 'Unclean! Unclean!' "He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Lev 13:45-46).
Talk about social distancing! Not only were they to live away from everyone else, but social interaction was forbidden. Adding insult to injury, they were to cry aloud to let other passersby know they were in the vicinity.
My favorite part about the story of Jesus and the leper is not that Jesus healed him, but how he healed him. There are two beautiful parts to the story.
First, the leper recognized that Jesus had the ability to heal him. He must have seen Jesus in action and believed. In his mind, there was no doubt as to Jesus’s ability. What the leper wanted to know was, would He? The leper said, “If you will [or if you’re willing], you can make me clean.” Jesus lovingly answered, “I will [or I am willing”] be clean.
God did not see the leper as socially or religiously unclean. He looked past his exterior. He saw him not for what he was, but what he could become. Such is the heart of God.
The second beautiful part to this story was how Jesus healed him. Throughout the gospels, Jesus healed people in many different ways. He healed some people with just a word. He healed one blind man by spitting on the ground, making mud, and placing it on the guy’s eyes. Some people, Jesus healed from a distance. Others, Jesus healed up close.
What’s amazing in this story is that Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him.” He obviously didn’t have to touch him. He chose to touch him.
We are not told how long this guy had leprosy, but however long it was, he was ostracized by society. He was a loner. Jesus, the Son of God, reached out and touched this social outcast who had not been touched in a very long time.
I have seen several positive things happening during this challenging time. I’ve seen people reaching out to God and praying more. I’ve seen people interested in spiritual things.
In addition, I’ve seen families getting back to basics. They’re playing games, making crafts, and just having fun. That’s a really positive thing!
Finally, I’ve also seen people reaching out and connecting in various, new ways. Out of necessity, people are going to church online and connecting with small groups through mediated technologies. These are really good things.
Like you, in these days of mandatory social distancing, I find myself adjusting to a “new normal.” Like most churches, for the last several weeks, as a pastor, I have shared messages with our church family through Facebook live and our YouTube channel. When I’m delivering these messages, I am standing before an empty church building—or at least no more than 9 people—six feet apart.
I’ve been asked, “isn’t that weird?” I generally respond by saying, “not really.” And then I explain, “when I’m speaking to the empty room, I visualize regular attenders who would be sitting in their particular seats. I see their faces and remember their stories.” But, on the other hand, there is an emptiness that I feel. I miss the human connection. I miss the opportunity physically reach out and touch someone.
For now, the best we can do is look for alternate methods to connect to one another. So, pick up the phone and encourage someone. Send an old-fashioned letter or send a text. Look for creative ways to connect with others—especially those who live alone. Today is a good day to reach out and touch someone—just make sure there’s at least six foot of distance between you.
This challenging time is a good reminder that we were built to connect with God and to connect to one another.
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.