July is a hard month, especially those days after we celebrate our Independence as a nation. It's because we've experienced deep wounds in the month of July. As a result of them, when the light-hearted joy of the fourth recedes we discover an emotional emptiness that seeks dominion over us. The wounds, not yet healed, are soft spots that can activate passions and inflame emotions that cause even deeper injury to us and the people around us. It is the weight of grief. It can rule us.
Our son Brian Eliot Holmes was murdered in downtown Charleston on July 18, 2011. So, as you can imagine, these hot July days have been difficult these nearly four years. We know the seasons of grief are prime time for emotional emptiness and that millions of us tread those days bearing the weight of immense personal loss. We also know the kind language of this season, the genuine comfort of family and friends so graciously offered in acts of kindness and words of affirmation. The cloud of witnesses that surrounds us is a source of great inspiration and care. But, there is an emptiness that cannot be defined.
A couple of years ago I officiated a wedding in an Episcopal Catholic church. Every person in that wedding was given communion. When the church members came to the prayer rail to receive the elements they extended upturned, empty hands. They etched an image of life in me, the empty hands of a penitent sinner open to the provision and grace of God. Last year as we labored through the weeks of our enlarged grief, that occasioned by the calendar, the image of those empty hands registered something in me. Those empty hands visualized for me a concept that God had been trying to teach me since July 18, 2011. It is deeply embedded now, and I wish I could verbalize it more clearly,
The day after Brian's death two Bible promises came to me. For the life of me I cannot remember how they actually landed on the screen in my head. They may have been in cards people pressed into our hands, or among the many notes and thoughts that were passed to us. But, I remember they were profound. They were immediately etched deep in my heart. They both magnified the image of empty hands...
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you
in due time...
1 Peter 5:6
The months and years since his death have refined this image even more. You see, in my unique, personal vision of life, informed by theological study and mediated by real life, empty hands are the picture of humility. They exhibit a dependence on God that moves me deeply, a picture of the human that can do nothing apart from him (see John 15:5).
The other verse that occupied me that night, and every night since, was from the very practical Epistle of James. He wrote,
But he gives us more grace.
Once again, the gift of this verse is another vivid depiction of the empty hands. When my hands are full of self, things, accomplishments, work, stuff, and all the temporary illusions that occupy so much of life, there's little room for the "...more grace..." he promises. So, there's an equation for hard times, for grief, for life that leaves us empty---
Empty hands = humble heart = more grace
That's the central learning of the past four years, his grace. Yes, I studied sola gratia in Systematic Theology 101. In every way I understand being saved eternally by his grace. But, in the last four years, he has been teaching me what it is to be saved daily by his grace. And, that's the empty hands picture that has become so precious to me.
You know I love and prefer contemporary Christian music. It is vibrant and fresh and touches the new wine skin that I so desire to be. But, this empty hands picture was such a clear image portrayed in an old hymn that we used to sing so often---
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
Rock of ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
August Toplady, 1776
Thomas Hastings, 1830
July is a hard month for our family. Explode that thought to every human being and every day is a trial for millions. Let me recommend empty hands an approach to God in our times of hardship.
He will not send you away empty handed. He will give more grace. And, that more grace will lift you up in due time.