Voices of Faith: Paul’s thorn in the flesh

06/13/2014 1:58 PM

06/14/2014 7:33 PM

The Rev. Holly McKissick, pastor, Peace Christian Church UCC: The first time it wasn’t a thorn, but a piece of glass. I was 9 years old on a hot day in Texas. I’d been catching crawdads in the creek with my best friend, Misty, when I stepped on a broken bottle. Misty called for help. My brother carried me up the bank. My mom rushed me to the doctor in our old Pontiac.

The next time I was 49, and it was a thorn. It would have worked its way out if I had taken a break from running. I didn’t. One of the doctors in my church saved me, performing “surgery” while her boys diverted my attention from the pain.

Scholars debate what Paul meant by a “thorn in his flesh.” He described weaknesses, insults and persecutions. He was beaten, stoned and shipwrecked. He was in danger in the city, the wilderness and at sea. It’s still unclear what he meant in Corinthians: a bald head, a bad temper or a struggle with his sexuality?

Whether a broken arm or broken heart, it’s clear: Paul was vulnerable, and he was lost on his own. He knew it. He was completely dependent on God’s grace, a grace he knew in those around him.

I can’t feel the cut in my foot, but I can still feel the arms of those who held me. Maybe the point of the thorns is to remind us of our connectedness, especially when we are tender or lost.

We are made whole by the love that surrounds us.

Rabbi Avi Weinstein, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy: “Thorn in my flesh” is a direct quotation from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It might be a paraphrase of Numbers 33:55, when the Israelites are warned that the Canaanite nations are to be dispossessed. If, however, they allow them to remain, they will be like “stingers in your eyes and thorns in your sides.”

The commentators wonder why the necessity for a double metaphor. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather endure a thorn in my side than have my eyes poked with sharp pins.

The answer Nachmanides gives is chilling and prescient. The stingers are what blind and lead us astray, so that ultimately we dissolve and assimilate into the superficially attractive pagan culture. Inevitably, however, no matter how much we try to assimilate, that “attractive” culture will ensnare us like thorns.

Throughout history — from ancient Rome to the Middle Ages and Nazi Germany — Jews who have embraced the dominant culture at the expense of their own have learned bitter, brutal lessons from betraying their heritage.

Like the Eagles’ song “Hotel California,” “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave” ... and if you do, you maybe sorry.

The Voices of Faith columnists can be reached at faith@kcstar.com.

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