In November 2012 I traveled to El Salvador as part of an international gathering of partners with the Lutheran Church of El Salvador. A main theme of this Encuentro was the sustainability of a church built with and lead by communities in poverty. The following is a reflection I shared based on 2 Corinthians 12:1-9.
Paul writes to us today about this “thorn in his flesh.” Scholars and preachers like to guess about what this thorn is, but to be honest – we don’t have a clue. All we know is he has something that holds him back, something that keeps him from boasting about himself. Paul’s thorn is his weakness.
We all have thorns. Sometimes we try to hide them. Sometimes we expose them to make ourselves a victim, seeking sympathy. Sometimes we are blind to them, but still we feel there is something that limits us. Whether we admit it or not we all have them.
In this room we have many thorns, many weaknesses. Again, some known, some hidden. For some of us it is
Having the will but not the capacity
Struggling to see our evangelism bear fruit
Confusing projects with people
Privilege that allows us to determine for others, speak before listening, wanting to do rather than be. This one is tricky because it appears as worldly power but ultimately reveals a thorn that prevents true partnership, relational and shared ministry.
Being in competition for attention, for dollars, for accolades
Looking at a small fix, a handcraft project that is meaningful and helpful but not ultimately part of a transformative experience of changing lives
Not having high expectations for our partners
Or just the struggle. The struggle is real
So what in the world does this have to do with sustainability? Honestly? Everything. Because whatever our thorn is – and we’ve talked about the collective here, but you can make it as personal as we need to, addictions, pride, lust, jealousy, self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, you name it – whatever those thorns are, they have made us weak. They have made us weak in our witness to the gospel. They have made us weak in our partnership. They have weakened our relationships with one another and with God. The thorn reminds us that sometimes we suck.
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me. But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient.”
If we want to talk about a sustainable church it is not about projects or members or covenants. A sustainable project – a development project with chickens or a sewing cooperative – these are not the same as a sustainable church. We could identify together amazing projects that are indeed sustainable which may or may not have a lasting impact on the body of the church. A sustainable church is not in how many members attend or how significant the partnerships. I believe the sustainable church is sustained by only one thing: grace. And my grace is sufficient.
This changes the whole dynamics of everything. It breaks the notion that we – any of us, all of us – are the ones with the power. It shakes us out of our self-doubt from our thorns. It tears down walls of division and privilege because that power that those of us from the north or from the west, those of us that are white and those of us that are male – that power is replaced. I no longer need to hide in my privilege because God’s grace is sufficient.
It means that when the roof caves in and when the guns fire, grace is sufficient. Think about that. Jesus is enough. Period.
And what about those thorns? That’s the best part. Because grace is sufficient, God’s power is revealed in our weakness.
It is not the strength of my pocketbook or the need of my neighbor that determines how things are sustained. By God’s grace our relationships are transformed and God’s power is revealed in our partnership.
When the thorn of violence rips through our communities, it is transformed as God empowers churches to proclaim blessed are the peacemakers.
If we want to see the power of God, we just need to look around this room. This bunch of fools – bumbling gringos and a miniscule church made up of some of the poorest folks – not just in this nation but in all of Central America. This is what power looks like? This is the church? This is how God is revealed? Exactly.
God’s power in our weakness. God’s strength through our thorns. This only becomes possible when we accept, believe, embrace and follow the truth of “My. Grace. Is Sufficient.” Enough. Plenty. Abundant. Complete. Sufficient.
The church will sustain, with or without us. Whether we participate in it or fight against it, thy kingdom will come. By the grace of God it will come.
So let us commit ourselves to the hard work of admitting our weakness, confessing our thorns, and then by the grace of God, that grace which is both amazing and sufficient, let us see God’s glory revealed in it. So I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. And that is our good news.