What is the thorn in your side? What is the nagging, pricking, painful affliction of body, mind, or spirit that you carry with you day and night? Most of us have one. Some of us have several and all of us get one sooner or later. When I was a teenager my mother declared on more than one occasion that I was the thorn in her side, although I think I was more like a pain in the —–.
In our epistle for today, St. Paul in a moment of vulnerability shares with the Christians in Corinth that he has an affliction, a scolop in Greek, a spear or thorn in his flesh that he must bear day in and day out. Try as he might to get rid of it, pray as he might to have it removed, it is just something he has to deal with. He doesn t tell the Corinthians what it is, that fact seems unimportant to Paul. What he wants them to know is that this burden has become a blessing to him, an unwanted gift that keeps him humble, that keeps him focused, that enables him to more fully trust God s grace. This weakness makes him strong because it is through this weakness that he finds Christ most active in his life. As he says therefore I am content with weakness . . . for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Scholars have speculated for centuries about the identity Paul s thorn in the flesh. Various theories have been put forward that Paul had the beginnings of leprosy, or arthritis, poor eyesight, or recurring kidney stones. The fact is we just don t know but for those of us who look to the scriptures for insight into our own lives, who look to the scriptures for guidance, the fact that Paul s affliction is left unspoken allows each of us to place our own affliction in its place. And that is a gift. In this sense, Paul becomes our everyman and God s response to Paul s thorn becomes an insight as to how God responds to the thorns in each of our lives.
I wish I could say that God s grace saved us from every misery, every affliction, that makes life difficult. But God doesn t work that way. These things just happen and we have to deal with them whether we like it or not. But it is God s way to give us grace to handle creatively those afflictions that cause us pain. It is God s way to give us strength in our weakness.
Beethoven began to experience hearing loss as early as age 27. For a man of such musical brilliance his deafness was an incredible burden. It caused him to withdraw from social gatherings because he found it difficult to understand conversations. Later in life it became impossible for him to conduct his symphonies. It troubled him so much that at times he contemplated suicide. And yet, in the increasing silence of his life he was able to more fully discover and create the internal music that filled his mind. In fact, during his years of total deafness Beethoven wrote some of his most famous works including six string quartets and piano sonatas, his Ninth Symphony and his glorious Missa Solemnis. For Beethoven there was a terrible thorn in his side but there was also grace.
Emily Dickinson, one of America s greatest poets, was such a recluse that some scholars suggest that she was afflicted with agoraphobia an intense fear of people and open spaces. She lived most of her life in her parents home, never married, and often conversed with people only through closed doors. And yet in her isolation Emily poured out some of the most beautiful and powerful poetry ever written. Her seclusion must have been a terrible burden but her poems were so grace filled that they stand today as monuments of Western literature.
More recently I am reminded of Christopher Reeves and his struggle with paralysis. As a famous actor he made many contributions on film but his contributions following a horse riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down far exceeded any of his achievements as a movie star. This injury could have easily destroyed him but in his weakness he found the strength to work tirelessly on behalf of the millions suffering from spinal cord injuries. Up until the day he died in 2004, he and his wife Dana (who recently died of cancer) worked almost nonstop to further research to find a cure for spinal cord injuries.
Blessedly few of us are confronted with afflictions as life altering as the ones I have just described. But most of us have something that we are forced to bear that we would like to be free of. The question becomes – how can we learn to find strength in our weakness? How can we learn to discover God s grace in light of this thorn in the flesh? The alcoholic in recovery knows that the best way to stay in recovery is to reach out and care for others with this disease. Many a grieving widow, widower, and parent have found new meaning after their loss by reaching out to others experiencing the same kind of grief.
The fact of the matter is God doesn t fix life, God doesn t promise us that if we are faithful then life will be safe and easy. That is the lesson of the gospels. God didn t save Jesus from the cross. But God also didn t allow the crucifixion to destroy his love. Because it was through the horror of Good Friday that God made possible the miracle of Easter Sunday. The empty tomb teaches us that where there is suffering, where there is tragedy and loss God s grace abounds.
It must have been a huge risk for Paul the leader of the Gentile Church to admit his weakness to the Corinthians. In a society where strength and authority were everything, for Paul to admit that he was less than perfect was to make him vulnerable to attack. And yet Paul knew that there was wisdom and grace to be found not in affliction itself but in how we handle the afflictions that life hands us. Paul knew that the life of faith is richest when we look for the love of God from within the context of our own weaknesses. Think about how we could help one another if we were willing to be just a little more vulnerable about the thorns we all bear? How might we all find a little more support, encouragement and strength if we knew that we were far from being alone in the burdens we carry?
The world tells us that strength comes from strength. What s that old saying? Never let them see you sweat, as the commercial says. I see so many people expending large amounts of energy to create an image of their lives and their families that says we have it all together, we are as happy as we look, everything is going smoothly. As your clergy we know differently. We see how bravely some struggle with depression, how painful it is for a parent when a child struggles with behavior issues, how difficult it is for some to make it day after day when they are dealing with grief or a chronic illness. The truth of the matter is most of us have some thorn in the side. And while the world says you have to hide your weakness at all cost, the church says here it is safe to be weak, here it is safe to struggle. Because, we are all weak but we are all loved and the promise of our faith teaches us that in our weakness God s grace abounds. Amen.