Thorns in the side – real intelligence over artificial


Peterborough Hospital

On a late evening bit of channel hopping a few weeks ago, I stumbled across the film ‘Lucy’ on Film4. It is a sci-fi thriller about a woman who develops enhanced abilities of mind and body after a new drug is absorbed into her bloodstream. She is tricked into becoming a drug mule in Taipei in Taiwan. This puts her under the control of violent drugs traffickers who surgically insert a bag of these new mind altering drugs into her abdomen. At her destination these will be cut out. There is a violent incident during which she is kicked in the stomach several times and the bag bursts causing the drug to be absorbed into her system. The result is she develops heightened abilities of telepathy, being able to use her mind to move and manipulate objects, mental time travel and the ability to not feel pain or other discomforts. Her personality changes too as she becomes emotionless and ruthless. It has interesting moments and is an exploration of the potential power of the mind, of its untapped limits mixed in with some eastern mysticism too.

Towards the end of the film, Lucy advances so far that she can enter the computer networks – this is where the sci-fi elements become trippy. And the film ends with a statement that “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” The implication is that transcending emotion, the limitations of pain and suffering, and being able to advance in mental abilities beyond those inhibited by these things makes us more fully who we can be. If you like, it is the cessation of emotion, cravings and attachments that makes us more fully who we have it in us to be. That is quite a claim and St Paul in our epistle reading sets out a very different understanding.

In his second letter to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 12:2-10) Paul discusses boasting. He talks about people who have experienced profound mystical spiritual experiences and been taken up, as he puts it, into layers of heaven, or spiritual insight most of us can only dream of. It is a heady place to be and one which could lead to boasting of how special that person is. And Paul hints at some of the causes he might have to boast. But he will not do this, because it would be to miss the point. He goes on to mention the thorn in his flesh, possibly a recurring ailment that bugged him and gave him jip. He looks on this as being an angel who serves to keep him humble. And it is a very different way of looking at suffering and pain. This is not something to be overcome in the sense of no longer feeling it or it not being a nuisance. This thorn, this means of torture as it could be translated, is rather a way that he stays grounded and remembers that he is creature and not creator. It is a reminder of mortality.

This is a very different understanding to that of the sci-fi film Lucy, where such sufferings are a weakness to be conquered. For Paul those weaknesses are the sign that we are fully human and rather than making us less emotional and less empathic, they increase these things and in them we find what makes us human rather than some form of biological robot. We feel, we sense, we know through experience, we weep and bleed. And it is in these things that we find a profound gift, the gift of life that is vulnerable, humble, precious and sacred. The quest for artificial intelligence will always be a pale imitation without the emotional and the ability to feel pain.

So Paul won’t boast of things that do not matter. He will boast of those which do, his weakness and the overwhelming love of God which takes this frail, fragile and almost futile-looking life and gives it the full honour of being regarded as his beloved children. In this is our true strength. And this makes intelligence real rather than artificial.

There is a similar thread in the gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13), but we have to read between the lines to find it. Jesus has gone back to his home town. Many are astounded that this carpenter can now talk with incredible wisdom and they wonder where he has found it. They thought they knew him. They thought they understood his place as a carpenter and here he is performing wonderful signs and speaking with such profound wisdom. Rather than just being amazed they take offence, which does seem a little odd. Can’t they delight in one of theirs coming of age? It is as if he has crossed a line he should not cross and they don’t like where this might lead. It is disturbing and unsettling.

But it is the reference to his mother, his brothers and sisters which provides us with the key to where this wisdom is shaped. As we hear and read the story of Jesus we find someone who is deeply compassionate, who understands the depths and power of human emotions. Last week (Mark 5:21-43) he responded immediately to Jairus whose daughter was dying. He healed the woman bleeding and who had suffered for so many years. This is not someone who is detached from the pain and anguish of real life. And wisdom is not either. It is not cold, it is not detached, it is not aloof. It is rather tried in the crucible of human passion and toil – a carpenter knows hard work, how wood has to be shaped and hammered into place; this carpenter understands life from the inside.

So when we want to know what to do with life, which has been 1 billion years in the making and shaping, it is not to be detached from the emotional and the visceral. These are an important and vital component of who we really are and provide the clue as to what we should do with this life. They are the signs of love and compassion. And it is out of love and compassion that the Christ comes. And it is in the pain and suffering, the struggle and gift of the thorn in the side that we understand more fully where love rests. Because without these we would be robotic and that would be emotionless, compassionless, ruthless and not a world we should aspire to. It would be artificial and not real.

Interestingly, the boys trapped in the caves in Thailand have sent letters to their parents. Emotional contact matters to their wellbeing in what must be unimaginably difficult circumstances. And on Tuesday we hosted a talk as part of Pride Week, by a leading evangelical Christian, Jayne Ozanne, who helped us explore through the power of her human story the complexity of human relationships and our emotional wellbeing. It was an occasion I was very glad we hosted because of the conversations I had afterwards with people who had not realized that they would be welcome in a church. This is because of the treatment they have had elsewhere. I don’t think I fully appreciated in advance just how important what we did was going to be. And it came through hearing real stories, shared by real people.

So St Paul, in what might seem an odd reading, helps us see that the purpose of life is not to escape it. We are not to seek a mental state that tries to pretend suffering and pain are not real, we are not looking for the triumph of the ‘rational’ over the emotional in a cold intellect. That is artificial and not real. What we seek is to be truly human, truly loving and loved, to know through the thorns in our sides that we are mortal and yet deeply loved by God. In this we find a fuller compassion and solidarity with one another. And that leads to transformation in so many ways. The sign of Jesus’ mission is the transforming and healing acts he did. It is not to tell people to pretend they don’t matter. This carpenter understands from the inside and it is through living life fully, even painfully, especially including the thorns in the sides, that we are able to truly be children of God.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 6, Sunday 8th July 2018


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
This entry was posted in Sermons and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.