I began reflecting on today's text in the midst of a family member's medical crisis. A routine test had quickly turned into a medical emergency. After two weeks of riding a medical roller coaster, my loved one was stable enough for me to return home. On the drive, I reflected on all that had happened. Paul's words about finding strength in weakness came to mind. The previous two weeks had felt like a crash course in weakness. Where was the strength in it?
Today's verses come at the end of what some scholars call Paul's "Foolish Speech." In it, the apostle defends himself against the false teaching of so-called "super-apostles." These teachers, who had arrived after Paul's departure from Corinth, boasted often of spiritual visions. They cited these fantastic encounters with the divine as their credentials for being apostles.
Employing the super-apostles' methods, Paul also begins to boast. He too knows a man - a thinly-veiled reference to himself - who had a fantastic vision where he encountered the divine. But it's not the vision about which Paul boasts.
Instead, he boasts of his weakness. That is Paul's "foolishness." He turns boasting on its head. His best credential for apostleship is not special visions, but his thorn in the flesh. When Paul is weak, he says, that's when he's strongest.
Strength in weakness? What could Paul possible mean here? He explains. Paul finds weakness to be his greatest source of strength because it is in weakness, he says, that the power of Christ becomes real. It is in his weakness that he experiences God's grace most profoundly. "My grace is sufficient for you," Paul hears God say.
Sr. Mary Margaret Funk experienced the truth of these words at a moment of great peril, a moment of utter weakness.[i] Still processing a huge disappointment in her life, a fellow nun who was serving the poor in Bolivia invited Sr. Meg to come for a visit, to rest and relax a while. A time to rest in the rugged beauty of the Andes sounded like just the ticket to Sr. Meg. She made the trip.
While in Cochabamba, Sr. Meg did rest and relax. Occasionally, she also worked alongside Gilchrist, her friend, three other sisters and two priests as they engaged with ministry among the Quechan people.
On January 22, 1984, driving back to Cochabamba from an isolated village, Sr. Meg, three other nuns, including Sr. Meg's friend, Gilchrist, one of the priests and a Quechan child ran into a violent storm. Navigating the treacherous roads in torrential rain, the situation soon deteriorated. In attempting to ford a once-shallow stream, the jeep in which they drove died. After a quick look at the situation, the long-legged priest leapt to the riverbank and fled.
When she saw him leave, Sr. Meg looked at her friend Gilchrist, who was frozen in fear, and knew she had to do something. Sr. Meg climbed out the window and onto the jeep's hood to survey the circumstances. The circumstances were dire. The stream had become a raging wall of water; their jeep was now a rudderless boat.
Desperate, Sr. Meg scanned both riverbanks, looking for a path of escape. She leapt for one of the banks. And missed. The river claimed her and carried her in its brutal flow. Her body slammed into branches and trees. She narrowly missed hitting a train trestle.
At one point, Sr. Meg was drawn under the water's surface. Suddenly, the raging din of the storm was replaced by sheer silence. Sr. Meg sank. Beneath the water's surface, the storm raging above her, breath leaving her body, Sr. Meg encountered the divine. In the silence, the question came: "Now? Do you want to come now?" Sr. Meg paused to consider the query. Was it her time to die? Or would she live? Knowing God's grace would accompany either decision, Sr. Meg chose to live. Her feet found the riverbed, she pushed off and regained the surface of the water.
Shortly after that, she landed on a sandbar jutting out into the river. After three hours of waiting, yelling, and waving the flashlight she'd miraculously hung onto, Sr. Meg was rescued. After more hours of searching, the bodies of the other three nuns and the Quechan boy who was with them were found. After attending the funerals of the child and the nuns, Sr. Meg accompanied the body of her friend Gilchrist back to Chicago where Gilchrist's family lived.
When she arrived at O'Hare airport, Sr. Meg's father, brother, sister and many sisters from Sr. Meg's monastery - Our Lady of Grace in Beech Grove, Indiana - were waiting to greet her. Together they drove the 250 miles back to Beech Grove.
When Meg and the other nuns arrived at the monastery, they entered through the side door that opens onto a long hallway. Lining the hallway from oldest to youngest was every member of the Our Lady of Grace community. As Sr. Meg made her way down the hall, each sister in turn embraced her, welcoming her home.
Maybe this last piece of the story is the best illustration of what Paul describes as strength in weakness, this image of every sister in her community welcoming Sr. Meg home with an embrace, acknowledging her pain, affirming her life. Perhaps the greatest strength in weakness is recognizing we can't go it alone. Perhaps the thing that makes us strong when we are weak is embracing the fact that we need other people - literally need other people - to live. As Sr. Meg writes, "I knew I couldn't save myself. Something other than me had to rescue me from this flood." Perhaps the encounters with the divine that most strengthen our faith are not the ones that propel us up to the seventh heaven, but the ones that come to us at the bottom of the raging river wondering whether we'll survive.
As I drove home after my loved one's medical ordeal, I began to see the strength - the gifts - that had emerged from our crash course in weakness. I thought of medical personnel who had cared for my loved one - I thought of the friend back home who had been caring for our cats.
And I thought of one young housekeeper. As she emerged from mopping the bathroom, nurses and doctors were debating over the bed of my family member about how to respond to the latest medical crisis. In the midst of the debate, my loved one asked for a damp washcloth. I searched desperately, but could find none. It seemed a simple request - a damp cloth. Concerned about what was happening medically, none of the medical staff heard my loved one's request. But the housekeeper did. "I'll go get her a washcloth," the young woman said. She soon returned with several cloths. There still would be many twists and turns in my loved one's journey, but for that moment, her suffering was eased because of a housekeeper who helped us in our time of need; she did for us what we could not do for ourselves.
And maybe that's what Paul is getting at - that the thing that teaches us the most about our need for others, our need for God, is powerlessness in the face of our greatest need. When we need help to get along or even to survive, that is when we're able to experience grace. When we are strong, when we can accomplish everything we need by ourselves, we have no need of grace. It's when we are weak, when we cannot do for ourselves what must be done, that Christ becomes most real for us. When we are weak, then we are strong. At the bottom of the river, amid wires and tubes in a hospital room, in the midst of battling one's thorn in the flesh, God's grace will be sufficient, God's grace will be sufficient, God's grace will be sufficient. Amen.
Let us pray.
Holy One, living the paradox of finding strength in our weakness isn't easy. When we are weak, we feel awkward, out of control, powerless. Help us in those scary, helpless times to open ourselves to your grace and love. Help us find in our weakest times, the strength that only you can give. Amen.
[i] To learn more about Sr. Mary Margaret's story, read Into the Depths: A Journey of Loss and Vocation, New York: Lantern Press, 2011.