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Monday, July 09, 2018

You and Your Power


Power.  Nothing is more attractive to the average person than power.  People pay big bucks to go to empowerment seminars.  Most coaching that I know of is about how to convince people that they are engines of power for whatever purposes they choose.  The advertising industry is enchanted with images of power.  Apparently Americans are in love with firepower.  Witness all the bombast on a Fourth of July celebration.  Bombs bursting in air is a national icon. 

Power comes in many kinds and types. There is power over, power under, power to, and power for. Power is energy and as such it is neither good nor bad.  It is always the purposes for which power is used that determines its value or its danger.  Lord Acton famously remarked in a letter to an Anglican Bishop, “Power tends to corrupt.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  He was referring to political power, the kind of power that is “power over” others.  If he was right, then the signs of these times suggest that we are in for a rough ride over the next generation or two, for authoritarianism across the globe is on the rise.  The two and a half centuries dominated by the world’s great democracies are sliding into darkness, it would appear.  Many are in the fray as well as on the sidelines cheering the demise of democracy, whether they like to admit it or not.  You or your friends might be among them. But no one that I know is in any fight for or against democratic values that is uninterested in power flowing in his or her direction.  It takes someone quite extraordinary to be interested in divesting himself or herself of power and its perquisites. 
The scriptures we hear today[1] present an interesting interplay of power and weakness. Nowhere is the irony of power displayed more plainly than in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In the middle of a long passage in which he takes on some false apostles masquerading as ministers of Christ, Paul exposes them as puffed up self-promoters and counters by saying that he too will boast—but of his weaknesses. It is then that he pulls out the intriguing tale of his powerful spiritual experience that he describes as being “caught up to the third heaven” where he heard things that he cannot even repeat. But the climax of the passage, which has us wondering what on earth he might be talking about, is nothing about the character of the revelations. Rather, it is the fact that to keep him from being elated he experienced what he calls a “thorn” or a “sharp stake” in the flesh. He does not say what that thorn is, and we might as well spare ourselves the trouble of wondering because what it was is not the point either. Paul says he appealed to the Lord three times about whatever the problem was, and he heard the reply, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

If there were one phrase that described the entirety of God’s revelation, including the whole story of Jesus Christ, nothing more apt could it be than this: “My grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  And that is precisely why Christianity, as G. K. Chesterton said, “…has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and never tried.”[2] Nowhere is this more sadly true than in America in the 21st century. Hosts of people who call themselves Christian apparently have no idea that the example of Jesus Christ, meant as a pattern of life and not as a ticket to an afterlife, is precisely the kind of emptying oneself of power that is made perfect in weakness. We simply don’t believe it could possibly work. It is far too threatening to imagine actually living that way. Everything in us recoils at the idea that weakness could ever be good, let alone the very place where true power is manifest. 

Look at it more closely.  We have just celebrated the Fourth of July.  Most of us know that this country is not perfect, but you have to look long and hard to find someone who would seriously argue that American power (or “exceptionalism” as some call it) would be made perfect in weakness. This, people say, is not the way “the real world” operates. Of course it isn’t! And that’s the point. It will never work that way.

I once stood in line to buy a train ticket in Grand Central Station, New York City. I could not understand what the woman behind the glass was telling me. She was trying to tell me to swipe my card, which I clumsily could not manage to turn so that the magnetic stripe could be read.  After trying repeatedly, I finally understood the woman to be saying, “Turn it around.  It will never work that way.”  That is the story of why it is that trying to play political and military power games and pretend that they are not in direct conflict with the gospel is doomed. “It will never work that way.” “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ says the Lord.”[3]  If you seriously want to be on, continue on, or embark upon a journey with God, be aware that you cannot have your cake and eat it too.  That journey will lead you to places of bliss that you cannot imagine, even to being caught up in the third heaven to hear things you couldn’t possibly put into words they so far surpass human language.  But that journey will also break your heart, dash your hopes, and land you in places that you’d never imagine yourself going.  There is only one thing strong enough to sustain you and it is this: “My grace is sufficient for you.”
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.”[4] And what does this mean?  Just what is the Spirit of God?  How do we know it, and how do we get with it? Well, it is written all over the Bible.  And even if you never read the Bible, it is written all over nature. Birds sing it.  Lions roar it.  Chipmunks scamper about manifesting it. Blooming flowers hail it. It is love, joy, peace.  It is patience, kindness, generosity.  It is faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  If you want to see a spirit-filled life, read the Gospel of St. Luke or any of the gospels, because that is what Jesus’ life was. He broke every barrier down that he could possibly break: the barrier between Gentile and Jew, male and female, rich and poor, hungry and well-fed, intelligent and ignorant, sex worker and religious authority. You can’t catch Jesus abusing children, cursing foreigners, siding with those who are powerful and moneyed against those who have no money and no power. What makes us think that when he asked us to follow him that we could ignore his example and align ourselves with the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, even helpless children? 

