As I sing the servant song during evening worship, a familiar image recurs. In my imagination, I am standing on a dock, reaching down to help someone from dangerous water. Whenever I sing, “Lord, let me lift up those who are weak,” this image occurs–with variations. Sometimes I am on shore, sometimes at the edge of quicksand.
And sometimes cynicism tempts me. I wonder as I sing, “If God put us on earth to help others, what on earth did he put the rest of us here for?” As I sing the words in this worship service, I see myself holding in my outstretched hands a strawberry pie. My husband and I have delivered one to our friend who has learned that his cancer has returned. The pie is one tiny reach-and-lift.
Singing with me in the surrounding pews, I see senior citizens in poor health, couples struggling to repair marriages, and parents of sick or wayward children. I wonder who are the strong and who are the weak.
Our friend has said that he fears suffering, but he is not afraid of death. Those words resonate with strength.
Last year I picked an oriental lily from my f lower bed for John and brought it to him in his hospice room. His head propped on white pillows, his body failing after nine decades of life, he mustered strength to thank me and whisper, “I’m going home soon, Carol.”
I held his hand and told him, “I know, John. I know.”
“God is so good,” he said, and his faith lifted me.
I, too, have walked among the weak. I was catapulted to the congregational prayer list three years ago following the results of a routine mammogram. When I walked into the church foyer the first Sunday after my cancer diagnosis, I knew my citizenship had changed. I could tell I was across the border in the country of the weak as people avoided my eyes, looked at me curiously, greeted me with extra bright smiles, or put an arm around me and told me they were praying for me. I felt as if I were wearing a giant neon letter “C.”
I named the two countries “We” and “They.” Citizens of the country of “We” were healthy Christians with strong faith and families and bodies. Weak citizens of the country of “They” were the exact opposite. During prayer their category was often preceded in prayer by “the.” We prayed for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the unsaved, the way ward, and the sick.
As I journeyed through the initial numbness and terror of my diagnosis and regained some semblance of balance, I wanted to tell the “We” people that I was still an entire dictionary, not just the letter “C.”
Among those who drove me the 60 miles to daily radiation during the six weeks that followed surgery was Sandi, who had recently completed her own chemotherapy–her third round. Still wearing a wig and walking slowly, she looked more like a cancer patient than I did. Who was giving and who was receiving?
With a hopeful prognosis following treatment, I thanked the congregation for their help and their prayers, and my name dropped from the prayer list. Jesus was the ultimate servant, kneeling at the feet of his disciples, lifting their feet into the basin and washing them. We can also wash each other’s feet when they become dirty or bruised or cut by rough paths in life–without categorizing weak and strong. It took longer, though, for me to re-enter the country of strength. Each time someone asked solicitously how I was feeling or seemed mildly uncomfortable around me, I felt as if I still wore that neon “C” on my forehead. Between “We” and “They” there a great gulf was fixed.
I wanted to tell the citizens of the country of strong that cancer felt like an exaggerated case of life. I would not live forever, but neither would they. I had read in huge capital letters the words, “YOU ARE MORTAL.” The same words were written on their lives, just smaller. Life is, after all, a terminal disease. It has a 100% death rate.
Also in the family of God were cancer survivors who had crossed the border to my country. Quietly, women of all ages told me they had survived breast cancer. “It was 10 years ago, and I remember how scared I was. It is a tough path.”
A distant acquaintance–a two-time cancer survivor–stopped in with a bouquet of daisies. “We are finding that we treasure our moments more,” she said. “We take that vacation with the kids now instead of putting it off.”
I had joined a new group of “We.” We had walked out there in the darkness beyond the border. We were citizens of the same foreign country.
Three years later, the “C” has faded. Sometimes less visible weaknesses nearly paralyze me, but they go unnoticed by those singing around me. Wanting to be authentic in worship, I have been tempted to stop singing the “lift up” line from the servant song.
I mention my confusion to a friend who has struggled through multiple miscarriages. I tell her about the ledge and reaching down. She says in surprise, “I have a totally different image when I sing that. I am walking alongside someone and if she stumbles, I reach out and steady her. If my foot hurts, she steadies me.”
Three decades younger than I, she has healed my dilemma. I was picturing the act of standing instead of walking! The Christian life is a journey, and we are all part of a moving body that ser ves our Lord together.
Jesus was the ultimate ser vant, kneeling at the feet of his disciples, lifting their feet into the basin and washing them. We can also wash each other’s feet when they become dirty or bruised or cut by rough paths in life–without categorizing weak and strong.
In the church of Christ, there are no foreigners. There are no Jews or Greeks, no slaves or free, no males or females–and no “We” people or ” They” people. We are all one in Jesus.
Alone, all are weak. In Christ, all are made strong. As his body, Christ’s brothers and sisters lift each other up and strengthen each other. Traveling to my radiation, Sandi and I held hands and walked together, as we all do.
I still think “let me lift up those who are weak” is a weak line in the servant song, but I can sing the weak line using the image I learned from my young friend. Perhaps the phrase that troubles me is the only one the writer could find that rhymed with “meek” and fit the melodic line.
The next time the ser vant song is part of a worship ser vice, I will lift up this weak line and walk alongside the writer of the ser vant song, both of us weak and both of us strengthened by the same Lord, until together in perfection we all sing a new song.