Attracted to Power
By Dr. Heather Entrekin
In a few weeks I’ll have the pleasure of marrying a young couple here at Prairie. I always enjoy these times because for them by talking about what makes a good marriage or a good friendship. A recent article in New York Times raises great questions for a conversation like this entitled, “Questions Couples Should Ask (Or Wish They Had) Before Marrying.” They go like this:
• What does my family do that annoys you? (I have known some couples who would answer, “Basically everything they do annoys me,” which means there’s a lot more counseling to do before wedding day.)
Here are others:
• Have we discussed whether or not to have children and, if yes, who is going to be the primary care giver?
• Will there be a television in the bedroom? (And I might additionally ask the
more important question, If there is, who will be in charge of the remote?)
• If one of us were offered a career opportunity in a location far from the other’s
family, are we prepared to move?
• Have we discussed our expectations for how the household will be maintained and do we agree on who will manage the chores?
• Do we have a clear understanding of each other’s spiritual beliefs and needs and have we discussed when and how our children will be exposed to religious/moral education?
The subject matter varies but the underlying issue is the same: they are all about power and control and authority. When people fight over money, or children, or in-laws, or who takes out the trash, it’s not the trash that’s at fault…it’s the power the trash represents. Who has it, in what situations and how is it exercised?
Most of us have a rather ambiguous, uneasy relationship with power. We crave it. Or, we’ve been hurt by somebody who has used it to bully or punish and we fear it.
Or we find it arrogant as it is comes across in books like Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide (Gretchen Craft Rupin) in which the advice includes to waste something expensive to signal how wealthy you are. And then some, I suppose, have no interest in exercising power and are willing to let others do all the leading. It’s been my impression that Prairie does not have too many people in that category. Or we wonder how power fits with the teaching to serve others, with being the blessed meek, as Jesus puts it – a discussion church leaders had here yesterday.
You’ll be glad to know that the Bible talks about power a lot. In the New Testament, at the beginning, God gives up divine power to be born to a low income couple in a splintery, animal shed in a small town. That story tells us that God uses power in a very unusual way. And at the end of the story, the part we are moving through in this 40 day season of Lent, Jesus will stumble to his death on a cross like a common criminal. Again, God is willing to let go of divine power. From the crib to the cross, it seems that God becomes powerful through powerlessness.
Consider the story we prayed this morning. Jesus is offered power in the Donald Trump kind of way and he says no, trusting God’s way. Jesus has walked into the wilderness, the place of desolation. It is about as far as you can get from a place of power. It’s a place people avoided — not a vast expanse of sand with a little tumbleweed or cactus here and there. It’s a rough, rocky place of cliffs and caves and wild animals and thieves where it wouldn’t hurt to have at least a cell phone, maybe some pepper spray for protection. Plus, Jesus has endured 40 days without food, as the story goes. Isn’t that just like evil to knock on the door when you are famished, shaky, vulnerable, tired, powerless. It comes along and says, Hey!
You can change a stone into bread, make that son of Godship thing work for you, Jesus – have a good meal–rule as far as you can see–and save yourself from death, avoid sacrifice and suffering. I can do it for you, Jesus.
Grab the world. Think big. Take charge. Go straight to the top.
Now this is not the first time Jesus has faced the question of power. John the Baptizer told the crowds that one was coming who was more powerful than he. The Son of God was expected to be a Messiah who would overthrow Roman overlords, a priestly Messiah who could purify the worship of Israel, a sea-parting leader like Moses. Even the vineyards would yield huge harvests when he came. Pomp and circumstance, Hail to the Chief— you can have it all, says the tempter.
And he could have, for a time. Because we are not tempted to do what we cannot do but what we can do, what is our strength. I am not tempted to bribe members of Congress in order to skim millions off Indian casinos, but Jack Abramoff was because he could. My temptations are the ones that are possible for me.
And they never look like a temptation to fall, to be the Devil…but to be God. Temptations come in attractive packages. They look good, even righteous. A person who could change stones into bread could feed a lot of hungry people. But Jesus once told his best friend, “Get behind me Satan,” when Peter said a variation of what the Devils says in the wilderness, “You don’t have to die.”
Jesus faces the temptation to control, command, and dominate by depending upon God alone who speaks through scripture. God, with the power to create the heavens and the earth, gives to Jesus the power to lay power aside, to become powerful, paradoxically, in weakness. Instead of the spectacular, Jesus chooses the power in a life of quiet compassion, steady love, faithfulness through suffering.
This is the heart of the Christian message. If that makes sense to you, if you can accept and live that kind of power, then you understand what is so good and amazing and difficult about Christian faith. We Christians are different from the world around us. We understand power differently.
I think of Charlotte Holloway, a member of our church who lived with multiple sclerosis for 36 years, whocould not avoid sacrifice and suffering. I think of Mary Kay Meyer, who lived among and served homeless men and would not avoid sacrifice and suffering. Real people among us who lived the power that does not look like power and many touched the grace of God because of them.
The people who make the most difference in our lives are not tonight’s Academy Award winners or presidents who sign bills or billionaires who buy shopping malls. The most powerful people in our lives are the ones with the least power, who refuse to coerce us, who love us in spite of ourselves, who invite us into a loving relationship and then let us decide. This, by the way, is hospitality.
Saddam Hussein lived the other way of power and died that way. And though we expected that eliminating him would eliminate the violence he caused it seems that one form of violence has opened the door to another.
We long for something different, don’t we? The power for which we long is not the power the Devil dangles before Jesus and us in the wilderness but the power that shows up in love and service and compassion – that leads to resurrection.
Judson Edwards tells the story of his high school son, Randel, who played football under a coach that the father, Judson, wasn’t too enthusiastic about. Wasn’t friendly, had a prickly personality. And, Randel was a wide receiver but the coach believed in running the football.
The team, however, had a great season, lost only one game, ran up gaudy statistics, and even threw ball enough that Randel caught some passes and scored some touchdowns and got his name in the local papers.
The team went to the play-offs and the scores got closer but they still won the first two games easily. The third play-off game, however, was a nail biter. With just a few minutes to play, behind by 4 points and driving for the winning touchdown, the coach decided to go with the wide receiver. So the quarterback threw a low, off-target pass to Randel who made a diving catch and the drive continued. But then the ref started waving his arms and whistles blew and it seemed that there had been a fumble and the other team recovered and chances for victory were about nil. Randel’s father, mother, sister, sat stunned in the stands.
What the father expected to see next was what he had experienced himself in high school football – an angry coach who yelled and berated the players whenever they made a mistake. They lived in fear of fumbles that would incur the wrath of Coach Garrison. So the father expected the same treatment for his son as he walked off the field, losing such a big game with a fumble.
But instead, he saw the coach put his arm around Randel’s shoulders and say something quietly in his ear. Then he patted him on the back. He didn’t chew him out, he consoled him. Judson Edwards wrote that story 10 years after it happened but he remembered it like it happened yesterday. He doesn’t remember much else about the coach. Can’t recall the scores of the games anymore or even his son’s statistics, but he will never forget the sermon about the power of forgiveness the coach preached at the end of that play-off game.
To be a Christian in this world is not easy. It is not easy at any age. And one of the reasons it is not easy is that our faith asks us to see the world differently. Our faith asks us to live in the world differently.
So, to which kind of power do you find yourself attracted? To which kind of power will you devote your life?
COPYRIGHT 2007 Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.