Peeling is an art. Not the automatic peeling that happens after an unfortunate sunburn. But peeling fruit, vegetables, shrimp, anything with an outer layer that needs to come off. Both my grandmother and my mother could take a peeler to an apple and strip the whole thing without a break. I didn’t inherit the gift. It’s a start and stop and clear and start again process for me. More like labor. So for me peeling is an art to be admired!
A poster that went to college and seminary with me displayed this truth: Life is like an onion; you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep. Those are Carl Sandburg’s words. He knew life well. Days become weeks and months become years and with the passing of time a little more of us is worn off, exposed, peeled away. And we weep. We weep because life is brief. And we weep because there is pain. And sometimes we intentionally lift a protective layer so another person can see us, know us, understand us. And we may weep under the power of being known.
As I struggled to peel apples yesterday evening, I not only once again admired my ancestors for their art but also thought about human vulnerability. For an apple, once the protective skin is removed, exposure to the air causes a reaction. And it’s not pretty. Humans can be the same way. We might squirm when someone learns something about us that we’re not proud of. Or we could feel ashamed if we burst into tears in the company of others. And we could even become hardened if our vulnerability brings us pain.
Max Lucado tells the story of Civil War Major General William Nelson whose death was not the least bit heroic. Nelson earned the nickname “Bull” because he was stubborn. Strong willed. Maybe even arrogant. Nelson led troops into battle numerous times seemingly without fear. Quite a fierce outer layer. Seemingly invincible. Until his pride led to his demise. After an argument, he was shot by General Jefferson Davis while standing in his office. Only with the realization of his imminent death did Nelson call for a minister so that he could be baptized. In that moment of vulnerability, Nelson felt the need for God. In telling this story Lucado brings the point home: Nelson assumed he had time.
One thing I love about God is that God didn’t create us human and then expect that we be anything other than. There’s no escaping our humanity. Which means there’s no getting around our need. If we all had the courage to peel back our protective layers we would all recognize our common vulnerability. Maybe that’s one point the pandemic has brought home to us. We are all subject to mortality. We can take measures to potentially delay our death by being responsible for our life. But we might as well peel off another layer and weep with each other in our shared need.
Whether or not we are masters at the art of peeling apples, we do have moments of time to practice the gift of compassion. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Those are Paul’s words. He understood Christian community well. And then he added, Consider everyone as equal… (Romans 12:15-16a). That, dear friends, is the labor of love.