The atmosphere crackled girlie in the vehicle filled with chattering women. It crescendoed further when the driver pulled out what she declared to be every woman’s heart-salve. Brandishing a large bag of dark-chocolate, Hershey kisses, she declared that year’s women’s retreat party officially started! The purple bag was eagerly passed around the vehicle with laughter as everyone plunged in… except yours truly; I was pregnant, and food sensitivities were beginning to assert themselves, thus chocolate and coffee and I parted ways. But that did not stop me from experiencing sweet sisterly fellowship on that ride, for each time the vehicle hit a bumpy road patch or went over railroad tracks on the way to the retreat center, every lady winced and checked to see how I was doing, as the driver apologized profusely. That level of friendship has its place for sure and I certainly enjoyed it. Yet, people move and seasons change…I cannot remember the name of even one of those dear ladies, nor have we remained connected over the years… except for a couple.
‘To kiss or not to kiss’
It’s never comfortable to find oneself an observer of the abuse and misuse of sacred and intimate activity which was designed for the loving safety and privacy of the marriage chamber. Thirty years of happy marriage have not rendered me immune to the embarrassment that comes from watching people engage excessively in what millennials have economically dubbed PDAs (public displays of affection), especially prolonged kissing.
“And what is this unhealthy mouthing that you do?” I was in college and the line was from a West African work of literature. The speaker was questioning the passionate kissing so often casually displayed in western media. The title of the work of literature from which the line came has long escaped my memory, yet it has stuck. At that age all I associated with kissing was romance and the promise of a long and lasting love. Having lived a few more decades I better understand the concern of the questioner, as the book was written in the modern era and set in a culture traditionally given to polygamy. There is a context for such intimacy; at the lowest level of pragmatism the questioner’s perspective was right, as any honest health professional will agree.
Ancient wisdom long affirmed that to engage in such acts outside of the sacred boundaries of a faithful, monogamous marriage is to play a dangerous game of roulette with one’s health beyond even just the physical; and has ramifications that ultimately affect all of society. In a sense our current social bankruptcy on multiple levels tells of choices made, ‘to kiss or not to kiss’.
‘A kiss of much love’
The ‘entrepreneurial’ and mysterious Roma people of Europe got me started on this exploration of kissing. I felt prompted to look beyond just the romantic ideas of stolen smooches at parties, beneath dangled bundles of the mistletoe, when I learned that the Romas (Gypsies) traditionally plucked and peddled these during the holy season of Advent. This timing inspired me to search for a sanctified connection between this clandestine invitation to kiss and the Incarnation of the Lord of love Himself.
Advent calls the faithful to prepare to worship or ‘approach to kiss’, as one definition of worship is stated. So, at Christmas the Psalmist’s invitation to “Kiss the Son” does not seem strange; after all, who does not delight to kiss the feet of a newborn baby. A different shade is put on it however in the New Testament’s telling of a woman who wept on, kissed, perfumed, and, with her hair, wiped the travel-soiled feet of the full-grown Saviour. It disgusted and embarrassed the room full of proud and self-righteous men. But Jesus made clear— “She loved much in acknowledgment of the fact that she had been forgiven much.”
This woman, named only by the adjective ‘sinful’, recognized the host’s affront to Jesus, when he denied the Saviour the traditional acts of honor and welcome to a guest, including the double-cheek kiss which we associate with middle eastern greeting. As one used to the denigrating and dismissive glances of the socially acceptable and self-righteous, she recognized this slight to the One she now knew was supremely worthy of not just mere welcome and honor, but of worship.
Jesus’ own testimony of her subsequent action on that occasion, recorded in Luke 7:36-50, was that it comprised saving faith: Her tears showed open agreement with the verdict of her own unworthiness; wiping away dust and tears with her hair were her hospitable welcome to Jesus into her heart and life; and anointing and kissing them, her unashamed love and worship.
‘Can a kiss be just a kiss?’
Today’s PDAs differ dramatically from the public double-cheek kiss of the middle eastern greeting. That act of public trust and goodwill, still much alive today, was such a ‘given’, even in Jesus’ day, that Judas was able to presumptuously seize on it as his sign of betrayal of the Saviour. His abuse of the kiss in the Gospel story did not destroy its meaning in that culture, and so the apostle Paul was able to write often in his epistles to the members of the early church encouraging them to greet one another with a holy kiss.
Western contexts of Christian fellowship today are hard-pressed to engage this practice. Call it cynicism or skepticism, the delivery of a kiss called ‘holy’ is now culturally incredulous, dubious or inconceivable to most. Our hyper-sexualized society, or even more so now, our world of super-viruses and pandemics, render virtually any kiss hygienically unwise, just as the West African had worried. Either way, a kiss is never ‘just a kiss’ as one of Hollywood’s silver-screen stars had crooned back in the day. Be it a father’s peck on a daughter’s forehead as she steps out on her first date; her own heady, heel-popping experience when the beau plants an untimely one on her; or the kiss of a religious devotee on the ring of a pontiff— each has deep meaning and consequence inherent.
