Not Letting Weakness Win (second sermon in series, “Fresh Air for Fall”)

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I.
I heard so often in my growing up years, and maybe many of you heard the same thing or something similar in different parts of the country, people saying in reference to some ongoing problem or issue that wouldn’t go away or a chronic illness that wouldn’t stop recurring, “Well, that’s the cross I have to bear,” or, “That’s her cross; she’ll have to bear it.”  We all understood what was meant when we heard such a comment, but to be focused we needed to know–and evidently didn’t–that the scriptural reference to bearing a cross had nothing in the world to do with problems that just wouldn’t go away.  Unfortunately, the way we used that image trivialized its original intent, which was this.  These are words attributed to Jesus speaking to his inner circle of male disciples:

If anyone wants to become my follower, let her or him deny self and take up his or her cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save life will lose it, and those who lose life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit people if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

This episode from the life of Jesus is placed early in Jesus’ ministry by the writer of the Gospel of Luke; it’s odd as I read it to notice Jesus referring to a cross as something to carry or bear each day.  So far ahead of his execution on a Roman cross, his use of the image at this point makes me wonder if this episode happened much later in Jesus’ ministry–say, very near his final run-in with Rome, which was a scene he’d pondered in his mind many times expecting that somehow Rome would find a way to snuff him out on a cross.  As it turns out, he and others sentenced to this fate literally had to carry the cross beam from the holding cell to Golgotha where it was inserted into its base.  Jesus and all the criminals Rome executed by this means had had to do the same.  Maybe, therefore, it wasn’t unusual for any of the subservient peoples to Rome to speak of the cross as a burden to bear because Rome staged these cruel events in such a way that many people would notice and therefore be reminded not to mess with Rome lest the same fate befall them.
Whatever else you might make of it, the possibility of dying for a cause is tied to the image of a Roman cross.  So, when we down in Halls Crossroads talked about the crosses we had to bear as frustrations, embarrassments, or inconveniences, we were missing Jesus’ point.  Someone between Jesus and us had minimized the impact of what Jesus meant, which was that anyone who wanted to join him in his countercultural ministry of diversity had to face the fact that Evil’s response to Good is often to kill it.  Evil insists on being sovereign and will not sit idly by as Good tries to eclipse it or weaken it.
That’s shocking, and liberals don’t talk much about that in the context of spirituality and ministry even though plenty of liberals have died trying to serve the same kinds of overlooked people to whom Jesus had tried to minister.  Jesus didn’t write off the poor and troubled as inconsequential and unworthy of his time and attention; just the opposite was the case.  The outcasts, the abject poor were at the top of his list of people deserving priority care, and the fat cats–no offense to real felines–hated the fact that Jesus humanized the hungry by feeding them, empowered the poor by finding enough support for them so that they could be removed from the roles of beggars, supported the sick by healing them whenever he could.  He quickly became the enemy of those of means who didn’t like being reminded that their callousness exacerbated the suffering of those in need just as quickly as he, Jesus, became the enemy of those who hid behind their putrid, self-centered theologizing that allowed them to believe that God was rewarding them for their goodness and causing the suffering of homeless and hungry as punitive act in response to their acts of impurity.
When we referred to bad financial investments that left us with lingering, rippling challenges as crosses we had to bear, we didn’t know we were, but we were missing Jesus’ point.  When married couples referred to their loveless marriages as crosses they had to bear because divorce was unheard of when and where I grew up, they didn’t know they were, but they were missing Jesus’ point entirely.  The truth is that many of them probably didn’t know the image they used so freely could be traced back to Jesus himself.  We hired seminary trained pastors at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads; looks like one of them could gently have corrected us.  They didn’t, though.  I heard one of our seminary trained pastors say, “We all have our crosses to bear.”
As well intentioned as he was, that’s not so.  Not all of us have matured spiritually to the point that we’re willing to serve the needly and hurting blindly enough to be willing to die trying to reach them and provide for them.  So let’s give up the watered down notion of what bearing a cross is and reserve that for those commitments for which, in service to humanity, we are willing to lose our lives.  Hymn writer, Henry Francis Lyte, I think, was in step with what Jesus meant by bearing a cross.

