the beauty of birth defects: Romans 16

Romans 16.  In my favorite Twilight Zone episode, The Eye of the Beholder, a woman named Miss Tyler lies in bed with bandages covering her entire face.  She tells the nurse she hopes the surgery to fix her face has been successful.  She says, “ever since I was a little girl, people turned away when they looked at me.”  She begs the doctors to take off her bandages.  Finally, they do.  Masked surgeons cut her bandages slowly.  They’re nervous about seeing the results of this, her eleventh face surgery.  They unwrap the last bandages.  The surgeons gasp.  They recoil in horror.  The camera shows us the woman’s face.  She looks like a young Marilyn Monroe.  The camera pans to the surgeons and nurses, and we see for the first time that they have the snouts of beasts.  Miss Tyler is devastated.  She asks that her life be terminated.  But the doctors say she has to go live with her own kind.  A man straight out of Hollywood Central Casting tells her she can live in a village where she will be loved.  He says she just has to say over and over, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Throughout history, we humans ostracize people who don’t meet our local standards of beauty.   We do this even though the aspects we consider beautiful – dark or fair, curvy or lean, muscled or lanky –  vary from generation to generation, country to country, and even race to race.  Hispanic women in the United States, for instance, have implants placed in their rear ends to pad out the very spots that Caucasian women knock themselves senseless in spin classes to reduce.  People in Ruben’s day valued the rounder woman; Twiggy came along when fashion valued stick figures; women with breast implants today are being cast aside in Hollywood in favor of those with a more natural look.  Fashions change like waves, cresting high, only to crash and dissipate on the shores of our lives.

We know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and yet we continue to mock, judge and condemn anyone who looks a little different.  We all do it.  Sometimes we do it out loud.  More often we do it in our hearts.  We are a harsh people.  Why?

C.S. Lewis said the problem is that we all want to be God.  He said in Mere Christianity, the book that made me embrace Christianity, that we put down others in a vain attempt to elevate ourselves.   Lewis said pride needs to put others down: “each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride… pride is essentially competitive… Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man….  Pride always means enmity – it is enmity.”  Lewis goes on to say every one of us has pride, although we are usually unaware of it: “There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.”  He added that pride causes enmity with man and God: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”  (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 8: The Great Sin).

The problem is, of course, that this kind of thinking backfires.  We ensnare ourselves in the very net we set for others.  Because if we live in a world where we criticize others to feel better about ourselves, we make ourselves vulnerable to the criticism of others.  With the measure we use, we will be measured.  We need a higher rock to lash ourselves to.  We need something outside ourselves to provide an objective measure.  We need a golden standard that is so perfect we respect it, and yet one which we can actually meet so we get to rejoice about ourselves and our lives instead of feeling glum, depressed and afraid.

My handsome son was born with a cleft lip and palate.  In times past, and even now in certain parts of our world, people with birth defects were hidden away in closets or even left to die.  Yet when he was born, my son was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen.  His cleft lip was cute.  He’s had many surgeries in the past 18 years, including a major jaw surgery two days ago that lined his upper and lower jaw up so perfectly it stuns me every time I look at his profile.  But in his mother’s eyes, he was as beautiful the day he was born as he is repaired. And being his mother gave me eyes to see how very beautiful all those other children in the craniofacial unit were, whether or not they had chins, cheekbones, noses or ears.

We tend to brush off that kind of truth.  Oh, yeah, we think.  That’s a mother’s eye.  We say it as if there’s something wrong with that kind of eye.  And sure, maybe we know intellectually that if God exists, He should see us with the kindness of a parent’s eye.  He claims to be our father, after all.  But we want more than what we think of as a blind love.  That doesn’t fully satisfy.  We want to be seen as we are and still loved.  Somehow.

The good news of the Bible is even better than that God sees us with the tenderness of a mother’s eye.  There is something almost magical here about having defects.  The best analogy I can think of is that if you’ve ever had a back massage when your back was thick with knots, you know how AMAZING it feels to have those knots smoothed out.  While you’re having the massage, you almost wish for MORE knots because it feels so good to have them fixed.

That’s the kind of healing God gives us.  That’s the blessing that lies in our every defect.  The healing of God more than restores.  It lifts the defective parts of us into a place of such exquisite beauty that it goes beyond the earthly.  Our every flaw becomes glorious.  Our weakness IS our greatest strength.  Our poverty IS our richness.  Our weeping IS our joy.  Our emptiness IS our fullness.

