10/19/2010 08:05 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Holy Kiss: A Lost Spiritual Practice?

"Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss." (1 Thessalonians 5:26 NRSV)

Frankly, that New Testament verse attributed to St. Paul always made me a little uncomfortable.

Some Bible translations try to avoid our awkwardness with the original Greek and make the verse better fit contemporary social norms. They encourage "a warm greeting" (Contemporary English Version) or a greeting "with Christian love" (New Living Version), which is about as wishy washy as you can get. The Message replaces "holy kiss" with "holy embrace." But even the idea of hugging those we may not know all that well can make many of us squirm.

To be sure, our culture is quite different from the Thessalonians'. They probably didn't give a second thought to this imperative that Paul shared as he was concluding his letter to them. It was, after all, their custom to kiss one another in greeting.

Still today, many Latin, European and Middle Eastern cultures tend to be much more physically affectionate with each other, even with strangers. But American culture has taught us the "value" of personal space and social propriety. As well as the fear of spreading germs.

But maybe we're missing out on something precious. Maybe we should try to recapture that lost spiritual practice of expressing affection for one another, especially in our communities of faith.

This thought occurred to me some time ago when I read an article about well-known counselor and author Larry Crabb. His spiritual advisor, the author Brennan Manning, spoke to the reporter about a ritual he and Crabb follow whenever they see each other:

"As soon as we spot one another," says Manning, "we both jump up and down, run to one another, and kiss one another on the lips."

"Why do you do that?" I ask Manning.

"It's the sheer delight in seeing one another," he says. "When you see two men in public doing that, there's often only one conclusion. But he's so secure in his identity that we can throw caution to the wind. If anybody's got a problem with that, then it's their problem."

What has happened to our culture that has made outward signs of affection unacceptable and problematic? Yes, there is the risk of going too far, of acting in ways that aren't appropriate or invited. But maybe we've lost far more than we've gained.

I invite you to live in the tension of this sacred invitation to reach out to others with meaningful affection.

When we meet our brothers and sisters in our congregations, how might we express delight, affection, camaraderie, and mutual love in ways that are acceptable and safe and yet still passionate and free?