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Uncle WallyImagine how hard it was for Paul to say those words. “When I am weak, I am strong.” Paul was brilliant. Highly educated. Hard working. Physically – he was a tough nut – he survived shipwrecks, stoning, whippings, inprisonment. He was socially skilled – he could interact with wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated alike. He was in many ways, the scriptural equivalent of a Renaissance man. He could do just about everything…

And yet… And yet, there was something that he simply could not do with his own power. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how sharp the intellect, how firm the will, how devout the prayer, there was this “thorn in the flesh”. “Three times I prayed…” for this to pass. You can almost hear the desperation in his voice as he says that. (And that is more than ‘three times’ like yesterday, the day before and the day before. Think of three as a biblical number of excellence – that Paul prayed quite some time about this.) Gradually, or all at once, we don’t know, but something different happens in Paul in his prayer and reflection so that now he can THANK God for his weakness…

Do we know what his weakness was? Scholars are divided. Some say it was the divisions in his community that was his thorn. Others say the thorn is a metaphor for the spiritual struggle against the devil. Others, (and this makes the most sense to me) think it was a kind of physical ailment – perhaps blindness which would have been devastating to this well read and educated man. We don’t know. But we know that Paul prays himself to a place where only Jesus matters – and his power flowing through him.

I was thinking about that as I have been going through the keepsake stuff in mom’s house. It seemed she inherited my Uncle’s stuff when he died – Fr. Wally Boul. So I have seen some pictures of him I had never before seen – from growing up, from his early years of priesthood, from the war and him saying mass on the hood of a jeep. And then some from his 25th (when I was this tall) and his 50th anniversary celebrations as a priest (where he asked me to preach). And I remember what he said to me in preparation for that day. “Billy, (he called me Billy- only he and mom did that) I count my alcoholism as my greatest grace in my 50 years of priesthood.” I was pretty stunned. “Really, I thought. Of all the things you have seen and heard and been privileged to be a part of – you’re going with the alcoholism thing?” After a slight pause to wipe the ‘mist’ from his Irish eyes, he continued. “Because there is not a day, not an hour, not a moment of my life where I don’t know in my bones that I need my savior. I can’t do sobriety without him. And I can’t do life without being sober. I know I need my savior because of my alcoholism.”

Woof.

If you ever saw Wally’s breviary, you knew he meant what he said, because he had prayed that book ragged, day after day, month after month, year after year. He NEEDED his savior. Not just in his head, but in his gut.

THAT is precisely how I understand these words of St. Paul ever since that conversation. Paul is able to thank God in his weakness, in his thorn in the flesh, in that which he cannot do on his own, because it reminds him, like my uncle Wally, every moment of every day that he needs a savior.

My friends, we often experience what it is like to be powerless, to know the kind of weakness that drove Paul to his knees and finally allowed him to surrender. And I would suspect that 99% of the time we don’t like it at all. It is so frustrating to feel weak. But I invite you to try the “Pauline Pledge” or the “Wally Weakness” – however you want to say it – and THANK GOD for your weakness – for all that you can’t do, for all that is still weak and powerless and struggle about you. And if it takes you more than “three times”, hang in there – you’re in good company. But surrender. Surrender to the one who can use that weakness to draw you always and completely to Himself. Learn, as did Paul, as did Wally, as do so many believers, that God’s grace is always enough for you…

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