Vulnerable Beauty

What do we make of the person in our midst who, according to this world’s measure of value, has little or nothing to “bring to the table”?

The boy with cerebral palsy, dependent on his caregiver for the most basic of tasks. The woman made homeless by circumstances outside of her control. The lady next door with Alzheimer’s. The man with Down Syndrome. The young person who, through no fault of her own, never had the opportunity to receive education and is unable to find paid work.

In a society where human value is commodity-value, the ability to enter into relations of exchange and reciprocity, what makes these people valuable in and of themselves? Where is their worth to be found?

Where is their place in a worldview that measures human value on the sliding scale of autonomy, freedom, self-expression, productivity, exchange?

And where will our value be when our security, health and wealth falls like a tower of cards, subjected to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”?

Whatever grounds the value of human life, it cannot be what Western society says it is.

It cannot be economic or exchange value, for that would exclude the unemployed and homeless.

It cannot be reason or intellectual ability, for that would exclude those with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.

It cannot be autonomy or freedom of expression, for that would exclude the voiceless, the forgotten-about, the oppressed, those on the fringes.

It cannot be strength, beauty, or riches, for that would exclude the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the powerless, those who do not live up to the standards of beauty provided by fickle culture.

There must be something deeper, something more foundational, that gives worth to life. The image of God cannot be found in the functions and activities accorded value by our economically driven society.

The truth of what the human is is simply this: to be loved into existence by the God who is Love. 

Our existence is entirely gratuitous. We exist by nothing but the overflow of divine love, lovingly willed into being by the God who loves to create. The image of God dwells in us simply because we are. That which makes us valuable before God is not our ability, autonomy, economic worth, but simply that we are made by Him and stand in relation with Him.

In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it (1 Timothy 6:7). We are dust breathed into life by the Spirit of God (Genesis 2:7). We are not responsible for our being. We did not even create ourselves; much less are we able to exercise creative autonomy over the world. We are subject to it, dependent on it.  Our existence comes from outside of us.

We are the products of sheer grace, sheer mercy, and therefore truly vulnerable before God. God has opened Himself up to us in creating us, and our lives are open before Him, truly dependent, finite, contingent on Him for our every breath and our very existence.

In the bodies and lives of those who appear in our midst as helpless and vulnerable, we are confronted most starkly with the true nature common to all of us. In this fragile, interdependent world, all of us are vulnerable, finite, limited.

If we have been blessed with “able” bodies, these will perish. If we have been blessed with wealth, this will fade away. Our minds will deteriorate, our beauty will fade. What is true of Peter is true of us all; “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

Whatever makes human life truly beautiful, truly valuable, it is not our perfect bodies and perfect minds. It cannot be our quality of life. It is not our supposed “rights” and freedoms which could, for whatever reason, be taken from us at any moment.

It is simply that we are beloved by the God who lovingly created us, lovingly sustains us, and lovingly entered into relationship with us, by entering into the vulnerable, weak body of a human being in Jesus Christ. 

The acceptance of our mutual vulnerability and finitude radically alters the way we do church. The church cannot – must not – mirror society’s measure of value, based on autonomy, exchange-value and success. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is a place for all, not just the beautiful, the well-off, the able-bodied. Our communion must not be a gallery of the middle- or upper-classes, but a place of welcome for all and sundry.

Because when we come together, we acknowledge that before God, we are all like grass. All is from Him, for Him, to Him. We have nothing that did not first come from Him. Beauty fades, our bodies weaken, our wealth perishes, but His eternal love for us remains, in spite of it all. 

All that matters, the only thing that defines us and grounds the value of our being, is that we are beloved by God. The image of God dwells in us simply because He is, and we are. We are loved into existence by Him, out of the gratuity and overflow of His love, by His Spirit.

The God who is Love dwells in our midst. His beckoning voice shatters our value-systems and worldview. In the Kingdom, there is no hierarchy based on productivity or use-value.

In this kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first. Let our communion acknowledge this, showing prejudice to no-one, standing in solidarity with all, for we are all one, for we share one nature.

