Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I went to Scotland in September. Those who know me well know that Scotland was mere subterfuge.
Not that I didn’t want to go there—Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye, has hovered on my top five travel list for quite a while. The main reason for the trip at this particular time, however, lies about 500 miles southeast of the island.
Oxford. The holy Mecca of literary snobs, particularly Lewis/Tolkien fanatics, a title which I wear without the tiniest shred of nerd shame. The Tolkien exhibit of manuscripts, paintings, and memorabilia was all this hobbit-loving heart hoped it would be.
This exhibit, as well as a morning visit to the British Library, made me ponder the future of writing. What, specifically, might generations to come of fanatics line up, or cross an ocean, to see?
Not what I saw.
On this trip, I marveled at original drawings, schematics, and words from DaVinci’s sketch books. How have they survived so long? What fantastic theories flew through his mind as he penciled those sketches? What genius rabbit holes was he considering plumbing as he wrote?
I smiled at Jane Austen’s lovely, dense cursive on a page on her own writing desk. Thinking of her hand on the page conjuring those works brought her whole being alive, sitting there, smiling back at me, inviting investigation.
Actual tears came when I peered (I did have to peer, because the room was dark, and there were a zillion people) at Tolkien’s handwritten charge,
“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”
I saw it. I heard it. I nearly went to battle myself.
This is the power of the written word. More specifically, it’s the power of the handwritten word. Handwritten words can make me cry. Especially when they are words I know and love.
On a more prosaic level, handwriting doesn’t have to be famous. My daughter recently found photos of my husband in his elementary school years. They have his mother’s writing on their backs, carefully penned notes about who, what, where, and when. The professional archivist in my daughter winces at the ink on the backs of photos. The word lover in her carefully places the written-upon photos on the copier, wanting to preserve that piece of her grandmother’s hands, fingers, thoughts.
It’s the reason I have a Pinterest board of recipes, but I also have a tin box, rusted and creaky, with yellow legal paper and lined index cards and my mother’s writing covering them. I will never make the recipes—I do not have my mother’s culinary tastes. I will also never throw away those small reminders of her hands, moving across a paper, writing down something she wanted to use to nourish her family.
Maybe it’s the hands. We can’t separate handwriting from hands, and hands are so intimate, so identity-sealing. They are such symbols of personal presence.
Scripture shouts this message.
“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Isaiah 49.16
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . . and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10.27
“I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41.10
“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63.8
“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64.8
“Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139.10
“My times are in your hand.” Psalm 31.15
God’s hands on us seal our identity. They tell us who we are, and whose we are. Our identity—carved into his all-creating hands—for all eternity? Incomprehensible. As we see our hands every minute of the day most days, so God wants us to know he sees who we are, and who we are becoming, with constant attention.
His hands remind us that his Spirit and power surround us. It reminds me of the days when our 20-pound cat was a new kitten, and we could cradle him in one hand. He was safe there—a safety that God calls us to close our eyes and rest in as if we were falling back into his hands.
His hands are so personal, just like ours, forming who we are, squashing down the ugly parts of the pot on the wheel, caressing the better ones into redeemed beauty. The pot on the wheel doesn’t deserve that care—but it receives it because the potter’s hands choose to do no other thing.
His hands once reached down and became tiny fingers of flesh, reaching up from a manger. Nailed to a cross. The ultimate presence, tied up in his hands.
Hands. Handwriting. They are presence. I sobbed at Theoden’s heroic battle cry because I knew the story, and I could feel the presence of the storyteller through the ink on the page.
Sometimes I sob at the beauty of the Scripture. It’s not handwritten. Maybe it should be. Maybe we should have someone go back to the days of the scribes who slowly and carefully wrote out the words of God, illuminating letters to shine light in darkness.
But I cry because I know the story, and the Storyteller, and the hands that created it are holding me, present, always.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.