Thursday, March 3, 2011

We All Have Thorns

In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. (2 Corinthians 12.7)

In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7.2)

“They’re Like Me!”

Bette Midler told a story at a 1976 concert I attended. If I’ve told it here before, I beg your indulgence, since it bears repeating in light of today’s texts. “Walking down the street,” she said, “I met a lady with a fried egg stuck to her forehead. I prayed, ‘Dear God, don’t let me end up like her, wandering around with a fried egg on my forehead.’ I thought some more and prayed, ‘If I do end up like her, please don’t let people notice.’ I walked on and changed my prayer again. 'If they notice, please don’t let them laugh at me.' Finally, I prayed, ‘Dear God, if I do end up with an egg on my head and people do see and laugh, please don’t let me know they’re mocking me.’” After the laughter faded and the room grew still, Bette said, “Because, when you think about it, we all have eggs stuck to our heads.” The audience sat in silence a moment before bursting into applause.

The parable collapses the polite (and convenient) distance we put between people we don’t understand and us by saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Such charitable regard implies we’re less troubled or more blessed than they. Either way, we come out ahead, don’t we? Intentionally or not, a strand of pride twists into our gratitude. When we encounter people crippled by addictions and attitudes we’d never tangle with, it’s easy to focus on what torments them, not the frailty spawning their defeat. We forget we’re all weak. We’re all vulnerable. We all wear eggs. The type of egg isn’t the thing. Be it addiction, selfishness, intolerance, and on and on, it’s still an egg.

That changes the detached empathy of “but for God’s grace” to an immediately honest—and unsettling—“They’re like me!” I may not be an alcoholic scratching out existence on the street. But he’s like me. I may not be an enraged driver cursing at traffic. Still, she’s like me. I may not be society’s worst—a killer, pedophile, embezzler, et al. But seeing them paraded on TV in jail jumpers and handcuffs, I see they’re like me. Once I get this truth instilled in my heart, then I can say, “But for God’s grace…” My egg is no better or worse than another’s. Nor is my need for grace any less. That’s why knowing God’s grace is so vital to each of us. It’s why extending God’s grace is what we do. Today’s readings—which brilliantly couple Jesus’s edict against judging with Paul’s confession of frailty—make this vividly clear.

The Self-Honesty Filter

Paul’s metaphor is much less benign than an egg signaling his weakness. He speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” as his source of torment. It’s something in him that makes him think, look, sound, and act crazy. Since he doesn’t say what it is, theories abound. Is it an actual physical infirmity? Oblique mentions elsewhere of Paul’s eye problems support this idea. Yet he also discloses other frailties he fights to overcome. Then, we detect a few on our own that emerge inadvertently in his tone and topics. We know Paul battles intellectual pride and impatience with those who dispute him. He’s ferociously protective of churches he leads and unleashes diatribes against anyone who usurps his authority. Whatever the thorn may be, apparently it’s so overt he needn’t spell it out to his readers. His point isn’t focused on what the thorn is, anyway. He’s more interested in why he’s tormented. “To keep me from being conceited,” he writes in 2 Corinthians 12.7, “I was given a thorn in my flesh to torment me.” The weakness Paul aches to be rid of persists to keep him humble. Physical or not, it alerts him to his blind spots. When seeing others battle frailties that make them think, look, sound, and act crazy, it enables him say, “They’re like me!”

Using self-honesty as the filter through which we regard others is the rudiment in Jesus’s command that we judge no one. He couldn’t be more explicit: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7.1-2) Jesus’s metaphor of choice is wood. “Why do you look at a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and ignore the plank in yours? How can you correct someone else’s vision when you obviously can’t see yourself?” (v3-4) Should I detect blindness in you, before I rush to judge your inability to see, I need to do a quick mirror-check. Hopefully, what’s blinding me isn’t so enormous I won’t see I’ve got sight issues, too. My condemnation of you condemns me. As soon as I see that, my response no longer is “How can you be so blind?” It’s “You’re like me!”

Kept by Grace

Jesus’s metaphor leads to a different result than Bette’s egg and Paul’s thorn, however. He instructs us to “take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (v5) It’s an invaluable solution to our fondness for knee-jerk opinions and stereotyping. It quickly gets us to admit, “I’m no one to judge”—exactly where Jesus wants us be. The egg and thorn push us to confess some weaknesses vex us for life. We haven’t strength to defeat them. When Paul gets this, he pleads with God to remove his thorn. God refuses. Why would God do that? Doesn’t God know Paul’s thorn impedes his ministry and growth? Isn’t God concerned about Paul’s suffering? Here’s God’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9)

Absence of weakness removes our need for grace that loves, forgives, and abides with us unconditionally. Thorn-free life deprives us of awareness we’re kept by grace. Grace is provided before we realize we need it. It remains whether or not we recognize it’s there. It’s given beyond measure, endlessly, repeatedly, extravagantly. Others’ weaknesses cause us to say, “Because of God’s grace go I—just as God’s grace keeps him, her, or them.” We all have thorns. We all rely on God’s grace. Once this reality permeates our beings, compulsions to judge become humbling invitations to witness grace, forgiveness, and tolerance. People we want to judge are like us. They wear eggs like ours. They ache with thorns like ours. But they’ve also been given what we’ve received. Why would we judge them, when we can turn their thorns into reminders of God’s grace for them and us?

Weakness is the great leveler. Our struggles may not look as extreme as another’s, but they’re there. That’s why we judge no one and see everyone as worthy of grace.

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