Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was afraid of having nightmares. Night after night, she’d come wandering out to the living room long after she was supposed to be asleep. Night after night, her mom would take her by the hand, lead her back to bed, and tuck her in. One night, her mom, weary from their now nightly routine, had an idea. “Tonight when we say your prayers,” she told her daughter, “we’ll ask God to help you have sweet dreams. Then you won’t worry about nightmares anymore.”
The little girl thought this was a good idea, so they said her prayers together and Mom tucked her in, kissed her on the forehead, and went out and shut the door.
A few minutes later, here’s the little girl again. “What are you doing up?” cried her mom, exasperated. “We asked God to give you sweet dreams. You don’t have to worry about nightmares anymore.”
“But Mommy,” the little girl said, “Sometimes I need God with skin on.”
I love that story for many reasons. First, because it’s true. God’s love, comfort, kindness, attention, and caring continually flows toward us from so many places, perhaps through the words and touches of those who love us most in the world. But love reaches us through other people and circumstances too–when a driver in traffic lets us in; when a receptionist is exceptionally friendly and open; when someone comes along with an encouraging word just at the point we need it most. It’s all God loving us, through the kindness of others.
I remember a time when I was a young chaplain, I was worried that in visits with patients I might say the wrong thing or not pick up on what the person most needed. My wise, experienced supervisor told me that he kept his role in perspective—and kept himself humble—by remembering he was just one of 100 touches of love from God that a person would receive in any given day. It wasn’t all on his shoulders. God knew what the person needed and would bring lots of others to continue to reinforce the work of love unfolding in his or her life. The chaplain was simply one part of a large, continuous, loving and perhaps infinite team, all lead and beautifully, lovingly orchestrated by God.
That was a huge relief to me then and it has been an important idea at the heart of my ministry ever since. Each of us is a touch of God’s love in other peoples’ lives. Many times a day, we might—without even knowing—be “God with skin on” for others.
This week the inspiration for this message came first as a curiosity about how and when Jesus actually touched others—made physical contact with them, human to human. As I looked into it, I found many more examples than I expected. Jesus healed people of leprosy by touching them; he touched peoples’ eyes to restore their sight; when Peter cut off the ear of the soldier in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed it and calmed the violence.
Before that, as news of Jesus spread from town to town, people began to come from all over just to be near him, hoping to catch hold of his hem as he passed. This didn’t just happen once or twice—it was going on all the time. People realized that they didn’t have to have a private audience with Jesus in order to be healed. One touch could do it. In fact, a verse in Mark chapter 6 says, “Wherever He entered villages, or cities, or countryside, they were laying the sick in the market places, and imploring Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and all who touched him were healed.” That’s a big statement: All who touched him were healed. Who knows how many dozens or even hundreds of people might have received a healing in just this way. It makes me wonder whether Jesus’ garments were always frayed and tattered at the ends from so many people reaching out and grabbing on, hoping for healing.
My favorite of all these stories was the one about the little children, which is our New Testament reading for today. As part of the growing crowds that came to hear and see Jesus, parents were bringing their babies to be blessed. This seems like a beautiful thing to do, but the disciples were perhaps overwhelmed and feeling annoyed and, the scripture says, they “spoke sternly” to the parents. But when Jesus saw what they were doing, Mark says Jesus was indignant. I thought that was a funny word—not something I could imagine Jesus showing—so I looked it up, and it fits. The definition of indignant is “feeling or showing anger or annoyance at what is perceived as unfair treatment.” Jesus was indignant.
He said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What a remarkable and deeply radical thing for Jesus to say. Here in this massive crowd of adults—parents, teachers, Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis—Jesus lifts up above all else the simplicity, trust, innocence, and open-heartedness of children. Their way, he says, is the way to the kingdom of God.
This is astoundingly hopeful news because we are each still in touch with the small child that lives on within us. Without too much effort, we can easily remember what it feels like to run barefoot in the grass, to play games outside with friends on a summer after, or to snap beans with grandma on the porch. There’s simplicity, trust, innocence, and open-heartedness right there in those feelings; they’re all doorways into grace.
With the next line in this passage, I found what I was looking for: Real contact with Jesus. The scripture says, “And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
Isn’t that something you would love to see? Or better yet, isn’t that something you would love to feel? To make contact with Jesus in such an embracing way. Not just touching the hem of his cloak or feeling a touch of his hand, but to be small enough to be gathered up into his arms, to feel held and cuddled and blessed, valued as the deeply precious beings God made us to be. The deeply precious beings we truly are, to God.
One of the most challenging things about living a life of faith is the unseen nature of it. If God would just come sit on the couch one day and explain it all to us things would be a lot clearer. “Well, you had to go through that rough time because it was giving you the strength you needed to help this other person…” God would say. Or maybe God would reassure us with, “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It was just time for a change. Wait and see—I’ll bring something good out of this.”
But without God’s actual revealed presence in the here-and-now to give us a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, we rely on our faith in unseen things–our prayers, our feelings, our tradition, and our understanding of scripture–to navigate circumstances that are often murky, emotionally triggering, and unclear. We’re always interpreting what’s happening—trying to make sense of things. It’s what humans do. But interpretations can be slippery because they are really stories we come up with as we try to understand what’s going on and they often continue to change. Because we’re each unique people with our own experiences and histories, we rarely look at and respond to things in just the same way. Those differences in perspectives—and our human tendency to forget to look for that of God in others—are probably at the root of many of our struggles and conflicts today.
Years ago when I worked in publishing, I had an editorial director—Dr. David Noble—who was a stickler for editorial standards. Every Tuesday morning at 9:00am, at our weekly editorial meeting, Dr. Noble went over important rules for editing that included fascinating things like subject-verb agreement, restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, and the proper use of semi-colons. One particularly interesting meeting stands out in my memory even though 30 years have passed since then. Dr. Noble had written on the whiteboard:
I only have eyes for you.
And then he talked about how the way we order things—in writing, in editing, and in life—has everything to do with what we see. Move even one word, he said, and the whole sentence takes on a different meaning. Most of us around the table were skeptical. But he wasn’t finished.
“Let’s take the word only,” he said. And using his marker and eraser, he showed us that:
“I ONLY have eyes for you” could mean, “I’m the only one who has eyes for you.” Which isn’t very flattering, when you think about it.
I have ONLY eyes for you could mean, “My eyes are all you get of me.” Which sounds a bit too stingy if what you’re hoping for is romance.
“I have eyes ONLY for you” could imply, “I used to have eyes for lots of folks but I’m trying to focus on you now,” which could open up a whole other can of worms in your relationship.
“I have eyes for ONLY you” is probably the warmest and truest of the sentiments, letting the other person know he or she is at the center of your sight and your heart. (So if you’re planning on writing something on a Valentine’s Day card in a couple of weeks, that last one is probably your best bet.)
The idea here is that the order of things—even small things—matters. This is even more important if what we want is to be truly touched by the light God is pouring into our lives each day. Maybe we could take some of our better, truer, childlike qualities and put them up closer to the beginning of the sentence, when we invite God into our hearts. For a time, we can leave out our egos, our resumes, our lists of good deeds. For just a little while, we could let go of our training and all our shoulds and oughts, drop our regrets of the past or our worries about the future. We could simply rest and trust God with the open-hearted enjoyment of a child.
Maybe what we’ll experience will be “God with skin on,” and that’s a blessing in its own right. But it’s also possible we’ll feel ourselves swept up in the arms of Grace and held tenderly in a lap of Love so big and friendly that it has room for the entire world.
- OT Psalm 146
- NT Mark 10: 13-16