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Strength in weakness

Ordinary Sunday 14: 8th July, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

The chief executive officer of a large company was greatly admired for his energy and drive. But he suffered from one embarrassing weakness: each time he went to the president's office to make his monthly report, he would suffer from incontinence. The president was a kind man and did not ridicule him by publicising the man's weakness, but he did advise him to see a proctologist.

When the following month's report was due, he appeared before the president but it was rather obvious his problem had not gone away.
"Didn't you see the proctologist?" asked the president.
"No. He was out. I saw the psychologist instead. I am cured. I no longer feel embarrassed!"

It has long intrigued scholars as to the nature of St Paul's "thorn in the flesh"; his weakness that he writes of in his second letter to the church in Corinth: "Considering the exceptional character of the revelations, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me . . .. 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.' So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me."

St Augustine thought it might have been a violent headache or pain in his body; St Chrysostom considered it to be the fierce opposition to the gospel of his enemies; Luther and Calvin both wrote that it was the temptation of unbelief; and more recently Bishop Jack Spong has controversially suggested it to be Paul's homosexual desires, given his strong condemnation of gay and lesbian people elsewhere in his writings.

The truth is we don't know what St Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was, but perhaps that is why it is such a memorable verse. We can all relate to it in one way or another. We all have weaknesses and areas of our lives that we struggle with: depression, low self-esteem, a bad temper, long-term illness, compulsive thoughts, doubts, or a person or situation that causes us ongoing pain and anxiety. These words from Paul's letter to the Corinthians are profoundly liberating: "Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong." Our Christian calling is not to be perfect super-Christians, but simply to be faithful to God in spite of our weakness; God just wants us to be who we are. In this simple act of admission of our true inner self, lies something of the mystery of faith and healing. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich describes it as coming "nakedly and plainly" before God.

When I was a boy my father gave me a wonderful little book: Becoming What I Am by Harry Williams. Here is a prayer from it that you might enjoy (or remember):

O God, I am hellishly angry;
I think so-and-so is a swine;
I am tortured by worry about this or that;
I am pretty sure I have missed my chances in life;
this or that has left me feeling terribly depressed.
But nonetheless here I am like this,
feeling both bloody and bloody-minded,
and I am going to stay here for ten minutes.
You are most unlikely to give me anything.
I know that.
But I am going to stay for the ten minutes nonetheless . . ..

This is how we should pray if this is how we feel. God wants us to come before him (or her) just as we are, not trying to hide behind platitudes or piety. A significant element of prayer and meditation is finding and becoming comfortable with our inner self.

The great twentieth-century writer and teacher on prayer, Thomas Merton, draws from Zen Buddhism to describe the discovery of this true inner self. In our complex, materialistic secular world, it is easy to loose the sense of our true self, the self that God has made us to be. In a booklet entitled "The Inner Experience" Merton writes: "The worst thing that can happen to a person who is already divided up into a dozen different compartments is to seal off yet another compartment and tell him (or her) that this one is more important than all the others .... The first thing you have to do, before you start thinking about such a thing as contemplation, is to try to recover your basic natural unity ... and learn to live as a unified human person."

Merton then goes on to give an example of one of the Zen masters, Chao-pien, who was sitting meditating in his office one day. He was a man of prayer and through regular times of meditation he had reached an inner maturity "where the secret pressure of the inner self was ready to break unexpectedly forth and revolutionise his whole inner being." This place of temporary enlightenment is called in Zen Buddhism Satori. Chao-pien was sitting peacefully in meditation when he heard a loud clap of thunder. Suddenly his "mind-doors" burst open and his unified "original self" was revealed. He later wrote a poem about the experience:

Devoid of thought, I sat quietly by the desk of my official room,
With my fountain-mind undisturbed, as serene as water;
A sudden crash of thunder, the mind doors burst open,
And lo, there sits the old man in all his homeliness.

Perhaps the thorn in the flesh for many of us today is our action-driven society, with all its KPIs and performance anxiety. The choice-rich consumerism that we have become addicted to is fragmenting our inner-selves and the inner-selves of our young people. Strength in weakness is such an alien concept; but perhaps our salvation lies in it.


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