Search for Meaning
I love working with my hands. That might suggest I’m good at working with my hands. Actually, I’m not. I’m not a craftsman. I love fixing things, but have rarely tried to build anything. I love mowing and edging and weeding, but I’m really not a gardener. I paint walls, not murals. I love writing music with my guitar and piano, but I cough whenever I try referring to myself as a musician. I’m good enough, but not very good. Fortunately, I’m good enough with my hands to do most jobs that need doing. And I love doing most of those jobs, even when I found myself repeatedly swearing last week (the kind of swearing ministers do – e.g. “Shoot”, “I can’t believe I did that”) while replacing a ceiling light fixture, and even though it involved three trips to Menard’s (which, fortunately, is just around the corner).
Now that I’m retired, I have more time to work with my hands. But having to move three times and forcing my hands to work on three houses in eight months took a toll. Once we moved into our last house and I started to play my instruments again, my hands and wrists and arms started to hurt. So just when I had time to use my hands more, I had to use them less...and less and less. I managed to write songs on each of the Beatitudes, but then couldn’t practice them, much less record them. Eight weeks ago I had carpal tunnel surgery on my left hand, and the recovery hasn’t gone well. I’m still pretty limited in what I can do, my hand hurts, and I’m afraid my other hand is inching in the same direction.
It’s been interesting to reflect on all this spiritually. (Okay, it's what I do.) I mean, what does all this mean? You may be thinking, “Why does it need to mean anything? Suck it up. Most people your age are dealing with much worse things.” I get the logic, and at one level I agree with you. There are so many ways in which I’m blessed, and I thank God for many of them daily. There are some physical challenges I’ve had for decades that have actually improved since I’ve retired, which has significantly enhanced the quality of my life (e.g. stomach issues – who would’ve thought that eating could be so much fun?). God is good, and life is good.
But there’s still this “thorn in the flesh” – words the apostle Paul used to describe whatever he was dealing with at the time he wrote 2 Corinthians. He’d been beaten and tortured on several occasions, and had experienced all sorts of physical and emotional suffering throughout his ministry. He's spent years in prison. He’d even been stoned and left for dead. Yet somehow he’d been able to maintain a spirit of gratitude and joy, or at least get back to being grateful for all that God had done for him and through him.
But this thorn in the flesh (which he never identifies) was getting to him. He likely thought it was hampering his work as well as his quality of life. He’d prayed three times for the Lord to remove it, but nothing happened. As someone who believed in the sovereignty of God and sought to live his life “in Christ,” he didn’t just put up and shut up. He looked for meaning in his suffering. For example, he saw how this thorn in the flesh, even though “a messenger from Satan,” had kept him from becoming conceited after a particular vision. (It’s not hard to tell from Paul’s letters that he may have struggled with humility.) He also heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Because of what Paul had already come to believe about the cross, this message resonated so deeply that he went on to write,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Paul goes on to say that he realizes he’s made a fool of himself for writing about his struggle. It would likely only fuel past criticisms of his leadership. You’re not supposed to admit your weaknesses, and certainly not confess failures in your prayer life, especially if you’re an apostle. I’m feeling a bit foolish myself right now writing about my own relatively minor struggles. But we humans are meaning-makers. It’s how God made us, even when we lack the spiritual coordinates to do it very well. So I’m going to press on.
Most of us struggle with needing or wanting to be in control. From what I can tell, Paul probably did. Hands are important for being able to control or work with one’s environment. I am (or was) pretty strong for an old geezer. After moving all our possessions from a 26 foot U-Haul into a storage unit a year ago, one of my sons said to my daughter-in-law, “Dad’s still a beast.” Months earlier, after a day of packing and lifting large boxes early in the process of getting ready to sell our first house, I went for a run and fell headlong on the sidewalk, hurting both my back and my hands. Though I could hardly get up from the chair the rest of the evening and the next day, I was soon at it again, forcing my back and hands to do what needed to be done. That’s how it was for the next several months when we moved our possessions into a storage unit, and then into our first house, and then into the house next door (long story). I kept forcing my hands and arms and back to keep at it, forging ahead, treating the aches and pains and the numbing in the night as simply the cost of doing business. I'd often work from early morning until late into the night, seven days a week, even when my wife anxiously and insistently urged me to take a sabbath, even as part of me knew that my short fuse and irritability with her were sending a signal to both of us.
