Physical Touch (5 Languages of Love)
As a child, my mom grew up in a home where not much physical affection was shown. I always admired the love between my mom and her mom, my grandmother. But as a child, my mom has said that there were times when she really long to be held by her mom, longed to sit on her mom's lap but it never happened. Perhaps it was the culture at the time. I suspect that others who may have grown up in my Mom’s era might have had a similar experience.
Sue Gerhart in her book Why Love Matters describes her Mom’s childhood in a similar way. Sue’s grandmother was a Victorian character who expected much and gave little. She was physically unapproachable.
One of the vows my mom made was that her own children would never have to go through the same experience and that it would be her mission in life to show as much physical affection to her children as possible.
Today, as we explore what Gary Chapman refers to as the Five Languages of Love, we explore the second language of love, Physical Touch or Physical Affection. I think I have told the following two stories before, but a good story is always worth hearing more than once.
The first was the story of a little baby abandoned and left to die by it's mother / father. It was found and taken to a Methodist Children's home in a town not far from where I grew up. Thee the doctors did not think the prognosis was good. They expected it would be a few hours and the baby would die. All they could do was love the child in it's final few hours of life in this world. For the next week around the clock they held and cared for the child. For a whole week except for brief periods when the child was washed and changed, the child was in somebodies arms. A week later the doctor couldn't believe the recovery and the only explanation he could give was the power of physical touch and care that had brought this baby back from the brink of death.
The story is in fact not so miraculous as one might imagine. Sue Gerhart, in her book Why Love Matters, writes that scientific studies have shown that physical touch has the ability to strengthen a babies immune system. It also has the ability to lower cortisol levels within a babies system. Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones, and in children, it has also been shown that high levels of cortisol can act like a poison in a babies brain if it is present for too long. Further studies have also shown that physical touch can help to regulate a babies mood which would help a person in later years as an adult in being better able to regulate one’s own mood under stressful situations.
It is clear that physical touch as a language of love is so important in the lives of little children as they grow and develop into mature adults. Those who don’t receive adequate loving touch as children are at a severe disadvantage to those children whose parents and grandparents have used physical touch as a key language of Love.
The 2nd story is one that a former colleague, the Rev. Alan Storey, told about a congregation member who would greet him in a strange way at the door every Sunday, holding onto his hand for as long as possible. In going to visit her in her home one day, asking her about this habit she had of holding onto his hand at the door for as long as possible, he found out that his hand was often the only human contact she would have in a week and that sometimes she would go to the hairdresser, not because she needed her hair done, but because she simply needed to feel the touch of another human being.
In some ways, physical touch is one of the first languages anyone learns in life. Touch comes before sight and before speech. The language of love of physical touch is therefore a key love language for many people, even if it might not necessarily be their Primary Love Language. But as we have noted in the introductory sermon, for some people physical touch is their Primary Language of Love. You may give such a person gifts, spend quality time with them, do loving acts of kindness or service towards them and speak with kind and affirming words, and all of these things may be deeply appreciated, but for some people, if you really wish to speak to their hearts, it may also require reaching out and touching them, on the hand, perhaps on the shoulder, perhaps by giving a hug. For such people until there is some physical contact, the sense of love for them may not feel complete.
Jesus clearly knew the power of human touch as a way of communicating love to other people. The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus reaching out to touch people, or indeed of people reaching out to touch Jesus.
Two of the most moving of those stories, are firstly, the story of Jesus being confronted by a man with leprosy. We all know that lepers were shunned by society. They were so dangerous to have around, that they were forced to live by themselves outside of towns and villages. If they did come into contact with other people, they would have to stand at a distance. For such lepers, their lives would have been lived, often for many many years, completely devoid of human touch and physical affection.
And so when this leper comes before Jesus, asking for Jesus to heal him, it of deep significance that as part of this healing interaction, Jesus actually reaches out to touch him. In doing so, Jesus recognizes that it is not just a deadly skin condition that this man is having to deal with, but also almost certainly a deep inner barreness and emptiness.
I was interested to see that one of the concepts that Gary Chapman speaks of in his books on the 5 languages of love, is the concept of a love tank. We all have an invisible love tank. When that love tank is full, we feel energised, we feel we have an inner strength that enables us to engage positively with the outside world. But when our love tank is empty engaging with life becomes just that much more difficult. It can affect our moods, our emotional and our physical sense of well-being.
