If you have children, especially girls between 7 and 10 years old, you need to have a lot of patience. Annaleigh takes forever to get ready for bed. It could be 8:30pm when I tell her to get ready for bed and she will still be choosing her music, adjusting the volume repeatedly, asking just one more question, taking one more sip of water, or something, at midnight. What is it that causes little girls to take so long to get ready for bed?
Bedtime’s not the only place where I need patience. I find that it’s usually the little things that set me off. Bedtime is that for me right now. But my little thing about a year ago was putting on socks and shoes. Can I get an Amen in the chat from the parents out there? I mean, it always begins with a joyful mood because we are going someplace fun! Yay! Let’s get ready to go! Then it gets to the socks and shoes. Both of my girls hate the way socks and shoes feel. They would totally walk around barefoot all the time. The beginning of a great outing soon turns sour. “The seam in the sock is poking me! I can’t find the matching sock! These shoes don’t feel right and they rub blisters! Why aren’t my shoes in my closet? I just can’t tie the laces right!”
I try to help them but I just can’t seem to do anything right. No solution I give will make my daughters find something that works or move any faster. “Baby, can I help you?” “NO!” Then, after struggling to solve their sock and shoe problems for longer than I should, my shoulders tighten, my breathing gets shallow, and I’m tired of being yelled at. So, I leave the room. I just can’t listen to the screaming and frustration and crying anymore. And, don’t you know it, no sooner do I leave the room then I hear, “DADDY! COME HELP ME!”
And so, I changed my tactic. I simply go into my daughters’ bedroom and just sit on the bed. There is nothing I can possibly do to make things better except sit with them as they struggle to figure out how to move forward and solve their sock and shoe problem. And as I sit on the end of their bed I realize that the problem really isn’t their socks or shoes or even the way I get frustrated by this daily routine. I realize that I get tense and unsettled because I am predicting that my daughters are going to freak out and that chaos will ensue. And because I am certain that there will be a degradation of moods and attitudes, I have inadvertently set us all up for failure.
So, what if I just sat with them, let them know I was there, but that they can take ownership of the situation and find a way to solve their sock and shoe problem on their own? And it isn’t easy, but it is important for me to stop assuming the outcome. I need to remember that I can’t control everything and that sometimes I just need to hand things over to God. “Good luck, getting socks on my kids’ feet, God.”
Today we have the opportunity to let go of another piece of baggage. I hope we have begun to feel lighter over this Lenten season. Have you noticed yourselves sitting up a little taller? Have you noticed the pain in your shoulders easing up a bit? Are you not quite as tired as you usually are? I hope so. But life is still so very uncertain and that uncertainty can often worry and scare us. But maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe it is actually certainty that is weighing us down? Today, we will attempt to let go of certainty because often certainty leads to pride and judgment, and then to the abuse of power. Could being certain be held more lightly and our actions and experiences be given over to God and filtered through the life of Jesus and the love of the Divine? Let’s try.
So, what does Jesus’ life reveal about the pitfalls of certainty? It seems in this Lenten text for today that Jesus was handed over into the hands of his enemies. Did his disciples hand him over? Did God hand him over? We often think about God sacrificing God’s son on the cross and that we should love God for that choice. Yet, that kind of atonement is difficult for me. I can’t picture God as a distant, divine being that handed over a son without experiencing the pain, separation, and heartache that Jesus did. God handed over God’s own self to the suffering of the world in order to be a God who could hear our prayers and see our hearts with compassion and patience.
Henri Nouwen says, “That is what happened in Gethsemane. Jesus was handed over. Some translations say that Jesus was ‘betrayed,’ but the Greek says, “to be handed over.” Judas handed Jesus over (see Mark 14:10). But the remarkable thing is that the same word is used not only for Judas but also for God. God did not spare Jesus, but handed him over to benefit us all (see Romans 8:32).
I wonder what would happen if we leaned into this uncertain understanding of God. What if we took a page out of God’s handbook and began to hand over all of who we are and all of what we do to God. What if we handed ourselves and our certainties over to God? I tend to white-knuckle my way though life and only reluctantly give away my worries and frustrations. But maybe that is what Lent, this staying at home, this isolation is teaching us as we learn to travel light. Maybe we should try to let go enough that we can pick up justice and love and compassion and peace. Maybe we need to open our hands and our hearts to the mystery of God and release the certainty?