Now lest you think that all of this is about somebody else out there and not relevant at all to you, let me say plainly that I say nothing to you that I don’t say to myself.  In my case it is not so much willfully participating in power games as sitting on the sidelines in horror, disgust, or moral paralysis without the nerve to do anything remotely resembling the intervention of God through Jesus Christ in the lives of a suffering and starving humanity. And then, every once in awhile, I have a revelation all my own, but it looks nothing like being caught up to the third heaven. 

Let me tell you about one such moment. When I moved to Washington 14 years ago I was living in a real urban environment for the first time in my life. Nothing challenged me more than the constant barrage of persons asking for help, for money, for something to eat. I learned a long time ago that I couldn’t be responsible for the whole world, but every time some beggar would thrust a plastic cup with a little change rattling in it in my way as I passed, I felt disturbed. So I shared my dilemma with a friend who had lived in the city for a very long time.  He said something quite helpful. “Ask yourself this question,” he suggested. “Do I want a relationship with this person?” So I began doing that. And within a short while I did have a relationship with a handful of people who lived near me. I cared about them. I responded to them.

She annoyed me.
One day a woman appeared in the neighborhood. She asked me for help. I stopped and told her where if she needed food she could go and almost immediately get a hot meal. She seemed to brush me off as not interested. Yet she stayed on the streets day after day asking passers-by for a little change. Frankly she stank with the odor of stale urine and sweat. Every time I would pass her I could feel my blood rising.  She annoyed me. 


I was on my way home from an early morning mass on some Holy Day in the spring. I had on my collar. There she was. Somewhat embarrassed to pass her by in a collar, and feeling exceptionally good having just come from ingesting the Body of Our Lord, I stopped.  Something told me that it was time I had a relationship with her. “I’m Frank,” I said.  “And you are…?”

“Dee,” she answered. 

We had a brief conversation. I gave her some money, no questions asked.  But one day soon after, I saw Dee and decided I’d go a step further. “I see you out here in all kinds of weather.  Can you tell me what you need?” And she told me. “I am trying to get enough money to buy my medicine,” she said. She was diabetic.   grew to respect Dee. In snow, 100° heat, pouring rain, and bone-rattling wind, she was out on the street. Fundraising. Had she been raising money for the Free Clinic or some other charity, I would have respected her. Why should I respect her any less because she was fundraising for the sick, namely herself? 

One day I noticed that it had been awhile since I had seen Dee. She never reappeared. Probably in the morgue; or, if there was someone to bury her, in a cemetery no doubt in an unmarked grave. 

You’d think that a story like this would be about me, that somehow I’d be the hero telling you about how I had come down off my high horse and met somebody in the name of Christ, a St. Francis embracing his leper, a St. Martin splitting his cloak to share half of it with a beggar. No such thing. Dee is the heroine of the gospel. It was she who manifested power made perfect in weakness. I have no idea whether she knew Jesus or not, but I know this:  grace and sheer grit got her out on the street trying to keep alive, and that grace was sufficient for her, though mine and others’ support fell far short of what she needed. And I would like to think that somehow somewhere she found before she left this earth that on some level she was an incredibly strong woman, weak as she was.

Dee is one of millions. They are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the refuse and off-scouring of lands frequently despoiled by rich and powerful interests that speak perfect English but have not love. And whatever we do to one of the least of them, we do to Christ, because they are in fact the flesh in whom Christ appears, quite apart from any religion they might articulate.