Jesus, I my cross have taken,

All to leave and follow Thee;

Destitute, despised, forsaken,

Thou from hence my All shalt be.

Perish every fond ambition,

All I’ve sought or hoped or known;

Yet how rich is my condition!

God and heaven are still my own.

What we meant in Halls Crossroads when we talked about bearing our crosses was really what the Apostle Paul talked about with his image “thorn in the flesh.”  A “thorn” in the flesh was not deadly, but dastardly and occasionally debilitating though not permanently debilitating.

II.
Not all of my mentors became friends after the mentoring processes were over, but a handful did; they have shaped and enriched my life beyond my ability to describe.  Mary Charlotte Ball, William L. Blevins, David Buttrick, John Killinger, and one about whom I’d like to tell you today, E. Glenn Hinson.  He recently turned 80, overcame some health challenges, and saw the release of his autobiography titled A Miracle of Grace.
The publisher, Mercer University Press, has this bio blurb about Glenn on its web page:

E. Glenn Hinson is emeritus professor of Spirituality and John Loftis Professor of Church History at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In retirement he served as visiting professor at Lexington Theological Seminary, Louisville (Presbyterian) Seminary, Candler School of Theology (Emory University) and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. His honors include the Cuthbert Allen Memorial Award for Ecumenism awarded by the Ecumenical Institute of Belmont Abbey/Wake Forest University.

Regarding the book, which I will begin reading on the day after Christmas, Mercer offers these comments:

This is the story of Glenn Hinson’s life—A Miracle of Grace— “for I stand with mouth agape as I look back from where I am at age eighty toward where my story began.” With degrees from some of the world’s most noted schools (Washington University in St Louis, Southern Seminary, Oxford University), Hinson has taught in some of America’s most distinguished educational institutions (Southern Seminary, Wake Forest University, Catholic University of America, Notre Dame, Emory University), and has played a role in some of the most momentous ecumenical developments in Christian history since the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Who could have foreseen, much less predicted, any of those happenings from a glance at his early years growing up in dire poverty in the Missouri Ozarks during the Great Depression?

He earned his first doctorate from Southern Seminary in the field of New Testament studies. He was so brilliant, and fortunately the faculty recognized this, that he was immediately appointed to the faculty as professor of early church history. Not only was he gifted in Greek, but also it turns out that he was gifted in Latin so teaching the early history of the church and the early writings in the history of church were right up his ally.  He would later earn a second doctorate, the second one in the history of the Church, from Oxford.
I heard him tell the story that I’m about to summarize for you many times in great detail, but the chronology isn’t fixed solidly in my mind. Nonetheless here’s the gist.
Early in his teaching career some sort of physical malady struck him and stole his ability to speak well, that is physiologically impaired his speaking.  Today the teacher who has trouble speaking can teach online and do very nicely, no problems, but back in those days when lecturing was the only means of classroom instruction the professor who couldn’t speak well so that the students could hear and understand her or him was in trouble. Naturally Glenn agonized over this, and he fretted and worried about where he would be left as a brilliant academician who could not speak well enough for students to be able to hear and learn. This of course only added to the physical problem itself.
In time there were some treatments that improved the speaking problem to a degree though it was never completely healed.  Determined person that he was he learned to work around it. He learned to speak well enough so that those who tried a bit to listen learned how to hear him, and it there was a great reward for their modest effort.  What I mean, for example, is that the first day of class in a new semester might be a little difficult for students who had never studied with Glenn before, but if one kept trying, which almost all the students did, soon they could learn how to understand him effortlessly.
Wait, though.  That wasn’t his only challenge as a classroom teacher.  Somehow, connected to this ailment that effectively damaged his vocal cords and paralyzed a part of his neck was the loss of a significant amount of his hearing.  Now, how in the world could he possibly teach?  It was one thing to have difficulty speaking, but what if he couldn’t even hear the questions his students were asking?  Well, he made use of a teaching assistant, and he learned to be a superior lip reader so with partial hearing, very limited, and vocal challenge he managed to be one of the most popular, sought after teachers in every institution where he has taught. His classes have filled up like wildfire across the years. A great fan of his long before I was able to become one of his students, I could never get a seat in what was his most popular course at Southern Seminary, “Classics of Christian Devotion.” Some semesters he taught three sections of the course; yet even when I was a senior no matter what I tried–bribery of the Registrar included–I couldn’t get to registration early enough to get into that course.
I finally did get a seat, though, in a related, brand-new course he first offered in the summer of 1980. The course was called “Prayer in Christian Tradition,” and that course along with the textbook, which he happened to have written, Prayer in Christian Tradition, absolutely changed my life.  Prayer finally began to make sense to me and very quickly became a core part of my life.

