The Power of Powerlessness by Paul Blankenship

Moving Fast     As I get a bit older, I am developing a greater appreciation for life’s simple things. Like, for example, the simple beauty of sitting down. Of sitting down, that is, and being quiet. No TV on, no music playing, no chatter, no nothing. Just a jolly time of good old sitting down.

Maybe it’s a bit silly, but that’s one of the things I love most about our Sunday mornings. I love that we sit down together in the quiet beauty of our togetherness. It’s a privilege, really, if you think about it. Because of sickness, disability, finances, or imprisonment—whether just or unjust—many people aren’t able to come here and, as the song goes, take a load off Annie.

I also love that, in beauty of our quiet togetherness, we make it a point to quiet more than our mouths. We also quiet our minds—or we try to. It’s an intentional thing—a spiritual practice that doesn’t grow old. By quieting our mouths and our minds we create space inside of us—and inside of our meeting—for the living and loving God to speak. For the divine fire to kindle and rekindle the wick in our souls—the little fire inside of us that too often grows faint and weary.

It may not seem like it, sitting here as we do in the quiet, but we are actually being hurled through space. Right now, Earth, the planet we call home, is like a spaceship moving through the universe at a phenomenal speed. If my research is correct—and perhaps Lois can correct me if it isn’t—Earth is traveling at about 67,000 miles per hour in its orbit around the sun. The reason we don’t feel how fast we are moving is because our speed is constant. It’s like being in a car—when we drive at a regular speed on the freeway, for example, it doesn’t really feel like we’re moving at all.

How funny, I think, that we are moving so fast without really realizing it.

Of course, it’s not just our little spaceship that’s moving fast. We do, too. I don’t know if, as a species, we’ve ever been so busy. The alarm goes off and then boom—it’s like someone waves a checkered flag and we are off to the races. Feed the dogs. The cats. The chickens. The kids. Water the plants. Take out the trash. Take a shower … maybe. Get dressed—and try not to look too shabby. Make breakfast, … maybe. Better, perhaps, to grab a protein bar and drive to work. Work until the sun goes down. Work until you’re exhausted, until you can barely stand up. Then drive home. Or maybe the gym. Turn on the radio. Learn about a new cure, a new disease, a new scandal, a new promise. Listen, maybe, to a new song. Honk at a slow poke. Wave at a neighbor. Get home. Make dinner. Make plans. If you’re lucky, make love. Lay down and, if you can stop your mind from obsessing about the next day, go to sleep. That too, for an increasing number of people, is lucky. We are a people who need an electronic devise to wake up and, increasingly, to fall asleep. Like robots, we are always plugged in to something. Maybe we modern people are moving even faster than our spaceship traveling around the sun.

Moving Fast—for a Purpose     So, our world moves fast. And we do. Everyday life is a struggle to keep up. But it’s not just that we move fast. We also move with intention—with purpose.

What is our purpose? Let’s say, what is the purpose of our culture? Of our country. The Earth moves as fast as it does to orbit the sun because the sun’s gravity pulls at it.  What pulls us?

[Pause for community response]

It’s an important question—and there are many answers. One, certainly, is that we need to get up and keep up in order to get by. We are pulled by the demands of life. That’s our gravity. Bills have to be paid; bellies have to be filled. Simple as that.

That’s not the only gravitational pull we feel, however—and, I think, it’s far from the strongest one.  We are pulled to win. To dominate. To be the best. Look at how we raise children. We want them to win the spelling bee, to get the best grades, to get into the best school, to win the race. We may not say we really want these things but, as a culture, it sure seems like we do. It’s evident in how we reward winners and punish losers. Winners get the financial, psychological, and social goods—and often losers don’t. Look, also, at our government. It tells us that we need the best military, the best technology, the best prisons, the best economy, the best Olympic teams, the best education system, the best health care. I think we say we want these things not because, deep down, we are bad people but because we want a good life. And because, really, we are afraid what will happen if we don’t have power and control.

The struggle to be the best, however, is quite tragic. Not everyone can be the best. No one person or people group can have all the power. Power is fleeting; it rises and then falls like the leaves outside. The struggle for power creates a lot of powerless creatures.

Still, we compete against each other—we fight over scarce resources and awards. We push people away to step in the spotlight. And we admire—sometimes with real respect and sometimes with hidden envy—those who found the spotlight and the cushy seat of power. I think our culture trains us to want what they have and be who they are and think rather sideways about ourselves if we don’t and we’re not.

The point I am making is that we all struggle for power to get by and become someone worth admiring. Control and power are gravitational forces that pull us into being the people we are.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer     Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906—in Breslau, Germany. He was one of eight children—he had a twin, actually, named Sabine. Dietrich’s father was a neurologist—and his mother, who likely worked harder than her husband to care for the large family—was the daughter of a preacher.

His parents imagined that Dietrich would become a musician because of his skill at piano. They weren’t particularly happy with him when, at the age of 14, he told them that he’d grow up to become a minister and a theologian.

