In the name of God who creates, redeems and sustains us +
The young man turns out to be a professional violinist – he’s unusual in the stroke ward; angry and sorry for himself, with good reason.
Until we have a stroke or shut our finger in the car door or sprain our wrist, much of what we do with our hands is automatic. But if you make your living by playing the violin or read Braille, what you process with your fingers is different. If you lose the use of your hands, even for a day, it’s serious. The young man is, for much of the first week, shut behind his curtain – in every sense. Locked in, trapped in disappointment, fear, oppressed by something which feels ‘too much’.
I had a couple of moments this week: moments when my workload – or Climate change – or a Tunisian beach shooting – suddenly seemed ‘too much’. Many, perhaps all of us here, know that feeling of entrapment. We can see no way out of a situation which may be very obviously of our own making, sometimes of God’s making….or of someone else’s – and we cast around, rather desperately, drawing the curtains round and acting out defiantly, violently even, often making things worse.
Human touch may make a difference: we all of us cling to things and to people, physically and metaphoricaly – and then we let go, picking up or dropping projects, grasping ideas, throwing out suggestions …..clutching at straws. Not everyone’s experience of being touched is positive though most value and remember it. I learned, early on as a hospital chaplain, to lay my hand where it could be grasped by someone who was very frightened or past speech … the initiative lying with whoever was most vulnerable; can you remember the first time – or the last time – that somebody took your hand, quite unexpectedly, in his or hers and the thrill of connection caught you afresh?
Or perhaps an earlier memory? Finding and holding a bird: today’s psalm depicts the holding God gives us as like freeing a bird….. we cup our hands and feel its warmth…. cupped enough to stop the bird from falling. We don’t squeeze or restrain it. We hold it tight enough to be safe, but free enough to fly away when it’s ready. ‘We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler’.
Just stay with that image for a moment. The bird flying free, as an expression of well being. The Welsh uncle who, when asked how he is, always replies: ‘free as a bird – aderyn – in the air’ – a wonderful celtic expression of well being – of wholeness – even of holiness. And, in scripture and the tradition, an expression of how God is in the world – how God is in Christ – and how we are called to be in imitation of that. ‘We have escaped like a bird.’
From the creation story the spirit brooding over the face of the deep. And, familiar from Isaiah, ‘those who wait upon the Lord renew their strength; they mount up with wings as eagles’. Then there’s the poet* who goes out one morning and sees the kestrel hovering on the wind – and is transfixed by its beauty, riding the air as if on horseback. In his imagination the windhover sits high, reined in, wings tense – suspended in a moment of concentrated attention. in the next moment, the arc buckles, the bird is off, propulsed forward: and the poet lurches out of hiding – his self and his action suddenly inseparable. The idea is, I think, that something amazing happens when body, will and action are brought into alignment with God’s will – and especially as we see them portrayed in the life of Jesus: ‘a billion times more lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!’ – the one who shows us what God is like: the one who is our leader, who dives with absolute consciousness and total control, becomes dangerous; and of course they go after him for that. The bird becomes the prey. Not in the poem – but there is a hint of bloodshed. ‘We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler.’
Or you might think of a V-shaped formation of geese: committed by our baptism to following a leader, allowing ourselves to be upheld in the slipstream of that extraordinary uprush, propulsed into engagement with God’s project in the world.
When the laying on of hands for wholeness and healing is part of our worship and prayer, as it is today, the touch of God in Christ – affirming, healing, and freeing is enacted – the invitation is to any of us who wants to receive it either for ourselves or for someone else. We all need that fresh healing and liberating touch – and this is one way in which we are invited to receive it.
It may also be dangerous; it calls us to take risks in the cause of love – to stick our necks out for God in the world. Jesus always asks us to identify what we are asking for when it comes to healing – and we may get more than we bargain for. My favourite story, I think, is Bartimaeaus asking for his sight – and, with it, he is called to follow ….to follow Jesus on the Way – to Jerusalem.
Are the hands that are going to do that, this evening, ‘healing hands’? Here and now they become Christ’s hands extended to us – just as the gospels describe Jesus’ healings as signs of God’s kingdom: the hands which we extend to each other are also signs of God’s kingdom, signs by which his love is expressed.
But all such gifts are God’s not ours – they are for the good of all, not for someone to possess and manage. We avoid talk of ‘healers’ in the life of the church for a reason. It’s a bit like prayer: some people are given wonderful feelings, consolation and visions; others feel nothing much and do their praying by simply and faithfully being present to God. Same with laying on of hands. It may happen in very undramatic ways.
The hands – within the body of Christ gathered here in this place today – belong to us all. We receive the healing of Jesus at each other’s hands. You can think of the hands being laid as both the hands of Christ as as representing everyone here. In the words of St.Teresa: “Christ has no body now on earth but ours, ours are the hands with which he blesses…..” So God’s hands are here – for us : touching, healing and freeing – that we might live as fully as possible. And the hands we extend to one another today are his healing love in action.
We can also think about our hands as we come to receive, asking whether they are held out open and free. Perhaps they are screwed up in frustration and anger at all we have to contend with, the curtains tightly drawn around us: ‘why me?’ We don’t need to be hard on ourselves about it; all prayer starts with “I need a miracle”. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t sometimes pray like that. We also live in a world which encourages us to demand our rights and take control of our lives – and that’s not always for our freedom. As our prayer develops, it may move: the movement we see in the prayer of Jesus in the garden as he faced the cross “I would rather not go this way, yet it is your will not mine”.
The apostle Paul had a problem, a thorn in the flesh, which he described in an earlier letter to the Corinthians, and he begged the Lord to take it away, until after several attempts his hands started to open – and he listened – and he heard: “My grace is all you need, for my power is made perfect in your weakness”. He was able to use even his frailty for the sake of the gospel. If we live we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord – with the wonderful abandon expressed in today’s reading. The pain therefore might go on, but grace comes into the situation, and a kind of peace, for God gives himself to us – and his grace is all we need. Those who live with illness for much of their lives learn to depend on that grace.
Pray for others as they receive this ministry. You are welcome on behalf of someone else or for a situation in our broken world. We’re all of us simply opening our hands to the love of God, which means as open as we can hold them, letting go of our burdens, and receiving God’s grace and power made perfect in weakness. If you cannot yet let go, then make your prayer for grace to open up clenched fingers. As we do this we begin to see that our ultimate healing – the true miracle – is this very open-handed connectedness with the Love we call God, the love underpinning our worship, in which all healing, wholeness and holiness are entwined.
His hands holding us yet freeing us,
we have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler.
We are caught up In the free dance of love – which is
The only sign of God’s power in this world +
* Gerard Manley Hopkins ‘The Windhover’