Almost anyone who has worked for a white collar American company or educational institution has, at some point in their career had to take some kind of strengths inventory. We love to focus on our talents, our natural aptitudes and then strengthen them even further. In the 80s my parents talked a lot about whether people were Abstract Random or Concrete Sequential. Clearly their school had done some kind of training in Anthony Gregorc’s learning styles. (By the way, all of us Kinneys are Concrete Sequential. No question about it. ) By the 90s my parents were talking about Myers-Briggs testing and I made all my high school buddies take the test. When I became involved in churches I learned about Spiritual Gifts inventory and by the time I was a priest the book Living your Strengths was very popular for people discerning their role in the church. Focusing on our strengths makes us feel like we have a place in the world, like we matter.
And we aren’t alone. As you may remember from when we’ve discussed the church in Corinth previously, the Corinthians loved focusing on their strengths. Some Corinthians truly believed they were better than others because of their spiritual experiences, authentic or not. So, in our snippet from 2nd Corinthians today Paul toys with them a little bit.
Paul references a spiritual experience he had. He tells them “someone he knows” was once caught up in the third heaven. Now, there is not a single Biblical commentator that knows that Paul means by that. We know from Acts that Paul had a serious spiritual experience when God confronts him on his way to Damascus. But, I like to think Paul is also messing around with the Corinthians a bit. “Oh, you’ve had spiritual experiences? Well, I’ve been to third heaven.” You can just imagine them going. “Oh, yeah, third heaven? I’ve totally heard of that.”
After Paul earns that credibility with the Corinthians, he turns his whole argument on its head. He tells them that instead of boasting in these profound spiritual experiences, he boasts in his weakness. He tells them he has been given a thorn in his side. We don’t know what that thorn is, either. But whatever the thorn is, it humbles Paul. The thorn limits Paul in some way. And Paul rejoices in those limitations.
Paul is not interested in his own glorification. Paul is interested in God’s glorification. And Paul believes that God uses Paul’s weaknesses to reveal God’s own strength.
This is such great news to us ordinary Christians, who haven’t seen the first heaven, much less the third one! Whether the thorn in our side is a bad hip, a speech impediment, chronic anxiety, God can use those weaknesses as a platform for his own glory.
One of the most striking experiences I’ve ever had as a priest was being with a beloved parishioner while she was experiencing congestive heart failure. I was sure she was dying as she literally clawed the air as if she was drowning. Under the care of her excellent physicians, she did not die and a few weeks after the incident I paid her a visit. When we are in pain, it is so difficult to focus on anything else than relieving our own discomfort. I expected my parishioner to talk about her awful medical experience. But this woman, a faithful Christian of eight decades, wanted to talk about her prayer life. Her own suffering had made her think about all the suffering in the world and she was a little overwhelmed about how to pray for it all.
Talk about strength in weakness. She had been so faithful to God for so long, that when she was at her literal weakest, he used her to pray for the suffering of the world.
When you read great Christian thinkers, there is often a point in their lives where things just completely fall apart. Augustine abandons a lover of more than a decade and their child. Thomas Aquinas is literally kidnapped by his family when they find out he’s joined a Dominican monastery. Martin Luther’s vow to become a monk happens in the middle of a terrifying thunderstorm.
Cranmer loses a fellowship at Jesus College to marry a woman named Joan, and then Joan dies. Our modern thinkers are no different. Buechner’s father commits suicide. Anne LaMotte and Glennon Melton face addiction. There is something about brokenness that God finds helpful to do his work.
When we are broken, we are vulnerable. We are open to change. We are open to re-imagining the world.
And those are the kind of people God needs to do his work. We have a new presiding Bishop-elect, as you might know. His name is Michael Curry and he is the Bishop of North Carolina. He fits into the profile of Christian thinkers who have suffered in that his mother died when he was very young. When he described the work of the church in the press conference after his election, he describes it as making the world “more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare”.
And God’s dream is so different from our nightmare. Bishop Curry describes God’s dream as Christians figuring out how to live as the beloved community, the human family of God.
We are so much more likely to treat each other with compassion if we have known suffering or weakness. We are so much more likely to be honest about our own lives, to let people unlike us into our lives. There is something about suffering that makes us more deeply human. After we suffer, we look at the world differently. We re-evaluate how we spend our time and where we put our energy. We remember that we have a family, and friends, and that work maybe is taking too much of our mental space. We have more compassion for others, realizing that their lives probably contain suffering, too. We may appear weaker to the world, but suddenly we are open to God showing his strength to us.
I do not wish suffering or weakness on any of you. But I also know that your weaknesses, your wounds are beautiful. Most of those of you I know well have suffered mightily at some point in your life and that suffering is part of what formed you into the people you are now. You are people who are generous with your time and resources, who are quick to listen or bring a meal, who volunteer countless hours to make your community better. Your suffering is not wasted. Your suffering is redeemed by God and transformed into his Dream.
May God continue to shine through our weakness as we seek to become his beloved community.