The Unclenched Hand

I’m getting older.
I’ll pause for the shock and denial of that statement to pass through you. After all, I’m Momma O’s baby boy, youngest of my clan, with all the baggage that implies – how could I, the kiddo of the family, possibly be getting older?
Oh, the horror…
(and if nothing else proves that I’m the youngest in my family, the preceding dive into melodrama certainly does…)
So what? Age is something we all have in common – get over it, baby boy.
Really, I am over it. I didn’t have much of a hump turning 50 a couple of years ago; I passed 52, the age at which my dad died, so that was a biggie. From here, then, the getting older thing really isn’t an issue.
It’s the stuff that goes with it that I take umbrage to. Specifically the aches, pains, creaks, groans and other strange sounds and experiences that hover around aging people like seagulls in a Wal-Mart parking lot. (Or is that just at the one in Sault Ste. Marie? Makes me think of “The Birds” every time we go there… *shudder*.)
(Of course, that makes me think of the scene from Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” – the dark suit, the park bench, the BIRDS, the run to the dry cleaner’s, the people running out… Now I’m laughing. Loudly.)
I watched members of my family age: My great-grandmother, who was so tough of an old bird that were she still around, she could still whoop my hiney without breaking a sweat. Honestly, somewhere along the line she HAD to have been an ancestor of Chuck Norris. Seriously. My great aunts and uncles, who slowed down gracefully and faded, each one of them still able to whoop my hiney without breaking a sweat or straining a muscle. My mother, who could and did whoop my hiney just with a glance…
(I tell you this truly – when I saw her laying in the casket, the expression on her face startled me… it was the same expression that her face bore when in church on a Sunday morning I was being perhaps a bit too boisterous and, as her eyes remained focused on the Pastor, her hand, on my coloring pad, was writing – in her perfect teacher penmanship – “just wait until we get home…”)
And then there was my grandmother, Wilma Ardra Carlton, who went by Ardra. Yes, my grandmother’s name is a palindrome. Envy me.
Grams was a woman of faith and a woman of an open heart. She constantly taught us all the gift of giving, and I’m ashamed to admit that I learned the lesson way, way too slowly. In fact, the lesson is hardly evident in my life… yet. I’m getting there.
She rose before the sun almost every day of her life, often around 3:30am, to go downstairs to her restaurant and begin the prep work for the new day. She owned that restaurant for 28 years, open every day but Sundays and holidays, sometimes opening way early for the deer hunters, and she showed us all what faithfulness and hard work looked like. She was smart, savvy, and above all, giving.
She knew the lesson of the unclenched hand.
In fact, when and if some of my friends and loved ones from Oscoda (my ol’ hometown) read these words, they’d be able to tell story upon story of Grams and her giving heart.
Where this story intersects with today is in my hands. Something that I share with Grams and my mom is arthritis and all the joy that implies. Mine has been showing up mostly in knees and back, since an early age actually, multiplied by weight, but I’m noticing in my later years that it’s making its presence known in my hands. I love having things in common with Grams, but I was hoping to pass on that one…
Grams’ hands were stiff – very stiff. At times, she couldn’t close her fingers. What she did with those stiff painful fingers was magic – the work of her hands was blessed indeed, as was the work of her heart – but I saw her suffer. And I was hoping that my own hands would stay free of it, since as a musician I tend to be really, really protective of my hands. But the stiffness seems to be coming. Slowly, I’m thankful to say, but still there.
The interesting thing I’m noticing, and remembering from Grams’ life, is this: things get worse with clenched hands.
When I’ve been loom knitting for a while, my right hand, the one that holds the tool, locks up and becomes sore (so does the left, the one that holds the loom). Too long without stretching and my right thumb stops being able to do its part. Too much of any activity that requires a closed or clenched hand produces pain and stiffness. If I’m playing wind controller and don’t take the time to stretch my hands between songs or in places where I have a break, the fingers will lock in a curved position for a bit, and I have to carefully work them a bit to get them loose again. I don’t seem to have that problem on bass guitar, for which I am grateful. As for whistle, the low whistles use a technique called Piper’s Grip or “flat fingering” that lets me keep my fingers stretched. Thus explaining why I’m happier on the low whistles.