It’s hard to explain.  It’s harder to understand.  It’s something about how thankful we become.  It has to do with the way we melt when we are healed.  It has to do even more with the way we are freed of that harsh, judging, nose in the air, critical way of living and being.  We become restored by God not because we have earned it, but because He loves us. There is something about God and His love, generosity, kindness and infinite power of healing that embraces defects with such tenderness it makes us weep.  We are released from the iron deathly grip of pride.

And there is more.  When Jesus heals people He talks of a “power” going out of him.  Just as in fantasy fiction, it costs the superhero to save the world, so it costs God to heal us.  This is not a free salvation, at least not for God.  It’s free for us.  All it costs us is our pride.  We have to be willing to “lay our doing down” and just receive.  We know that the massage therapist who works on our backs, for instance, is giving of herself.  She’s putting her back into ours.  We can’t have our knots fixed unless we lie still.  It’s a metaphor for what God does.  He poured out himself like a drink offering in order to save us.  His bones became out of joint.  He was melted down like wax.  He thirsted so streams of living water could flow from our hearts.  He died so we could live.

And this brings us back to the mother’s eye.  The reason God can look at us in all of our defects – our laziness, selfishness, cruelty, indifference, disloyalty, infidelity and worse – and yet see us as stunningly beautiful is that when God looks at us He sees Jesus.  Jesus took our place on the cross.  He took our defects on himself, so we become flawless before God.   The prince swapped clothes with us paupers to clothe us with his royalty.  If we accept this gift, God sees us as “altogether beautiful.”  Here is the rock on which we can stand.  God knows all about us, and yet through Christ’s sacrifice He sees us as “without spot or blemish.”  God’s justice is perfect.  His laws are eternal.  He knows we all fall short of that standard.  And yet He sees us as perfect because Christ was perfect.  He sees us through the filter of Christ’s sacrifice.

Picture Jesus walking down the road and finding a girl crying because she was born with the snout of a beast.  Jesus says to her, “here.  Please.  Take my face instead.”  Christ gives her his own face and for the rest of his life, He willingly wears her beast’s snout.  Not only that, he explains to the girl how everyone else has the same snout.  He offers the same divine exchange to all of us.  He loves us all so much He wants us to be the most beautiful we can be.  That’s why He endured scorn, abandonment, judging, mockery and death on the cross in order to clothe us with His beauty.

We all have birth defects.  We were all born with weaknesses. We need air brushing on the outside and a sea change on the inside.  We have wounds from the unkindness of strangers, the cruelty of lovers and the bitter medicine of tasting our own failures.  Yet the worse off we are, the better it is.  Because our every defect just makes more room for God’s kind of redemption to shine through us.

That’s why we can rejoice in our defects.  God’s world is so much more beautiful than ours.  He lifts us from an operating room life, where we’re cutting each other down.  Instead, He transplants us into a broad meadow full of sunlight, warm breezes, flowers, laughter and the freedom to roll down every hill we come across. He eliminates our pride and frees us from enmity.

So here, as the book of Romans draws to a close, Paul talks with love of some of his brothers and sisters in Christ.  Paul embraces the very believers he once tried to murder.   The defects of his former harshness make him all the more tender and grateful at how much love he finds himself bearing for the very people he once hated.  He has nothing but praise for these people.  He has learned to see the best in them.  He’s let slip from his grasp the hard world where he once saw only the worst.  He no longer needs to judge and condemn.  He’s been set free from all that.  He’s thankful for their help.  He calls them his dear friends. He says he respects them.  He says Christ approves of them.  He is a living testimony to the beauty of joining Christ’s family.

In God’s family, our defects become beautiful because they’re the places where we meet our Lord.  We don’t just have to repeat firming mantras to ourselves about beauty being in the eye of the beholder.  Instead, we can actually know beauty.  We become beautiful by living with God.  He lives within us.  And once we experience that kind of love in all its richness, we see the whole world through new eyes. God’s love helps us love even those who turn away from us.

And we never have to turn away when we look at ourselves again.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day, on the beauty of birth defects and the death of pride

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4 thoughts on “the beauty of birth defects: Romans 16

    • Dear Alok – I’m so sorry! When I was hanging out at the craniofacial unit where Luke has had all his surgeries for the past 18 years, I saw kids without chins, cheekbones, noses or ears. Being Luke’s mother gave me eyes to see how very beautiful every one of those children was. It would make me cry, because I knew they might not know how beautiful they were. They are beautiful. And you are, too! xo

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