Strength in Weakness

Periodically, our church invites members to speak to the congregation about their experiences living by faith, in a segment we call “Living Church.”  I last spoke about 4 years ago, not long after I had completed the first round of chemotherapy. Recently, Pastor Jared asked me to speak again, this time about “weakness and faith,” as part of his sermon series, “God for Us.” I agreed, but it made me anxious, as I knew he specifically wanted me to speak on weakness, faith, and cancer. These are subjects I write about often, but to open up personally about such things in front of a hundred or so faces is difficult. And though the song is upbeat, Jared had me speak after the congregation sang a song titled, “From the Depths of Woe”!  What an intro. I began by teasing Jared a bit to lighten the mood, though one of my daughters encouragingly described my opening as “awkward.”

My favorite all time movie is John Boormann’s Excalibur. Seen at the age of 12 on HBO (my parents must have been out to dinner), this was my introduction to epic battle scenes and film scores (and other formative elements). As the legend goes, the knights undertake the quest to find the Holy Grail, the chalice shared by Christ at the Last Supper. The knights spend years on the quest, many dying or giving up. The unlikely hero is Sir Perceval, though, his purity and strength of heart enabling him to persevere to the gateway of the sanctum of the Grail, and he happens upon it twice–true near-death experiences. His first opportunity to obtain it arrives while being hanged. In a semi-conscious state, he arrives at a castle, fully armored, sweaty, haggard, cuts and sores on his face, and the grail is within his grasp (that’s him in the featured photo). He is asked a riddle from a godly voice and is afraid. He turns and runs. He survives the hanging and lives for a second chance later, when, further ragged, plate mail rusted nearly through, he arrives at a village of medieval squalor. Lacking the will to fight, he is beaten into a river by the peasants and sinks to the bottom of a deep pool under the weight of the armor worn for protection. Drowning, he shakes out of the armor and pulls himself out of the river to suddenly come before God (or Arthur, or Jesus) with the Grail again in his reach. He solves the riddle and brings the Grail to King Arthur to restore him and the land. It is a moving scene, but what I find interesting is that Perceval’s body appears totally restored as he approaches the castle. Armorless, shirtless, he looks healthy. He’s got a few scrapes, but where are the marks on his neck from his time hanging from a tree? As a survivor of many trials, he’s unrecognizable. 

My quest is much less grand: to find purpose. But, like Perceval, have I found it at the weakest point of my life?

Here are the verses on which I reflected (full verses below). Themes: weakness, purpose, conforming to Christ, the question of where belief resides, and living by faith. Is that all?

Romans 8:26-30
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness…
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

Romans 10: 10
10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

2 Corinthians 5:7
7 for we walk by faith, not by sight.

I don’t need to provide any background on my cancer story here; I didn’t provide much when I spoke, either, but focused instead on the difficulty in talking about it. My disease is not obvious from outside appearance, assuming I’m fully dressed, so cancer is something I must voluntarily expose when meeting new people, and I still worry, to some degree, about how this affects the way I’m regarded. Is cancer a pitiable weakness? Perhaps.

There are, of course, the physical and mental components: the broken body, the pain and discomfort, the difficulty of living a “regular life” with family and work, and the hindrances to serving others while bearing the guilt of being a burden, instead. But in many respects, this is regular life. I provide an account of my personal difficulties with cancer, but they’re in no way limited to a life with cancer. Everyone experiences weaknesses of some sort; afflictions are a large part of what makes our lives unique.

But it is another form of weakness that consumes and drives me, the subject of so many blog posts, the mysterious but inescapable spirituality. It is this part of me that I feel we all share but is oddly the most difficult to talk about, as if the thing we have in common is what we must keep most private. In our youth, when our bodies and minds are capable and strong, there also, to varying degrees, a spiritual wonder exists, vibrant and imaginative, open to ideas of God. We grow up and out of much from our youth, but would we deny that we are made of mind, body, and soul? And if our bodies and minds are impacted by our experiences as we age, would we expect different of our souls? The soul can thrive, but it can also be scarred. In this I often dwell, revealing my weakness, my doubt and uncertainty, writing of the battle between my heart and head with belief in a Creator, in God, in Jesus. It is a blessing, indeed, that we are called to believe with our hearts (Romans 10:10) and live by faith (2 Cor 5:7), because we need not be held back from fruitfulness as we puzzle at life’s great mysteries.

It is in the gift of faith that I’ve long sought to find purpose. I suspect I had once equated purpose with giftedness and giftedness with some personal strength, but through this battle, I have had to reconsider this. God being God and perhaps seeking to protect me from pride and self-glorification while providing the privilege to participate in His work, it makes sense that usefulness to God comes through our weakness, as demonstrated through Christ’s death on a cross. Difficult as it has been to reveal in blog posts the many things I would ordinarily keep private, I have benefited not only from prayer and encouragement but also from words of gratitude from friends and family who relate to what I describe. This has been a great, unexpected blessing.

One of the difficulties in writing posts/essays/vignettes that often combine one’s health problems, personal faith, Scripture verses, and a movie, book or other cultural reference is that it leaves much room for interpretation. I often wonder, what do readers of my posts think is the source of my periodic, deep anguish? In the previous post, “The 100th Sheep,” what really made me cry at the post’s end?

