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. I 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, accessed July 67, 2018.
[3] Isaiah 55:8-9.
[4] Zechariah 4:6.

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