Dietrich did, indeed, became a minister and a theologian. One of the finest the world has ever seen, I think. He also, because of one of the darkest chapters in world history, became a Nazi resister. Though he was a pacifist for most of his life, Dietrich could not justify his pacifist stance when Hitler rose to power and began brutalizing the Jews. As a result, Dietrich became a double-agent and affiliated himself with groups plotting to assassinate Hitler. In 1943, his gig was up. Two Nazis arrived in a black Mercedes and took Dietrich to Tegel prison. After two years in prison, and just one month before Germany surrendered, Dietrich was hung with six other resisters.

During his two years in prison, Dietrich wrote several letters and short theological essays. A central theme of that writing concerns Christianity’s place in the world today—what it means, that is, to bring the Good News of Christ to the world in our unique and peculiar time.

Interestingly, Dietrich believed that the future world would be religionless; that the message of Christ would need to be translated in a secular and nonreligious way in order for it to be life-giving and effective. In prison, he began working on a theology he called “religionless Christianity.”

Dietrich also thought that God had let the world push Him out of it—and onto the cross.   Here is a paragraph from a letter he wrote to a friend from his prison cell:

“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.” “He is weak and powerless in the world,  and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. [The Bible] … makes quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering … The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”[1]

It is a striking note on the theological piano: “Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” “Only the suffering God can help.”

I confess before you that Dietrich’s words cause me great concern. I am not particularly comforted by them—at first, anyway. I do not want a powerless God who suffers; I want a powerful God who conquers. The more I think about it, however, the more I am pulled in, as if by a spiritual gravity, to the idea of a powerless God.

Henri Nouwen     Henri Nouwen was born in 1932—in the Netherlands. He was one of four children. His mother worked as a bookkeeper in the family business and his father was a tax lawyer.

In 1957, after six years of study, Henri became a priest. In 1966, after several more years of study, Henri got a job as a professor at the University of Notre Dame. Then he got hired at Yale and then Harvard—during which time he published several influential books. Quite a career! After almost two decades working at some of the top institutions in the world, however, Henri felt completely unfulfilled. He said his success led to a desert of spiritual death. By God’s grace, Henri responded to a life-giving call to work with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities at an organization called L’Arche in Ontario, Canada.

In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri penned his thoughts about what kind of leadership is required of Christians today. In the following sentence from that book, Henri sounds a lot like Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“I am deeply convinced,” Henri writes, “that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.”[2]

“The leaders of the future,” Henri continues, “will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.”[3]

Jesus     I don’t know about you, but what Dietrich and Henri are getting at strike me as counterintuitive. Against a culture that calls us upward, they are calling us downward. The gravitational pull of Christ, they seem to be saying, is not toward power but powerlessness.

Their message, however, counterintuitive and seemingly crazy, is not their own. It is rooted in the life and ministry of Jesus. Let me read the passage Pam read to us to begin our service from Matthew 18:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’

He called a little child and had him stand among them. [What a sight to imagine, by the way—Jesus calling a child who, by social standards of the time, represented powerlessness itself—in front of the disciples]. “And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, [and here is the critical part], whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

Lessons of Powerlessness    What the heck, Jesus? What are you saying?

Jesus is not calling his followers to be weak. He is not telling us to be lazy. He is not asking that we welcome abuse and make ourselves doormats. What Jesus is asking us is to stop trying to dominate. To let go of the maddening pursuit of power. To be humble. To release control.

Jesus is asking us to function in the world like children: with a sense of openness, trust, and faith.   In giving up power, we recognize our limits to bring about the end that we seek. We recognize that we need God, a power that is within us but that is not ours. Let me try to put this in a Quaker way. We are a light but we are not THE light. We are candles that God lovingly lights, we are not the fire that lights us. Our burning is a burning of divine fire. We are dependent on God to be godly—to be friends who walk joyfully over the world.

The gravitation pull of Christ calls us downward. To places of powerlessness. To sit beside the orphan and the widow in their trouble.

Powerlessness, friends, enables presence. That, I think, is the real point. It helps us stop moving. It makes us still. It sits us down. It closes our eyes and opens our ears so that we can hear God speak and feel God move. It kindles and rekindles our wick so that we can burn more fiercely with God’s good fire and, in so doing, light the world aflame with his love and compassion and peace. Ultimately, we do not seek powerlessness for the sake of powerlessness. We seek is so that God can become powerful—and, as his human and nonhuman instruments—make all things new.

Query    May we be grateful, friends, as we sit together in the quiet beauty of our togetherness. May we reflect on what it means to be a friend of Jesus today as the Spirit moves each one of us. If it is helpful to your reflection before Christ, I humbly suggest this query:

in what specific way might God be calling me to give up power in order to make room for the presence of Christ?

This message was given by Paul Blankenship to Spokane Friends during Sunday worship on September 29, 2019

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter and Papers from Prison (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967), __. Originally retrieved from the following website: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html
[2] Henri Nouwen, In the name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), 29-31.
[3] Ibid., 35.
This entry was posted in Messages. Bookmark the permalink.