I don’t feel like a beast these days. I haven’t lifted any weights for months. I play two songs a week for our little house church without being able to practice. I can’t do very much with my hands now without thinking first and weighing the cost (well, sometimes). Imagine that: thinking..before..I..act. What a novel idea.
In addition to control, three other C words come to mind when I think about whatever meaning might be attached to this particular thorn in the flesh – character, call and Christ.
So let’s talk about my character. I think the worst parts of my character tend to come out when I’m feeling strong, vigorous, healthy, productive, articulate. Whatever it is, it’s not humility and it’s not love. Impatience is probably the first clue that something is off. But worse things are often lurking and can eventually manifest themselves. In the shadow of the beast sometimes lies another beast, an uglier one. Sometimes this beast surfaced during my ministry when I was frustrated. Sometimes my wife has seen it. My current “weakness” is providing space and time for me to look at it, when I have the courage and actually take the time. I want to change. I think something has been changing, and that gives me hope.
Then there is my call. I remember the last time I had carpal tunnel issues. It was about 25 years ago during what I call my illustrious two month career as a construction worker. It was the one time in my life where I actually built stuff (I mean helped build stuff). The first few weeks were pretty intense; my wrists started to hurt and my forearms began to go numb. A physical therapist warned my wife that I’d better quit or there might be permanent damage. So I did. It wasn’t long after that when I began to contemplate a return to pastoral ministry. Eventually it became clear that God designed me to be a pastor, not a construction worker. Did my carpal tunnel issues help point me in the right direction?
What’s the call in this season of my life? Even though I’m retired, I still find myself pastoring a small community of people that meets in our home on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. If I were to give it a name, it would probably be Church without Borders. Most of us are church misfits and rejects. Even a Buddhist friend attends. Our highly interactive Sunday worship services are sprinkled with honesty and profanity. It’s definitely been authentic. These friends seem to love engaging with the Bible, especially when their comments and questions are honored as valid contributions to our attempt to hear God. I think I have gifts for this sort of thing, and I’m grateful for this unique opportunity to use them.
But then there’s this thing called writing. That can mean writing songs, which I love, just as I loved doing construction for those two months. Writing sermons and Bible studies certainly qualifies. But there’s another kind of writing that includes blog posts and a book. If I was able to use my hands more often for the other things, it would be easy for me to neglect the blog and especially the book. Because I've been using voice recognition software for years, I use my hands very little when I write. Could God be using my carpal tunnel issues again to redirect and clarify my call?
And then there’s Christ. I’ve always been intrigued by how often the apostle Paul talks about living “in Christ.” Not just because of Christ, or under Christ, or for Christ, but in Christ. Paul even says that for him to live is Christ. He repeatedly says the same about his readers. I want that, and I’m also afraid of it. I’m afraid of how much trust that would take, as well as vulnerability. If I’m honest, it’s easy for me to obsess over my body as well as the body politic; over what’s going on with my hands as well as what’s happening in my country. If I live fully in Christ, I need to be willing to learn let go and trust him – completely. That means being willing to suffer with him as well as place my complete hope in him – for this life and the next.
I used to think that the opposite of fear was faith, but now I’m thinking it’s hope. Do I dare to hope for my hands as well as my country? It occurred to me a few days ago that for followers of Jesus, when optimism decreases, hope increases. That’s part of the upside down life of living in the kingdom of God. Optimism is based upon human abilities; hope is based on God’s ability: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
Do I want to live in Christ more, or do I want him to heal my hands more? Is my primary citizenship in the kingdom of God or the United States of America?
I feel foolish for thinking you would read all of this. But with every call comes risk – the risk of saying or doing too much or too little; the risk of being wrong; of actually being foolish and not just feeling foolish.