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The inspiring story of a runner-up for TIME’s 2020 Kid of the Year: How a “thorn in the flesh” led me to hear God

Teen painting
© Monkey Business/stock.adobe.com

One of the runners-up for TIME magazine’s Kid of the Year award for 2020 caught my attention for personal reasons. 

Tyler Gordon, fourteen, a high school freshman from California, found ways to cope with many challenges growing up: hearing impairment, a vitamin deficiency that led to having to use a wheelchair for two years, and bullying. 

Born deaf, Tyler gained some hearing through surgery at age five. But when he learned to speak, it was with a stutter. After being bullied in elementary school, he withdrew and barely spoke. One of the ways he coped was watching his mom paint, then taking up the art. Painting became his way of communicating. 

He has painted more than five hundred portraits of Black icons who inspire him, most recently Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who called him right before Thanksgiving to encourage him. In 2019, a portrait of the Central Park Five fetched more than $100,000 at auction, and he won a 2020 Global Child Prodigy Award.

While Tyler was only one of several amazing runners-up for the Kid of the Year award, which was won by another quite amazing teenager, he caught my attention because I identify with his struggles.  

Perfect in weakness

I was born with a hereditary hearing impairment caused by an underdeveloped ear nerve. I learned to cope at an early age through reading and writing, and even dabbling in art. I wrote poetry and short stories and even had a poem published while in college. 

My love for the written word led me to pursue a journalism degree, and my interest in religion led me to take so many courses in religion-philosophy that I decided to add a few more to turn it into a double major. 

Just as Tyler’s weakness opened the door to his greatest achievements thus far, my hearing loss opened the door to my greatest blessings.  

After I graduated from college, I got a job with a local newspaper in South Mississippi and soon became its religion editor. It was through this position that I met my future husband (that’s another story!). He has been my greatest encourager, and his work with church ministry opened more doors for me to become involved with ministry. 

The road eventually led to my work at Denison Forum. 

Although the advancement in technology and a great audiologist have greatly improved my hearing ability, I still live with the insecurities that come with a hearing impairment. But my blessings far outweigh the struggles and insecurities I have endured over the years.  

Sufficient grace

I found inspiration from my favorite biblical hero of the faith, the apostle Paul. He spoke to the Corinthian Christians about a “thorn in the flesh” that he repeatedly asked the Lord to remove (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). The reply he got may not have been what he wanted, but it prepared him to become the greatest evangelist the world has known: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v.9a).   

Paul was then able to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). He learned to rely on God in the midst of his pain. “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10). 

Scriptures do not identify the “thorn” that Paul mentions. It has been the subject of many debates. Paul spoke of a physical ailment when he preached to the Galatians: “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (Galatians 4:13–14). 

It could have been a spiritual dilemma. Paul was tormented by Jewish opponents, who followed him wherever he went, seeking to confuse those he taught. Whatever it was, it appears to have been given to him to keep him from boasting: “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7).  

Paul could have easily identified his thorn, but I’m glad he didn’t. Not knowing what his specific weakness was has helped me to substitute my weakness into the Scriptures about his thorn over the years.  

I not only learned to read the lips of professors, family, and friends to help me get through life, but I also learned to read God’s lips through his Word. I learned that his grace is sufficient. 

Whatever your “thorn,” know that you can trust God’s message to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”