For a long time now, Wendy and I have spoken of one of our cats George as having a love bucket that will need to be filled up at least two or three times a day. George’s love bucket seems to be particularly leaky during his sleep. When he wakes up he can sometimes become desperate to be loved. Wendy and I have learned that it is often in our best interests at that moment to stop doing whatever we are doing and give him the love that he needs. And when his love bucket is full, then he is quite happy to go off and do his own thing.
With George, it is very easy to know when he has an empty love bucket. He will often begin just by sitting quietly looking up at us with his one little paw lifted up like a dog. Annie is a more complicated kitty. She doesn’t know how to ask for love when she needs it. She tends to become quite grumpy and needy, restless and often meowing at us very unhappily. We have slowly begun to learn that even though she likes to think of herself as an independent kitty, she actually needs her love bucket filled up just as much as George.
In the Gospel story, Jesus is clearly deeply aware that this leper has probably not been touched by another human being for many years. He is probably deeply aware of the empty love tank that this man carries around with him. For him to be healed, it is not just a healing of his leprousy that is needed. What he needs also is a healing and a filling of his love tank… and so Jesus crosses the divide as he reaches out to touch a man who had not been touched by another human being for possibly years, and even decades.
Master, if you are willing, you can make me clean, the man says to Jesus. Reaching out to touch the man, Jesus says to him, I am willing, be clean.
A second beautiful story in which Jesus speaks this love language of physical touch is the story of Jesus blessing the children who were brought to him.
We know the story well. People were bring their children to Jesus for him to bless them. The disciples, with their patriarchal and hierarchal mind-sets clearly thought that Jesus was far too busy and far too important to be bothered by little children. There are not a lot of passages where Jesus is indignant or angry, but this is one of those occasions. We read in Mark 10:14 When Jesus saw this he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me. Do not hinder them. For to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God.” And then in verse 16 we read: And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands upon them and blessed them. Not only does Jesus show himself to have a loving affinity for children, but the story shows how Jesus knows how to speak this primal language of love, of physical touch. It is almost as though the writer wishes us to take note of this fact because it almost gets a double emphasis. Not only does Jesus place his hands upon them, but the
passage says he took them in his arms, and placed his hands upon them: a double dose of physical touch and affection shown to these children.
It is one of the remarkable things about Jesus is that he comes across as being completely comfortable in his own skin, completely comfortable with his physical body and the physical bodies of other people. Physical displays of affection did not make him recoil with discomfort or disgust, for example, the story of the woman who finds him at a dinner party at a Pharisees house, and comes in uninvited and weeps over his feet, tears of love and gratitude and then wipes his feet with her hair. He seems completely un-phased by this very intimate and indeed public display of physical love and affection, no sense of discomfort, unlike Simon the Pharisee who seems to be squirming in the story. We see a similar thing when Jesus washes his disciples feet. Jesus is again completely comfortable touching the feet of others. My experience of holding foot-washing services in other churches I have ministered in is that touching someone else’s feet and having one’s own feet touched and washed by someone else is an uncomfortably intimate experience for many people. For some people, it is so uncomfortable that they would not participate. And one needs to honour and respect that.
It is perhaps important to say that physical touch is not the primary love language of all people. For some people, physical touch may in fact make them feel like their boundaries have been crossed, especially in cases where there may have been abuse of one kind or another. For those whose primary love language is physical touch it may well be that refraining from touch may in fact be a more loving thing to do in such instances. As much as physical touch for some people might be the very thing they need, for other people physical touch might not be what someone else needs or wants. It takes great maturity and wisdom to be able to recognise this and also a great sign of respect to restrain oneself in order to respect the boundaries of another.
Who are those in your life whose physical touch has been a healing and comforting thing to you? I remember at one of the churches I was at, when I stood at the door to greet people as they left the church, there was one older women who would give me such big and warm hugs that lasted just a little longer than a normal hug would last. I suspect that for her, physical touch was a primary language of love. It was at a time when I was going through a particularly difficult period in my life. It was the most wonderful and healing thing to be hugged at the time. Who are those in your life whose physical touch has been a healing and comforting thing to you?
What is your own relationship with physical touch? Is it a language of love that speaks to you? Of is it a language of love that possibly makes you feel uncomfortable? Who are those in your life for whom physical touch might be a primary language of love? In What way might you be able to speak to them in that language of love in a way that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable?
Lastly, the pandemic has been particularly hard for those whose primary language of love is physical touch. How has this last 2 years affected you in not being able to hug or touch other people? For some may this has been a welcome relief? For others, it may have been a very trying time?
SERMON - Words of Affirmation -
As children, I imagine we probably all used the phrase: Sticks and stones make break my bones, but words will never harm me. It is one of those interesting questions that struck me this week: I wonder who the first person was who ever used that phrase? It is certainly a pretty universal saying, that although we have all used it, we all know that it just isn’t true.
