Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. Your builders outdo your destroyers, and those who laid you waste go away from you.
Lift up your eyes all around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, says the Lord, you shall put all of them on like an ornament, and like a bride you shall bind them on.
A few years ago, I fell in love with a sculpture. A luminous photograph of this statue appeared on the cover of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, perhaps you remember it. The statue is known as Bird Girl and a copy of the 1936 sculpture by Sylvia Shaw Judson stands in the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, where Jack Leigh photographed her for the book cover. The girl wears a simple dress, worn gray by the elements, its folds spotted by bird droppings. Her head is tilted slightly to the side, her hair tucked behind her ears, her expression sad, serene and introspective. Her elbows press into her thin waist as if to support the weight of the two basins she holds in her outstretched palms. The Bird Girl has been there a long time, and it looks like she is willing to stand there forever.
I loved the sculpture so much that I ordered a small replica for my own garden of Good and Evil in my backyard. (If you’ve ever gardened in New Hampshire, you understand the “evil” part.) The Bird Girl now graces the center of a small raised cedar bed in my garden, that place where I am continually startled by God, who is always sneaking up on me.
It was only after years of living with The Bird Girl in my garden, watching her basins fill with rain, snow, and sunshine; that I grew to understand why she stole my heart. As the poet Billy Collins puts it, I had fallen in love “with the sadness of another.” Such developments don’t surprise me in the garden, a place where my spiritual formation is prodded along by the changing of the seasons.
One day we had a small shed erected behind the Bird Girl’s garden. When the young men finished putting the shed up, one of them said: “Uh, we had a little accident with the scaffolding. But Jason’s OK,” he assured me. Then he added “But your statue isn’t. We put her in the shed.” I couldn’t bear to look. After my cowboy shed builders left, I dared to peek in the shed, and I gasped at what I saw. Both of the Bird Girl’s hands had been cleanly severed at the wrists. (You can see her picture on the cover of the bulletin.) The hands holding the basins lay on the floor next to her. My own hands flew to my mouth. “Oh no,” I blurted out. “It’s the Handless Maiden.”
The Grimm Brothers recorded an ancient fairy tale called “The Girl without Hands,” or “The Handless Maiden.” In the story, a miller who has fallen on hard times makes a deal with the Devil, who is, of course, in disguise. The bargain is a simple one. The miller will be given wealth if he agrees to give the Devil what is standing out behind his mill. Knowing that the only thing standing in his mill yard is an old apple tree, the miller agrees to the terms. But upon returning home, the man discovers that it was his daughter who was standing behind the mill that day. In three years the Devil will come to seize his prize.
The girl’s heart is pure, and when the Devil comes to take her, he is unable to come near her because she has cleaned herself and drawn a circle around herself with chalk. Angry, the Devil orders the father to cut off the girl’s hands and threatens to take the miller instead if the daughter doesn’t comply. The girl stretches out her arms, and the father cuts off her hands. But when the Devil returns, she has cried so much on the stumps that they are washed clean, and he goes away defeated, knowing that he has no claim over this pious girl.
There is more to the story, which I will only briefly share. She leaves her father’s house, and journeys out into the world, assisted only by an angel and the kindness of strangers. She marries a King, bears a son. And through a complicated series of mis-communications orchestrated by her old enemy the Devil, she leaves the kingdom carrying her son, named Sorrowful, strapped to her back, until she finds refuge in the woods. The King ultimately finds her and brings her home.
There are several versions of what happens to the girl’s hands. In one the King makes her a pair of silver hands and over time, God grows her hands back. In another version, her baby falls into the stream and when she plunges her arms in the water to save him, her hands grow back. I could spend hours teasing apart this story, but for our purposes here, let it suffice to say that the tale of the handless maiden is a story of loss and restoration. It is an archetypal story of how we are wounded, of our we lose our hands, and of how God helps us grow them back.
The Handless Maiden in my garden has become a meditation focus for me- a reminder to bear witness to the suffering of the world. Hands are symbolic of how we connect to the world. We are built for connection. For some connection is harder than for others. Maybe the way their brain is organized makes connecting hard. Often the ability to connect has been damaged by loss, abuse, trauma, or other tragedies. Broken trust in relationships can sever our connections. The list of things that break connections can be endless. If it is true that we are built for connection, then when connection is broken the work of re-building connection can be difficult.
The prophet Isaiah writes to a people whose connection with their land, within their communities, and with their God has been deeply severed. Like the handless maiden, they wander through the land of disconnection, betrayed by those who should have helped them, crushed by forces beyond their control, these people in exile have had their hands, their connections, clean cut off.
To these handless ones, Isaiah holds up a tender promise of a God who will not forget or abandon them. The image is that of a God who tattoos the name of the beloved onto the palm of God’s hand so as to be constantly reminded of that relational connection. God reaches out to hold them in their suffering, to give them the strength to grieve, and to re-grow their connections through the gifts of unconditional love and constant presence.
