Sunday, June 12, 2016

June 12, 2016

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


II Corinthians 12:1-10


Any scratch golfers here?  Anyone know what a “scratch golfer” even is?  In golf, there is system designed to make it possible for really good golfers and not so good golfers to play against each other and still have a competitive game.  You’re assigned a handicap number.  The higher it is the worse you are.   So a really good golfer would have a handicap of zero which means you are a scratch golfer.  That means you’re really good.  Even better than Scott Jacobsen who is one of the best golfers I know.  His handicap is 4½.

This got me thinking.  What if we took this concept of the “scratch golfer” and applied it to life?  Do we have any zero handicap people here this morning?   There’s nothing holding you back.  You have no limits.  You have nothing wrong with you.  You are pretty much a pro at everything you do.  When God was handing out the talent, you got way more than your share.   Anyone??

It was one of those churches where the people are trained to say, “And also with you”, every time the priest says, “The Lord be with you”, which was several times each Sunday.  This was one of those days all churches seem to have when the sound system wasn’t working quite right.  So the priest said, “There is something wrong with the microphone.”  And the congregation dutifully responded in unison:  “And also with you.”

There is something wrong with everyone of us.  There is no such thing as “scratch” when it comes to living our lives.  We all have handicaps.  So the question is not, Are you handicapped?  The question is, What is your handicap?

Paul had a handicap.  He told us about it in the scripture we read this morning.  He calls it a “thorn in the flesh.”  He doesn’t tell us what it is and people have been speculating ever since.  Maybe he had vision problems.  Maybe he had epilepsy.  Maybe he just wasn’t a very good golfer.  We don’t know.

We do know that it bothered Paul.  It bothered Paul enough that he tells us that three times he prayed that God would cure this handicap, whatever it was.  I’m guessing that after the third time Paul kept praying but stopped counting.  He really, really did not want to go through life with this particular limitation.  But God saw it differently.  God didn’t answer these prayers with a healing miracle.  God answered these prayers by reminding Paul of something he may already have known.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9).

God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.  Could that really be?   Could the handicaps we carry through life that we see as such burdens in reality turn out to be blessings?

Paul offers us two possible reasons for his “thorn in the flesh” (12:7).  The first is that it might be “a messenger from Satan to harass me”.  It’s just the devil having some fun.  The devil loves nothing more than to harass us, to make our lives miserable.  Maybe that’s what it is.

Or Paul says it might be “to keep me from being too elated”.  In other words, it was to help him develop some humility.  You get the impression reading Paul that he had a rather high opinion of himself.  Kind of like Donald Trump.  Kind of like Hillary Clinton.  Paul was a big shot and he didn’t mind if everyone knew.  Except this humiliating “thorn in the flesh”, whatever it was, was getting in the way.  Maybe that was the point.  Maybe that’s what God had in mind.

Or a third possibility.  Paul just mentions the two in verse 7, but you get to the end of the passage and you can see there is one more.  Maybe Paul’s handicap is a blessing.  Maybe, as much as he wants it to go away, if it did go away, he would be the loser.  Because it is a gift.  A gift from God.  Paul eventually figures this out for himself. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

So my question for you is this:  Are you able to see your handicaps, whatever they might be, as blessings?

Most of us aren’t there yet.  Human nature pulls us in one of two directions.  The first is rebellion.  We fight.  We resist.  We’re going to prove that we can beat this.  Sometimes we can.  It’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it.  And we celebrate those who have overcome when no one thought it possible.  Such people inspire us.  But the simple truth is there are certain handicaps that cannot be overcome no matter how hard we try.

Then there is self-pity.  This isn’t as admirable, but it’s very understandable.  When we have done our best, fought our hardest, prayed our hearts out, and still nothing changes, we tend to feel sorry for ourselves.  We give ourselves a “pity party”.  And we wonder why no one else wants to attend.  We make ourselves miserable and, since misery loves company, we’re not the only ones who get to experience our own misery.

I love the story of Joseph.  The Old Testament Joseph.  He’s the one whose brothers hated him so much they sold him to some merchants who were on their way to Egypt.  Some of us might have done that to a certain brother or a sister if we had been given the opportunity.

So here is this boy who is now a slave in a strange land.  And then a prisoner, through no fault of his own.  His life is pretty much over.  He could have rebelled against his cruel fate.  He could have felt sorry for himself.  But nothing would have changed.  So what did he do?  He trusted God to help him use his handicaps in a positive, productive way.

The story ends with Joseph, second in power only to Pharaoh, saving the lives of the same brothers who had ganged up on him so many years earlier.  Joseph says to them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

I have three contemporary illustrations of handicapped people who managed to avoid rebellion or self-pity and who allowed God to do something good through them.

The first is Itzhak Perlman.  He got polio when he was four- years-old.  He’s been handicapped ever since.  He gave his first violin recital at age 10.  At age 13 he was on the Ed Sullivan show.  At age 35 he was on Sesame Street.  This is back in 1980.  Let’s take a look.


(YouTube: Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street, Hard and Easy)


The story that is often told about Itzhak Perlman has to do with a handicap that had nothing to do with his polio.  He was in concert and one of the strings on his violin snapped.  It made a loud noise that reverberated through the concert hall.  Everyone knew exactly what had happened.  Obviously the concert would have to stop while he replaced his instrument.  You can’t play a violin on three strings.

But Itzhak Perlman did!  He had to transpose the music as he went.  It wasn’t what he had practiced.  It shouldn’t have been possible.  But he finished the piece.  It would have been beautiful and amazing on four strings.  It was even more so on three.

