Weekly Edgework #29 - Jan. 17, 2005

Value and Vulnerability

The newborn child and the dying elder both remind us of the preciousness of our lives. Let’s not forget the preciousness and vulnerability of life during the times we are powerful, successful and popular (Henri Nouwen, in Bread for the Journey).

It seems that as one grows older one becomes increasingly aware of how valuable and vulnerable life really is - that is, if we open our minds and hearts to what is happening within us and around us. In my own case, it is more than two years now since I was forced to leave the work I loved because of failing health. This past October, my twenty-year-old nephew was gunned down in Winnipeg, leaving a family still searching for answers and healing. Early in November, the prolific writing career of a 56-year-old lawyer and Mennonite historian in my hometown came to an end when he died of colon cancer. A few weeks later a friend from my church was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and now is quietly and peacefully awaiting his death. Then in early December, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor on the kidney of a very precious soul-mate and mentor of mine. He is awaiting surgery at the earliest possible date and we are all hopeful.

On the other end of the spectrum, my second grandchild was born on December 6th. When Kezia Ruth Kaylene was first handed to me, I held her gingerly, afraid that I might break something or hurt her in some way. Although healthy and strong as far as babies go, from my perspective she seemed so frail and vulnerable. Indeed if she would not receive tender, loving care she could not survive on her own. She is fortunate to have parents and an extended family who will provide this for her to the best of their abilities.

Back at the other end of life, my sister-in-law’s father passed away at 85 years this past Monday. Ruth commented yesterday that during the past year or so she, and each of her siblings, have lost a parent-in-law. This past Monday I attended the funeral of a 72-year-old former neighbor who had spent his last ten years locked up in the Selkirk Mental Institution – a sad ending to a sad life. Last night a friend in his fifties was taken to the hospital with a severe headache caused by a growth in his middle ear. Also last night an old friend, now living elsewhere, called to request prayers for her husband suffering from the after effects of a stroke.

I suppose it is a universal dream that all will go well all the time - at least for me and my house! Sometimes this dream is cloaked in religious garb. If you pull the right strings, you are told, you will experience nothing but prosperity on every front. At other times this dream is simply the product of denial of the obvious. And in the prime of life – especially when one has tasted power, success and popularity – it may appear that this universal dream is coming true, at least for you.

But from the vantage-point of those who have experienced vulnerabilities and losses of various kinds, it is actually quite humorous to watch the strutting of the strong. Like peacocks in mating season, they often flaunt their successes and their apparent invincibility. Sometimes there is even a hint of disdain and condescension present when referring to those who do not match their level of bravado. Actually it is not funny; it is sad. Sad, because whether they like it or not, their day of vulnerability is coming, perhaps sooner than they think. To deny that is to live with illusion.

Life has value, not because it makes us perpetually healthy, wealthy and wise; but because it is vulnerable. It’s like the pink lily that blooms in my garden in the summer. It is not precious because it is capable of withstanding abuse and the bite of Canadian frost. It can easily be trampled underfoot – destroyed in a second. It is vulnerable indeed. But that is precisely what makes it so precious. I place great value on the pink lily displaying its splendor in my garden in mid-summer - not because it will last forever - but because I know it is vulnerable and its beauty will soon fade.

We know how valuable life is by noting how we enter it and how we leave it. The covers of the book of life are constructed of things frail and vulnerable. But it is a common temptation to forget this as we wind our way from the front cover of our lives to the back. We praise strong, intelligent, and successful persons. We make heroes of them and challenge each other to succeed like they did. That is until we begin to experience the unraveling of our DNA or that of our friends. Gradually we become aware of how precious life is because it begins and ends with vulnerability.

Meanwhile trophies, plaques and certificates go to those who, for the moment at least, are given permission to think of themselves as better than others. A while back a “bouquet of the week” was given to someone in my church every Sunday for some outstanding service she or he had performed. I began to notice that these bouquets were always given to obvious achievers – never to those whose value could not be quantified in some measurable or describable way. What kind of a message were we sending to the weak and vulnerable among us – those who needed, more than others perhaps, the affirmation of their worth?

Life is valuable because it is vulnerable. Once we learn this we will begin living for all its worth.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these (Matthew 6:28-29).