The Handless Maiden speaks for all those who have suffered wounding in this world. She calls to us to the ministry of nurturing connection, being in the business of healing hands, building community, and saving the lives of those who have had their hands clean cut off.
A few weeks ago we attended our yearly reunion of the families who traveled together to China to adopt our daughters thirteen years ago. Marcy, one of the other mothers in the group, told a story that stopped my heart and then started it up again. When I asked if I could share this story, she said “Yes! We are happy to “pay it forward” by telling this amazing story.” Warning, some parts of this story are pretty hard to listen to, but stay with me, because the ending is worth it.
Marcy’s son Erik and his wife Kristen are both fighter pilots in the Air Force. The couple met when in the Air Force Academy a few years ago and married last year. They are a pretty impressive young couple. This past spring, Erik and Kristen moved with their squadrons to a new post in North Dakota. Their neighborhood itself was new, and they knew no one when they moved in.
While getting their house set up in May, Kristen was working on a wood working project with her table saw, which she has used since she was 10 years old. She had an accident with the saw, which completely severed her hand, right here below the thumb. Erik’s jumped into action, his training kicking in. He put a tourniquet on Kristen’s arm and wrote the time on her forehead with permanent marker. He put her severed hand in a bag with frozen peas and raspberries. The EMTs were there in minutes, and at 28 minutes, Erik demanded that they remove the tourniquet, since that would make a difference in re-attaching the hand. He argued on her behalf to have her air lifted to the best hospital, with a doc who had experience in re-attaching hands. Erik actively advocated for Kristen every step of the way as they worked to save her life. It happened that one of the best surgeons with experience in re-attaching hands was available in Minnesota, where she was airlifted. After a nine-hour surgery, and multiple blood transfusions, Kristen’s hand was reattached.
But Erik’s quick thinking, the EMT’s efforts, and the skill of the surgeon were just the beginning of the miracles that happened in their lives. A stranger came to sit with Erik so he didn’t have to be alone for those nine long hours in the hospital waiting room in a city where he knew no one. Marcy (her mother-in-law) jumped on the next plane and stayed with them during much of Kristen’s recovery. Marcy’s skills and knowledge as a nurse were invaluable to Erik and Kristen during those long days and months of recovery.
The neighbors, most of whom they had never even met, all pitched in to help. They cleaned up the house, finished the painting, unpacked their boxes, and set up their furniture. One man got rid of the saw so that she wouldn’t have to be reminded of the accident, and bought her a new one. Knowing Kristen’s determination, she would go back to her woodworking hobby.
Can you imagine how devastating it would be for a young woman whose life dream was to be a fighter pilot to possibly lose her hand? Months of recovery followed. Hundreds of people were praying for her and strangers stepped in to help along the way as she struggled to recover from this terrible accident. One man made sure that there was a fresh orchid on her lunch tray every day. Her dream of being a fighter pilot was hanging in the balance, and the love and encouragement she received helped lift her spirits and draw on her resolve to get through a long, grueling process of healing.
The good news is Kristen is now back at work with her squadron, a desk job for the moment, but she has high hopes of being able to fly again. The nerves are slowly growing back and she is recovering the use of her hand.
The devotion of her loving husband, the skill of the medical profession, and the kindness of strangers all combined to save Kristen’s life and to give her hope. The doctors say she is a miracle. Throughout this whole ordeal, Kristen’s name has been written on God’s hand, and she has been held in a loving embrace that has saved her in so many ways.
If you look at Kristen’s hand, you will see a great big scar encircling the lower half of her hand. I suspect that sometimes Kristen looks at it and sees a scar, and at other times she sees a mark that spells out the name of a God who is about the business of healing hands. God’s name is etched in the palm of her hand, written in that scar. Once a handless maiden, she is now made whole by more miracles than she can count. As of a few weeks ago, Kristen’s latest accomplishment is that she can touch her thumb to her fingertip.
And so the statue of the Bird Girl in my garden, the handless maiden, continues to be a meditation on the suffering of the world. But now instead of seeing only loss and despair when I look at the handless maiden, I think of Kristen’s miracle story when I see her. And I think of so many more stories of healing and hope and restoration that abound in our world; stories of broken connection being healed. Perhaps yours is one of them.
There are so many ways we are disconnected, so many ways our hands are clean cut off. And there are so many ways that God continually offers the miracle of healing hands. Our names are not only etched on God’s hands, but God’s name is written in our own scars. In the ways that we have been put back together we see the name of God spelled out. Our scars are reminders of God’s unfailing presence, of God’s constant work in our lives to heal us through connection. God’s name is spelled out in miracles. AMEN.