It is straightforward (and accurate) to point to the physical struggles, but these are ultimately the means by which my doubt in God’s love is eroded as I experience His heart-breaking mercy. Frequently exhausted both body and soul, convicted as one who expects his Creator to prove himself in signs, I’m brought to tears in moments where I truly believe that he has. And it is here that I get the urge to write; yes, there is grief, but there is also a feeling of reassurance that there really is a good God weaving lives together for a much larger purpose. In reality, we can’t really share each other’s pain and sorrow, but we can certainly encourage each other with how God might be at work in our lives.

Please understand; I would not write blog posts to grumble or seek sympathy about what I’m going through with cancer. We all have our difficult circumstances. I only write about my difficulties when, in my weakness, I’m reminded of the strength that is given me in Christ to persevere. And those aren’t mere words, at least to me, but an internal steeling that seems to appear out of nothing, a genesis of hope, strength and purpose that can only be explained by faith. You know, “Faith. F.A.I.T.H.” This sort of thing hits you, and it brings you to your knees, to cry out of both pain and thankfulness. It may sound far-fetched to some, but the tears were real and that’s how I explain it.

The bottom-line is that I would never have publicly delved so deeply into my personal weaknesses if I weren’t proclaiming a greater strength in Christ, because, when the two are separated, I either feel ashamed of my weakness or like a religious nut, though, regardless, there is a bit of both of those feelings whenever I hit “Publish” on a post. So, while I humbly and gratefully invite friends and family to inquire about my health, I would rather talk about it in the context of faith, because then, in some way, the discussion isn’t just about me, for the condition of our souls is a weakness that I believe we all share. And, if I’m right, this common weakness is where we find our greatest strength, somehow all things working together for our good, having been called according to God’s purposes (Romans 8:28). 

The good news is that this strength is not about our physical and mental attributes; rather, it is about our submission to God’s will through our vulnerability. This sounds frightening and isn’t easy to accept, but I suspect the call to be “conformed to the suffering servant” (Romans 8:29) is more than a spiritual endeavor. I’m imagining emotional and physical scars to be the marks of perseverance, and they have eternal permanence. Eternal.

Earlier, I told the story of Perceval because the restoration of the manly strength of his body is not something I relate to or even imagine. Ever. In this life, suffice to say that my wife has the privilege of sharing “one flesh” with a body of unique character, the battle having left its marks. And, like a knight I suppose, for my kids’ sake as much as mine, I wear armor whenever I’m around water, except mine is in the form of a rash guard. These scars of mine, I’ll have them for the rest of this life, and if this life goes on after death and I’m ever brought back again into this body, I’ll bear the scars then, too. Perceval’s bodily restoration is not Gospel. The story of Christ’s death and resurrection tells of a different type of restoration, one that gives me and all with faith in him a great hope that our lives here are not to be suffered as trial runs as we await new lives in the hereafter; they are the transformative part of our one eternal life.

Most everyone knows the story of Christ’s crucifixion. Many know that the Bible tells of His resurrection. I don’t know how many know that he bore the wounds from the nail piercings and a spear stab to his side after he rose from the dead. His body was not restored. What’s even more interesting is that Jesus wasn’t recognizable to his disciples until he showed them his wounds. Were they expecting a restoration that erased the proof of his suffering? Thomas, of doubting fame, had the audacity to demand to authenticate the risen Jesus by touching Christ’s side. I can only speculate that his words smacked of sarcasm and that he must have been shamed to have Christ actually guide his hand to his ghastly sore. But Jesus was compassionate to Thomas and the others. And they recognized him by his wounds.

So the Gospel teaches us that Jesus was known by his wounds, even beyond the grave. Jesus’s wounds are a sign of his weaknesses and are permanent reminders of what he endured to love others. We should expect nothing less if we are to be conformed to him. We too are to be known by our wounds, by our worldly weaknesses. We are known to God by our suffering in Christ and thus to each other through the sharing of our struggles. Weakness, paradoxically, is the means by which we know God is for us because he strengthens us to love and serve others in the midst of it. In Christ, weakness is not to be hidden in shame or commiserated between the defeated but is the means through which we recognize and know one another and live by faith in promise of our future glory.

How far should this go? Do we want or need to know every detail about each other’s lives? I don’t think so, but we must be careful that we don’t set each other up to only be of use in their strength. Consider the boss. Do you want to know about his or her colon function? Consider our pastors. Do you want to know about their marital problems? We may not need to know those sorts of details, but it certainly helps to understand them to know their spiritual side, scars and all; that’s how I see it. Perhaps I’m in a unique situation where my work and social status is reasonably unaffected by what I divulge about myself, and I’ve invited others to share in my cancer story through these blog posts. That’s my private, physical weakness. But I’ve also said plenty about my greatest weakness, that of needing a savior and yet always seeking to touch Jesus’s side, so to speak, in looking for signs of his work to bolster my belief, rather than being thankful for the blessing of the faith bestowed. I admit I feel like most people can relate to this at some level. After all, if what the Bible says is true, then we all share that same weakness of the soul, to need a savior. And I think we need to talk about it. We need to know each other. We must be diligent about making our conversations less about us and our struggles in this world, solely, and more about thankfulness for fellowship between believers as we persevere together toward the world to come. Amen.

This may just be my final post, or at least my last post so focused on weakness. I feel I’ve said enough. I want to focus on the joys of this life, the benefits of faith. So, give me a call. Send me a text or an email. Let’s get together. But let’s not pretend we know each other as well as we ought. That might give me new material…

CT scan on Monday, Nov 20. Friends and family, we cherish your prayers. And we love you.

Many humble blessings.

Romans 8:26-30
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Romans 10: 8-10
8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

2 Corinthians 5:6-7
6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight.

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