My power is made perfect in weakness. Think about it. Let it sink in.

And see if it doesn’t offer you another vision of what in this world your life—your power—is really for.

A sermon preached on July 6, 2018, on the text of 2 Corinthians 12:2-10  (Proper 9B)

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018



[1] 2   Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 [Proper 9B, in the Revised Common Lectionary].
[2] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, found on the internet at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/13211-the-christian-ideal-has-not-been-tried-and-found-wanting, accessed July 67, 2018.
[3] Isaiah 55:8-9.
[4] Zechariah 4:6.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Facebook Post During a Very Dark Time

I've all but stopped posting on Facebook. It really has little to do with the privacy and security issues, though those were serious enough. Nor does it have anything to do with those of you whom Facebook algorithms deem connectable with me. I haven't done much cooking lately, though I hope to restart that soon, so I've had few photos of cookies or cakes or pies to post. I don't have a dog or cat, so no cute photos or snappy little tidbits about pets.
It really has to do with my growing sense of the futility of posting politically charged items, which seem to me to get relatively little response and probably account for the disenfranchisement (also known as "unfriending") that Facebook politics is wont to produce.
I do like the venue for posting links to serious writing that I do, and am ever grateful for those of my Facebook friends who read and comment on them. I likewise appreciate others of you who share things of importance to you.
And all of the above is prelude for my once more abrogating my resolve to shut my mouth about stuff that I am unable to stop, also known as Trump.
And it really is not about Trump that I compose this comment. I direct it to that great and self-important slice of the universe known familiarly as "America," or more formally as the United States of America. Somewhat like a crazy family member that one loves out of a sense of duty and for the sake of old and good memories, but whom one hates to see coming yet again for a visit, the United States I find difficult to disentangle from. I've never known anything else. I remember in Mrs. Lemmon's third grade class at Conway Elementary School hearing my teacher read Edward Everette Hale's "The Man Without a Country." It stuck with me. I could barely conceive of renouncing one's country, certainly not without dire consequences. Especially could I not conceive of renouncing a nation that was as great, as splendid, as noble as my own.
I am just a hair's breadth away from feeling totally fed up with Uncle Sam. I simply don't understand a nation in which a large swath of people, if not a majority, make peace or at least refuse to raise hell with an ignorant Congress that year after year does nothing about gun violence. I don't understand how people can settle for a country where a school full of little children gets blasted to smithereens and then has to put up with people who have the audacity to claim that it was fake news and the product of a liberal conspiracy. I don't have the stomach for an administration that tears families apart and then justifies it because "the base" loves hating all who differ from them. Or has the temerity to chalk off its heinous, inhumane, immoral, and even criminal behavior to some bullshit about the Bible countenancing it if not demanding it. I do not understand what is gained by living in a democracy that has never really been democratic for the original inhabitants of this land nor for those descended from persons captured and enslaved here generations ago.
Tell me to vote. I do. Tell me to wait. I have. Tell me to cool it. I've tried. Tell me that I'm blind to all the good in the US. I've searched for it, found it, applauded it. Tell me that it is all about the Republican party or Donald Trump. And tell me "Just you wait" until the mid-terms. I've lived too long to put any stock in any of that. I've thought one too many times that we'd turned a corner only to find that both parties are owned by the same interests, largely controlled by white, monied, powerful men generally oblivious to the plight of those who differ from them in color, station, gender, or need. I have little hope that "midterms" are going to change anything, certainly not the culture that has produced the system we now have. I have not forgotten that any system, including the United States, is designed to produce exactly the results it is getting.
We are seeing the wrecking ball bashing into democratic institutions while huge numbers of people consistently applaud the devastation of the social system and yet believe that somehow America is becoming "great again," without ever having said when it was great before.
I listen not only to the sobs of children separated from their parents. I hear the desperation of parents who, even when reunited with their children, are destined by the same evil government to live in prisons or pens indefinitely. I remember once having feared that in a St. Patrick's Day mob in New York City for a block or two I'd perhaps lost one of my own. The metallic taste of fear rising to my tongue much like blood from my guts is not unlike what I imagine it would be to have braved the long trip to America only to have the family one is trying to save from annihilation or starvation summarily destroyed by the great hope of all the earth, the United States Government. I add my hoarse cry to those who have dared to say, "Shame. Shame. Shame on the United States! No better than the flag-waving Nazis that glorify the military but spurn what the military itself has fought and bled to protect. Shame on a nation that believes it is the apple of God's eye. Shame on me, on you, on us all who continue to pay for this insidious system that is becoming more demonstrably evil by the day.
I no longer blame Donald Trump nor his infernal toadies and minions and apologists. I blame a country that colludes with their lies and deceit. I blame myself for growing slack and lame at opposing cruelty and heartlessness made more diabolical because it has the audacity to excuse itself.
Always the optimist, the hopeful, the joyful, I sorrowfully embrace words that slipped out of public vocabulary long ago: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us."