The second illustration is someone less famous than Itzhak Perlman, but he’s been in the news lately.  His name is Charlie Linville.  Anyone recognize that name?  He’s the first combat amputee to climb Mt. Everest.  And he’s from Boise.  I should have invited him to be with us today to tell his own story!

It was his third attempt on Everest.  The first time, two years ago, a block of ice the size of a ten story building came crashing down, killing 16 climbers and cancelling the rest of the climbing season.  Last year it was a massive earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter scale that turned him back.   You may remember that one.  It killed nearly 9,000 people including 20 climbers.  Instead of climbing, Charlie assisted in the relief efforts.

But the third time was the charm.  Just last month he made it.  Here he is on top of the world’s highest mountain (he’s the one on the left):

on top

          You notice the sign they are holding says, “The Heroes Project.”  Look up their website.  It’s very impressive what they are doing for veterans.

Charlie was part of a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan.  He stepped on a buried improvised explosive device in 2011.  He had 14 surgeries in 18 months.  Before the amputation, he was living on pain meds.  But once he was officially an amputee, it was like his life started over again.  He knew he had to do something.  Not something small, but something truly audacious.  Like climbing Everest.

He said, “I was looking for something to completely change myself and get rid of the demons from that war.”  He did it for himself.  But he went on to say he also did it to inspire others.  So, are you inspired?

Not many people with two good legs can climb Mt. Everest.

Here’s someone who did it with one.  The handicap didn’t make the hero, but what he did with the handicap did.

Charlie Linville had one good leg.  Rick Foreman didn’t have any.  If you didn’t know him, I’m pretty sure you know his wife, Darlene and his two sons, Andrew and Parker.  They are here every Sunday at the 11 am service.

Some of you who have lived in Nampa for awhile remember the day that changed Rick’s life.  It was September 25, 1976.  He was a happy, active six-year-old, outside, playing on the merry-go-round when he was shot in the back.  It was a kid who shot him.  The first story was that this kid was aiming at a bird and missed.  Eventually he admitted that he was shooting at Rick.

A lot of people would have given up.  Their life would have ended right then and there.  Not that they necessarily would have died, but they would have stopped trying to live.  They would have resigned themselves to a miserable existence.  Nothing to look forward to.  And nothing they could do about it.  If they accomplished nothing in life from that moment on, they would have had a pretty good excuse.

But Rick was not that way.  He had that rare quality that drove him to squeeze every last ounce out of the abilities that he did still have.  So here we have a paraplegic who swam and water skied and scuba dived and rode ATV’s and snow machines.  If you could get to the top of Everest on a snow machine, I think Rick Foreman would have.

One of his greatest joys was working on cars.  How do you work on cars when your legs don’t work?  Rick figured out a way.

Four times he was in the wheel chair division of the Sawtooth Relay.

He couldn’t do anything about his legs, so he built up his arms. I don’t know if there was anybody with greater upper body strength.  When he was 14, he arm wrestled a professional weight lifter to a draw.  I’m pretty sure he would have won the rematch when he was older.

Rick died earlier this year.  His memorial service was held in this church on what would have been his 46th birthday.  He had 40 years of living, not just existing, but extreme, unbounded, audacious living after the doctors told his parents that he would not survive.

His brother said that Rick told him that if he was given the chance to live his life over again without getting shot, without being paralyzed, he would have turned it down.  He wouldn’t have changed a thing.  His life could have not been any greater.  Not in spite of his handicap, but because of it.  Because of what he did with it.

So what if you were told you could live your life over.  This time you could live a “scratch” life.  (Remember, the scratch golfer is the one who doesn’t have a handicap.)  You could live a life without any handicaps at all.  A perfect body.  A brilliant mind.  A dazzling personality.  Amazing talent.  No emotional hang-ups or insecurities.  No fears, no money problems, no relationship problems, no health problems.  You can order your new life like you might order a new car, with all your favorite colors and accessories and bells and whistles.  Would you do it?  Some of you are thinking it over right now.  It does sound pretty good.

But here’s the thing.  No one ever gets to do that.  That’s not the way life is.  Ever.  To live is to live with handicaps.  The question is not, Are you handicapped?  The question is, What is your handicap?  And the important question is, What are you going to do with it?

Because limitations are opportunities.  They are blessings.  They are gifts from God.  Don’t fight them.  Use them.  Give God glory through them.  If you were the first person ever to live with everything going your way and with nothing to hold you back, do you really think that would be a good thing?

Lives that honor God and that inspire people are never lived by those who have an easy time of it in life.  They are lived by handicapped people whose very handicaps are their pathway to greatness.

Paul prayed those three times that his thorn in the flesh might be removed.  Jesus also prayed three times.  He prayed that he might not have to die on the cross.  But God knew best.  Without the cross there would be no Christ.

God’s grace is sufficient.  God’s power is made perfect in weakness.  It is no shame to have a weakness.  God does his best work through weak people.  For when we are weak, then and only then by the grace of God, we can be strong.


Dear God, some of us are still rebelling against something that’s not the way we wish it were in our lives.  Some of us are still in the self-pity stage.  Some of us are so busy bemoaning life as it is that we are missing out on life as it might be.  And then we hear stories of people like Itzhak, and Charlie, and Rick and we are inspired to get busy living and never to settle for merely existing.  For you have great things to do through us.  So we pray not that life might be easier but that we might take that which is hard and turn it into a blessing.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.