Strength in Weakness

By Kersley Fitzgerald

"...and Hank was so glad to see them he pooed on the carpet!"

CC was my first post-college friend. She was down in southern Missouri, living with her grandmother and going to school to be a speech therapist. "Hank" was the cocker spaniel I'd bought her a few years before when she'd moved to nowhere-Montana to teach in a one-room schoolhouse.

"Does he have his casts off?" I asked. The little dog had tripped down Granny's steep, narrow staircase and broken both his legs.

"Yeah. He's even losing weight since Granny can't make him bacon anymore."

"How is she?"

"She's great. Wanna talk to her?"

Shuffling noises announced the transfer of the handset.

"Well, hi there, Kersley. How are you?"

"I'm good," I said. "Dev and I are in Colorado now. We miss you — and your cookies."

"You're the only person I know who wants 'nutless' cookies."

"How are you?"

"I'm great. I have my bed, my potty right next to me, I have my remote, and CC's here to take care of me. I really have no complaints."

My throat caught — hard. Granny, who knew I didn't want pecans in my chocolate-chip cookies; who had only ever worn pants to church when she realized how cold Thanksgiving in Montana was; who had lived on her own for years — was now reliant on her granddaughter. She was dying of cancer. And she had nothing to complain about.

Ten years later, another grandmother, Helen, was dying — not from cancer, but from the radiation of cancer treatment years before. Her granddaughter stayed with her for a month, giving her daughter a much-needed break.

"She's not doing well," Dissy said. "She turned to me and said, 'I'm glad you're here. You're the only one I know who won't laugh at me.'"

As grateful as I was that Dissy was able to be there, the comment wound me up. Helen was so proud that I couldn't ever remember her voluntarily expressing weakness. I didn't know if she wasn't aware of how many people wanted to help her or if she was just too proud to accept it. But I knew it's incredibly hard to help people who need it but don't want it.

Weakness may be one of the most obvious metaphors God placed on the world. It is the curse. Death and injury to life is directly related to spiritual death and injury. When Adam and Eve chose to spiritually maim themselves, God paralleled the harm physically. For some reason, though, we are better able to recognize physical health than spiritual health. We have made spiritual woundedness the societal norm. That's where the more obvious distinction of physical health and injury comes in handy.

I have seen the spiritual side of this — stink, I've lived the spiritual side of this. We are so good at being spiritually proud. In general we can say, "I'm a sinner saved by grace, blah-blah, woof-woof." But we're horrible at being able to say, "I struggle with this sin. I struggle with this doubt. And I was wondering if you could help." Instead, we think, "They couldn't possibly help because it's obvious they struggle with this. They don't know enough/aren't mature enough/don't believe the right things about something else altogether. There's no way they could say something I'd need to hear."

There has been plenty of talk in recent years about the need for "interdependence" in the church. But where's the reality? If you suffer a traumatic injury, the civil system is prepared to send an ambulance and take you to the hospital. And the quality of care doesn't significantly depend on whether that wound was self-inflicted (or just self-idiot induced). What if, after a spectacular tumble off the proverbial wagon, someone was able to say, "That was incredibly stupid, and now I'm spiritually bleeding. I'm going to call for help and trust someone will show up." It is horribly difficult to fess up to a (temporarily) hide-able injury.

I'm trying to figure out why Dev, JT, and I have been to the doctor in the last couple of years. Self-inflicted knife wound while cutting butternut squash. Fall off monkey-bars, resulting in broken arm. Dehydration. Allergies, stress, snoring. So they boil down to recklessness, mostly-preventable reactions to a fallen world, and congenital weaknesses. Sounds like the same influences of sin. The difference is, when I'm an idiot and cut my finger with a knife, and it keeps bleeding for two hours, I go to the ER. When I'm an idiot and I do some really stupid sin, I hide. I may talk to God a little about it, but I don't call anyone and say, "I need help with this. I'm bleeding here, and I need you to speak truth to me and help me get back on my feet."

More metaphors —

CC was Granny's granddaughter. But Granny still had the humility and the grace to accept her help gratefully. Helen was a matriarch of her family and her church. She accepted help on her terms only. And if anyone tried to help outside those parameters, she cut them down and pushed them away. How often have I marginalized someone who I thought was spiritually immature and not likely to be of any use? How often have I been too proud to show weakness in front of a younger believer? One who actually had the skills and time and heart to help?

Granny's quality of life was considerably better than Helen's. I'm sure the nature of their illnesses had something to do with it, but the fact that CC was an integral part of Granny's life made a big difference. Granny talked to her. Let her know what she needed. And let her cook. Helen's problem was that the radiation from long-ago had messed up her colon. Her doctor gave her a list of things she should eat to feel better. She either refused or forgot, and ate what she wanted. Her gut got worse, she wound up malnourished, and her memory of what she was supposed to eat disappeared altogether. How different it might have been had she allowed someone to help her with that part of her semi-independent life. Spiritually, this is reflected all over the world. "I don't like church. I feel closer to God in nature." Seeking God only in nature is like living on a diet of Grape Nuts over the sink. It's good for you, but you need the meat and bread and fellowship of a real meal. God made us to need each other, and to that end, He set up the church.

One similarity was that both Granny and Helen knew they needed help. They both came to the realization that they couldn't live on their own, and they both had family willing and able to be there. The difference, of course, is that Granny wasn't afraid that needing help would somehow make her lose control. I'm not sure she even worried about keeping control. Getting sick happens. Needing help happens. She knew it didn't make her less worthy of love and respect. Helen was driven by some fear that appearing weak — even to her closest family — would irreparably damage something deep inside her. She was grateful for the help, but more grateful for those who could help while still affirming her position of authority in the world.

Spiritual parallels abound. Have you ever known someone that apologizes and makes you feel like it was your fault that you were hurt in the first place? I hate it when that happens. It's really hard to bandage someone's broken head when they refuse to get off their high horse, you know? I actually trust people more when they're able to be honest about their faults. I enjoy people more when I know where the landmines are — and know that they know their own landmines.

Wounds and illnesses and general weakness are just part of the fallen world. For the most part, we accept that we're not going to be physically perfect for any length of time. So why do we expect spiritual and moral perfection? If our spiritual weakness is what originally caused our physical brokenness, and we're still physically broken, why do we pretend our spiritual wounds don't exist?

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Published 6-20-11