30 December 2017

Power Failure

David said longingly, "O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!"
~2 Samuel 23:15

This passage reminded me of "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" The quote attributed to Henry the II of England in reference to Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 CE.

Imagine my surprise when I read to the end of the Mission Clare entry for Friday's daily office and found that December 29th is the day of commemoration for Thomas Becket.

I find it interesting that both David and Henry II call out wishfully for something difficult, impossible, or unwise and a select few of their followers take it upon themselves to act upon that wish.

It further reminds me of a quote attributed to Henry Kissinger,

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."
~NYT 1973
I think it is more than that. I think power can induce a state of euphoria and a feeling of being invincible, not only in the wielders of power, but in their circle of sycophants.

I saw the movie "Becket" (1964) when I was a young teen. I only retain two impressions of the film. One was the murder of Becket and the other was the idea that Henry II had wanted the death of Becket but was only able to hint about his desires due to his own sense of the constraints on his power.

In the Old Testament reading I see a warning of how the euphoric nature of being near to power could be abused, but how David tries to check such abuse in his response to the warrior's self-appointed quest.

Then the three warriors broke through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, for he said, "The Lord forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?" Therefore he would not drink it. The three warriors did these things.
~2 Samuel 23:16-17

The warriors risked their lives to bring David the longed-for water and instead of drinking it himself he gives it as a sacrifice to God. To drink it himself would be to encourage other 'warriors' and people around him to take his every wish as a command in the future. This would force him to watch every word he spoke and would constrain him from asking for advice in the future. If every wish or question was turned into action by followers all would descend into chaos. At the same time by making the water a gift to the Lord, David acknowledged the sacrifice and risk the warriors had made.

Power wielded by humans is fraught with the the possibility for abuse both by the person in power and by people near to them who want to benefit from that power. In everything from money to sex, from power for its own sake, to a desire to control power and relationships to power can spiral out of control if those who would curry favor take action whose only purpose is to please those in power.

It is short-term thinking at it's worst and does not allow leaders to be fallible humans. Any time one person holds power over others, we need both sides to be accountable for their actions.

Those in power need to set a watch on themselves and be careful what they ask for and what favors they accept.

Those near to power need to be able to say 'no' to requests by those in power and society as a whole needs to be able to back them in their right to say no to people who are on the path to being corrupted by power

In our own society now we are finally seeing the damage the powerful can do. We have seen vulnerable populations abused by powerful (mostly) men. This abuse, while frequently sexual in nature, always had at it's heart power and control over others.

We will never know how many promising lives and careers were cut short by powerful abusers and their caretakers. How many people were damaged by contact with power that was out of control.

It is never just the one powerful person that does the damage. It is the people around them who feel they can't say 'no', is is the people who wish to be that powerful who find ways to say 'yes' to enable the abuse, and it is the person who doesn't believe 'their friend' could ever do this because 'their friend' never did it in front of them. All of these people conspire to silence victims and perpetuate the cycle of abuse and some of those people are us.

It is tempting when in proximity to power to become wrapped up in it, to see that power as the only way to achieve one's ends and to accept the idea that to have access to that power one must curry favor.

There will always be people who are willing to exploit this tunnel vision to gain power and control over others. The only way to stop it is to call it out when we see it-- especially when we see it manifesting in ourselves.

"My friend would never do that." "The organization will fail without him." "He is the only one who can get this done." "That person is a genius so we have to put up with them."

These are are warning signs that we are getting too close to power for our own good and too wrapped in in there being only one way forward (that includes sweeping abuse under the rug).

Power can corrupt absolutely but it can also corrupt slowly. Prayer and ritual can be a bulwark against the slow poison of power. The ritual of confession and communion can pull us back from the temptations of power if used mindfully. We can measure our own changes against the unchanging nature of God.

As one of Martin Luther's hymns goes:

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.

Power and the abuse of it by both the powerful and those who would curry favor, is certainly a human failing. May God be our bulwark against it and may forever see our own true weakness and guard against it with God's grace.

16 December 2017

Roots of Faith

Friday's daily office readings are tough, with a great deal of woe and punishment in them. However in the gospel reading there is one sentence that resonates with me.

