header
The Gift in My Hands
Joel Kurz

Seven years ago, while sorting through my father’s library months after his death, I discovered a rare book I never knew he had. The unassuming small leather volume with print scarcely exposed to the light of day, turned out to be a 1704 Amsterdam edition of Jacob Boehme’s classic The Way to Christ. Aware of Boehme’s status and the possible value of this book, I put it on my shelf and let it be until three hundred and ten years after its publication. When I discovered that only six other known copies of this edition existed, it became clear that I had to find the right recipient and give away this gift in my hands.

The book was first printed against the author’s wishes in the year of Boehme’s death (1624), a risky undertaking in bold defiance of the Görlitz town council’s 1612 silencing of the city’s controversial “spiritualized” shoemaker. Considered by many to be the father of a Protestant mysticism deeply rooted in the unity of nature, Boehme proved influential for George Fox (the founder of the Society of Friends), William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Georg Friedrich Hegel, as well as for Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2013 novel The Signature of All Things. The esteemed Scottish preacher, Dr. Alexander Whyte, wrote of Boehme and the book at hand: “Neither Augustine nor Luther nor Bunyan carries deeper wounds, or broader scars, nor tells a nobler story in any of their autobiographies and soldierly books. There is all the reality, inwardness, and spirituality
of the Imitation… both a sweetness and bitterness of heart that even á Kempis never comes near.”

Another influenced by Boehme was George Rapp, the German vine-grower and weaver who immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1803 and founded the quickly flourishing Harmony Society. The town of New Harmony, Indiana, was established in 1814 and received its name when Rapp and his followers relocated their entire community there. Last year, as New Harmony was celebrating its bicentennial, I donated Boehme’s book to the archives of the town’s Working Men’s Institute (the oldest continuously operating public library in the state), figuring it was the best location for all apparent reasons.

While carefully packaging Boehme’s book for shipment, I found myself thinking about its new home and the researchers who will have access to it in coming years, but also about those unknown hands through which it passed in previous centuries. Had the book belonged to my great-grandfather who left Germany for Australia and then America after training in Switzerland as a pastor and teacher? Did my grandfather take it with him when he ventured to California a hundred years ago to work under Gustav Niebuhr, and did it accompany my father for his dozen years of missionary service in the Philippines? I will never know the hands through which it passed, the locations to which it traveled, and the inner journey of faith it set others on and still will.

After five years during which I cared for my father while he lost the ability to read and write, shower, dress, and feed himself, my mother gave me the gift of time. “Go away for a couple of weeks,” she said, “travel and take a break.” So, I did and traveled from Missouri to see friends and relatives (and whatever piqued my interest along the way) in Indiana, Ohio, and South Carolina. The world opened up wide for me once again after the largely confining work of being an at-home caregiver. Wandering around the campus of Southern Lutheran Seminary on that trip, I stumbled upon a stack of the Trinity 2006 issue of The Cresset outside of the mailroom and recalled shelving the journal during my seminary library worker days a decade prior. Nicolae Grigorescu’s painting of a young woman lying down holding a mirror but gazing almost through it and past it, captured my eye on the cover, as did the title of the lead essay “Facing the Mirror of the Wounds of Christ.” Past, present, and future—known and unknown—converged in that place and moment. I devoured that issue as I have each since, and I do not exaggerate or inflate when I call that issue, this one, and all of the others gifts in my hands (from other hands) which bring me in to a wider community of learning, conversation, and adoration; which usher me into the awareness that my misfit soul and voice has “a place” of belonging and understanding amid the varied divisions we know within our creaturely existence.

In his modern classic The Gift (originally subtitled Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property), Lewis Hyde explores the aphorism “What is good is given back” and this observation: “a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift.” Pertinent for consideration in all areas of life where monetary value reigns unchallenged as the sole arbiter in decision-making, Hyde’s examination of the “feeling-bond” (and lack thereof) that separates gift from commodity is profoundly enlightening. While I could have sold the Boehme book and pocketed a nice chunk of change, I chose instead to keep the chain unbroken by remaining a link between the past and future; honoring tradition which, after all, means “to give up” or “hand over.” The saying attributed to Martin Luther synthesizes so much so well: “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all, but whatever I’ve placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

While reading Luke 6:1–11 recently in a daily prayer book, I was struck by the prominence of hands: Jesus’ disciples walking through a field rubbing the heads of grain in their hands and popping the kernels in their mouths; David taking and eating the bread of the Presence which was forbidden for him; Jesus seeing a man with a withered right hand and instructing him to stretch it out so that he could restore it.  Both episodes happened on the Sabbath and were Jesus’ demonstration that he is Lord of the Sabbath… and as Mark has him saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27). What Jesus was getting at was that all is gift for us to receive and give for true rest and restoration; that is the Sabbath economy he came to bring. God is the Divine Giver, as Luther reminded of the Lord’s Prayer, “who gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.”

During this Trinity season of reflection on our baptismal identity and calling in life, we can think about the hands which poured the water of faith upon us. We can think about the Father giving the Son, the Son giving the Spirit, and the entire Godhead bringing us into and keeping us in the gift that is life and grace. And so, may we let everything pass through our hands as gifts of thanks and praise. A

 

Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.

Copyright © 2016 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy
rose