Open Hands, Open Heart

Today’s reflection for the Return to Our Senses in Lent comes from Lynne Baab. Most of this post is an excerpt from her new book Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. Lynne is a Presbyterian minister and lecturer in pastoral theology in New Zealand, and also the author of numerous books. She has three books which are particularly appropriate for the season of Lent: Fasting, Sabbath Keeping and Joy Together. Visit her website, to learn about her books and to read articles she’s written on topics related to her books.

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About ten years ago I led a worship service at a retreat. The setting was intimate, unlike the Sunday worship services at church where the leader—sometimes me—usually stood some distance away from the congregation. At the end of the retreat worship, I said a benediction. To my surprise, several of the younger women sitting close to me turned their hands so their palms faced up. They looked as if they were trying to catch the benediction in their hands.

I had often said, “Now, receive the benediction” before I ended a worship service, and these women looked as if they were taking those words seriously. They used their hands to indicate a posture of the heart, a posture of receptivity.

What might they have been trying to receive? What might they have been longing for?

Perhaps some of them had a specific need in mind as they turned their hands up to “catch” God’s blessing. Perhaps they were hoping for God’s action related to a specific need in their family or in their job, or maybe they were hoping for God’s guidance in a particular situation. Perhaps they had learned something new about God at the weekend retreat, and they were hoping God would cement that new knowledge into their lives. They could have had many other specific needs, requests or situations on their minds as they used their hands to “receive” the benediction.

Perhaps some of them were simply open to more of God in their lives.  Perhaps the motion of their hands expressed a willingness to receive anything and everything from God, an indication of their commitment to be disciples of Jesus who would follow their Master wherever he might lead them.

When I use this word “receptivity,” I am referring to being open to God’s gifts and God’s guidance in two different ways. On the one hand, God works in our lives in response to the needs we express in prayer, the concerns we have about people we love, and the tensions and anxieties we experience in everyday life. God invites us to open our hearts and minds to see the way the Holy Spirit is moving in the situations we care about. Spiritual practices go a long way toward enabling us to see God’s activity because they help us slow down, recognize patterns, and listen to God.

The second aspect of receptivity relates to our willingness to let God initiate, to let God be God in whatever form that takes. Jesus invites us to follow him, to let him set the agenda and lead us. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” Jesus encourages us (Matthew 11:29). God guides us into places we wouldn’t otherwise go, and challenges us to grow in ways we never imagined. God gives us gifts we could never have seen on our own, and calls us to use them in situations we never planned. Spiritual practices help us receive these utterly unexpected and unplanned moments of grace.

When I pray with my hands turned over and open to the heavens, my hands are a symbol of my willingness to be receptive to whatever God is doing in my life, whatever God wants to give me, and wherever God wants to guide me. But those open hands are more than a symbol. I find that simply turning my hands over opens my heart to God in a remarkable way, as if my hands are telling my heart and mind to shift toward God and to watch for what God is doing. I feel closer to God when I turn my hands over, a surprising but helpful fact. Lent is a perfect time to experiment with new spiritual practices, and a small thing like praying with open hands, facing up, really can make a difference.