Thursday, February 25, 2010

What's the thorn between you and peace?

This morning, as the snow showers silently and profoundly alter the landscape outside my office window, I have the opportunity to catch up on the writing that has waited patiently on my to do list for the past couple of days. I have some reflection on the weekly Bible Study to offer, and a synopsis of the first two sessions of our parish Inquirers' class to confer to you all out there in the wider world; but as the day seems to support it I am going to take a moment or two to process a spiritual gift of perspective that came to me during my weekly Thursday morning prayer session/conversation with the deacon here at Trinity. She has a wonderful and provocative way of calling an image to mind when there is a struggle to define, give air to, a problem or challenge. I would venture to say that the images are poetic, but that would decry their weight and impact. Perhaps the best word is parabolic. Like the parables of Jesus, the images are sticky, natural and have a way to continually rising to mind as I work through my days and weeks. I am sure by now that she is saying, "OK then, get on with it already...." So here goes,

As she and I sat and talked about the issue of interpersonal conflict, and offered each other multiple instances of conflict with people from every age and level of relationship in our lives up to this point, one thing was a constant-trying to discern just where the conflict is coming from for each person involved and then figuring out a way to ask the person you are facing how you can offer assistance in coming to a mutually life-giving solution while at the same time maintaining a healthy, provocative and safe environment for all involved. Not easy.

She offered this as a possible thought, "What is the thorn between you and peace?" Some might find that an aggressive question, I suppose, but to me in that moment it rang just about as true as any idea anyone has offered to me over the years as I seek as a leader to model sound conflict resolution. A mentor just recently forwarded me a chart on triangulation in relationships and communication that holds up that there are positive as well as negative triangles, durable ones-if you will, and ones that focus on creating and sustaining drama in relationships. The optimal set of relationships in any triangle (the old "yours, mine and ours" of systems theory) holds that all parties are open and committed to a generative flexibility of thoughts and feelings that "occur when people have open agendas, maintain dignity and then discuss with dignity, patience, integrity and love in their heart. There are stable limits on behavior; and when optimal there are rational controls in place to ensure healthy engagement. Of course, there are any number of ways these healthy patterns can come off the rails of effective implementation.

And that is where the image of the thorn comes in: That was the deacon's question-"What's the thorn between you and peace?" If you have ever gardened, taken a walk in a field, gotten roses from a friend or loved one, gone raspberry picking or tried to climb a hillside covered in brambles you know what thorns feel like. A thorn is a defensive and protective tool for a plant. Some are impressive and offer a warning that by sight alone is enough to both say and affirm that you will "KEEP AWAY." But thorns range in size and construct. Some are small, some middle, some smooth, some are possessed of jagged bits that once they enter flesh actually work their way deeper-using serrations to saw into soft flesh. A thorn is not a pleasant thing at all when confronted on their business end. And, when someone is struggling with one, they are a witness to the pain, discomfort and distraction that a thorn in the flesh can cause. St. Paul offered this himself in his second letter to the church in Corinth:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
The thorn in his flesh has been identified as many things, most infamously is the assertion that Paul was struggling with being gay...but as I reflect on the passage and how Paul is offering up first a vision he was given of the heavenly vision and then his struggle with torment I find that thorn image to be one that affirms what we all struggle with in this life. We see how it ought to be, but then we have to face how it really is-and the discontinuity is truly like a thorn being driven into our flesh. It hurts, on all levels, and the one desire is always to get it out. But you can't wish a thorn out of your flesh. You have to deal with it; and if you deal with other people as you deal with that thorn--well, then, they have to deal with it as well.

So what better way to offer up support and love? Ask the person struggling before you (either another individual in your universe of relationships or that very difficult person we deal with every morning when we first look into the mirror-our very own self) what the thorn really is that lies between our pain and the peace of God which really does surpass human understanding. Not an easy question to ask. Perhaps a harder question to answer, because it asks of us a willingness to name our pain and discomfort in a given situation and then to open ourselves up to others' tendering assistance and perhaps solution to what we have been feeling drive into our pain-body for what might have been a very, very long time.

As I wonder about this idea, I come back to our weekly Bible study. Yesterday (and I will talk more about this in another post) we covered Luke's account of Jesus' preaching of the Sermon on the Plain. There is in that the famous warning that before we complain about the speck in another person's eye, we should remove the log from our own. If I am willing to ask you about your thorn, am I also going to be willing to allow the one piercing me like a tree through my heart to be addressed as well? Terrifying, because when there is that much pain associated with moving, worrying, or even removing something that deep inside us we realize that healing-at first-will hurt as much or maybe even more than the presence of the thorn itself. But, we can't heal until the thorn is out.

I was little, four or five, in my memory when I got a thorn in my hand. It was a common thing for me as a child. I was continually getting thorns, splinters and shards of this or that embedded in fingers, palms, toes and foot pads. The drama of resolution entailed running to my paretns with tears in my eyes (hobbling if the wound was in my feet), begging them to do something about this thing sticking in me. I would proffer my wounded member and then mom, dad, or another relative would look, examine and then go get some mineral oil or perhaps a needle and a bit of alcohol on a swab. That was when the real tears would start, "NO, NO, NO! I don't need it, just leave it!" Healing meant removal, which meant more pain in the short term. Sure, I could get the thorn out...but my fear, hurt and pain (both present and anticipated) were enough to drive me away from the person offering aid.

There is a lot to chew on in that question, and it is one that I have been facing over and over again with a rising sense of immediacy in my own life, personal and professional as the weeks roll by: What's the thorn between you and peace? I don't think there is just one answer; or just one thorn. But, by the grace of God and the witness of our Lord being forced to wear a crown of thorns himself, perhaps I might find the resolve to give just a little bit of my own up and ask for the mineral oil and the sterilized needle that, though it is a difficult thing to face, promises healing and reconciliation on the other side.....

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