We all know from our own experience that some of the most painful and long lasting pain that many of us have experienced have in fact words that have been spoken to us or about us, either intentionally or unintentionally.
In around 2006, I remember sitting at my office desk reading church related emails. I had just received an email from a Church member who was very unhappy about something. It was quite painful to receive it and read it. I noted how quickly my sense of life and spirit took such a sudden dive and a sense of dread hit me. I also realised in that moment how often the negative feed-back so often out-weighed many of the positive messages I had received at other times.
It amazed me at the time that I could receive 10 or 20 affirming, positive and grateful emails from other congregation members, but it took only 1 critical or unhappy email to almost completely obliterate the other 10 or 20. I began to wonder, Why do our brains focus so heavily on the negative feedback so that it completely eclipses the many positive messages one may have had?
I resolved on that day to keep a folder of positive feedback in my computers emails so that when I was feeling flattened or down because of a persons criticism (which would inevitably come again), I would be able to go back to that folder and remind myself of some of the positive feedback I had received.
It was only a few years later that I came across a book that explained that our brains are designed to focus on the negative rather than the positive as a survival strategy. The reason we focus on the negative is because our brains are hard-wired to help us identify danger in order to protect us from that danger. The same is not true of positive messages. Your brain does not need to focus on them to protect you or for survival purposes because that is not where the danger lies.
And so it is that negative voices and negative comments can sometimes loom large in our minds and often live on within us for years and years.
Like those positive emails that I began to store up in a folder in my emails we all need to hear positive messages to affirm us and to help us know that we are on the right track.
Words of affirmation are vital in the life of a child to help them grow and blossom, but if truth be told, we all need words of affirmation.
In fact, as we touched on in last weeks introductory sermon, Gary Chapman regards Words of Affirmation as one of the 5 main languages of love, one of the 5 key ways in which we can show love to other people, and in which we can also receive love from other people.
While all of us need to hear positive affirming words, for some people, affirming words constitute their primary way of giving and receiving love. You may give such a person gifts, you may spend quality time with them, you may show them physical affection, or do loving acts of kindness toward them, but for some people, these are all secondary love languages. Some of these things they may indeed interpret positively. Others of these things may actually make them withdraw and make them feel uncomfortable. For such people, if you really wish to speak to their heart, it will need to be through words of kindness, encouragement and affirmation. For some people, until you have spoken with words of kindness and affirmation, they may not full interpret your actions as Love in the same way that you may intend them as love.
Gary Chapman tells the story of a teenager that he was seeing for counselling. His parents were very concerned about him. He had become a problem child for them. He had even threatened to run away from home. Interactions between the teenager and his parents had become constantly negative and acrimonious.
In listening to the story of this teenager Gary Chapman asked him what life at home had been like when he was younger. The teenager shared that previously things had been good between him and his parents. He shared that they had been kind and supportive of him, constantly encouraging him and saying nice things to him, but in more recent times, he felt that his parents had become constantly critical of him and it felt like they never had anything good to say to him any-more.
The way the teenager spoke particularly about the way his parents had spoken to him as a child and now how they would speak to him as a teenager made Gary Chapman alert and aware to the fact that it was likely that for this young person, affirming words could be his primary language of love, the primary way in which he not only gave love, but also received it. As things began to deteriorate at home, his parents had begun to speak less and less in his primary language of love leaving him feeling empty and devoid of love at home and thus unable to respond in love back to his parents.
In the Gospel stories, we see on many occasions how Jesus knew how to use affirming words to other people as an important language of love.
I think of the story of Simon, who Jesus gives the nickname ‘Peter’ which means ‘The Rock’. Jesus sees not just the surface of Simon’s life. He sees not just the impetuous, head-strong and impulsive person that he seems to be, but Jesus also sees all that Simon can become, the hidden potential that lies within him, and that, one day, he would become a strong foundational leader in community of Jesus. And so as a way of affirming Simon, and this potential which Jesus sees lies within him, and as a way of drawing out Simon’s deeper potential for stability and strength, Jesus gives him the nick-name Peter. Jesus speaks to Simon, the language of affirming words to help him grow into his true potential as Peter, the Rock on which the Church would be built. Every time Jesus, and others would call him by this nickname, Peter, the Rock, it became a word of affirmation, affirming all that Simon could become.
But there are many other stories of Jesus speaking the love language of affirming words.