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who Then Is This?




Rembrandt, Jesus Stilling the Storm
On one level the story of the calming of the storm is about the uniqueness of the personhood of Jesus of Nazareth.  Ordinary people don’t do such things as speak to the winds and waves and instantly bring them under control. 

On another level the story raises the question of whether or not the God who is ostensibly present with us and is moreover all powerful does indeed care that we are perishing (some of the time or all of the time).

On still another level the story probes the curious intersection of fear and faith, as in Jesus’ question, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

I want to be honest with you and tell you that I really am not interested very much in what happened once upon a time to Jesus and his disciples in a boat in a storm on the Sea of Galilee.  It is not that I find it hard to believe—I really don’t find it hard to believe—or that I find it unimportant.  Instead, I find myself quite much interested in the storms that are going on right now in my world and in my soul.  I find myself wondering what is happening and what God or faith or Jesus has to do with any of it. 

You might wonder what storms I’m talking about.  I could rapidly come up with a list of a dozen including


  • ·      the firestorm about immigration at the southern US border
  • ·      the suppression of voting rights in this country
  • ·      the rise of authoritarian governments around the world
  • ·      the deep suspicion of immigrant populations here and abroad
  • ·      the corruption of the leadership of many churches who ignore or dismiss directives of Scripture and Tradition to care for the least powerful and most vulnerable
  • ·      the wanton devastation of the earth’s environment
  • ·      unbridled greed that infects economies the world over

But wait.  You don’t want to hear those things.  You’ve come to church precisely to get away from all that.  Indeed the church is a little barque that you’ve bought your ticket to board so you can get away to the other side of all that, a place where all is joy and peace, near to the heart of God, to coin a phrase.  Part of your disappointment and dismay is that this little church-boat that we are in to escape being tossed and blown about by the cross-currents of politics and economics is itself buffeted about by the squalls of change. 

And where, pray, is Jesus in all this?  In the middle of it, of course.  But to all intents and purposes, fast asleep, as if he were a little baby in a manger, sleeping on the hay.  Not quite the Lord and Master that we bargained for or that we need.  We seem to be left bailing water and trying to manage the sails.  Sometimes it seems that the Holy One is either totally absent or present but powerless to stop it all—to correct the course—to pilot the vessel. 

Don’t you ever want to cry out, or don’t you ever hear yourself exclaiming, “Lord do you not care?  We are perishing! Have you nothing to do but sleep on the job?”  If you ever get fed up, frightened, or worse—hopeless—in the straights you find yourself, then you and I are on the same page.  And that page is right here in the fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel.  For this crossing of the sea is not an event that happened once upon a time, but one that keeps happening all the time.  That, you might say, is why it is in the Bible in the first place.  Somebody somewhere recognized it as more than an isolated incident in the life of Jesus and his disciples, but as a window of insight into the human condition that just doesn’t go away. 

Yet it is not disenchantment or disgust that is the enemy of faith, it would seem.  It is fear.  And when I say “enemy,” I really mean a countervailing force that is destructive.  Everybody is scared. We all are running scared much of the time.  Scared we won’t have enough money, or enough energy or health or beauty or education or whatever it is we think will secure our lives and guarantee them against unhappiness or loss or even death.  Faith and fear don’t do well together because faith always involves risk and trust and fear is primed to avoid risk and to distrust.  But there are some major exceptions. Courage is not fearlessness; it is acting bravely in spite of fear.  If fear is great enough, it eats away at courage until there is no courage. 