(More detail than you ever wanted to know – that’s what I live for. That and Ramen noodles. Oh, and chicken. And beans. Like I said – more detail than you ever wanted to know.)
Why this all hit my radar this morning is wrapped up in today’s Daily Audio Bible podcast, in the reading from Proverbs:
“Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the best part of everything your land produces. Then he will fill your barns with grain, and your vats will overflow with the finest wine.”
Proverbs 3:9-10 (NLT)
Brian Hardin, the voice (and heart) of the DAB, commented on this, asking us what if this becomes an opportunity to open our hands and experience freedom? What if, instead of clenching and hoarding and worrying over our wealth, we open our hands and give it all over to God? What kind of freedom comes when we know He is in control of it all and we can just let it go?
Freedom comes by being obedient to God, and not just paying our 10% so that He will bring all sorts of prosperity and goodies into our lives. (Sorry if I offend by this, but I do believe that the phrase “prosperity Gospel” is an oxymoron. Just sayin’.) Obeying God is not playing the lottery or dropping coins into a slot machine, expecting a payback. “I did my thing, just like the rules in Your book say – now gimme, gimme, gimme!”
In obedience we acknowledge that He owns everything – all we have and all we are, by the fact that we offer our best, our first to Him above all. Even when we can’t see how we’ll put food on the table or keep the lights on. When we can’t see how we’ll put gas in the tank or find somewhere to go to earn anything to buy gas with. We clench, we hold, we buckle down to survive and endure. We dig trenches and foxholes and we hold on to the little we have, because that’s all we know how to do.
There has been a lot of clenching going on in our house lately. We’ve gotten ourselves into some very deep water, very tight situations, and no hope on the horizon of digging out.
Actually, let’s dispense with the royal “we” here – I’m clenching. I’ve gotten us into deep water. I don’t see hope on the horizon. Not wallowing in pity or blame or regret – just truthfully admitting who the “free spirit” in our family is (to use a Dave Ramsey term…).
So I grasp, I tighten in anxiety, I wring my hands over worry and regret and frustration…
And wind up with closed, locked, painful fists.
There’s still no hope on the horizon, at least not from my limited view; there’s no resolution I can bring with my small power, and my feeble efforts can’t move the mountain before me.
There’s a little too much “I, Me, My” in that preceding sentence, don’ ‘cha think? Me too…
In my unfaithful, faltering, infrequent pursuit of Tai Chi, I’m learning not just poses and postures, but a new way of movement, at least for my stiff ol’ bod. In Yang style, the form I’m learning, the hands remain open, not stiff, with the thumb extended – the “tiger’s mouth” (the space at the base of the thumb) is open. The hand is soft, not rigid; the fingers relaxed, not stiffened. When the hands need to close, to make a fist for a punch or another movement, they are able to do so because they are relaxed. When that movement is complete, they open and become relaxed once again.
“Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the best part of everything your land produces.”
Grams knew the freedom and blessing of the unclenched hand. So did my mom. So does my wife, who models a servant’s heart in everything she does.
So Lord, I confess a clenched, painful, stiff hand, and the clenched, stiff heart that goes with it. All my grasping, my holding, my keeping back – even from You – is wrong. I’m creating more frustration when trying feebly to relieve it. I’m causing more insecurity when I should be letting go. I’m creating instability while trying to find solid ground, because I’m looking at the wrong things.
Come and take Your proper place, Father – the head of all I am and all I have. I open my hands, Lord. All I can see and all I can figure out screams at me to close and clench, but my own wisdom is, as always, flawed. Holy Spirit, close my ears to screams of desperation, and open my eyes to Your freedom. When I get rid of it all, when I open my hands and put it all in Your hands, then I’m truly free. The problems I’ve created, I confess them and ask for Your forgiveness. Remind me that the solutions are Yours to reveal – my job is trust and obedience. Help my resolve to give You the first and best of it all, and to leave the rest with You too, guided by Your wisdom and Your economy, resources that You can use according to Your perfect will.

My hands are open and relaxed. And all that they held is Yours.

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