See the previous blog post on Jack Summerfield from the Image Bearers series.
FEBRUARY 21, 2020
It might be easier for most to value a man like Jack Summerfield who, at 84 years old, hangs out at JJ Bean, has obvious wit, and intelligently thinks through theological questions. But what evaluations are made in our hearts when we observe those elderly men and women who aren’t so mobile? Or verbal? Or cognitive? How do we understand that these men and women are created in the image of God, and granted the same value and meaningful lives as the young in our city?
While the elderly are highly valued and respected in countries such as Greece, Korea, and India, the perceived value of elderly individuals in North America seems to steadily decline with age. Beyond the obvious knowledge and wisdom we are relinquishing in such a youth-obsessed culture, the disregard of those who have lived beyond our years, most importantly, distorts our understanding of humanity, and the truth that we all hold value.
Today, as I sit down to write, my grandmother is taking her last breaths of life. On January 22nd, this remarkable woman named Doreen turned ninety-one years old, signalling nearly a century of life filled with hardship, love, joy, trauma, prayer, caring, and being cared for. Much like Jack, my grandma has embodied a solid faith in God, and a quick witted sense of humour —which I believe were both God’s gift to her as she persevered through a lifetime of pain. As a grandchild who grew up only knowing the love of my grandparents—the ugly reality of domestic abuse having been veiled with a thick black curtain—the true depth of grandma’s faith was not revealed to me until later in life. It was approximately five years ago, after being moved to a care facility out of concern for her mental and physical wellbeing, that the value of her commitment to God and the inherent value of her life became increasingly apparent to me.
My grandma—a woman who was treated like a worthless human being by the man who was supposed to love and protect her—is one of the oppressed image bearers of God. Moving to a care home for the elderly, she has also become one of the devalued in our culture. Yet this woman who freely rode horseback in the open country, who hiked into the mountains, baled hay, walked with grizzly bears, and fed every wandering hungry individual who came across their ranch was created to image God. Further, as one who progressively lost the home she loved, the marriage she hoped in, and the memory and ability which enabled her to care for others and be independent, my grandmother has continued to image God.
Today, currently succumbing to pneumonia and barely resembling who she once was, my grandma has not relinquished one ounce of her value. Doreen is a woman who has lost her memory and physical ability, but she has not lost her story, or her personhood. Those of us who are able must challenge our natural inclinations to equate value and purpose with ability and cognition—we must wrestle with these dangerous thoughts. Is it true that the deterioration of one’s memory redefines one’s value as a human being? Is it not within God’s capabilities to use the loss of memory for some good? I took a course by Professor John Swinton last year, and he asked us to consider how we might be called to hold peoples’ memories as an act of love and an act of affirming each other’s value in the midst of dementia. Might this be one way God wants us to function as the body of Christ? For the strong in memory to hold the weak? (1 Cor 12:21-26). How might God use this experience of recalling another’s life to encourage our faith? Can you imagine if instead of weakness, we all continually lived as strong able-bodied beings? How then would we know our need of God? How would we ever have the opportunity to live in humble reliance on a Saviour? When we turn our eyes to Jesus and the love he poured out with his blood on the cross—because of our need and our absolute inability to save ourselves—the way of weakness becomes more clear (Rom 5:6-11, 8:1-4; Eph 2:8-10; 2 Tim 1:8-10).
And what of the good God is working in and through these individuals who have nothing but the present? We live in a culture deluded by the illusion that we can be present everywhere. The reality is, however, that we are not fully present anywhere. With those elderly individuals who have no capacity to look behind or go ahead in their minds, the very moment they are living is where they are truly present. Can we see this as a gift? The people in front of us are present with us, will we be present with them? Do we see them? Hear them? Care about what is going on with them in the moment? This is how Jesus lived and loved others (Mark 1:40-42, 10:13-16; Matt 14:13-21; John 10:11-18; 1 John 4:19).
VALUE FROM ABOVE
My grandmother’s value is not tied to what she can remember or what she can do, nor is it tied to who people say she is or what she can offer them. Her value is in the truth that she has a God who knows and loves her (Ps 139; Matt 10:31), who calls her daughter (Rom 8:16-17), beloved (1 John 3:1-2), and she is forgiven (Eph 2:4-10; Rom 8:1-2). If you are a child of God, if you have accepted the truth and power of God’s love to redeem you from sin, this value from above is also yours. There is nothing that can diminish our value because God is the One who names His people:
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. . . you are precious in my eyes, and honoured, and I love you . . . Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you . . . everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isa 43:1-7)
There is nothing that can diminish our value, because God is the One who holds His children in His hands:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39)
God has used my grandmother’s life and these last days before she meets Jesus to remind me of how I am weak and in need of a Saviour. This frail woman who lies in her bed, completely dependent on those around her, images God to me: loving or being loved, knowing or being known, serving or being served, she points to Jesus. I am so thankful for the gift of her life, and for how even today, moments before she meets her Saviour, God shines through her (2 Cor 12:9-10). All praise to the One who wisely created image bearers with long lives, enabling those of us who are younger to witness something of God.
*On February 24th, 2020, Doreen met Jesus, and began a new journey through fragrant fields of wildflowers.