At the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus finds Philip and says to him “Follow me”. Philip then found Nathaniel and brings him to Jesus. We read that when Jesus sees Nathaniel approaching, he says to him: “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Jesus in seeing Nathaniel perceives something of the essence of his character just by looking at him, perhaps seeing the expression on his face, perhaps it was something in the way in which Nathaniel walked and held himself. But as Jesus perceives this quality in Nathaniel, he doesn’t just keep it to himself, he speaks it out loud as a word of affirmation for who Nathaniel is. This is not Jesus trying to curry favour with Nathaniel, using words to manipulate Nathaniel and try and bring Nathaniel under his power. It is a statement free of any hidden agenda, simply an affirmation of the goodness that Jesus perceives within Nathaniel. The name Nathaniel means ‘The Gift of God’. Jesus sees into Nathaniel’s heart, looks for the gift that God has placed within him, and then affirms to him what he has seen, “Here truly is an Israelite in which there is no deceit.”
I think also of that passage where Jesus is nearing his death. The story appears in Matthew, Mark and John’s Gospels, with a similar, parallel story in Luke 7. The details in John’s version are slightly different from Matthew and Mark. Whereas Matthew and Mark leave her unnamed and simply refer to her as ‘a woman’. In John she is referred to as Mary, the sister of Lazarus. In Mark and Matthew the story takes place in Bethany, the house of of Simon the Leper, whereas in John’s version the impression is given that the event takes place in Lazarus’s home. In Matthew and Mark the incident takes place on a Wednesday, two days prior to the Passover. In John’s version it takes place six days before the Passover. But in both accounts she is criticised for her extravagant act of love towards Jesus of pouring expensive perfume upon him. In Matthew, it is the disciples who are critical. Marks version simply says ‘some’ were critical, and in John’s Gospel it is Judas who is named as the one who speaks critically of her. But in all three versions, Jesus speaks affirming words towards her to deflect the criticism. In John’s Gospel “Leave her alone, it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” The words in Matthew and Mark’s version are even more affirming, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me.” And Jesus goes on to say “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Beautiful words of love and affirmation spoken in her defence in the face of criticism.
Lastly, and very briefly, I think also of Barnabas in the book of Acts. The name Barnabas appears to be a nickname, and means the Son of Encouragement. His Hebrew name according to a number of sources appears to have been Joseph. The fact that he was known by the name Barnabas rather than the name of his birth suggests that Barnabas was one of those people who always had something positive to say to other people, always ready to offer words of affirmation and words of encouragement. It would seem likely, that Joseph received the nickname Barnabas because his primary love language was almost certainly the language of speaking loving and affirming and encouraging words to other people.
In closing today, who are the people in your life who have spoken words of affirmation and words of encouragement to you? How have you been touched by other people speaking affirming words as a language of love to you? Who are those in your life, whose love language may be the language of speaking kind, loving and affirming words? In what way may you become an instrument of God’s love as you speak that language of love, words of kindness, love and affirmation towards them. Amen. And lastly, may each of us also hear in our hearts today, those same words of love and affirmation that God spoke over Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved” Amen.
SERMON - The 5 Languages of Love - Introduction
A few months ago I found a book in our local charity shop called “Why Love Matters”. It is subtitled “How affection shapes a baby’s brain”. It is a book that explains why love is essential to the development of a baby’s brain in the earliest years of life, and how early interactions between babies and adults have lasting consequences both for good and for ill.
It is not only a babies brain that is shaped by their relationships with adults and their primary caregivers, but also the baby’s entire nervous system. Those babies that receive an abundance of love, affection, care and nurture in these earliest years of their development are able to develop neural pathways in their brain that help them to blossom and grow in ways of greater wholeness and stability of character, whereas those babies that do not receive consistent love and affection are more likely to struggle later on in life in dealing with stress and are more susceptible later in life to struggle with things like anorexia, addiction and anti-social behaviour.
What interests me about the book, written by Sue Gerhardt, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in the UK, is that in a very real sense it provides, secular and scientific backing for the central most important value in Christianity: Namely Love. Christianity can’t be all that wrong.
When asked about the most important commandment, Jesus in effect emphasizes the word love three times, the third time implicit within the statement “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In Luke’s version, the word love is only explicitly used once, but it is clearly emphasized in three directions Love God, and your neighbour as yourself.
John’s Gospel 13:34 is the only Gospel not to include the greatest commandment, but in it’s place John has the new commandment, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” In this commandment, the word love is explicitly repeated three times.
And In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul, who had once been a religious extremist before his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, comes to the conclusion that there is in fact nothing greater than love. Faith Hope and Love remain he ends his beautiful hymn to love, but the greatest of these is love.
