14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Three preachers were discussing the best positions for prayer, while a telephone repairman worked nearby.
“Kneeling is definitely the best position for prayer,” claimed one.
“No,” another contended. “I get the best results when standing with my hands outstretched toward Heaven.”
“You’re both wrong,” the third insisted. “The most effective prayer position is while lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”
The repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas, ” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down, from a telephone pole.”
Regardless of which prayer posture was the best, what the three preachers, as well as
the repairman all acknowledged, was that they were all weak apart from God and needed God’s strength to help guide, direct and sustain them through the hills and valleys, the challenges and struggles of everyday life. St. Paul presents that same realization in his second letter to the Corinthians today. Though he doesn’t tell us what the obstacle was, that he had difficulty in overcoming, he calls it a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan that had tormented him and left him feeling defeated.
All of us can probably identify thorns in the flesh, in our own lives too! It’s something that causes us pain, that we can’t ignore. Recently, it could be the way the church in the past tried to hide the deaths of the Indigenous children at the residential schools for so many years; it could be the lack of transparency in the church at times over sexual abuse or financial crises; it could be the sometimes harsh language that comes from our church hierarchy when speaking of about our LGBTQ brothers and sisters;
it may be a feeling of despair during the continuing covid pandemic when many in the states are freed from the restrictions; it may be a heightened realization of persisting problems with our significant other; it may be a thirst for a greater sense of community to return to our lives and our churches. Whatever our particular thorn in the flesh may be, we know that it causes us pain and that it’s a pain that can’t be ignored.
Even though Paul may have likewise seen his own thorn in the flesh in negative terms, that ordeal became the means by which God would get Paul to turn to him for the graces he would need to face his problems head-on. That would require Paul to acknowledge his weaknesses and limitations and the futility of trying to figure out how he alone would be able to remove the thorn in the flesh from his life. Paul would need to turn to God for help first and allow God’s grace to work through his weaknesses and persecutions and feelings of helplessness. Paul’s realization of this fact is one of the most beautiful passages of his writings: “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, it is THEN that I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
What a great insight that Paul shares with us! It’s the same insight that God’s offering to each of us today as well! It’s an insight that can only be verified by deep personal prayer on our part to discern the grace God wants us to receive in the particular circumstances with which we’re faced and to simply surrender to the action of that divine grace in our lives, allowing it to percolate up and to overflow into the very life events with which we’re confronted.
It doesn’t matter if the cause of our thorn is a person, a thing, or a circumstance. If we allow ourselves to be immersed in the grace of God, He’ll get us through the difficulties we’re experiencing and bring us and maybe others to a better place—-spiritually— in the process.
This is because God’s always with us, in our hearts, and can use what others might think are human weaknesses, imperfections, and vulnerabilities to nevertheless bring about God’s plan for our lives —sometimes in surprising and unheard of ways.
But in order for this divine intervention to occur, we have to do something first. We have to be willing to give up whatever control we may think we have over a given person, thing or circumstance. We have to allow God to be in control and to prayerfully guide us, every step of the way, in the decisions we make to help us to find a way out of our difficulties and toward a new experience of light, peace, and joy. We have to pray that God’s Will may be done in all things and put aside our tendency to coach God to act according to our personal preferences or desires. It took Paul some time to learn this sobering lesson, and until he did, it felt to him that God had seemingly turned a deaf ear to his complaining.
This is a particularly difficult insight for some of us to embrace perhaps, who may exercise some position of human power and authority over others or who may be type A personalities. It’s a particularly difficult insight too, for many persons who play a more dominant role in a significant relationship—- be it a parent, a spouse, or some other significant individual. —The reason being, that persons who exercise human authority or power over others are usually comfortable exercising it and using it to craft the outcomes they desire. Such persons can easily fall into the temptation of forgetting the stewardship dimension of every position of power and authority.
Recognition of such stewardship reveals that our human power and authority are ultimately derived from God and that God is the one who encourages and guides us to use that which we’ve been given, to build up and further realize the kingdom of God in our midst and to care for and strengthen the people whom the Lord has placed in our lives.
When we become faithful stewards of the power and positions of authority we’ve been given on earth, we, in effect, allow God to direct our decision-making processes and enable God’s grace to inform and be poured out upon any difficult or unpopular actions or decisions we may be challenged to make.
Relying on the grace of God isn’t just for those in authority however. It’s a two-way street. Its also necessary for the one who’s on the receiving end to strive to work with the authority figures in obtaining the goals desired. When we’re the one on the receiving end, we must pay particular attention to allowing the grace of God to show us how to best respond and act in ways that correspond to the gospel values by which Jesus lived his life and which he asked his church to embrace. It entails an active listening on our part to the desires of those in authority and to dialogue with them as to how best to arrive at the common goals that we seek. This discernment also gives us the grace to cope with any sufferings or difficulties that may arise because of the decisions made by others.
I’d wager that we’ve all experienced a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, at some point in our lives! And chances are, we probably will again! No one said being a Christian would be easy or that our lives would be free of pain, judgments by others, or by difficulties of any kind. But Jesus does ensure us that he’ll be there through it all, to help us maneuver through the hard stuff and to give us the graces to cope with our problems as part of a community of faith, which though not perfect, strives to live the Good News of Salvation. For it’s the Lord who has the power to change our lives for the better! It’s the Lord who has a divine plan for us! And it’s up to us to trust that God’s grace is sufficient for us in every circumstance and occasion, knowing that when we boast of our weakness, it is then that God can make us strong.
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