A time to refrain

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. … A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 5b).

When my wife and I read Ecclesiastes in our daily devotional recently I paused at the end of 3:5 to ask facetiously, “Is this a prophecy of the Covid Pandemic?” For more than a year people have come together less frequently and in smaller groups and have practiced social distancing without handshakes, hugs or other familiar expressions of affection. Those of us who are addicted to hugging have missed that practice greatly. We understood then (and still do) the necessity of keeping safe distances, but we knew that our attempts to preserve our health came at a high price.

When our congregation resumed Sunday assemblies without restrictions there was much embracing. It was obvious that almost everyone had missed the physical closeness that we had previously taken much for granted. A day or so later social media was filled with pictures taken with mobile phones of all the enthusiastic fellowship which took place after the worship was completed. To our spiritual family it was definitely “a time for embracing.” We can tell people in words how important they are to us, but a good hug communicates on an even deeper level.

Jesus taught that the second most important command of the law was “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). But love must be expressed (1 John 3:18). We show our love by sacrificial giving (1 John 3:17), by expressions of affection (Romans 16:16), and by seeking the well-being of others (Philippians 2:1-4). In this process the value of a hug or “holy kiss” must not be neglected.

Reaching out to others in some physical manifestation of affection reveals many things to them and others. First it is a sign of value, that we “count others more significant than [our]selves” (Philippians 2:3b). It simply says, “you matter to me. Your life is important.”

Secondly, in this time of pandemic a touch of some kind (handshake, hug, etc.) says that we are willing to “take a chance” with our relationship. I considered this point carefully as I wrote these words. I do not endorse excessive risk-taking, nor do I encourage us to abandon all precautions as if Covid is completely conquered. I do not offer physical contact to everyone, everywhere. But in contexts where I have confidence that others are vaccinated, cautious, and virus-free, I am ready to hug, shake hands and otherwise express the love I have. I need your affection and trust that you will value mine.

Finally, when we hug each other, we are saying that we have faith in God. If we are doing what he desires for us to do there must be some expectation that we are under his protection.

As an example, in all my travels to undeveloped regions of the world I have taken precautions against contaminated foods and water. I only drink water that I know to be sterilized or filtered. An exception to this rule is in taking the Lord’s Supper each week. In many places the only available “fruit of the vine” is made by soaking raisins in water, then “juicing” them. I am sure that not all of the water used for this purpose is sterile or filtered. Yet in over 30 years I have never become sick from partaking of the Lord’s Supper. You may call it faith, or simply a calculated risk; to this point it has worked in my favor.

Again, this is not to justify reckless exposure. But there comes a time when we have done all we can do ourselves to be safe or to accomplish our goal. Then we must “let go and let God.”

For more than a year it was a time to refrain from embracing. Perhaps now, at last, in some circumstances at least, that time may be past.

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