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Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, Jasper, Georgia
The Rev. Mary P. Johnson, Rector
Once I sat with a person who had come to me for spiritual direction. Spiritual direction differs from counseling in that the director’s job is not so much to advise as to pray and listen to the directee, and make an opening in our lives at that time for God’s will to be revealed and God’s Spirit to be invoked for the courage and creativity to do God’s will. Nearly always we need to sit silently for some time at the beginning of the session to let our hearts shed the shells they often protect themselves with in the outside world. This directee sat on the little loveseat in my office in Ohio and her hands were squeezed into fists so tight that her knuckles were white. After a few minutes I asked her to look at her hands. Of course, she had to open her fists to do so, and there were imprints of her fingernails on her palms. “How, “ I asked, “can you receive what God wants to give you if your hands are in fists?” She smiled and sighed, and we quieted down for a few more minutes. This time her hands were relaxed, palms up, on her lap.
We use our hands as a metaphor for what’s going on in our souls.
It occurred to me recently that, as people have asked me about how I’m doing; and how my children who have been ill are doing; and how Wayne, who is commuting more than 500 miles each way every week is doing; and how my father, who is overwhelmed with cancer, is doing, I’ve answered, more than once: “I’m hanging on by my fingernails.” “How,” I recently began to ask myself, “can I take hold of God’s gracious hand stretched out to me, if I’m hanging by my fingernails onto something else?”
Hands in fists are clinging to something they don’t want to let go. Sometimes it’s fear. Often it’s anger. (And often anger is a safer emotion than grief and deep hurt that lie further inside us.) Hands in fists are not open to receive God’s love. Hands that are clinging to the edge of the metaphorical abyss by their fingernails don’t want to let go either. When hanging by our fingernails, maybe it’s time to let go, to fall back, to trust.
But there is a moment when the fisted hand opens and lets go. What if nothing is there to replace what was let go of? There is a moment when the one hanging by fingernails lets go. What if there is a long fall to the bottom of a rocky abyss? The moment of letting go that is essential for God to rescue us, to save us, to bless us, is frightening.
Henri Nouwen once said that there’s an intimate connection between letting go and loving:
Perhaps our need to hold life loosely is no more evident than in our daily relationships. Loving someone means allowing the other person to respond in ways you have no control over. …The more people you love, the more pain you may experience. For the great mystery of love is that while it can be received, it can also be rejected. Every time you love you enter into the risk of love. [Nouwen continues:] Look at the story of Jesus in the last chapters of his life. Time and again in the New Testament we read the phrase “handed over” to refer to Jesus and his followers. God handed his Son over for our sins. Jesus no longer was the One who preached, spoke, healed, took the initiative. What was done, was done to him. He was spit on, led to the cross, flagellated, crucified. The Word, the One through whom all is created, now becomes a victim of his creation. That is what his death meant—being out of control, for our sakes, from great love.
Our pain and the suffering of the Lord are intimately connected. When we mourn, we die to something that gives us a sense of who we are. In this sense suffering always has much to do with the spiritual life. We surrender our striving denial of our limitations. We release our hold on a piece of our identity as a spouse, a parent, as a member of a church, as a resident of a community or nation. …And so we admit, not without many tears, that we sometimes must let go of what we hold very dear.
Today is Good Friday, and we see the hands of Jesus, bleeding, nailed to the cross, his arms stretched out on the hard wooden cross beams, holding the weight of his body. Christians reflecting on the meaning of this terrible scene have said that Jesus on the cross was holding something else infinitely heavier than the weight of his broken body: he was carrying the weight of all of our human race’s sin and brokenness and estrangement from God and from each other.
These hands, the hands of the Son of God, the Lord of the Universe, are powerless, nailed to the cross. Yet the Hebrew scriptures speak often of the hand of the Almighty, stretched out in power to hold back the forces of wickedness and injustice. They speak of God’s hand as giving good things and as meting out justice.
Our collect today speaks of Christ being “willing to be betrayed and given into the hands of sinners.” One of the most paradoxical truths about the suffering and death of Christ is that God’s way of bringing about reconciliation, of calling the human race back to himself, was not to smite them with his fist. It was, instead, a way of powerlessness, a way of loss of control, a way of pain, a way of death. This is the supreme example of what Nouwen was talking about when he said that “loving someone means allowing the other person to respond in ways you have no control over.” Jesus gave up all control, all power, for the sake of love.
On Good Friday in churches with the tradition of meditating on the Seven Last Words of Christ hear the words of Jesus from the cross in the Gospel of Luke: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In this moment, so near his death, he is quoting Psalm 31: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit; for you have redeemed me, O LORD, O God of truth.”
So, my friends, when we follow in the way of Christ, we put ourselves into God’s hands. And we receive from God’s hand. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German pastor who was imprisoned in Germany and ultimately killed because of his opposition of the warped power of Hitler, wrote words that inspired the English poet Pratt Green, to compose the following prayer:
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning,
And never fails to greet us each new day.
Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
And evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation,
For which, O Lord, you taught us to prepare.
And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.”
If you pray Morning Prayer according to our Book of Common Prayer, you know the beautiful prayer for mission that says:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
We put ourselves into God’s hand. We receive from God’s hand. We reach out for God’s hand. And, having been embraced by those nail-pierced hands, we reach forth our hands in love to others. We do so, knowing that love is risky, knowing that love opens us up to the possibility of pain. But we also know that God’s love is all that really matters.
 Henri Nouwen. Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001, p. 28-29.