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Skin In The Game (Andy’s Blog)

‘What is the largest organ in the human body?’ A favourite pub quiz question, to which the answer is, of course, skin, or technically, its three layers of the epidermis, dermis and subcutis.   The skin is a complex organ and plays many roles for us.  It helps us regulate body temperature, through the mechanism of sweating. Through the sense of touch, heat and cold it enables us to sense our environment.  It is a store for water, vitamin D and for some of us, far too much fat!  Arguably its primary purpose is to hold all of our vital bits inside us, but also to protect them and us from the world around us, the dirt, germs, pollution and radiation from the sun.    There were many lessons from COVID, which was for many of us a crash cause in disease transmission, but drummed into us fifty times a day, was the idea of washing our hands and cleansing surfaces that we encounter.  Alcohol gel and household disinfectants were among the first aisles in the supermarket to be depleted.  Not satisfied with fortifying our external skin barrier, most of us also abided by the further advice to create a 2m space to surround us, to maintain a safe distance from the contamination that was other human beings.  Handshaking ceased (unless you were called Boris, but even he learned pretty swiftly from that mistake).  Passing the peace, and a common cup for communion were banned.  Many of us, became acutely aware of the value of human touch.

We are happily in a very different place, but vestiges of this nervousness perhaps remain for some of us.  Having hosted the first few Kairos Wednesdays, I realised that I’d rarely hosted people beyond our immediate family for quite some time and I enjoyed the reclaiming of that opportunity.  It’s good to meet people in the flesh.

There is nothing new in the notion of maintaining personal hygiene.  The ‘Stand Up To Cancer’ evening on TV a little while ago reminded me that surgeons washing their hands was an innovation at one time.  Our fears, in this respect, have been played upon by detergent manufacturers for decades.  Kills 99.99% of bacteria – great – or is it? 

More recent studies have suggested that those undergoing a caesarean, therefore, are not exposed to our mother’s natural bacterial biome during a natural birth, resulting in a loss of natural immunity.  Likewise, for those who are not breastfed.  More surprisingly, perhaps has come an encouragement, to play in the soil and the dirt of our gardens, to embrace nature.  Those who do are more resilient to pathogens and asthma.  The retailers have not missed this opportunity, and so the cold section now includes numerous options for products harbouring ‘good bacteria’ and Michael Moseley more recently advocating fermented foods – all about creating a more diverse bacterial diversity in our gut biome.   The yuck factor is high on this one. Still, lots of people with seemingly incurable digestive illnesses have been ‘cured’ by a faecal transplant (I’m not sure I want to know how they do it -but yes it means using a healthy person’s poo to increase your bacterial diversity).

It all sounds pretty disgusting and perhaps makes you want a thoroughly hot shower,  but in fact, there are 10 times as many bacterial cells in the average normal human being than there are human cells.  Fortunately, they weigh less, so they only make up about 2% of our body weight.  These bacteria aren’t just stowaways, but an important part of good health. 

Even viruses, which appear to be nothing but malevolent, have played their part in human evolution, shaping us – and some of their modifications of our DNA over the millennia have strengthened us and made us who we are as human beings.

All of that for me, causes me to pause and ask the question…can sometimes our skin be too effective, and more metaphorically can our barriers be too high, to what surrounds us?

I have a love-hate relationship with St Paul’s description of those who follow Jesus, as the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12).  I love it, because it’s such a powerful and helpful image, and I hate it because it’s so often referenced by preachers (the irony of that last statement is not lost on me here).   The fact is it speaks truth to most of us. We recognise we are part of an organism, that Spirit filled and properly diverse and incarnates something of the wonder of Jesus in our world.   So, reticence aside, I’d like us to wrestle with it afresh, considering what I have shared above, and offer a few questions to prompt our reflections and conversations.  Rev Andy

  • How important is human contact in your life?
  • What is your response to the image of being ‘The Body of Christ’?
  • If we are, such a body, then do we have a skin? And what roles does it play?
  • Have we as ‘Christ’s Body’ or even as individuals avoided the contamination of the world around us?
  • What would be the spiritual equivalent of playing in the dirt?
  • What examples do you have, of growing resilience, or being positively shaped by letting your barriers down?

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