Jackie Robinson is remembered today as the first African-American to play major league baseball. It's not that no Black ever had enough talent before, but prejudice and tradition put an effective lid on having the opportunity. The wheels of equality move ever so slowly and we still await the day when all people will be able to enjoy the access and privilege of some.
Perhaps because Jackie Robinson was such an outstanding athlete he could not be denied. At UCLA he was a star forward in basketball, a bruising running back in football, and a record-breaking broad jumper in track. He played a little baseball, too.
Once he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers he showed that he could live up to the promise the scouts saw in him. In 1949 he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. He could hit for power; he could hit for average; and in his prime, was always in the top ten for stolen bases. He made a lot of money for his time. It seemed like there wasn't much that Robinson couldn't do. In his personal life, however, the same couldn't be said.
For all his athletic ability, his monetary success, the closeness of his wife, Jackie Robinson had a major problem in his life which he could not avoid. This problem was his son. Young Jackie Jr. never found his place in life. He fell into crime and drugs. Things went from bad to worse and, in 1971, he was killed in a high-speed crash after losing control of his car.
Jackie Robinson, Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, Man of the Year Jackie Robinson, had a thorn in his side in the person of his son—and it hurt terribly. Nothing he was able to do could change that fact; still, he had to go on.
We find that Job in our Old Testament story must also endure what he cannot change. He suffers greatly from his afflictions. His friends suggest various reasons for his suffering, but these attempts at explanation are not helpful. So he is ultimately left with his condition unabated and unresolved. He is left to make sense out of what seems to make no sense at all; still, he had to go on.
In our second reading, Paul, too, speaks of personal adversity. This section of the letter to the church members at Corinth is distinctly autobiographical. Even though, he says, there could be reason enough for him to boast of his successes, and in this way to elevate his rightful authority of leadership, Paul will refrain from doing so. What keeps him from being inflated with pride is what he refers to as a "thorn in the flesh." This is something which pulls him back, pulls him down; still, he had to go on.
What that "thorn" is, we don't know. Some have guessed malaria or an eye disease or stuttering or epilepsy. Nowhere does he call it by name or describe it more fully, nor do other sources from the time shed any light on this. We can only speculate that it was some kind of chronic physical or emotional problem.
Paul prays to God that this condition be lifted from him, but he gets no relief. His prayer, however, does bring him a response. And what he hears God saying is this: "My grace is all you need, for my power is realized most in your weakness." But what does that mean?
Whatever he understood it to be, the answer was apparently sufficient for Paul. He says it gives him the assurance he needs to go on, despite his circumstances. "I am most happy… for my weaknesses," writes Paul, "because then I rely all the more on the power of Christ within me. I can contend with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties when I do the work of Christ; for whenever I am personally weak, then I find my true strength."
It is said that Abraham Lincoln also had a number of thorns in his side during his presidency. Historians believe that the most painful of these were some of his own cabinet members—men who were disloyal to him and sought to undermine him. Lincoln was once asked why it was that he didn't replace one particular cabinet member who constantly opposed him. Lincoln answered indirectly with a story.
"Some years ago I was passing a field where a farmer was trying to plow with a very old and decrepit horse. I noticed on the flank of the animal a big thistle that the wind had blown until it caught on the animal's hair, and I was about to pull it off when the farmer said, `Don't you remove that thistle, Abe! If it wasn't for that sticker, this old hoss wouldn't move an inch.'"
Perhaps that was Lincoln's way of saying that difficult people also kept him at his best. The more they irritated him, the more he had to reach for a greater strength within himself. He succeeded not in spite of his opponents, but often because of his opponents. Ironic when you stop to think of it.
We have a tendency to believe that we do best when everything goes our way—that's only logical—but maybe Lincoln's story is really closer to the truth. Without tension we're not usually challenged beyond our normal best. It's when we are pushed and squeezed and opposed that we are forced to tap into a greater strength, a deeper reserve, then we would have had to do otherwise.
That was evident to me back in high school when I ran track. We had one fellow on the team who was really outstanding in the 880. He was clearly the best on our team and at practice no one could beat him,. We were in a league at that time of rather small schools and the competition in most events wasn't necessarily all that high. A few teams did have some good half-milers, still Jim beat them all that year.
The interesting thing is that he almost always won by just about the same margin, ten feet or so, no matter what the caliber of his competition. He didn't pay much attention to his time, just winning. If it was an easy opponent, he'd win but run a slow race. On the other hand, if there was somebody who could challenge him a bit, he'd also win and run a faster race. His performance was directly proportional to the strength of his opponents.
Jim had great promise and there was even hope of his getting to the state finals. Unfortunately, he never made it out of the district. The problem was that once he ran against better athletes from some of the track powerhouses, he couldn't compete at that level. These other fellows had a greater degree of competition all year and so had been pushed repeatedly. They had to do their very best each meet and anything less would not have been enough. When it came to really running, they were ready.
Jim had all the natural ability, but no one really challenged him sufficiently in the regular season. He learned to succeed doing just enough to finish slightly ahead of weak opponents. I have no doubt that he could have been one of the best runners in the state, but he was never forced to develop himself. He won regularly, but never improved.
So here we have Paul dealing with his infirmity, his limitation, his thorn in the flesh in such a way that he actually ends up being thankful for it. He knows that it works against him but, even as it does so, it works for him. His weakness is also the secret of his strength. His condition reminds him that he is not the all-in-all of life, and that to boast of himself would be hollow. What he can do of his own abilities is tempered by his limitations. His "thorn" is his constant reminder that God provides the real strength to overcome what would otherwise stop him.
Paul's ministry was fraught with obstacles all along the way. His opposition was strong and real as he preached the Good News. He risked himself constantly in traveling from place to place and through teaching in hostile environments. Yet Paul was not to be denied.
Well, I would expect that there's a thorn or two or three in the side of each one of us. No one escapes some limitations or problems, and some of us seem to get more than our share. Life can be hard. And one thing is certain: our adversities will either strengthen us or they may ultimately defeat us. Some things in life we simply cannot change, but how we respond to them is largely up to us.
Who are we to think we're the only one to whom life has ever dealt a difficult hand? We see our afflictions, our limitations only too clearly. Sometimes they control our lives rather than our learning how to get around them. They can effectively immobilize us if we let them.
There was a couple in my former church who had a child who was a great disappointment to them. They couldn't understand what went wrong, nor why. That child caused them much worry and many tears. Yet this couple was strong in faith. They asked God to give them the strength to go on with their lives and to raise their two younger children in the best way possible. They also prayed that their lives, as a whole, would continue to witness to the power of Christ at work in them.
These two people took what would have devastated and embittered others, and they became stronger for it,. They had a terrible hole in their midst that couldn't be forgotten, but they were the kind of folks I think about when anyone talks about a strong family.
"I am thankful for my weaknesses," said Paul, "because then I rely all the more on the power of Christ within me. I can contend with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties when I do the work of Christ; for whenever I am personally weak, the I find my true strength."
Adversities, of which we all have some, teach us the source of our real strength and they remind us that sometimes we grow best, we become our strongest, when the way is the hardest.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church