At a point, there’s an impossibly thin line between weakness and strength. It’s kind of like a dog who never shuts up. We mistakingly see strength and power, when the loud bark and pinned back ears are only a mask for insecurity and uncertainty. And typically in the case of the gentle and the humble, we see weakness, when in reality there is un-matched power and confidence that doesn’t need validation from anyone other than God.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:8–10
I like old people. They’ve lived a lot of life and seen a lot of stuff. They’ve seen trends and patterns emerge and fade away. They’ve been at the crest of great hills and they’ve been face down in some nasty valleys. It’s easy to learn from people like that. From some, we learn what to do, and from others we clearly learn what to avoid. Both are valuable.
A few years ago, the mother of a friend of mine passed away. I went to the “celebration of life” for her and when I walked into the room, it was bright. Not bright as if there were a lot of lights on or the sun was beaming through the windows, but bright as in a tangible peace and lightness in the room. I thought I was at the wrong place.
There was a line of people out of the door and as I peaked around I saw Mrs. Fowler’s family lined up to give out hugs to all those who were there to give their condolences. As I got closer, I noticed Mr. Fowler, her husband. It’s hard not to notice him. His towering posture is like a young military officer and he dresses super sharp. Like in the movies where all the men wore top hats and ties. But on this day, it wasn’t his height or his clothes or his posture that struck me. It was his eyes. My grandma used to talk about people who’s “Eyes smile before they do.” There was peace in them.
What I saw that day inspired me, and confused me. Here was a man who just lost his wife of 69 years, dishing out joy and hope with every hug and handshake that he gave. Aren’t people supposed to be comforting him? This is backwards. This is weird. I saw a silent confidence and leadership that seemed to guide the entire room to joy. How was he doing this?
As I inched my way through the line I couldn’t help but think, “Maybe its because he’s a veteran and accustomed to loss? Maybe being a senator allowed him to deal with adversity well in public? Maybe his efforts to preserve the environment helped him understand that life naturally runs its course and he’s accepted it?” I had to know.
At the time, I think he was 94, but he shook my hand like he was 49. He smiled and thanked me for being there. And just like everyone else that he “thanked” that afternoon, I believed that he meant it. Part of me wanted to go through the line again just to see if he was still in such a good mood.
A few weeks later I asked him to lunch. I couldn’t get it out of my head, “How did he do that?” When you sit down with a man who’s lived through international wars, national depressions, served on the battlefield as well as in office, raised a huge family and faithfully loved the same woman for a lifetime, you’d do well to do more listening than talking. Lucky for me, Mr. Fowler didn’t mind talking.
After a bit of reminiscing, I had to ask, “How are you dealing with all of this, Mr. Fowler?”
He paused. In his eyes I saw two things that I didn’t know I could see at the same time in the same eyes. I saw brokenness, and I saw peace. He set his sandwich down that I probably wasn’t ever going to let him eat and he looked at me. He said, “It’s been hard. Every day, I wake up and I convince myself again of what I believe.”
What? I was intrigued, but honestly I was disappointed. I wouldn’t have said this to him at the table, (one because I have incredible respect for this man, and two because at 94 he still could have thrown me clear across that Panera and I wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t packing heat) but I thought it on the drive home, “Where’s his faith?” I expected some incredible answer that would put me in awe of his strength, but instead I left confused.
Wisdom is like a time-bomb. You hear it and you don’t get it, even if you think you do. Then later, maybe months, maybe years later, it happens…. “OOOHHHHHH.” There was beautiful depth in his response, and since that day the time bombs have been going off, over and over again.
“Every day…” Accepting our own weakness and limitations isn’t enough. We have to embrace them, and this isn’t a one-time transaction.
Jesus taught us to pray for “daily bread.” We are told to take up our cross “daily”. Well into his 90’s Mr. Fowler even stuck with his morning pushups, daily. When he said every day, he meant it. The strength I saw in Mr. Fowler during his wife’s service wasn’t manufactured, it wasn’t forced, and it wasn’t his.
Read this again, slower this time:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:8–1
“I convince myself again…” We are going to believe what we fill ourselves with. We can fill ourselves with truth, or we can become like everyone else.
Mr. Fowler grew up in a time where a hand shake meant more than a signature, “Sir” and “Ma’am” weren’t offensive and service meant the same thing as sacrifice. He grew up in a time of less distraction and I could imagine when he looked around at society I’d bet he felt a bit like the old librarian who had just gotten out of jail in the Shawshank Redemption. “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” Great movie. The point is, there’s plenty that we can’t control but we can control where we direct our attention. It’s our choice. Truth or distraction?
“…of what I believe.” Full acceptance of God’s Will over our own is paramount in not just running a good race, but finishing a great one.
Believing that God is who He says He is, brings a steadiness that is unshakable. It wasn’t just in what he said that day that struck me, but it was in how he backed up his words with what he did that held so much weight.
At a point, there’s an impossibly thin line between weakness and strength. Faith is surrender and surrender is weakness. With God, weakness is strength. The scripture says His power is made perfect in weakness. I’m no theologian or scholar in language, but it seems to me that for His power to be made perfect in us, it requires weakness. The weaker, the better. It’s the difficulties of life that unearth our character, or lack-there-of. I’ll be forever grateful that this man of God showed me what Strength looks like.
Two days ago, Mr. Fowler went home to see his Father who, no doubt, was ready to say the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Now I’m not writing this to insinuate that this was a perfect man that never made mistakes. (He had a wife. I’m sure she could tell us otherwise.) But I am saying that on that typical day in a typical Panera, maybe the most non-typical man I’ve ever met showed me what strength meant in only a few words.
Mr. Fowler, when we come together to celebrate your life, I’ll be there with tears in my eyes and a big smile on my face. And some day, when I get to shake your hand and look you in the eyes, I’ll say thank you once again.