Roughly two thousand years later, Sue Gerhardt provides psychological and scientific backing to the claim that love is of utmost importance in the healthy development of a child’s brain and nervous system and by implication their development as fully rounded and balanced human beings.
Indeed, the root cause of many of our struggles is that in fact many of us do not know ourselves to be deeply valuable or valued. Over the weekend Wendy and I watched the 2019 hit film Rocketman, which is a portrayal of the early life of Elton John up to the point where he went into therapy for his addictions to alcohol and drugs. His was a story of a home life with very little real love, affection and affirmation, apart from the love shown him by his grandmother who paid for his lessons on the piano. He longed to be hugged by his dad who was cold and aloof and who ended up abandoning Elton John as a child getting married to someone else and having other children that he loved more.
But his mother was not much better. As she is portrayed in the film, she was preoccupied with her self and so had very little warmth, love and encouragement to give to the little Elton.
Elton John’s descent into drugs and alcohol and a wild life was clearly an attempt to fill the enormous hole that should have been filled with the love, kindness, affection and affirmation of his parents in his earliest years as a child.
It is interesting, that the key moment of transformation and spiritual awakening in Jesus’ life, and which propelled him into ministry was at his baptism. What we have in the gospels is clearly a symbolic representation of an experience that was clearly difficult to put into human words, but the culmination of that story reveals that in that experience, was the profound and life-changing affirmation that he was God’s beloved. You are my Son whom I love are the words in Mark’s Gospel. This experience of being bathed in Divine love in the Jordan River propelled Jesus life in a whole new direction with his primary purpose in life now proclaiming in word and deed, the Good News of God’s Divine Love that is available here and now to everyone, even the worst of sinners.
Over the next 5-6 weeks I would like to explore the centrality and importance of love in what Gary Chapman calls the 5 languages of love.
He writes that each of us through our conditioning and our particular personality types give and receive love in at least 5 different ways. He calls these ‘Love Languages’.
Very briefly, these love languages include the following:
1. Words of Affirmation
2. Physical Touch
3. Quality Time
4. Acts of Service
5. The Giving and Receiving of gifts.
Gary Chapman suggests that for each of us, one of these love languages will be the primary way in which we give and receive love although all of us will have at least one other secondary love language.
Our primary love language is our natural way of receiving and showing love. We usually learn this language in our families growing up. Secondary love language is generally a learned pattern of expressing love that is not as natural. Or it may be that 2 of these languages of love come naturally to us, but the other languages of love need to be learned.
Gary Chapman theory of the 5 love languages means that other people may not share our primary love language which means that sometimes love can be lost in translation.
One of the difficulties of speaking different languages is that people don’t always understand one-another. And so it is with the 5 Languages of love. If one person’s primary language of love is expressed through physical touch and another person’s primary love language is giving gifts, they may end up talking past each other. The person who receives the gift may not fully recognise the gift as the profound act of love that it is, because what they really want and possibly need is a hug. But for another person, a hug might be interpreted as a bit of an invasion of their personal space and therefore may not realise that for someone else it is a primary expression of their love.
One of the ways that we can grow, is firstly to recognise what our own language of love is. And secondly for us to recognise that not all people have the same primary language of love as us. This growing awareness of ourselves and others can help to facilitate greater understanding and in the process help us to grow in our love for others.
Learning another persons language is a great act of love. English speakers around the world have unfortunately not been very good at learning the languages of other people. In South Africa, generally English speakers are the least able to speak other people’s languages. Most English speakers would expect other people to speak English rather than the other way around. When I ministered in African Townships for 5 years of my early ministry I made a point of doing my best to learn at least a little of an African language. I wasn’t as successful as I had hoped but I could see that these fumbling attempts to speak their language were received as acts of love.
And so it is, that if we wish to nurture loving relationships with others, we all need in some way to recognize firstly that other people’s primary language of love may not be the same as my own, and as an act of love towards others it will mean being willing to acknowledge and learn someone elses’s language of love.
If I want to show love to someone whose primary love language is Words of Affirmation, if I am to love them for who they are, then I will need to learn to use Words of Affirmation in my dealings with them. And if someone elses’s primary love language is quality time, then if I am to truly love them as they are then I will need to learn in some way to speak that language of love, remembering how important quality time is to them.
May God bless us over the next few weeks as we explore these 5 languages of love, learning perhaps a little more about ourselves, and a little more about others, and in the process hopefully learning a little more of God’s love for each of us and God’s Way of Love expressed in the life of Jesus, who in many ways was multilingual speaking fluently in all five languages of love.
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