Saturday, July 7, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 7, 2 Cor 12.2-10, Thorns

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
In all of the scripture, there is probably nothing that has produced more idle speculation than these verses.
What was that “thorn in the flesh” that tormented the Apostle Paul?
The simplest and most straightforward suggestion is that Paul is referring to his impaired vision, a situation he wrote about elsewhere, or another unknown physical weakness.
Others have suggested that Paul’s thorn in the flesh refers to his enemies, or specifically, the enemies of the Gospel.  Throughout Paul’s career he was followed about by those he refers to as “Judaizers, Christians who maintained that God’s grace was not sufficient in and of itself, but that we also needed to follow the Law of Moses, and earn God’s grace through our obedience.  (By the way, that is an oxymoron—if you have to earn it, it isn’t grace.)
This understanding has some particular merit in that these people were in fact “messengers” and Paul would have understood their message as having come from Satan, not God. 
Still others have claimed Paul is talking about another part of his life – the fact he has no wife or family, unhappiness about his sexuality or frustration that Jewish people are not accepting Christ.  Perhaps, for example, it could be that his thorn in the flesh was the guilt he felt for having persecuted the Church prior to his conversion.
We simply do not know.
Paul doesn’t tell us.
What he does tell us about that ‘thorn’ is that he prayed multiple times that God might remove it, but instead was told “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Perhaps the reason Paul does not tell us what HIS particular ‘thorn in the flesh’ is because it would have been a distraction.  It would have caused us to focus on Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ and not recognize our own.
Human weakness,
It’s not something we are proud of.
And most of the time we, like Paul, would prefer not to name our greatest weaknesses.  We don’t want to speak of those ‘messages from Satan’ that haunt us.
And who among us would not like to see them just go away.
I am one who has struggled with addiction.
I started smoking when I was 19, and haven’t yet been able to break the habit, though I’m trying now.
I became addicted to a prescription drug I was put on, Ativan, or Lorazapam.  This drug is so addictive that the current protocol for ceasing to take it is to wean someone off of it over the course of a year.  When I quit taking it, I simply went cold turkey, cutting the dose in half for a couple of weeks, and then stopping.
The problem is that Ativan works on the same receptors in the brain as alcohol, and so “cross addiction” is a real risk.
That’s when drinking became a problem for me.
When I stopped taking Ativan, I started drinking heavily in order to replace it, without realizing what I was doing.  I didn’t have a clue.
But that addiction, I’ve been freed from.  No more drinking, no more cravings of any sort, I’m free.
In this case, I prayed to God to remove that from me, and God did.
Paul’s experience with his own thorn in the flesh is that it was not removed through prayer, but that the answer was that it would remain, for God’s grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in weakness.

The other night I had a very vivid dream. 
I won’t go into all the details, lest you be tempted to psychoanalyze me—good luck with that, by the way.
But what was present in the dream were numerous individuals from over the course of my life, individuals who had an impact of one sort or another on me, and the strongest most profound part of the dream is that I relieved those emotions, going back to childhood.
The most troubling of all of those individuals was the band director, whom I had adored, but who had behaved toward me in an abusive and inappropriate manner.
For me, I think that such scars of my childhood may be my ‘thorn in the flesh’.  And no matter how hard I pray, or how many years of therapy I receive, they remain. 
One of the more interesting emotional legacies of this experience in childhood is my beard.  When I first grew my beard, this band director, on the last day I saw him, expressed his disapproval and specifically was angry that I was “covering up my cute face”.  I have not shaved since.  Emotional scars.
Oh, I’ve dealt with them in some ways, I’ve come to recognize them for what they are, I’ve named them, and tried to resolve the powerful emotions around them.
But the scars remain.
So much so that at times I’d like to shout out to the world that “When you hurt a child, it’s their whole life that is at risk!  You cannot undo the harm that has been done.”
The shame, the guilt, the feelings of unworthiness last a lifetime.
Would that God would remove these thorns in our flesh from us.
And yet they have become a part of who we are, and there is no longer anyway that one can change that.
To put it differently, the day I die, my life will have been colored from the beginning to the end, by those experiences of childhood.  The trauma shaped my very identity.
Some of our deepest convictions come about because of these childhood experiences.
For example, over the last few weeks we’ve talked about the separation of children from their immigrant parents at our border. 
The depth of my concern for those children arises in no small part because of the pain I have myself experienced as a child.  It goes beyond reason and is filled with a passion that can only be the result of profound personal experience.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
This is God’s response to Paul, and to each of us who have experienced that ‘thorn in the flesh’ that torments us.
My grace is sufficient for you.”
Grace is the power of God to redeem and transform the lives of human beings, so often overcome by their weaknesses, and to make them pure and holy, untainted by human sin, and free from all shame.
Amid all the pain that remains from childhood, I think that grace is most evident when we learn again to love the child within us.
When I first recognized that abuse for what it was, I remember lamenting the fact that I was a good kid, and didn’t deserve it.
Grace was not far off in that moment.
Grace is God’s declaration that we are indeed, holy and precious in his sight, “good kids”, but here is where the difference lies, who need not do anything to deserve it.
Children are not loved because they have done something to deserve it.
Children are not loved because they are as yet, untainted by sin.
Children are loved solely because the God who created them is loving.
And it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.
Paul says that his ‘thorn in the flesh’ is a messenger of Satan.
It is Satan, and the ‘evil world’ we too often live in, that say we are not lovable.  We are not worthy.
Whatever our ‘thorn’ maybe, the message the world sends is too often one of shame or inadequacy.
Like Paul, we look around us and see others who seem to be spiritual giants, having had incredible experiences like being caught up into the third heaven, and we feel so small in comparison.
But in the face of all these negative messages, that come from Satan, I’m reminded of the words from the Spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead”, which declare:
If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus and say, "He died for all."
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Grace is the power of God to ‘heal the sin sick soul.’
What more can be said?
What more needs to be said?

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