2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Some nights I fly. In my dreams. I feel like Superman, pushing gently off the ground to lift myself higher, arms stretched out in front of me. The exultation of freedom becomes breath to my soul. The norm of gravity altered, and I wonder, is this experience physical or is it spiritual? Is it a dream, or is it a permuted form of reality?
Several months ago, hiking up a steep path along a grassy mountainside, a gale-force wind pushed so hard against me that I had to lean into it, otherwise I would have fallen backwards onto the ground. I thought briefly Jesus and the band of men arresting him. The men fell backwards at the gale of Jesus’ breath. I pushed ever-harder against the wind. After a while, I closed my eyes, not just to lean into the wind, but to pray. To let my walking become prayer. Step upon step, my eyes tightly closed, praying as walking, walking as praying, and suddenly, as though removed from my body – I was seeing myself in the third person – I felt gravity altered and myself lifted into the air, like in my dreams. I was flying.
Paul writes to the Corinthians about a man lifted up to the third heaven, but there can be no such place, according to physical science, no third heaven. The real atmosphere has layers, and perhaps this is what Paul means. Or is this some person who, when hiking along a grassy mountainside, closes his eyes, and suddenly experiences himself in the third person, not from within, but from without. This man hears or experiences or simply sees concepts that do not translate neatly into language, so he cannot repeat them.
Paul is boasting, he confesses to the Corinthians. Perhaps he is boasting about himself, and not some other person, speaking of himself as in the third person. I am spiritual, but there are others who are even more spiritual than I. Take this one fellow, for example … he found himself exalted to the third heaven … Not the first, not the second, but the third. Paul boasts, but … this is no mere braggadocio.
For Paul “boasts” equally of suffering. Of some “thorn-in-the-flesh,” a very human limitation that anchors Paul’s feet to ground. He is unable to rise in both gale and flight to any heaven, third or otherwise. What is this thorn-in-Paul’s-flesh? Something physical? Psychological? Spiritual? Could it be that Paul has too much confidence? Maybe he boasts so much because he has too little confidence.
Over the years, I’ve heard people project their thorns-in-the-flesh onto Paul, as though they needed to explain their own inability to fly to the third heaven. But Paul’s thorn was Paul’s thorn. And, Paul’s greatest liability seems far better any of my assets. He flew higher than I do in so many ways, whereas in my dreams, I have never been able to fly higher than thirty feet. At thirty feet, gravity pulls me crashing back to the ground and I wake-up.
Three times Paul begs God to remove his limitation, and three times he is told, No. No, for my grace is sufficient. No, because if I remove this thorn, you will not need to rely upon me. No, for without gravity to keep your feet on the ground you will start to imagine you can fly on your own. No, because I am the Lord and you are not.
These are the things I considered about as I walked along the steep side of the mountain into the gale force wind. As I felt myself barely lifted off the ground.
The Kingdom of God is in your midst, Jesus said. Within you, he said. Third heaven, right here. So, I continue to dream, to fly, and most of all, to press into the wind.