I saw the email come through and hadn’t read past the subject line before my mind started searching for any justifiable reason to say “no.” I was being asked to prepare a witness to present to the adults in our parishes’ faith formation program. It’s never a comfortable thing for me to stand before a group of adults and pretend I know anything about anything. Besides, the commitment required three consecutive nights and one afternoon: presenting a total of four times.
My list of perfectly understandable reasons was coming along quite nicely until I read a little further and learned the subject for the witness was the dignity of human life. “Ugh,” I thought. “This changes things.” I decided I at least needed to entertain the idea and, after a few moments thought, had a list of reasons why I couldn’t say no — and they each carried a name, a heartbeat, and a purpose for life that deserves to be celebrated, honored, and shared.
Through the lives of some very special people, I’ve been uniquely blessed by the lesson of the inherent beauty and dignity of each person: the simple truth that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, and, I’d go further to claim, we’ve all been created with specific gifts meant to be used in very intentional ways.
Do you have a minute? I’d love to introduce you …
This is my cousin Kellie, the youngest of ten cousins. I was nineteen when she was born and remember her baby years well; not only because she was unbearably cute, but also because her cherished visits with our family included a lot of hushed talk among the adults as they searched for reasons why she was not meeting her developmental milestones. Once Kellie’s diagnosis of muscular dystrophy was clear, the weakness in her muscles was defiantly counteracted by an incredible strength in the will of her family to embrace the challenges and find peace in this precious life that would redefine their understanding of quality. Now, at twenty-two years of age, Kellie holds a degree in Social Work and is gearing up to tackle a masters’ program with the desire to work as a family and child therapist.
While her physical movement is significantly limited, her spirit and personality moves countless hearts and shakes the soul of anyone who crosses her path. And for anyone who doesn’t know this unique force of a woman and thinks they have the right to feel badly for her or place judgment on the quality of her life, I’d direct you to her New Year’s Instagram post which read,
“2018, you were one of the most beautiful years ever. You provided lots of love, laughter, success, smiles, adventures, concerts, family and friends. You also helped me grow as a person and learn along the way. I’m better and stronger because of you. Thank you for your opportunities and experiences, but I really can’t wait to see what 2019 holds. I have a feeling it’s gonna be a huge year.”
There are people in this world that stand and shout and teach nothing. Then there’s my cousin who sits and talks at a whisper and everyone stops and listens because her message is one of remarkable strength and hope and because our hearts are yearning to see God in this way.
This is Issa Grace, my niece and one of the tiniest prophets to grace this earth. When my sister and brother-in-law found out they were expecting their fourth child, their excitement was buoyed by some early test results that hinted at a chromosomal abnormality. As her pregnancy progressed, they received the heartbreaking confirmation that their baby girl would be born with Trisomy 18 and would most likely not survive long after birth. They were counseled by doctors that this life would not amount to anything but trials and tribulations for them and their family. Their hearts knew otherwise and they chose to place their trust in the Lord, praying for His will to be done and for the courage to accept whatever that would mean for their daughter.
Issa Grace was baptized soon after birth and, against all odds, went home with her family a few days later. For nine months this beautiful child showed the world who God really is and silently proclaimed the truth that every one of His creations are uniquely and undeniably miraculous. Family, friends, and strangers were drawn to this child as if she held the meaning to life within her tiny frame — and perhaps she truly did. More regal than any royal family member, more wise than any scholar, more wealthy than any successful businessman, Issa came to us a fragile and most vulnerable child and taught us more in her span of nine months than many of us could ever hope to achieve in a lifetime.
This is all I have to show for three of our three little ones that were lost to miscarriage. Decidedly against my normal character, a few years ago I found myself searching for a way to honor — connect — feel the souls we had lost. I found myself transfixed with this idea of a tattoo to proclaim to the world that this mama’s heart is made up of six children: three of whom, I have to believe, were never meant to walk this earth. The loss of these tiny beings had a tremendous impact on me and my intimate understanding of the fragility and vulnerability of life. I now cherish the image etched into my skin and hold it as a an outward sign of the love these children have left on my heart.
This is Mary-Rose: the summary of my life lessons on the dignity of each life, the beautiful bow that ties everything together perfectly, the reason God patiently and intentionally prepared my heart to absorb the truth of the inherent dignity every one of us lays claim to as a result of being created in the most perfect image of God.
In many ways, Mary-Rose has turned our lives inside out and upside down with her strong will and that little extra chromosome that demands we flip everything we know about parenting on its head and forces us to live one day at a time. This child has righted countless hearts with her smile, intoxicating giggle, and the exposition of her vulnerable soul. She has completed our family in the most magical way and affirms the presence of God in our lives day in and day out. The number of people, strangers included, that have been affected by her simple presence never ceases to amaze me.
Please take a few minutes to watch this incredible video a friend forwarded me recently. It’s hard to find words to fully describe how this makes me feel. Here sits this amazing young man, quite literally making a plea for his life and the lives of those with Down Syndrome. I find it beyond heartbreaking that he is sitting before this panel of legislators and fighting to justify his reason for life — for being — by referring to the excellent opportunity his chromosomal makeup affords scientists who are studying Alzheimer’s disease. It’s this destructive pattern that haunts our very existence. The ugly repetition of history that leads one to question if we, in our humanity, will ever get it right — will ever understand that our worth is in no way based on the judgment of others but in the very dignity with which we were created.
Whether right or wrong, my own personal conclusion on the dignity of life that I can’t help but draw from my own personal lessons is this. If God creates each of us in His image and teaches us through His own example of reaching out to the poor and most vulnerable that every life deserves to be valued and afforded dignity, then why do we continually turn to judgment of others? When were we given the freedom or permission to take charge of deciding who is worthy of God’s love and who is not? I continue to come back to the conclusion that it is our job to avoid judgment of others, our freedom to keep any judgment in the hands of God where it is meant to be, and our honor and privilege to love one another.
Copyright 2019 Nicole Johnson