I loved my grandmother’s hands. Her nails were always beautifully shaped, just naturally. My daughter has the same hands. They are lovely and I like to look at them. As my grandmother got older I used to pinch the loose skin during church and feel the softness of the aging.
She was so tactile. She loved to touch things and people. I guess today you would probably say her love language was physical touch. She had no such vocabulary. She would just say something cute like, “I love flesh.” If she was passing you, her hand would rest on your arm, just briefly enough so you would know that she was aware of your presence. She would pat your cheeks if she was pleased with you. With her kids and grandkids, she would run her hands over our bare skin if we were running around after swimming or the boys without a shirt.
She worked hard in her life, tending to her children, grandchildren, and 55 foster babies—newborns waiting for placement, sometimes going through withdrawals from drugs or alcohol. She always held the babies. In church she would always find the babies to hold, to rock and pat with those deeply maternal hands. She gave so many tired parents brief respite.
She sewed everyday and had callouses where she needed them. She planted gardens, made jam, cleaned homes. Her hands showed the years and work and dignity. They were beautiful. I miss those hands. I understood those hands.
I noticed my hands recently in a picture. Physically they don’t look much like hers. My nails are not beautifully shaped, but are short and super functional for the hard work of my life. They often show evidence of burns or cuts born out of hurry or carelessness—occupational hazards of commercial cooking. Often at least one finger is sporting a bright bandaid. And my nails are rarely if ever painted—because that is frowned upon when you have your hands touching people’s food all day.
I wish my hands looked more like my grandmother’s. But, sitting in church the other day, my littlest son pulled at the beginning-to-be-loose-skin and traced the bright blue veins. He place his hand squarely in my palm, comparing the size. He said he loved my hands.
Like my grandmother I am super tactile. My kids and friends know that I touch them instinctively, aware of their presence and them of mine. They know that I will play with their hair and pat their shoulders. There is nothing sexual about it. It is about presence. It is about a kind of maternal affection—CS Lewis would say storge.
Like my grandmother I work really hard every day with my hands. She sewed; I cook. The dignity of a life of work shows. It cannot be hidden. Nor should it be. There is nothing to be ashamed of in my hands, which are an extension of my storge for the world.
I like seeing other people’s hands, too. Because they tell you who they are. I love when a man’s hands show wear and hard work; the callouses and scars show that he has known labor outdoors under the sun, whether or not he is strong, if he knows how to handle tools. Those hands are beautiful. Careworn and beautiful.
I love little children’s chubby hands—often sticky—fitting so comfortably in my palm.
I love the hands of an artist—residue of paints or stains, they move instinctively toward beauty.
I love the hands of a musician—someone who knows their instrument—their hands almost have a mind and language of their own.
In the infamous chapter on the Ideal Woman, Proverbs 31, Solomon mentions her hands at least four times. But he doesn’t describe what they look like. He talks about the dignity of their presence. She works with skillful hands. She reaches out her hands to those in need. Acclaim her for the work of her hands. Solomon likely wrote this about his mother, Bathsheba, who is an Old Testament archetype of the Blessed Mother. (That is a beautiful conversation for another day.)
Today I am thinking more of the Lord talking to Moses via the burning bush. God was asking him to do a big and crazy thing, namely go deliver the entire people of God from bondage. And when Moses protests and begins to find reasons (excuses?) why it cannot be done because no one will listen to him. God says, “What is in your hand?” (Exodus 4) Moses answers “A staff” and God tells him to throw it down. He obeys and it becomes a serpent. When it is most terrifying God tells him to take it up again.
My morning meditation is along the lines of this:
First of all, God most often uses what is already in our hand and with what we already feel comfortable. What is in your hand? What are the tools of your trade or your life, your mind, your heart. God probably wants to use that. I mean, there is nothing that says he may not ask me to pick up a tuba and use that for his glory. But likely not, as I have no idea how to handle one and have never picked one up.
Secondly, God may also ask you to take that thing in your hand—(or person? or trade? or plan? or love?)—and throw it down. And that might be the hardest thing you ever have to do. Throw it down Lord? Are you sure? It is the thing I know. It is the thing I love. I don’t want to throw it down. In throwing it down you may see how terrifying it can actually be. Like Moses did with his staff turned serpent, you may back away from the thing in terror.
It might end there. But if the story and symbolism holds true, God just may ask you to take it up again with your hand. Grab that thing by the tail and see it become something useful and beautiful again.
This is the pattern of many a great story. Something that is beautiful goes into chaos, is sought for, redeemed, and brought back. It is a great story. But scary. Painful. And sometimes confusing, or shall we say, mysterious.
It is like the parable of the treasure in Matthew 13. A man finds a treasure. Buries it again only to go buy the entire field for the love of the treasure. He had it in his hands. He had to release it, so that in due time it could be taken up again.
These hands—an expression of my inner life, set off this early morning to do some hard work hopefully with great love. These hands which have thrown down so many things in life—some of which have become serpents. These hands wait for the day and the courage when God may say, “Take it up again.”
I want my grandmother’s hands. But, I have mine. But maybe I can ask to have a little more of her courage to use them in faith and love—even if the things they hold become serpents.
“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)