Many years ago, I worked for a home inspection company in Florida. I worked for a lovely Brit and my job was to read and sometimes translate his wild, handwritten scrawl on inspection reports— that is, to proof, edit, and type—and to generate a finished copy, which would then be proofread again by our office manager and sent to the client. It was tedious work but introduced me to the language of construction: soffit, masonry, barrel tiles, fascia, etc. I asked a lot of questions and did not always understand the answers. But what I learned from this Brit was that seawater causes a lot of corrosion on structures over time, that termites can get to –well, just about everywhere—, and that new construction can be plagued with just many issues as older homes. Most of all, I learned that what the writer, Margaret Atwood, said was true: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you [is] a dubious maxim: sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you very much.” Indeed, what you don’t know, can’t or won’t see can definitely cause bigger problems down the road.
I’ve been shaken by the news from Surfside in Florida. It’s been an agonizing time for those keeping vigil and search and rescue efforts. The tragedy has been seeping into me like seawater and corroding my natural optimism as more and more comes to light and stories are told. Having lived in a condo apartment in FL, all of the terror and horror and sadness feels close to me. Miami wasn’t terribly far from where I lived in Palm Beach County. And the whilst prayers ascend for the victims and their families, the undercurrent of discussion of who knew what and the construction/engineering talk seemed altogether familiar and dismal as well.
So, maybe like me, you’ve been spending some time considering cracks in your own foundation, and I don’t really mean your physical home—but the foundations that you rely upon for life and well-being. What are your foundations? What foundations familial, social, religious, political, economic and ecological have you considered recently or deeply investigated for stability? Do you tend to consider or prioritize your economic foundation before other foundations that may be just as, or more, vital to your survival? Have you considered how these foundations may be rapidly changing as the ground upon which they have been built slowly shifts over time?
Certainly, even as we celebrate worship today on the 4th of July, we know from this past January and from our shared history that we have quite a few cracks in the foundation of this our dear country, cracks that have perhaps grown more menacing and disabling as we have the technology, the awareness, the connection, and the greater will “to see” what we could not seem to “see,” acknowledge, or reckon with before.
But before what or which moment? In a speech regarding July 4th, the former slave, Frederick Douglass cried out, “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin!”
We do not usually like to admit or reveal our weaknesses. We do not like to admit our capacity to sin as individuals, much less as a country. Instead, we tend to cover up our fault-lines and pray that they won’t cause us pain, pray that our foundations won’t topple in unsettling weather, while forgetting that often someone else is currently paying the cost and cleaning up debris.
In our scripture today, the Apostle Paul speaks of his weakness. That is, he seems to have some kind of thorn in his flesh which keeps him from being altogether too boastful, elated, or arrogant. He has prayed to his Lord to remove this particular thorn, three times, and yet, it is not removed. “My grace is sufficient for you” came the message from God, and “power is made perfect in weakness.”
It seems that Paul is doing some of his own soul-reckoning here. But his revelation is altogether public too—he has written this to his friends and colleagues in Corinth. So, it is not just Paul writing in his diary or journal—but a public confession of sorts. “I am weak” he says—“you see, I have this thorn that pricks at my flesh and it just won’t go away.” That Paul admits this difficulty publicly is a strength admitted for the benefit of others too.
Sometimes we don’t acknowledge our weakness or our sins because we fear that it will cast down some foundation upon which we have built up ourselves or our impression or our reputations. Our shimmering illusions deceive us because they are shoddy construction. Far better to admit our weaknesses and let them teach us something about where and in whom our strength truly lies and where our foundation should and could be. Far better to admit weakness that can help others to understand their own human weakness too.
Sometimes we even urge our youth or ourselves not to show weakness because, we believe that our enemies, or maybe even our closest friends will find some convenient and expedient reason to use it against us and exploit it to our harm. Perhaps we are fearful that our weakness will be our downfall; yet, in much of life, admitting and dealing with weakness brings certain strength. This is a strength that Paul surely understood for he says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Perhaps another way to say this is that the power of God can be revealed in his weakness as he can “see” God at work transforming him.
It is not our strength, but our weaknesses that connect us each to the other more closely. The events at Surfside should remind us of just how interconnected we truly are. As an international partners reached out to lend expertise and resources to a top-notch Florida search and rescue team, we also prayed around the world and felt a solidarity in the helplessness of those who could stand by keeping vigil. Those living in eroding coastal regions can see with compassion whose suffering from raging wildfires. We are joined in our weakness. Just as the different parts of a building are connected: the various systems and internal components forming a kind of ecosystem; so too, the individuals, communities, and the land on which we live. We are inextricably linked in ways that we are not always willing to see—and we are connected to the choices, decisions, and avoidance of the generations previous to us.
In some human minds, this connection is weakness—to be interdependent or dependent on others makes some people cringe. Yet to be fully self-sufficient is the illusion. In March of 2020, at the launch of a report on the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarked, “Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world… I am particularly concerned about the African continent…We must tackle the devastating social and economic dimensions of this crisis, with a focus on those most affected: women, older persons, youth, low-wage workers, small and medium-sized enterprises, the informal sector and vulnerable groups, especially those in humanitarian and conflict settings…”
Frederick Douglass wrote in 1852, “Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. …Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. — Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.”
We are can only be as strong as our weakest link goes the saying, and there is something of God in our ability and willingness to examine the foundations and freedoms that we cherish in this country to see if they need to be rebuilt or reassessed not only with an eye to the individual, but to the community at large, and to how we include or dismiss those who are perceived as “less than” or “other.”
We must harness the freedoms which we cherish and use them wisely for the larger good. What makes us boastful in this country; what makes us proud? And are those things truly inclusive of all or are they parceled out to a few? What is the thorn in the side of our liberties with which we have not fully reckoned? What should make us humbler and more reflective, than proud, when we look at the cracks in our own towers of privilege and prosperity?
Frederick Douglass, in his speech, issued a scathing criticism of the role of American Christianity, its churches, and its ministers in upholding the institution of slavery through proclamation of a gospel that had become corrupted. On the day when we pride ourselves on our independence from England, he saw fit to draw comparisons to how the English were able to abolish slavery by showing that, in England, “the question of emancipation was a high religious question. It was demanded in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God.” In one instance, he cried out, “The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in its connection with its ability to abolish slavery.”
Douglass, like those in our time, was unafraid to examine beyond the pleasant facade of cultural norms, civic and religious pride. He was not afraid to expose the fault-lines, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in one of our most cherished institutions: the Church, so that what was weakness could be transformed to strength in Christ. Paul found strength in weakness and suffering hardship and difficulty for the sake of Christ. May God bless those who uncover and bring to awareness the cracks in our foundations, whether they be political or religious, or some other. May God help us to see and undergird our interdependence as we build a brighter tomorrow.