What does that look like? Perhaps we need to release black and white thinking and this idea that life is only one way or another. Isn’t it true that we often think we know how to solve a problem and how we can be the saviors of people rather than let Jesus do that? I know that I struggle with the gray areas and want to know what’s left and what’s right, who’s good and who’s bad, who’s in and who’s out. But, in reality, we aren’t certain about anything. We don’t know what will come of a situation or how it will play out. We think we are going to have a nice day at the park when all of the sudden the kids are crying because their socks and shoes don’t feel good. We get married and think everything will be perfect when the first major fight is only days away and there will be rough times coupled with the joyful ones. We value our health and freedom until we experience a car accident and can’t walk anymore. We are sure that the people group we hate is the people group God hates and so we claim we know the mind of God. Certainty is a heavy bag that tends to trick us into believing that we are God rather than trusting in God. Once we let go of certainty then we might be more like Jesus, more comfortable with the unknown and with trust.
I heard a captivating story about uncertainty and trust. Back in the fifteenth century, in a tiny village near Nuremberg, lived a family with eighteen children. In order to keep food on the table, the father and head of the household, a goldsmith by profession, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and any other paying chore he could find in the neighborhood. Despite their seemingly hopeless condition, two of the elder children, Albrecht and Albert, had a dream. They both wanted to pursue their talent for art, but they knew full well that their father would never be financially able to send either of them to Nuremberg to study at the academy.
After many long discussions at night in their crowded bed, the two boys finally worked out a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby mines and, with his earnings, support his brother while he attended the academy. Then, when that brother who won the toss completed his studies, in four years, he would support the other brother at the academy, either with sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by laboring in the mines.
They tossed a coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Durer won the toss and went off to Nuremberg. Albert went down into the dangerous mines and, for the next four years, financed his brother, whose work at the academy was almost an immediate sensation. Albrecht’s etchings, his woodcuts, and his oils were far better than those of most of his professors, and by the time he graduated, he was beginning to earn considerable fees for his commissioned works.
When the young artist returned to his village, the Durer family held a festive dinner on their lawn to celebrate Albrecht’s triumphant homecoming. After a long and memorable meal, punctuated with music and laughter, Albrecht rose from his honored position at the head of the table to drink a toast to his beloved brother for the years of sacrifice that had enabled Albrecht to fulfill his ambition. His closing words were, “And now, Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. Now you can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you.”
All heads turned in eager expectation to the far end of the table where Albert sat, tears streaming down his pale face, shaking his lowered head from side to side while he sobbed and repeated, over and over, “No... no... no... no.”
Finally, Albert rose and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He glanced down the long table at the faces he loved, and then, holding his hands close to his right cheek, he said softly, “No, brother. I cannot go to Nuremberg. It is too late for me. Look... Look what four years in the mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once, and lately I have been suffering from arthritis so badly in my right hand that I cannot even hold a glass to return your toast, much less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with a pen or a brush. No, brother... for me it is too late.”
More than 450 years have passed. By now, Albrecht Durer’s hundreds of masterful portraits, pen and silver-point sketches, water colors, charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings hang in every great museum in the world, but the odds are great that you are familiar with only one of Albrecht Durer’s works. More than merely being familiar with it, you very well may have a reproduction hanging in your home or office.
One day, to pay homage to Albert for all that he had sacrificed, Albrecht Durer painstakingly drew his brother’s abused hands with palms together and thin fingers stretched skyward. He called his powerful drawing simply “Hands,” but the entire world almost immediately opened their hearts to his great masterpiece and renamed his tribute of love “The Praying Hands.” The next time you see a copy of that touching creation, take a second look. Let it be your reminder, that no one – no one – ever makes it alone!
Church, you and I have not made it this far alone. We have been held in the hands of God and we have modeled the life of an uncertain Jesus who gave himself over to the pain, punishment, and hurt in the world. Jesus released his clenched fists and he released his one life into the unknown. Jesus put down the bag of certainty and said, “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.” And letting go of all that keeps us from loving God fully and loving all people wholly feels intimidating and daunting. When really, the first step is to slip that bag of certainty off our shoulder, set it gently on the ground, loosen our grip, and walk away. Can we do that this morning? For if we do, God has a great gift to place in our open palms and in our open hearts. And that’s one thing, of which we can be certain.
My uncertain friends, here is a prayer for you by Henri Nouwen:
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.”