The door opened and a teenager with dwarfism boarded the near-empty subway car. I will not say he “suffered” with dwarfism because I don’t know how he felt about this genetic fact of his life. I suspect, though, being a teenager can be tough enough without being born a little person.
And a little person with a broken leg. Casted from toe to knee, he used a small crutch for balance. A stuffed backpack was slung over his shoulders. His hair was neatly combed to the side, like it might be school picture day, and he wore a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses. He crutched past at least four empty seats and hopped up onto the seat next to me. He tipped his head up, looked at me from behind the sunglasses and smiled kindly.
We rode, in what seemed to me companionable silence; his thigh against mine, his shoulder leaning against my upper arm. Two stops later, he hopped from the seat onto his good foot and disembarked without a backward glance.
I was riding the subway downtown to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto for cancer treatments. Up until 2006, I had enjoyed robust health and — may I say with all humility — good looks. Now I had a slab of bone and skin from my back sewn to my face. Radiation treatments left me bald and burned, with an ear that looked like a dog’s chew toy and a perpetually oozing eyeball. I was a stranger in a strange land.
During my daily radiation subway rides, I was reading Marva Dawn’s Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. Dawn contends that God makes a home in those who are weak and powerless. Just as the young man boarded the train, I read the part of Dawn’s book where she quotes Paul: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.”
Words I already knew, intellectually. I understood about welcoming brokenness, about finding community through vulnerability. I preached it, but so far had managed to keep my own frailty at arm’s length. Like most people in our culture, I lived, as much as possible, from my strengths. My own weakness was a source of shame.
When that young man sat beside me — when he smiled, and I saw myself mirrored in those aviator glasses — I thought, “So this is you, God, come to sit with me.” Paul’s words dropped from my head to my heart. I saw myself through the eyes of the Presence: fragile, broken and beautiful. It is not in spite of my earthen-vesselness but because of it that God comes to sit with me, to set up residence in me.
Those 2,000-year-old words came to life in a new way. Paul wrote them to the Corinthians in defence of his own fragility. Concerns were being expressed about his physical weakness and lack of oratory skills, and even of his deceit. He wrote to remind the Corinthians of God’s historic inclination to dwell in those who are weak.
Lately, it is the first half of the quote that jazzes me. Sure, I am an earthen vessel — aging, confused, forgetful, imperfect — and I have this treasure. I bear the Divine in my limping corporeal body, in my fragile soul and wounded life. Is that not a breathtakingly exciting and beautiful thing? I. You. We. “We have this treasure . . .”
We all do. We have it in our imperfect families and communities, in our misshapen dreams for the future and our fearful clinging to the past. It may become distorted, forgotten or rejected, but by God, we have it! We have this treasure that Paul calls “the light of the gospel” in us. It is so remarkable, so outlandish, that I can only comprehend it in sips.
Giuliano is a former United Church moderator and a minister with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont. This piece was published in the March 2015 issue of The United Church Observer (www.ucobserver.org) and is reprinted with permission.