A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 21, 2016
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV
One of the photographs I took in Yosemite Valley was on the path to Mirror Lake. It was of a large pine tree that had a big, sharp boulder embedded in its side. It was difficult to determine if the boulder had rolled into the tree at some point after the tree had commenced growing, or if the boulder had been there all along and the trunk of the tree had grown around the boulder’s sharp edges and taken its shape from it. But as can be seen from the photograph (which is posted on the Reflective Naturalist, my photo blog), so embedded in the trunk of the tree is the huge boulder, it has merged with and become part of the tree itself.
We could easily say that the boulder long ago became somewhat of a “thorn in the side” of the pine tree, irritating it, testing it, most likely even endangering its health and well-being. Yet, from all appearances, the pine tree adapted to the large and painful “thorn in its side” and has continued to grow, thrive, and be successful in spite of the tremendous obstacle that has been cast upon it.
When I saw that tree, I was reminded of the passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where Paul shared his own experience of having a thorn in his side cast upon him. There has been much speculation by biblical scholars over the centuries about what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” might have actually been. It appears that it could have been some sort of bodily disease or chronic illness that troubled Paul. Some have conjectured it was a debilitating eye disease, because of other places where Paul speaks of having to write with such large letters (Galatians 6:11) and the fact that the Galatian Christians would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to Paul, had it been possible (Galatians 4:15).
Others have conjectured that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was some sort of physical temptation that he struggled with; some issue that became a spiritual battle for him. Still others have suggested that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” could have been an enemy or enemies who troubled or persecuted him. We likely will never know. But it really doesn’t matter. The point is there was some problem, weakness, illness, or other challenge that plagued Paul constantly that made daily living or keeping the faith difficult for him.
Well, Paul relates how that he prayed over this problem three times that the “thorn in his flesh” might be removed and he could go on with his life. But it wasn’t. The problem didn’t just magically disappear because he prayed that it might. Rather, Paul relates that instead of having the problem removed, he received grace enough to deal with it. Grace as such can equal invisible, previously-unknown strength and ability to deal with life challenges in ways we might have never dreamed to be possible. Some of us can look back over the years and some of the trials and troubles that we personally or our family has endured, and at times we wonder how we ever made it through such a trying ordeal. Perhaps it was nothing short of grace—God’s grace and the grace of a loving, supportive community—that got us through it. And such illustrates how important a loving, supportive community like our United Church becomes when we or our families are enduring the storms of life.
But regarding that “thorn in the flesh,” through grace Paul learned to continue with his life and be successful in his work—preaching across the Mediterranean World and establishing numerous churches, and writing more books of our New Testament than any other writer—in spite of the problem that plagued him. He learned that when he was weak—humanly speaking—then he was made strong.
History books are full of stories of those who had tremendous burdens thrust upon them—physical handicaps, crippling conditions, debilitating illnesses—and yet, they were able to rise above those conditions so as to live productive, satisfying, and successful lives. We might study the life of Helen Keller who was both blind and deaf, yet became famous around the world because of her lectures, writings, and inspiration to all with physical handicaps. We might study the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who didn’t let the crippling effects of Polio stop him from becoming the longest-sitting President of the United States and one of the best presidents America has ever had. We might study the life of the great composer Beethoven who became deaf, but who continued to compose some of the most beautiful pieces of music known to humankind.
Much more unfamiliar to the world was a man by the name of Harold Wilkie. Harold was born without arms and hands. So to do everyday things that most of us do with our hands and take for granted, Harold had to learn to do with his mouth or his feet. But Harold didn’t let his severe disability stop him. He became an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and excelled in many different ways. As you might imagine, Harold became a spokesperson and advocate for all persons with disabilities. Harold became a living example of how one can—in his or her weakness—become strong.
Another writer of the last century who sheds light on this topic of finding strength in our weakness was Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who wrote 39 books, but is perhaps most famous for a little book titled The Wounded Healer.1 The Wounded Healer was actually written for ministers who found and who still find their traditional roles crumbling in an ever-changing world. But one of the points that Nouwen makes is that everyone lives a broken life. There is no life free of pain, problems, brokenness, or woundedness. Every one of us is wounded in some way, including ministers. Nouwen wrote, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.” I would suggest that all of us might be compared to handmade earthen pottery, every piece of which has some flaw or imperfection or wound, some greater of them being greater flaws or imperfections or wounds than others.
But Nouwen continues, “The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
As we see, Nouwen’s contention is that it is from our woundedness that we are able to reach out to and minister to others. Nouwen says, “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope. . . .”
Well, Nouwen continues as he expands the thought from individuals to the ministry of churches: “A Christian community is therefore a healing community, not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision. . . and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength.”
Nouwen, not unlike the Apostle Paul, endured his own internal struggles—an emotional “thorn in the flesh,” we might say—including a struggle with his own self-identity and sexuality. Curiously, and to his great credit, in his later years, Nouwen dedicated his life to working with mentally and physically handicapped people at the Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
Well, what we learn from both Henri Nouwen and the Apostle Paul is it is our very weakness that gives authenticity to our relationships with others, as well as our message and work; we find that in our weakness we are actually made strong.
And as with the pine tree with the large boulder wedged in its side, we, too, can often overcome, thrive, and be successful or content in life, in spite of those thorns—or large boulders, as the case may be—that life throws our way. May we be inspired by the examples of those who have gone before us who overcame and thrived in spite of their thorns and boulders. And may we all have the grace and the strength to do so as well. Amen.
1Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1979, pp. 93, 94.