Sometimes I wake up to find my arm "asleep." You know, the whole pins and needles kind of stuff. That's the worst. It's like having a 10 pound noodle grafted to your side. I've never been a fan of dead weight, but it's worse when it's attached to your body.
I mention this because I've also noticed a pattern. The prickly sensation of cut-off circulation is what rouses me from my sleep, but as I gain my bearings, I immediately notice my hands are closed tightly into balls of tension. As I relax my fingers, my arm suddenly begins to awaken. The dead weight is gone, and what was a hindrance becomes a help.
Curiosity got the best of me, so I went to Google. I read credible medical sites. No surprise here, but there are countless theories about why people sleep with their hands in fists. It could be a reversion to childhood sleeping patterns (look at babies' hands) or a reflexive response to repressed anxiety. It could be an indication of internal pain, and it could be an outward expression of a desire to cuddle and be close. Lots of sleep therapists suggest exercises to relax those hand muscles -- laying perfectly still and clenching and releasing hands repetitively until the body naturally learns to respond to tight fists with open hands.
It could be a tendency to think everything is a sermon illustration, or maybe I overthink things too much, but I couldn't help but start to think there is a larger lesson here. Either way, I believe Holy Spirit was leading me toward an important truth. Sleepy arms are a result of clenched fists. Said another way, dead weight is a result of closed hands, and life is in open hands.
At times in my life when things feel heavy, like I'm carrying more than I should or can't bear up under things anymore, there also seems to be a pattern. I find I'm living with clenched fists. Holding too tightly to things I believe will make it better or at least keep me afloat instead of letting them pass through my fingers and believing God will supply for my needs. Grasping for dear life on to what feels like it will disappear if I let go.
Followers of Jesus tend to do this with God's love and grace. With His mercy. With His compassion and kindness. We greedily hoard what we've been given instead of living openhanded and letting God provide for our need and allowing the rest to leak out of our upturned palms into the hands of someone else. We clutch a remnant of God's grace for ourselves, not extending it to others, and therefore falsely communicate that He is not enough for everyone. We wrongly believe If we share His love and grace with others, there will be not enough left for us, that His grace really isn't sufficient.
When we are weary, God invites us to let go of our burden (remember: dead weight) and find rest (Matthew 11:28-30). He offers to "trade" our heavy yoke for one that is easy and light. Yet in order to receive something different from the Father, we have to release what we already hold. He invites us to teach our tight fists to become open hands.
There's an incredible lesson of openhanded living in Scripture. Many know the encounter well; it is recounted in all four gospels -- the feeding of the multitudes where Jesus miraculously multiplies a small amount of food to feed 5,000 men (and who knows how many more women and children!). The story is rich with teaching points, but I want to lean into just one. John's gospel (6:1-14) gives an important detail the other accounts omit: a small boy in the crowd has packed a lunch -- 5 loaves and 2 fish -- and it is his food the disciples offer to Jesus to be used for what will be a miracle of epic proportions.
This small meal is not nearly enough for the crowd on the hillside. It would be the equivalent today of a couple of dollar dogs to feed an entire baseball stadium. When the disciples are charged by Jesus to feed the growing crowd, and they begin to search for their options, this lad's lunch is the best they can muster. We are fascinated by the story because of what Jesus does with so little, but I believe another miracle is sometimes lost in its telling.
A little boy gave up his loaves and fish to serve others. He opened his hands.
I recently heard someone suggest this boy was likely impoverished. The loaves were barley -- a poor man's grain -- which means they wouldn't be very large. Maybe the size of your fist (see where I'm going here?). And the fish, which would have had to be cured in order to carry around and eat, were probably similar to sardines. We're not talking baguettes and bluefin tuna. This is a poor child's lunch. No guarantees that he'll have another meal like this one anytime soon. Yet he gave it away.
Open hands yield life.
So many people were fed that day. Fed not just physical food, but the meaty teaching and delicious compassion of Jesus that was nourishment for their weary, wandering souls (see Mark 6:34). Men, women and children were witness to a eucharistic meal for the masses, enthralled by what Jesus did with the little given to Him by the disciples. But don't miss this morsel: an unfathomable feeding was enabled by an openhanded child who didn't selfishly cling to what he had, but surrendered it over to Jesus to do more than the boy ever could have imagined.
Open hands yield life, no matter what their size.
How many times has God given me -- or you -- something that seemed small, but significant? How often are we as willing to release it for greater good than we are to clench it tightly, fearful that nothing more will come? Friends, it's easy for me to believe the lie that if I let go of the good God has entrusted to me, I might not ever see anything else again. I don't believe the lie because I think God isn't generous; I believe the lie because I haven't believed God's grace is always sufficient (2 Cor 12:9) and will always supply for my needs according to His riches in glory (Phil 4:19). My hands haven't always been open, but God is always openhanded with me.
As a final nod to the openhanded God we serve, go back to the gospel story one more time. Not only are we front row center to the miracle story, John gives us a final insight about the abundant, generous nature of God which makes the miracle even more masterful. When the crowd had eaten their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples: "Gather the pieces that are leftover. Let nothing be wasted" (John 6:12). Jesus multiplied a poor child's lunch into a buffet for a convention crowd, and then had the disciples save the leftovers, demonstrating how ample God's supply truly is -- exceedingly, abundantly ample. I'd like to think that Jesus then sent the disciples into the town, delivering good food to those who had none, supplying all their needs too. Chances are, if he did, the little boy's mother got a wonderful taste of the generosity of God at her own table, made possible by God's mighty handiwork... and a little boy's open hands.
I want to live openhanded in the Kingdom of God. Closed hands are dead weight. And whenever my hands are full of what I think I can't let go of, I might miss taking hold of something else I need even more. I trust a God who can make so much out of so little. I pray whatever He gives to me I hold loosely, remembering that it might not be for me at all, but for lots of other people. I pray I am willing to lend my lunch even when I'm hungry so that others can be fed. Open hands yield life!
Jesus follower. Wife. Mom. Daughter. Friend. Pastor. Learner.