Last Sunday, after taking the morning service, I walked up the road here in Newlyn in the pouring rain. The gutters were awash; a veritable flood poured down the road. I had been talking at church about the River Jordan and here it seemed to be, the Jordan in Newlyn, rushing down Paul Hill. Something caught my eye.
A tiny swell of water in the kerbside stream, a little wave, if you like; quite beautiful, actually, with the light playing on it. “What’s causing that?” I wondered with my childlike curiosity, and stooped to look closely. In this great wash of water, cascading down a steep hill, a tiny leaf, smaller than my thumb, lay curled in the flow, arched against the flood. What anchored it to the tarmac, I have no idea. There seemed to be no reason it should hold its position in the face of the torrent. But there it was. The leaf held its place and, I noticed, inside the bow of the leaf, downstream, the flood rushing over and around, was a place of shelter and calm. I thought, see how that little thing, that tiny leaf, separated from the strength of the tree from which it had come loose, and from which, ultimately it drew its life; see how that tiny thing is able to resist the power of the stream. Even in its vulnerability, even in its death, it gave the possibility of shelter.
Reflecting on this some more, I found myself thinking about people I have known who, like that leaf, displayed a strength that belied their circumstances, and gave more than might have been expected of them. Anne Graham Lotz, said, “When the storms of life come, if they come to me personally, to my family or to the world, I want to be strong enough to stand and be a strength to somebody else, be shelter for somebody else.”
A praiseworthy ambition but my experience has been that it is often the vulnerable who have most to offer, the frail who may give strength to others, the seemingly fragile who offer healing from their own weakness.
When I worked for Social Services, many years ago now, I remember visiting a man who was terminally ill. Ostensibly, I was there to help him, and I think, I hope, I did. But what struck me about that man was that I always came away feeling uplifted. I was much younger then and not aware how often this might be the case.
Some years later, by now a minister, I found myself visiting a woman in the local hospice, again terminally ill. These were precious moments as we talked and I fed her sorbet, the only food that she could really cope with. I remember her saying what nice hands I had. (When I was in the building trade, and my hands were rough and calloused but I suppose I’d gone soft – in the hand anyway). A strange thing to remember, but her attention to me suggests, for me at least, that the distinction between strong and weak, between helper and helped is not as clear as we might think.
A teenage girl, knowing that she has not long to live but full of life and vitality as we discussed, almost in passing and as you might the weather, what we wanted to happen to us when we die. An inspiration to many in her life and throughout her illness, she retains a place in my heart and the lives of many more as in her weakness she lifted others.
Then there is a younger girl still. She has suffered with very serious illness more than many will do in a long lifetime though her age has not reached double figures. I have been privileged to watch this girl grow, confounding the expectations of many. Limited in her mobility, limited even more in her language, subject still to a condition which continues to threaten her life she possesses a character and a smile that lights the room and lifts all in her presence.
These are, perhaps, extreme examples of weakness and vulnerability powerfully established in my mind to illustrate my point. Nevertheless, there are many others, in the ordinary run of life who, though they may believe themselves to have little to offer, brighten our days, strengthen our resolve, lift our spirits. These people I have shared with you and whom I have been greatly privileged to know are some among the many whose love and compassion, even from positions of weakness and vulnerability enrich our lives and help us to travel our roads.
One of my favourite pictures of human community is that we all bear the task of being wounded healers. We need each other and even in our woundedness, even in our weakness, perhaps because of them, we can offer a place or presence of calm or shelter, a place to grow, a place to heal even as we might receive the same from another.
To those I have mentioned, and to the many I have not, who have done just that for me: thank you.