February 2020 – Dependence and Vulnerability

A five year episode concerning my health has come to something of a conclusion. In 2014 I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder called sarcoidosis, which, in my case, caused inflammation in my lungs and lymph glands. The symptoms included wheeziness, an annoying cough and what I now realise was an unhealthy tiredness. Initially, the condition was monitored over a period of years before the decision was taken in April 2018 to treat the condition with some industrial strength steroids.

The subsequent improvement in lung X-rays was obvious and immediate, as inflammation receded and, after 6 months, it was decided to wean me off the medication. I am pleased to report that this process was completed in October of last year. This is a great relief as the side-effects of medication were much worse than the symptoms of the disease!

Remarkably, over this period of time, I have been able to live and work as normal. In fact, during more than 31 years of ministry I have only been signed off work once, for ten days, and that was in the aftermath of the minor surgery in 2014 which was required to obtain the initial diagnosis. This is due, surely, to the goodness of God in the prayerful support of the fellowship here in Trinity. I want to thank you!

The whole episode has caused me to reflect on the reality of my dependence on others, and, most importantly, dependence upon God. There is nothing like an experience of helplessness, and an accompanying sense of weakness, to cure the arrogance of self-sufficiency and the nonsense of (inappropriate) independence. Having enjoyed an unblemished record of good health for my entire life, I found it deeply troubling to find my body beginning to malfunction. After decades of visiting the sick – those whose lives were dominated by hospital visits, tests, endless consultations and the side effects of medication – I suddenly found myself sharing their experience. I was sick myself, and I needed the help and expertise and advice of others as never before. I was no longer the (imaginary) Munro-conquering, Duracell-bunny who could rise triumphantly on my own to conquer every challenge. I needed others. And a good thing too!

There is a dangerous arrogance in self-sufficiency that is spiritually damaging. We need the weaknesses and humiliations of life to teach us humility, and it is precisely such humility that brings us closer to a humble and crucified Saviour.

Being dependent upon others is surely part of what it means to be human. We have been designed by God not to be fiercely independent creatures who never demonstrate weakness, but as dependent beings who only flourish in communities of support. We begin our lives as helpless babies, utterly dependent on the love and care of others; as we grow to adulthood we find that others may depend on us; then as age begins to take its toll we may well need the care and support of others once again.

John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College London. As a Christian, he has written very helpfully on medical ethics. In his excellent book ‘Right to die?’ he describes visiting his mother, when she was in full-time care. He often found himself, sitting patiently by her, feeding her yoghurt at lunchtime. As he did so, he reflected on how, when he was a helpless, dependent baby, his mother would do this for him, and in doing so she was learning what it meant to be a mother. Now, as he fed her yoghurt in the helplessness of her latter years, he was now learning what it meant to be a son

Often I hear people saying that they do not wish to be a burden on others, but surely part of being human, as God made us, is that we should be a burden – not in the sense of being unreasonably demanding, but in the humble acceptance of help when we need it. Families and communities and certainly church fellowships are meant to be places where burdens are shared. Paul wrote to the Galatians about what it means to be part of a Christian fellowship and urged the believers to:

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ”  Galatians 6:2

Despite what our culture demands, we are not meant to be heroic individualists who plough our way through life completely insulated from others. God has designed us to be mutually dependent and to enter into our true humanity with Christ-like humility.

Let me close with a quote from John Stott:

‘Christ himself takes on the dignity of dependence. He is born a baby, totally dependent on the care of his mother. He needs to be fed, he needs his bottom to be wiped, he needs to be propped up when he rolls over. And yet he never loses his divine dignity. And at the end, on the cross, he again becomes totally dependent, limbs pierced and stretched, unable to move. So in the person of Christ we learn that dependence does not, cannot, deprive a person of their dignity, of their supreme worth. And if dependence was appropriate for the God of the universe, it is certainly appropriate for us.’

Your minister

Martin Thomson