Jesus says, “The bread that
I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Between retreats in Norway this
summer I had an interesting stay for a few days at a Lutheran retreat house. This
retreat house is beautifully situated on a mountain above a large lake and surrounded by thousands and thousands of acres
of stately Norwegian pine trees.
About 30 years ago, a young Norwegian
couple returned from doing missionary work in Africa because the wife had inherited a small farm here and a thousand acres
of forest. They asked themselves: “How can we use this beautiful setting
and all these woods for God?” They knew that the setting would be ideal
for a retreat house but the Lutheran Church already had a number of retreat houses scattered throughout the country. However, they thought that what Norway really needed was a retreat house that was
devoted primarily to family retreats, a place where families would be welcomed to come and have a retreat together as
family, -- not just as individual grownups like all the other retreat houses.
So, this young couple planned
and built. They converted farm buildings into dormitories and chapels. They built a large chapel and dining rooms. They built accommodations
for different size families. They built activities rooms and a playing field. For almost twenty-five years now, throughout the summer months, every week, between 100 and 150 people of all ages gather for 4 or 5 day retreats.
With such large groups, the days
are carefully structured: times for silence and times for talking, -- some silent meals and some talking meals. (Imagine: small children eating in silence!) Times for common prayer and times for individual prayer. Time
for rest and time for activities, both religious and recreational. Times for
families together and times for various age groups apart. And, amazingly, complete
silence from 10pm to 9 am when, after a half hour of morning prayer in the chapel, breakfast is served. It was a privilege to watch all this happen and even take part in the morning prayer though I did not know
What especially attracted me was
that the title of these retreats this year was “With Open Hands” and they
prayed and reflected on chapter 6 of John’s gospel, which is the
chapter which our Church asks us to contemplate this summer. Today is the fourth
of five Sundays which have focused on this famous chapter known as “The Bread of Life Discourse.” I thought how wonderfully the theme of “With Open Hands” and Jesus, as Bread of Life go together.
I spoke to the woman and her husband (who both continue to direct the retreat house), how they develop this theme. They said that their hope is for people to recognize the importance of walking through life with open hands,
hands open to receive and hands open to give. So, through prayer, reflection,
sharing and activities,, old and young first consider all the gifts which God has placed in their hands, consider how all
is gift, and with open hands acknowledge the blessing of each gift. In that beautiful
setting, it was easy to begin with the gifts of creation, the gifts of nature. But,
of course, the most precious gift is the gift of God Himself in Jesus, present in the Eucharist. So, the Eucharist becomes the highlight of gifts received. Then,
these families look at how they are to open their hands in giving to others. The
couple told me that is was not unusual, at then end of these retreats, to have families leave behind clothes and toys which
are sent to the villages in Africa where this couple had worked so long ago.
The expression, “With Open
Hands,” has continued to remain with me. I want to walk through life with
open hands. During these summer months we may have a little more time to appreciate
all the gifts which God has placed in our open hands. Everything is gift: family
and friends, our talents and opportunities, our freedoms and our faith, our health and strength. Even what we have achieved comes out of gifts we have been given.
And then, we must look to how we share our gifts with others. Do we give
of time and talent or do we clench our hands to ourselves? It is not easy to keep our hands open for fear of what may be taken away.
And that is where the Eucharist
is at the heart of receiving and giving. The Eucharist reminds us that Jesus
gave Himself totally for us and to us. As the Bread of Life He continues to feed
us from within so that we will have the willingness and strength to keep our hands open in giving to others. How fitting it is that we hold out our hands to receive Jesus’ body and blood, the gifts of life. May we keep those hands open as giving hands as we leave the church to go into the
activities of the week. May our hands always be open hands, helping hands, hands
that bless as they have been blessed, touched by the Body of Christ.