I was eighteen years old the first time I sang a solo in front of a large audience. Every chapel service at Dayton Christian High School usually had a few songs of worship, a message from a local pastor or one of our teachers, and a solo by one of the students. For some unknown reason, I decided I would be just fine getting up in front of all of my friends and singing, so I decided to go ahead and bust out a song. And what song? Well, it was 1990 so there was no better choice than the epic, yet woefully repetitive and sluggish tune People Need the Lord.
As I stood on the stage in the auditorium preparing for my vocal onslaught upon all of my friends and fellow students, the music started and before I could catch my breath everything went downhill faster than a big kid on a metal sled. Staring out into the crowd of roughly five hundred students and faculty, I suddenly realized this was a really, super bad idea. My legs began to tremble, and as I opened my mouth, my voice came out quakier than Aaron Neville stuck in a giant, slow blender. A few of my friends motioned to their ears, cueing me gently to increase my volume, while my best friend saw me smile nervously at him, then quickly ducked his head to keep from making me laugh at the ridiculousness of this moment.
Don’t look at Shawn. Don’t look at him. Straight ahead. Where’s Mr. Rough? Okay. And Mr. Sundberg?Gotcha. Focus on the teachers. God help me. This is horrible.
And honestly, it was. I was so incredibly worked up, sweat began to form on my forehead, dripping slowly down between my eyes and onto the tip of my nose, where it seemed stuck for the last half of the song. Towards the end, I desperately found a touch of courage, raised my voice above the tiny echoes in the large hall, and hung my head in shame as I walked off the stage.
Why? Why did I even agree to do this? Everyone was just gawking at me, watching this big ship go down in flames right in front of them. It was seven years before the movie Titanic was released on film, but on this spring day I gave an early viewing of a cataclysmic disaster right in front of them, just for their viewing pleasure.
Less than four years later I strolled out onto stage in front of about fifteen hundred Liberty Students. Gently picking up the mic off its stand, my guitar player began the iconic intro to the song One by U2, as my friends in the crowd screamed “Bono!” I followed up One with another U2 great, All I Want Is You, emotionally belting out the powerful lyrics at the end of the song and walking off the stage to the roar of the crowd one final time.
Eight years earlier I had given up BMX racing for good. There were too many wrecks, and oh those head injuries (could you tell?) were a little excessive. It wasn’t that I physically couldn’t race, but after the final crash put me in the hospital with a busted up face and a mild concussion, I was afraid to ever get back on the bike again.
As I placed the mic in the stand one final time, I walked off the stage knowing there was too much risk and the reward, no matter how great, would never be worth it. My voice wasn’t the problem. My love for the music was never in question. But the potential damage was never worth the potential rewards.
And that’s okay, it really is. Sometimes, no matter how talented you might be or the overwhelming affirmation you receive, it doesn’t mean that you will ever have peace in your heart. On a BMX, I was the fastest kid of any rider I knew, which often meant my wrecks were the stuff of ambulance rides and people staring at my carnage with their hands over their mouth. When I sang, it was all guts and volume, which meant if I went after a note and didn’t hit it, there was no going back. No matter how much time, effort, talent, and training went into racing and singing, none of it would bring me any peace. In fact, both usually left me an anxious mess.
Before a big race or a performance, my head would be pretty messed up. Every failed scenario would consume my mind, and I would spend countless hours obsessing over my plight. As much as I dreamed of being signed by GT or Haro and qualifying for the Nationals, BMX racing was never going to be my thing. As much as singing in bands brought a unique thrill and excitement, it usually left me remembering that People Need the Lord fiasco, and a reminder of what could happen again. There would be no deep exhale with the feelings of accomplishment and of satisfaction pouring out of me. I was always left empty, with a slight the dread of tomorrow hanging off my shoulders. The fear of what could happen wasn’t worth even the most glorious of payoffs.
Did you know in 2 Corinthians 12:7 the Apostle Paul mentions BMX racing and singing in public? Well, maybe that’s a bit of stretch, but for a moment I think I feel a little of what Paul was when he writes “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being conceited.”
So much conjecture has gone into defining what exactly was Paul’s thorn in the flesh actually was, from a sickness or disability or dark memories of harm he suffered at the hands of abusive jailers or his enemies. I think what connects to me the most from Paul’s words here isn’t what he was enduring, but the final statement he makes – “to keep me from being conceited”. In the world of performing on a bike or on a stage, for me, this makes sense, and I guess you’d call it how I was “harassed”.
Just because we have a “thorn in the flesh”, doesn’t mean we are ever without hope, however. If God wanted to use singing or racing for his glory, he would have shown me his peace and power, neither of which I never experienced in these frames. Maybe Paul’s thorn in the flesh was completely different than mine, but maybe the “what” isn’t as important as the “who”. My Savior, my purpose, and my peace are all found at the feet of Jesus, no matter where I am or what I am doing. By centering my life on Jesus, my passions, gifts and goals all line up under him and his glory.
Jesus prayed to God the Father in John 17:22-23 “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them even as you have loved me.”
It helps me to know there is so much of a greater purpose in this life, whether I am doing something that’s easy and brings me joy, or miring in something that makes me a bit of a mess. When Jesus becomes our ultimate focus, all of the trappings of fear, lack of self worth, and our up and down emotions all bow to him. The Holy Spirit grabs all of our gifts, uses them, and often we have no clue what’s happening around us until he shows us what he’s doing. In our greatest brokenness, God is powerfully working and preparing us for our glorification in Him.
The mystery of the Apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh isn’t unlike the mysteries surrounding some of our thorns. The anxiety and indifference we experience while using our talents helps us…yes, it helps us to become humbled and a little bit more ready to be used by God for his glory. It’s like Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Or Moses talking to Pharaoh. Or even Hosea in the pain of a marriage that won’t let him catch his breath. When Jesus is your king, every part of us, thorns included, bow at his feet, and we praise him for his purpose and goodness. We praise him for the time we have and the gifts he gives us, knowing God loves us and is completing the good work he started in us.