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“At the Intersection of Light and Pain”
II Corinthians 12:2-10
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Those words from today’s epistle lesson never fail to call to mind Ernest Hemingway’s unforgettable sentence, “The world breaks everyone, and, afterward, many are strong at the broken places”; which certainly seems to have been the case for Paul, who said, in this morning’s epistle passage, that he was stronger with his painful thorn in the flesh than ever he would have been without it.
Which is so often true, not for all who suffer and struggle, but, certainly, for many. Think, for example of Frederick Buechner, his life forever changed by the sadness of his father’s suicide, but, a sadness from which Buechner has given so many so much light by which to live. Or, think of Anne Lamott, who, through her own battles with brokenness, has given so many weary souls so many words of grace. And Parker Palmer, whose most healing words have risen from his most crippling despair. And Henri Nowen, who, from the depth of his own self-doubt, has given the rest of us light for the journey. And, of course, Mother Teresa, whose unparalleled empathy rose from a depression so deep that she once said, If I make it into heaven, and they let me say only one sentence to Jesus, I know what it will be: “All my life, I loved you in the darkness.”
Fred Buechner, Anne Lamott, Parker Palmer, Henri Nowen, Mother Teresa; all, like Paul, strong at the broken places, their greatest light shining from their deepest pain. Which is also true for many of us, too; our strongest kindness shaped by our hardest struggles; our most gentle empathy, rising from our most difficult grief; our deepest pain, the source of our deepest insights.
And, on the other hand, sometimes, it is the other way around. While it is often true that our deepest pain is the source of our deepest insight, it is also sometimes true that our deepest insights can lead to our deepest pain.
When I was a seminary student, for example, in my mid-twenties, discovering the truth that the Bible, inspired and inspiring, beautiful and wonderful as it is, was never intended to be God’s inerrant, infallible, literal, last word, plunged me into an uncertainty so deep I can still only describe it as “emotional paralysis,” not because what I had discovered wasn’t true, but, to the contrary, because it was so obviously true, but so very different from what I had always thought, and been taught.
As the years went on, and a life of prayerful walking in the Holy Spirit revealed to me more and more spiritual light and insight, there would be more and more spiritual growing pains, as I discovered truths which, to many, are basic and fundamental, but which, to me, were altogether new; revelations such as the truth that, in the eyes of God, suffering through the grief of divorce does not disqualify anyone from anything in the church, or the truth that God calls people to ministry without regard for whether they happen to have been born male or female, or the truth that homosexuality is a human difference not a spiritual sin, or the truth that the God who created the universe thirteen billion years ago cannot be completely captured in any one religion, including my own; each new revelation true to the spirit of Jesus, but, each one becoming, for me, what Paul’s revelations in today’s epistle passage were for him; not only another source of light, but, also, another source of pain; to borrow Mary Oliver’s image, the pain of walking upstream while the world of my origins kept walking downstream.
The poet W.H. Auden once said, “We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die,” which is something I understand. I understand why people would sometimes rather go to their grave with less truth than go through their life with more truth, because following new light on old truth and letting our long held assumptions die can, indeed, feel, if not like dying on a cross, at least like living with a thorn.
Not unlike what happened to Paul, in today’s epistle lesson; a painful new thorn in the flesh the price of admission to whatever those revelations were which Paul said Paul saw on his journey to paradise; new light bringing pain as surely as pain brings new light; none of the pain sent to us from God, but all of it is used for us by God, to help make us deeper, kinder and stronger, more clear and true followers of Jesus and children of God.