‘Pardon my log’
A conversation with a church leader’s wife drew me to consider kisses again, as January ended. The previous Sunday as we chatted, I had slipped into teacher mode and corrected her when she misspoke and referred to Africa as a country. Having pledged at the top of the year to be less of a know-it-all, I later reached out to apologize. She immediately accepted my apology as requested but persisted to revisit and to consider the occasion. She laughed, reflecting humbly that her family had been blessed to travel to a couple of African nations and that she should have known better. However, her recollection of our exchange was not one that had incurred embarrassment in any form. In fact, she said, she was glad that I was unwilling to let her run around making such an error. She thought it a kind act, that of a true friend and sister in Christ. I rejoiced internally, for that was truly my motivation.
Our conversation turned to Scripture, in particular reference to that in the book of Proverbs which declares “Better is open rebuke than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy”— 27:5-6. The geographical correction hardly qualified as a rebuke yet the exchange led us to both acknowledge a desire for more of that level of loving honesty in all our sisterly Christian relationships. This requires being willing to both give and receive honest input instead of what Scripture calls ‘profuse kisses’ of an enemy.
We rejoiced in that moment of our shared experience of faithful friendship, agreeing that sisters don’t let sisters run around with spinach in their grin, toilet paper on their shoe heel nor… calling continents countries! How much less should we allow obvious bad character or sinful practices in our fellow believers to go unmentioned.
‘Quakers, slavery, and love…old-school style’
Of course, there is danger inherent, as Scriptures warns, we ‘see darkly’ and even what we know truly is still only ‘in part’. No wonder Jesus told us to be careful in our readiness to point out the flaws of others: ‘Be mindful of the log in your own eye as you propose to deal with the splinter in your friend’s” (paraphrase Matt.7:4). This requires us also to take to heart the caution given by Paul in his letter to the Galatian church, “If a brother or sister be overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness; considering yourself, lest you also be tempted.”(6:1) In my own experience, I have noticed that the failing I tend to notice most in others is often one to which I can be vulnerable myself. “Overtaken” suggests that a pattern has set in, and the ‘spirit of meekness’ suggests asking questions, not presuming that we see and know it all. As one denomination we attended put it, ‘Go in a spirit of inquiry’.
I noted a striking example of this as I read in John Woolman’s Journal recently. Woolman, an eighteenth-century Quaker, is honoured as one whose submission to the effect of God’s word on his conscience concerning the enslavement of people’s of African descent in the colonies, significantly contributed to that group becoming a major force in the anti-slavery movement.
One farmer, seeking Woolman’s encouragement in that regard, told him of a Mennonite traveler who had anticipated receiving hospitality at a fellow member’s homestead, as was their custom among each other. However, upon approaching the property he noticed the man’s slaves, their miserable emaciated state, and bad labour conditions, especially their insufficient clothing. He, therefore, turned aside and camped out in the woods instead, and went on his way in the morning.
Later, when opportunity threw them together, the homesteader approached the traveler, expressing that he had been apprised of his stopover near to his place on that occasion in the nearby woods; and he wondered why he had not come to receive the hospitality he would have been more than ready to give. The quality of honest love which marked those serious followers of Christ, shone forth as the traveler boldly explained that he was glad for this occasion to explain. Unflinching, he stated that his action was due to what he had observed of his fellow’s treatment of his workers, the enslaved people in his fields, who though not of the same circumstance as he, deserved to be treated with better honour as ones also made in the image of God. “Yes,” he expressed. “I knew you would receive me, but of such partial love and false righteousness, I wished no part; lest I confirm thee in thy sin” (Paraphrase). A wound delivered in faithfulness for sure, the kind which ultimately led to that group helping save thousands out of the harsh slavery of those times.
‘Craving more than chocolate’
This is the excellent spirit of loving, Christian friendship. One’s willing to question an aspect of my walk, and ones who welcome it, with a readiness to learn through Christ’s Spirit in each other. I can’t recall many times of ‘girlie’ interaction with them with true sisters of the faith, whether of the Hershey chocolate variety or otherwise, though I am sure there have been such, alongside times of laughter and tears. Forgetfulness of birthdays and such are not considered a moral failing, yet when remembered are deeply appreciated and humbly received.
Communication across the miles and the years between such friends have been promptings and testimonies about the goodness of God, and confirmations of His loving faithfulness. Their letters are profuse kisses, but not ones cast to each other per se. Rather, they are cast above to the One who gives the best example of loving friendship.
Such relationships leave us thirsty to live a life openly devoted to, and lavishly poured out, at the feet of Jesus. I’ll take this over secret admiration… and chocolate any day of the year.