Jumping to her feet while raising her voice, the team member cried out, “It’s all about safety!”
During a meeting at the high school, prior to his graduation, we were discussing the pros and cons of various employment options for my son Tim, who has Down syndrome. Stunned by this unexpected turn of events in what was supposed to be a planning session for exploring job possibilities, I retorted, “Well, if ‘it’s all about safety,’ why are we even here? Why don’t we just get a cardboard box and a roll of duct tape and put him in it! I thought this was all about finding Tim employment, while doing it as safely as possible!”
Granted, this was not my most self-controlled parenting moment. However, now that Tim has successfully been working at his job for five years, I would like to think that maybe I instinctively understood something that I just didn’t patiently put into eloquent words at the time. Upon reflection in retrospect, the nagging question around that table was: “What is it that affords a human being with dignity in the face of both their abilities and their vulnerabilities?”
On Abilities and Vulnerability
My son Tim works as a Front Porch Attendant (read: “Cart Man”) for a local grocery store. He exercises a wonderful capacity for meaningful action in his work of serving customers. At the same time, he is exposed to genuinely meaningful risk in the parking lot of moving cars and ever-changing weather conditions. The customers whose lives have been changed by his cheerful and loving service will confirm that he does not belong in a box with duct tape where he is utterly “safe” but unable to express his gifts. That said, of course, we have worked hard to provide safety training and practical tools that help Tim to flourish in his God-imaging work. He wears bright, reflective clothing. He sports a flashing light on his coat in the winter. He is appropriately dressed each day for the ever-variable weather conditions of Central Pennsylvania. And he has learned to stay inside when the snow plow is racing through the parking lot during a snowstorm. However, he does not operate in a risk-free environment.
Andy Crouch, author of Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing writes, “I have come to believe that the image of God is not just evident in our authority over creation—it is also evident in our vulnerability in the midst of creation.” It is this coexistence of authority—which Crouch defines as “capacity for meaningful action,” and vulnerability—which Crouch defines as “exposure to meaningful risk” that promotes flourishing in the context of the human community. If this picture of image-bearing causes you to raise your eyebrows a bit, you’re not alone. Most of us want to understand image-bearing exclusively in terms of our God-given abilities—not in the context of the vulnerabilities that we experience in life. We tend to think of life more like accountants: Abilities = Assets. Vulnerabilities = Liabilities. We too assume, “It’s all about safety!”
Instead, Crouch calls us to consider something different—to think about the example of Jesus, the second Adam, the God-Man—who lived a perfect life at the intersection of high authority and high vulnerability. According to Colossians 1:15, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. We image God when, like Jesus, we reflect the essence of God’s character through both our capacities and our vulnerabilities in this world. And we do so in relationship with God, others and creation.
So, what exactly does that mean in practice?
On Imaging God in Our Abilities and Vulnerabilities
First, the fact that we may experience exposure to significant risk (vulnerability) in this life does not exclude us from imaging God. In fact, if Crouch is correct, it is an essential part of the multi-faceted way in which we image him. In Strong and Weak, Crouch describes this by examining the life of his niece, Angela, who had profound, multiple disabilities. In a similar way, consider what this might look like, for example, in the life of a person with dementia. All of us either have had, or will have, the experience of knowing someone with dementia. While every person has finite abilities, a person with the progressive, degenerative condition of dementia possesses a more limited (and regularly diminishing) capacity for meaningful action. This diminishing capacity corresponds to an ever-increasing exposure to meaningful risk. This does not mean, however, that they are without the capacity for any meaningful action. At a minimum, their very existence in a state of high vulnerability calls forth expressions of God’s character from others in image-bearing work.
Many years ago, a friend of mine told me, “To love someone is to call them forth, with the loudest and most insistent of calls, to be all that God created them to be.” The ability of the individual with deep needs to call forth love from others opens the potential for a greater capacity for love in their caregivers. This “calling forth” is love in action. As those who have cared for a person with profound disabilities know so well, this exposure to the needs of a loved one also creates a vulnerability of the caregiver’s own. This “vulnerability shifting,” in turn, increases the capacity for meaningful action of the person with the disability. This too is love in action. There is a dance—a beautifully beneficial and simultaneously very costly dance—of the interdependent interplay of capacity for meaningful action and exposure to meaningful risk on the part of the entire community of which a person with significant needs is a member. Possessing high levels of vulnerability in this life does not exclude us from image-bearing, in fact, it can be a means of image-bearing after the pattern of Jesus.
Secondly, we are not image-bearers in isolation. We image God within communities of people. We image God as male and female together. We image God around the world in the mosaic of races and nationalities. Image bearing is not an autonomous task. It is an interdependent reality. This is tremendously freeing. You and I are simply, yet amazingly, given the high calling to reflect God’s character together in the limited expression of our God-given human capacities and in the context of our own vulnerabilities. And this all takes place in the finite community of web of relationships in which we have been ordained by God to operate. We are to help others to flourish by living our lives alongside of them, in ways that reflect God’s character—through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit—and encouraging them to do the same.
Finally, we are free to be finite and to even be frail. If we image God together, by reflecting God’s character not only through our finite capacities but also through our exposure to meaningful risk, we do not need to hide our limitations, nor do we need to be ashamed of our needs. These too are tools in the Redeemer’s hands, for reflecting his glory. We do not flourish in cardboard and duct tape. We flourish in communities that reflect the character of God in our interdependent exercise of limited capacity and vulnerable frailty. “It’s not all about safety!” Just look at Jesus—who is the image of God—reflecting his Father’s character perfectly, while exercising both high authority and high vulnerability, to the point of laying down his life, so that you and I might live abundantly in relationship with God, others, and creation.
About the Author:
Steph served as Director of Mission to North America’s (MNA) Special Needs Ministries from 2007 to 2016. She currently works as a Research Fellow in Disability Ministry in partnership with Covenant Theological Seminary. She also serves on the Lancaster Christian Council on Disability (LCCD). Steph is the author of Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability and All Things Possible: Calling Your Church Leadership to Disability Ministry. She has been published in ByFaith magazine, Focus on the Family magazine, and Breakpoint online magazine and has produced a Christian Education DVD series based on Same Lake, Different Boat. Steph and her husband, Fred, have been married for 34 years. They have two deeply loved adult sons: Fred and Tim, the younger of whom has Down syndrome.