...and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’
~Matthew 23:30

It is an easy thing look back at moments in history and say 'I would never have done that.' I would never have: owned people as slaves, driven indigenous people from their land, paid unfair wages, watched as neighbors were loaded in to trains to death camps, bought land and possessions dirt cheap from people forced to sell because the government decided they were the enemy based on fear rather than evidence.

However, people did do that. Not just one person, entire generations have taken advantage of their neighbors in crisis. It is easy to look back on the horrors of history and presume that we would be one of the few who stood up for their neighbors, the few who were injured or killed trying to stop the tide of evil choices washing over them. However, I suspect it is difficult, in that moment, to see where one can take action.

When we are enmeshed in day-to-day survival how much energy or intention do we have to step back and see where things are going wrong?

This section of the Gospel of Matthew ends with:

For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’
~Matthew 23:39

This, then is the call to action in this reading. There is still hope that God will come among us if we make room in our lives for those who come from the Lord.

However, I think sometimes 'those who come from the Lord' needs to be us. We need to spend time in prayer finding our way forward in the world as followers of Jesus and then we need to take action in God's name.

Time in prayer can help us pull back from everyday world and help keep us from being swept into the cultural currents without thinking.

Time spent acting in the world can remind us of our power to resist that current. It is hard work and when we are tired, then it is time to return to prayer to find a way forward once more.

This may sound like prayer is a passive thing, but to me prayer is internal action and can be done in many ways from kneeling in church to walking in the woods, from reading books to cycling through the daily office. Whatever helps the individual tune into God (and not just their own thoughts) can be a form of prayer. Prayer is an action that changes the pray'er and helps prepare them to take action in the world.

If we are truly going to be the kind of people that resist going with the flow of evil deeds, if we are going to be the people that history will see as the ones willing to stand up for the weak and suffer the consequences or that action, then we need to be a people who take time out from our daily life to put down roots in our faith so the water can't sweep us away easily.


This essay was originally published on 15 Dec 2017 at Speaking to the Soul: Roots of Faith

02 December 2017

The Suffering that is Life

When I read the New Testament for this Friday before Advent, this verse jumped out at me:

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.
~1 Peter 3:17

I was stirred by the idea that there is quite a lot of suffering to go around, enough that I can choose to suffer for doing good, or for doing evil, but either way there was suffering to be had.

There has been a lot of suffering in my life lately. Most of it is what I would think of as neutral suffering: health issues of my own and those close to me, politically based fear and worry, and embedded social unfairness, and economic uncertainty. None of this is suffering I chose. None of it reflects active decisions of mine to embrace good or evil. It is just there, suffering and anxiety hanging about in the background and occasionally pushing through to take over.

When thinking about making a choice to suffer for good or evil, it boils down to whether or not I take an active or a passive role in my own life. If I accept suffering as my lot and take no action, that can easily become a passive acceptance of evil.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
~Edmund Burke

My own personal suffering can either lock me in a stasis of never-ending self-absorption or help me be more compassionate and to understand better the struggles of others.

My social and political suffering can either tempt me into accepting that nothing I can do is 'enough' — that I should just give up on the outside world or it can inspire me to be the drop of water that wears away the stone of injustice.

Jesus's example comes to me in the moments when I want to turn away from the world in hopes that my suffering will be lessened if I just give in. Jesus kept going in his ministry. He suffered from his own fear and doubt, he saw how his ministry on earth would end in pain and death. He even put up with foolish disciples who inflicted their doubts and fear, envy and anger, desire for status and power on Jesus as shown in the Gospel reading for Friday (Matthew 20:17-28)

I think that an on-going choice to confront suffering, to call it out and say that not all suffering is inevitable some is a product of our social structures is what is meant when 1 Peter talks about it being better to suffer for doing good.

Life has a lot of pain and suffering it in; however, life does not have to be all suffering. Suffering that is done for good can be transmuted from passive acceptance to active resistance of evil. It can be come something greater. It can be a living sacrifice to God, it can be our communion with the suffering of Christ on the Cross.

Suffering will always be thrust upon humans, the very nature of the universe means that entropy will eventually have it's way with us. However there is other suffering, suffering created by humans for humans and that we can do something about.

The prayer for the First Sunday in Advent calls us to action:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent is from the Book of Common Prayer, page 211.