The prayers about which Dr. Hinson taught were not the kinds of prayers I had heard and prayed myself during my growing up years at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads; nor were they the kinds of prayers I heard prayed around Carson-Newman College and even Southern Seminary. Dr. Hinson’s understanding of prayer, and he practiced it daily, was much more a pervasive act of spirituality and devotion interwoven with the living of life itself.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of lives he has touched through his teaching and preaching and writing, but the number would be astronomical. I can say without reservation that there are very few people with whom he has ever come into contact who were not positively influenced by the encounter or more correctly by the man himself.
Never in a self-pitying way, Glenn has compared his loss of vocal production and hearing to the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” I imagine he may have preached on that subject several times across the years and in the many places where he has served.  The sermon I know about, and the sermon that I actually heard him preach on this painful topic, he called “The Answer to Unanswered Prayer.”

III.
No one in the modern world knows for sure what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was.  Surely some of those closest to him knew what it was; perhaps he discussed his concerns about his thorn in the flesh with a handful of people, his confidants. He wrote to the Church in Corinth mentioning his thorn in the flesh as if they may have known what it was, but he could have spoken of it as a problem without ever specifying publicly what it was.  Certainly, he never indicated in writing exactly what it was.  Paul did use his struggle to get a message across, though, and this is the message that comes through loudly and clearly:  imperfections, frustrations, and recurring challenges though real and impossible to ignore do not have to keep us from succeeding.  Said another way, we can find ways to be productive and successful, we can find ways to enjoy life even when we can never quite remove the effects of a thorn that once embedded itself in our flesh.  I want to say that again because it is what I want you to carry home with you from this Gathering:  Imperfections, frustrations, and recurring challenges though real and impossible to ignore do not have to keep us from succeeding.  We can find ways to be productive and successful, we can find ways to enjoy life even when we can never quite remove the effects of a thorn that once embedded itself in our flesh.
Scholars and others have had a great time speculating about, some of them trying hard to prove, their theories on just what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was.  All kinds of possibilities been proposed for what Paul’s thorn was. The one presented to us in the response we read today is a speech impediment, which is not one of the more commonly discussed possibilities, but it is something very interesting to consider.  Even though Paul had an active speaking ministry, nobody can deny that Paul has been much more remembered for what he wrote or dictated.
Probably the most commonly suggested solution to the challenge of trying to identify what Paul’s thorn in the flesh is partial blindness. This is the way the story goes as you might know.  Paul originally was called Saul, a zealous persecutor of those Jews who were not pharisaic like he; they were followers of Jesus. Paul hated that, and he joined in all out persecution of every follower of Jesus he could find any reason whatsoever to persecute and by whatever means:  harassment, finding a way to have someone attached to the Jesus Movement accused of something that would result in a prison sentence, participation in vigilante killings.
All of that changed one day as Paul was riding his horse toward Damascus on a mission of persecution, and suddenly a bolt of lightning shot out of the skies and into his face. Many speculate that he was actually struck by lightning. We know that he fell off the horse; we don’t know for sure if it were the shock of what happened that caused the fall off, or, as many biblical scholars and a few ophthalmologists believe, if lightning struck Paul causing him to fall off the horse. We know that something related to the flash in his face or the blots of lightening themselves caused temporary blindness.
Paul had the sense that there were scales on his eyes; he couldn’t see at all at first.  A few days later, one of the devotees of the Jesus Movement, Ananias, laid healing hands on him, and the scales kind of dropped away.  Paul could see after that, but he could never see well.  This theory of what his thorn may have been explains a comment or two that Paul made in his letters.  For example, at the end of one letter, he stopped dictating and signed his name himself.  Reference is made to evidence of his writing as being much larger than the way his secretary wrote.
There is other speculation about what his thorn in the flesh was.   Some say that Paul had a real struggle with his sense of morality that left no room for any expressions of homosexual activity or behavior.  Could Paul have been gay and have hated himself for it?  The behaviors related to homosexuality that Paul condemns are quite specific–for example, temple prostitution, but he didn’t have anything negative to say about a general gay lifestyle or a gay relationship that he certainly would have observed frequently at least in and around Rome.  This theory is a stretch though intriguing.          Another much less discussed possibility is that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was an overactive libido, which would explain one of the reasons that a bachelor, presumably, had so many comments to make about sex. So, perhaps Paul who made it a practice in his writings to greet not just the men in the congregations to whom he wrote as was the typical pattern in his day, but also many women that most correspondents would have routinely ignored.  Could the prudish Apostle have had a crush on one or more of the women pastors of the churches to whom he wrote?
Without knowing exactly what it was, we know how the thorn had an impact on him and what he learned as a result of its constant or recurring presence.  Once it came upon him, it stayed with him for the rest of his life.  No matter he tried, he couldn’t get rid of it, couldn’t make it go away.  When all practical possibilities failed him, he turned to spiritual options; and he prayed, fervently begging God to remove the thorn.  Paul could never quite understand why, faithful servant of God he had become, God didn’t give him a break, why his all powerful God didn’t remove the thron in the flesh so that he might have more peace in his life
The conclusion he ultimately drew as a result of having to live with this problem until the end of his days on earth came to him in prayer.  As he prayed, he sensed that God was saying to him, “You may never be able to see well again; you may never have the great speaking ability for which you long. But what you regard as limitations haven’t disqualified you so far. The only way it can beat you is if you let it.  Despite a very bad beginning with the Jesus Movement, you’ve done amazingly well, and that says something about how the power of divine love can carry you through frustration, limitation, embarrassment.  Divine power,” Paul sensed God saying to him, “is made perfect in human weakness.”  Paul was stunned.  I’m stunned.  His readers were stunned.  There’s something to that, which Glenn Hinson shared as the core message in his sermon, “An Answer to Unanswered Prayer.”

