Space exploration has intrigued me throughout my life. The beginnings of the United States space program coincided with my childhood years. When I was twelve years old, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the moon. I still remember watching that landing and disembarking on our family’s television in Weirton, West Virginia. That same year, while home from school because I was sick, I read a novel that I had ordered through a book club at school, Dune by Frank Herbert. Although the book was longer than 570 pages, I finished reading it that night. The story of that science fiction novel captured my imagination. I continued, meanwhile, to follow the progress of the space program and the beginnings of the International Space Station. I grieved when a spacecraft, carrying an astronaut who was a schoolteacher, exploded, and I mourned the shutdown of flights for several years thereafter.
Because of reading Dune and similar science fiction novels, I began to cherish a hope that I would live to see human exploration of the planet Mars, and that I myself might be one of the explorers. That dream lingered as I earned a master’s degree in theology and became first a preacher, then an Army chaplain. When I was stationed in Germany during the early 2000s, I learned that NASA was opening up recruitment for astronauts to military personnel in nontraditional fields. What few people have known about me is that I then applied to become an astronaut by completing a questionnaire. Sadly, my quest was rather quickly denied because of a childhood medical condition. However, I have maintained my interest in space exploration and my hope that people would land on Mars during my lifetime. Although my prayers to become an astronaut have thus far been frustrated, I still have been given opportunities for exploration and service on our own planet that have been quite fulfilling.
Perhaps you too have a dream or a goal that despite your fervent prayers and fevered efforts has not been accomplished. In that you and I are like the Apostle Paul. In the biblical book of 2 Corinthians, he describes how he had prayed repeatedly for release from a “thorn in the flesh,” and how his prayers had received a different answer than the one he anticipated. He writes,
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9).
What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? I don’t know. Some scholars have suggested that it may have been poor eyesight or seizures that had resulted from his being beaten and stoned. One source that I read long ago but can no longer locate suggested that the “thorn” was Paul’s ex-wife, who had divorced him when he became a Christian. That last suggestion, while possible, probably had more to do with the commentator’s own experiences than Paul’s. The childhood malady that short-circuited my astronaut quest (and for which I needed a waiver to serve in the military) was epileptic seizures, so I can understand how Paul would have prayed for release from that. I did, and took medication for it several years, and for many decades now have been free from that affliction. But the exact identification of Paul’s thorn remains a mystery.
He prayed three times for release from the thorn. The exact wording of his pleas does not survive in writing, but the answer he heard from God does – “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That variable in ministry success remains a mystery to some minister search committees who want a preacher who has never struggled or encountered significant obstacles. But the Bible repeatedly testifies that God uses people who might be described as damaged or handicapped in some fashion to accomplish his will. Moses insisted that he was not eloquent. Paul himself wrote that others complained about his speech not being eloquent. Jonah, Hosea, and Peter all had significant hurdles to overcome, yet God used each powerfully, even if not in the way that they initially might have hoped. After Paul hears God’s unexpected answer to his prayer, he writes,
“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 12:9b-10)
We can learn from the Bible about how to pray and when to pray from written prayers, or from instruction about prayer, or as is the case in 2 Corinthians 12, from a person’s description of how and when he prayed, and what happened as a result. Each of us has hopes or goals that no one knows about which we pray. Our personal histories have factors that weigh against our realizing those hopes or achieving those goals. However, God still answers our prayers in ways that show us a path to usefulness in the kingdom of God. That path may be one that we never envisioned (I once told someone that I would never be a military chaplain.) or may be one that surpasses our greatest hopes. What we learn also from Paul’s experiences, and from the teaching of Jesus, is that we must keep on praying and that we must be open to a different answer than the one we seek.
• Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.
Lord, we seek ways in which to serve you. Sometimes our health or our personal history or some other person’s opposition impedes our search. We ask you for relief from our handicaps. When you heal our hurts, we are thrilled. Sometimes you tell us, as you did Paul, that your power is proclaimed through our weaknesses. Grant us the humility to discern your will and to follow your Son faithfully wherever you may lead us through him. I thank you for the opportunities to serve and to excel that you have given me, even when some were not what I had expected. Please keep opening doors for those who seek to serve you. I pray in the name of Jesus, amen.
I’m still asking the Lord to let be ordained soon this year. Help me pray
Very interesting Michael. Thank You
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