To put all that in the context of this story of us in the boat in danger of being swamped and ultimately lost in the storm, the issue is not whether Jesus or God is asleep while we are busy battling the winds and waves.  The issue is whether we can call upon our inner strength (another name for the indwelling Christ) to be courageous and not scared to death.  Why are we afraid—not just afraid a little bit, but afraid enough to overrule our own courage?  That’s a question we have to live with.

But let’s take this story in another direction.  What about the storms going on in our souls?  Sometimes they are and sometime they aren’t the same or even like the storms in our outward lives.  You have your own and you probably know what they are.  Perhaps they have to do with grief or sorrow over someone or some thing that you’ve lost.  Maybe they are tied up with addictive behavior, whether abusing substances or what feels like lifelong patterns and behavior that you honestly don’t think you’ll ever be able to break.  Or maybe the storm really has to do with relationships that trouble your life among family or friends or bosses or workmates.  You know your storms and your storms know you. 
What storms are going on in your own soul?

It doesn’t really matter what the internal torment is, the feeling is the same if God seems to be absent or uncaring or just sleeping through the whole mess.  But perhaps more on the personal scale than the global one, we tend to blame ourselves for the storm, imagining that there must have been something we could have done to prevent it.



 

  • ·      “I should have seen her one more time.” 
  • ·      “I shouldn’t have spoken those angry words.” 
  • ·      “If I had it to do all over again, I’d accede to his unreasonable demands and maybe I would forestall a split.” 
  • ·      “It’s all my fault.” 
We take that even further, imagining that the storm is not just one that God is sleeping through but that God has sent the storm in punishment for some flaw that we have—something that makes us particularly susceptible to divine anger. 

And guess what?  That kind of thinking is a thinly masked version of fear.  In fact it’s worse than fear, because it is fear cloaked by shame, a profound sense of inadequacy, even sometimes a sense of worthlessness to the point of paralyzing depression.  And it becomes even worse than all that when we are so far from any idea of God that we don’t even imagine that there’s a God whom we’ve made into an enemy.  We might have, in Nietzsche’s phrase, killed God, with no choice remaining but to be gods ourselves, thus having total responsibility for our own torment.

A pretty bleak place, this.

But there is in all the darkened sky, just enough light to see by.  And in that ray of light there rises a possibility.  It is possible that we might become exasperated enough to cry at some god, even though that god be our own paltry selves, “Do you now care that I am perishing?”  And just that much anger is enough to dispel depression or sadness or paralysis to the point that we’re perhaps able to hear from deep within us a bigger question:  why are you afraid?  Why?  What are you getting out of your fear?  What’s the pay-off? 

Now there is no guarantee.  I’d be a fool to say otherwise.  Nothing is guaranteed to still the storm, calm the elements, return everything to peace and quiet.  But there is a chance that out of the chaos, once we rise to the moment with even an ounce of courage, that courage is like a spark that catches the stubble around it.   Winds only fan the flame.  Take heart! 

The odd thing is that neither the outward nor the inner storms actually go away.  But in both, just that ounce of courage, of trust, is enough to build a nest for peace in the midst of chaos and calamity. 


I heard a man once tell a story about a fellow who was incarcerated in an enemy prison during the Viet Nam War.  In his cell, all alone, not knowing whether he would survive nor how, he had one lone cellmate:  a rat.  The rat turned out to be a female with the job of feeding her young with what crumbs she could scavenge on the floor of prison cells and whatever else comes in the way of rats.  The prisoner strangely took hope from the rat, making the dangerous trek out of the nest every day on the prowl for something to keep her young and herself alive.  The soldier said when finally released that it was the rat that helped him build a nest down in his own scared soul.  Imagine.  A cold trap with nothing but a rat for inspiration.  But that is all it took for one human being to get through years of a weird and mind-destroying storm.

And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still.”  Then the wind ceased and there was a dead calm.  And he said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this...?”

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, 2018, Proper 7, Year B

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018