Paul did not get the answer to this prayer that he sought; his thorn in the flesh did not go.  It was not a sentence God had cast on him so that he would suffer.  It just was.  It was a part of his life with which he had to contend.
God has used imperfect or limited people to accomplish all the great things that have happened for the good in human history.  The people who are disqualified from participating in serving God and others as Jesus demonstrated are always self-disqualified. There’s no expectation in a life of spiritual seeking that we will ever reach perfection or that God, whatever God is to you, expects, imagines, dreams of perfection for human beings.
Who is the greatest help to an alcoholic who wants to get on the road to recovery? Another alcoholic, an alcoholic who says at every AA meeting, “I’m an alcoholic.  I personally learned that this substance is so powerfully addictive for me that left to my own devices I could be free from its power over me, but relying on self-determination and a higher power I have stayed sober five years.  I hope for, pray for, another day of sobriety tomorrow.”  That person not somebody who has never had a drinking problem is the most effective advisor, confidant, encourager to somebody who wants to get on the road to recovery.
Imperfect Paul founded the church and based the church on the teachings of Jesus from Nazareth as they reinterpreted the Jewish religion. Jesus did not found the church; he never saw church or attended a church service. He was a Jew just as Paul also was a Jew to the end, but Paul lived long enough to institutionalize the church.  Let me say this again:  the church was founded by an imperfect person, and every church in all times and places regardless of the size, big or small, has been made up 100% of imperfect people. Yet, the church as a whole and local congregations have, nonetheless, dared to attempt great deeds of compassion and caring ministry.  Sometimes, we succeed; that’s because divine power, God’s power, is made perfect in human weakness.
Amen.

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