On a mission trip to Mexico, a coworker named Louise was so impressed with my skills on the compound miter saw that she began to tell everyone she thought I was “perfect.” According to her, I made no mistakes. If that were true, I’m not sure why some of the pieces were returned to me to have small portions shaved off … but let’s not go there! In any event, it was a joke among some of the adults on the crew, with Louise commenting on my perfection, me giving mild protest, and then finally asking her if she would please put it in writing. I thought it might come in handy someday.
We, the people called Methodists, embrace the theology of John Wesley, which speaks of the Christian life as a movement of growth in holiness. Wesley said that from the moment of baptism, the Spirit of God works in a person’s life so that they are able to go on to perfection – that is, they are able, by God’s grace, to grow in love and faith all their days.
Perfection is not a destination likely to be reached in this lifetime, but rather a goal toward which to aim in one’s faith. It is the process of sanctification that Wesley believed occurs within all followers of Christ when they practice the means of grace.
In Second Corinthians 12:2-10, the apostle Paul speaks with a touch of irony about weakness, and specifically of an affliction with which he lived, “a thorn in the flesh.” But our weaknesses are not the end of the story. Our vulnerabilities, our suffering, our pain – God can use and transform even these. Indeed, Paul’s thorn in the flesh helped him rely all the more on God’s grace.
Internationally known astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has been confined to a wheelchair for years due to Lou Gehrig’s disease. He once said that before he became ill life seemed “a pointless existence.” He claims to have been happier after he was afflicted than before. “When one’s expectations are reduced to zero,” he said, “one really appreciates everything that one does have.”
There are few certainties in life. We make plans, and inevitably they change. We expect to remain healthy, only to have our bodies betray us. We hope to have good relationships, and then something happens to create separation or alienation.
All we know for sure, as people of faith, is that God’s strength helps us in our weakness. The God whom we know in Jesus Christ is a suffering God, a vulnerable God, a crucified God, and we can be thankful, ultimately a triumphant God.
Not once, but three times, Paul says he appealed to God to remove the “thorn in his flesh,” and it wasn’t removed. Paul, like us, wants more control over his own wellbeing. Paul, like us, wants some sign that God answers prayers. Paul, like us, doesn’t particularly like feeling vulnerable or weak.
During the Civil War, a hastily written prayer was found in the pocket of a fatally wounded soldier. “I received nothing that I asked for,” it read, “but all I had hoped. My prayers were answered.”
Our prayers are answered in God’s own way. The answer Paul received from God is found in these words of assurance: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
It reminds me of something Alice Abrams said: “In life as in dance: Grace glides on blistered feet.”
So you and I needn’t worry about our imperfections. God specializes in making strong the weak. God specializes in making healthy the sick. God specializes in making rich the poor. Not in the ways we might expect, but true all the same.
We worship a God who in Christ embraces the world and becomes vulnerable to suffering and death … a God who invites us to open ourselves to both pain and wonder.
For it is in our vulnerability that we share in the glory of God whose power is made perfect in weakness.
Words (c) 2012 Mark Lloyd Richardson