She’d like to walk in on her own. She’s tired of being treated like a child. Even if you have to hold onto someone’s arm, people treat you differently when you’re standing on your own two feet. But she can’t. After ninety-two years, nothing works the way it used to.
And that’s just the problem. On a good day, she knows who she is, remembers her family, the close relatives anyway, and can help a little when people are trying to take care of her. She hates that part, but even on a good day, she needs help. So she lets them do it. Otherwise, the good days aren’t too bad.
She doesn’t get very many good days anymore.
And that’s why she’s rolling into the lawyer’s office in her wheelchair, propelled by hands that she raised toward a destiny she doesn’t want.
But she understands. She’s become a burden, a drain on the family. She wishes it could be different, but it’s not. The time has come.
Shaking hands wrinkled by too many hours spent washing dishes, drying tears, and holding sweaty, anxious palms, she takes the pen, hesitates, and signs.
At least now she won’t be alone so much. Death has some perks.
He never moves. Six months, and he’s never even flinched. Not once. Sure, they roll him over every few hours to make sure he doesn’t develop bed sores, being careful not to tangle the plastic tubes that are the only things keeping him alive. But he never moves on his own. He can’t. Not anymore.
That night is still a blur. A phone call at midnight, a parent’s worst nightmare. Rushing to the hospital and waiting through impossible hours for the surgery to end. Then the days of uncertainty, followed by the weeks of growing concern, ending in the months of numb resignation.
The doctors say he isn’t there. He’s been gone since the accident. What’s on the bed is just a physical shell kept “alive” by the miracle of science. Not a person.
But I can see him. He’s right in front of me, fragile and weak, but still my son.
Pull the plug. What a tragic euphemism. Even if it’s just a body, that’s not a toaster.
But I still don’t know what to do. My son. He never moves. Neither can I.
Innocent. Can any word capture better that smile, those eyes, these tiny hands resting so comfortably in my own calloused palms, giant in comparison? I didn’t think it was possible to love someone so deeply in just a few hours. She can’t speak, she doesn’t know who I am, she probably doesn’t even know that I am, but I love her anyway.
Vulnerable. Now she’s asleep, not a care in the world. I’ve been trying for hours, and I still can’t sleep. Too many thoughts, worries, and plans coursing through my brain. And the nurses checking in every thirty minutes doesn’t help. But there she is, resting safely, trusting completely.
Unique. A part of me, but, even after just a few short hours, already so much more, already starting to become her own person.
He doesn’t understand. You can see it in his eyes. The jeers and jests fly past his uncomprehending ears. The hurtful names mean nothing to him. He just smiles.
After a few minutes, someone sees what’s going on. An adult steps in to take control and stop the abuse. It never got violent, but it was still abuse. Does it matter that he didn’t understand?
The other kids seem to think so. They laugh just like every other time. For them, it’s like petting a cat backwards or tying firecrackers to a dog’s tail.
And, when he grows up, I wonder if anything will change. His lopsided face and slurred speech will still tell people that he’s not like them. And they’ll treat him that way.
Different. Other. Less.
When We Deny the Image…
What do these four scenes have in common? It’s simple. Each involves someone whose humanity has been questioned in recent years: the elderly, the incapacitated, the very young, and the handicapped.
If you doubt, just read those modern “ethicisists” who want us to reconsider what it means to be human. From their perspective, human and person are qualitative terms. And you are more or less a human person based on the extent to which you manifest the capacities and abilities commensurate with being human. If you can think well, make moral decisions, and engage in interpersonal relationships, you should be fine. If you can’t do one of more of these, then it’s time to question whether you really deserve the rank and status of human person, along with the rights and protections that we give ourselves.
And, to be honest, I don’t see much difference between these modern ethicists and those Christians who argue that we should define the image of God in terms of human capacities. I know that most of them aren’t trying to say the same thing, but you know what they say about good intentions. In the end, it comes down to the same thing. If we are images of God because of our abilities, then anyone who lacks those abilities isn’t really an image bearer. That seems like a reasonable conclusion.
And this is no abstract moral dilemma. This is a question about how we treat our grandmothers and our children, those incapacitated by the vicissitudes of life and those handicapped by the tragedies of birth.
Images of God in a Broken World
But being images of God is so much more than our capacities. We don’t image God because we have the right abilities. We image God because God has graciously chosen to manifest his glorious presence through us in his creation.
And that means the image of God isn’t primarily about anything that we do or earn. The image is something God does. The image is a gift.
And that’s true for the most brilliant as well as the most mentally challenged, the most “virtuous” and the most sinful, the most loving and the most lonely. The image of God isn’t a status to be earned but a gift to be received.
So every human, regardless of their “capacities” is a child of God made in the image of God. It doesn’t matter if their bodies are falling apart from too many years on this earth, incapacitated by accident, simply immature, or handicapped at birth. They’re still image bearers, called by God to a magnificent vocation, along with all the rest of his children.
We must not forget.
I realize that there are still difficult decisions to be made. To those whose children or family members have been harmed by this tragic world so that they face terrible decisions about whether and how to sustain their broken lives, I can only extend my deepest sorrow. I have never faced such a decision and can only hope that I never do.
But, at the same time, I pray that in the midst of your decision you continue you see that person as one of God’s children, created in his image, called to manifest his glorious presence in creation, granted dignity by this magnificent destiny.
God doesn’t need our capacities to image himself through us. That he does in any of us is always a gift to be cherished, a stunning reminder of God’s constant grace.
Images of God.
[We've been exploring what it means to be made in the image of God. In the first half of our series, we focused on what "image of God" means in the Bible. Now we're turning our attention to whether the image of God matters in the everyday world. The short answer is yes. The long answer will take a little more time. Follow along.]