Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:6-10
Once upon a time, back when the earliest Christian hermits and monastic—known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers—lived in the Egyptian desert, “the Devil appeared to one of the brothers, transformed into an angel of light, and said to him: ‘I am Gabriel and I have been sent to you.’ The brother answered, ‘Make sure you have not been sent to someone else, for I am not worthy to see angels, living in sins as I do.’ The Devil immediately vanished.”
The Desert Fathers often received visions such as this, and the proof of their wisdom was that they could perceive these apparitions as a temptation to the sin of pride. Rejecting such pride, they refused to feel special or singled out by God. In some of the stories, the reader is never told if the angelic visitor really was a demon or not, emphasizing that it was better to be humble and “normal” than to receive a divine visitation and succumb to temptation.
The background for today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is similar: The passage begins with a description of Paul’s mystical experiences, visions and revelations he’d witnessed, something that could easily give a churchy person a bit of a sense of superiority if they let it. But Paul knows what generations of the wisest Christians have known: that mystical oneness and visions are a temptation to pride, and that true spiritual maturity is found in the person who resists feeling special. Paul seems to have known the lesson that the Desert Fathers would also learn. For him, being apart from or more privileged than others is worthless. What is precious is his weakness and humility, the experience that makes him part of the family of human frailty. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years as to what Paul meant by the thorn in his flesh—is it epilepsy? A sense of guilt over his previous persecution of Christ’s followers? Temptation? Chronic pain? Depression? Who knows—maybe it’s a combination of some of these. Whatever his thorn in the flesh is, it’s a source of humility, a reminder that he cannot heal himself.
This is the place where grace enters: the place you cannot heal, the place of weakness, the place of pain. The Muslim mystic Rumi knew this when he wrote:
Trust your wound to [God’s] surgery.
Flies collect on a wound.
They cover it, those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.
Let [God] wave away the flies and put a plaster on the wound.
Don’t turn your head.
Keep looking at the bandaged place.
the Light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself.
In his earthy way, Rumi reminds us that when we try to protect ourselves from our own humanity, that’s when we expose ourselves to danger; those self-protective feelings, the lies we tell ourselves to preserve a sense of control, are nothing more than flies, spreading disease and making the injury worse.
What if weakness is where we connect to the divine? What if grace is only possible when weakness is admitted? What if the light enters us precisely where we have been most broken and ashamed? Those who’ve been through Twelve-Step programs know the power of admitting weakness and lack of control: grace figures quite largely in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Grace is the paradoxical strength we may receive when we face up to our illusions and renounce our sense of sovereignty. Grace is the light that enters us right where the injury occurred, that permeates us wherever we affirm our vulnerability.
Grace is something unexpected, gratuitous, unearned and unowed. Grace is what smooths over rough places. It is what heals estrangements. How often have we refused to be wrong, refused to take responsibility, only to find that, when we eventually do admit our culpability and wrongness, that act of humbling ourselves unexpectedly opens the other person’s heart? Or how often have we demonized someone or borne a grudge against them, only to find, in their humble apology, our hearts softening toward them? Grace is that recognition of our humanity that allows us to connect. There is no true connection possible without vulnerability. This is why, when someone adopts an attitude of superiority, we are turned off. It’s why someone who only gives help, and never receives it, is so lonely—because humanity involves that give-and-take, that ability to receive as well as give.
Is anyone here a fan of Anne Lamott? I’ve introduced a number of friends to her over the years, and found that I often misrepresented her writing to people. Somehow, my description of her made her sound pious and far too holy for ordinary people of faith. So I started just giving people her books, and my friends would rave: “She’s so down-to-earth!” “She makes me feel less alone!” “She admits things about herself I could barely admit to myself!” This is a form of grace: admitting the worst about ourselves, the things we’re most afraid of, and finding that we’re not alone. Connecting not despite, but because of our sense of shame, and finding that shame turned to strength. At her best, Anne Lamott is a person of immense grace.
As with Lamott’s writing, much of the Bible has to do with confronting human weakness. This isn’t a morbid preoccupation, but rather a very healthy reminder that true health, wholeness, and power only comes from God, and from a true understanding of who we are and what state we’re in. The idea that we can save ourselves from poverty, fear, enemies, death—that’s a form of idolatry. Like all idolatry, it impedes our living life fully and joyfully; it keeps us mired in shame. The only way past weakness and shame is through it, is accepting it, is allowing God to transform it. Over and over the Scriptures tell us, our wealth will not save us. Our friends and patrons won’t save us. Our armies and walls won’t save us. All they will do is delude us and estrange us from our fellow human beings and from God.
Whereas the opposite—embracing what causes us anxiety, accepting our lack of control—that is where God’s strength shines through, like the light in Rumi’s poem. Paul says, “whenever I am weak, I am strong,” because there “the power of Christ dwells in me.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise to a people whose central figure showed his deep solidarity with the world by breaking, suffering, and dying. This isn’t about glorifying suffering; it’s about Christ loving a world in which people suffer. How could Christ love such a world if he refused to suffer? How would he connect with us, how could we see our experience reflected in him, if he didn’t know our mortality and pain? Christ, as God’s revelation to us, reveals God’s compassion and solidarity with our suffering.
In her story entitled “Grace,” Anne Lamott talks about an event she once did with Grace Paley, and how she—Anne, not Grace Paley—totally bombed. She talks about her fear of failure, about being raised by perfectionists to be a perfectionist, about how, when you’re a perfectionist, messing up just destroys you. And she talks about learning, and I quote, “the gift of failure, which is that it breaks through all that held breath and isometric tension about needing to look good . . . One of the things I’d been most afraid of had finally happened, with a whole lot of people watching, and it had indeed been a nightmare. But sitting with all that vulnerability, I discovered I could ride it.”
Grace is in the flopping, in the humility to realize our imperfection, and in fact embrace it. Grace is in that moment of failure when we feel like shit and then realize that God still loves us, that our spouse still loves us, or our child. Grace is what follows the realization that we are finite, when we are confronted by the love and acceptance of the One Who Is Infinite. The great theologian Paul Tillich once preached, “After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. . . . Nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”
I’m assigning homework this week: Accept grace. Accept your humanity, and others’ humanity as well. Accept that there is One who knows you in all your imperfections, and loves you unconditionally. And pray to live into that love.