The Lord is like a father to his children,
    tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are;
    he remembers we are only dust.
Our days on earth are like grass;
    like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone—
    as though we had never been here.
But the love of the Lord remains forever
    with those who fear him.
His salvation extends to the children’s children
of those who are faithful to his covenant,
    of those who obey his commandments!”

Psalm 103:13-18

The Productivity God

Peering back into my childhood with rose-tinted spectacles, everything seemed so much simpler than it does now.

Back then time was always at a premium. Summer days were filled with time to draw and play with my favourite toys and go cycling with dad and sit nonchalantly in boredom. “Leisure time” was frequent and regular, not the rare commodity that it is now.

These days, on the other hand, I find that I’m rarely bored, because I don’t have time to be bored. Days are for work and to-do lists, for deadlines and emails, for social engagements and time spent with others. From the moment the alarm goes off in the morning to laying down at night, every action is coordinated, where possible, into a pattern of productivity and efficiency: spontaneity happens in the brief commas between diary appointments.

In this busy blur, life swings between shades of anxiety and excitement, of good times and difficult times, times of great breakthrough and times of draining disappointment. Caffeine is fuel for the fire of this constant busyness. Moments alone in silence are few and far between in the loudness of this 21st century living.

This none-stop busyness, masked as “productivity,” is a secret sickness with a myriad of symptoms: constantly checking your phone and emails in the worry of missing something important. Incessantly fretting about how much you have to do and how little time you have to do it. A calendar blocked out with no time for solitude at either end of the day. Burning the candle at both ends; early mornings and late nights to try and fit everything in. Befriended by lethargy and apathy as you are absorbed in your own world of demands and personal commitments. Not being “fully present,” either with others or before God. Crushing anxiety and fear that time is slipping from your hands.

I say all this as a sort of self-diagnosis. This busy season of life has, in many ways, been a wake-up call about the silent menace of endless activity. The way we spend our time is the most telling measuring-line of the things we value most in this world; the minutes we spend in busyness are offerings to our self-made gods.

So often, we sacrifice those things most important to us in the name of the god of productivity.

For me, that sacrifice has so often been my prayer-life. Yes, I sacrifice prayer – that most important, necessary, life-giving communion between creature and Creator, between son and Father – the well of strength for the weak man able only to depend on God.

And yet, this is what I offer up to the god of productivity. In the brief moments snatched in prayer on my busy days, there is a mental block between God and I because my mind is filled with so many other pressing matters and anxieties. But what is more pressing than the urgency of prayer? Even more telling is that, at other times, I forego praying altogether – all in the name of being more productive.

I might be the only one who struggles in this area. But I’m afraid I’m not.

The way we spend our time is the most telling measuring-line of the things we value most in this world.

The god of productivity is a lie, a scheme to rob you of that which is most important in this world. We need to take back what he has stolen. Enjoyment of time spent in communion with the Father is the most important pursuit of the Christian who, having been clothed in Christ, now calls upon Him as “Abba,” as a child, as one beloved.

This post isn’t a treatment, but a diagnosis. It isn’t a judgement, but a self-reflection. Nor is it morbid introspection, but a confession that I hope some will resonate with. Most of all, it is a hope for what could be and a stand against what is.

All it takes is a change of perspective. The psalmist says,

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Ps. 127:1, 2, ESV).

The way we spend our time indicates what we worship. The reason we fall before the lure of productivity is because this world measures success in results, activity, products and outcomes. The economy of heaven, on the other hand, offers a radically different account of success.

In this economy, it is not what you have done that is important, but who you become. The enslaved soul becoming a son. The beggar finding a place at the king’s table. The sinner redeemed, the thief forgiven, the broken made whole, the homeless homed, and the poor man given hope.

And this gives us a totally new perspective on how we use our time. No longer are we a slave to results, but a soul postured before the Saviour, growing in Him, receiving grace after grace that overcomes all striving and incessant working. It takes surrender, but who is more worthy of surrendering all – our time included – than Him?

As Jesus famously said to Martha, “You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41,42).

And what is that “one thing”?

Simply to dwell with Him