Tuesday, July 31, 2012

St. Ignatius of Loyola

Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1540.  Ignatius is perhaps most famous for his Spiritual Exercises, one of the most influential treatises on prayer and discernment ever written.  The "First Principles and Foundation" of the Exercises is still worth reflecting upon:

The Goal of our life is to live with God forever.
God, who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God's life
to flow into us without limit.

All the things in this world are gifts from God,
Presented to us so that we can know God more easily
and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God
Insofar as they help us to develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives,
They displace God
And so hinder our growth toward our goal.

In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
Before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
And are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
Wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
A deeper response to our life in God.

Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads
To God's deepening his life in me.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Following Jesus for the Wrong Reasons: A Sermon for the Feast of St. James

Preached by the Rev. John Kirkley
Sunday, July 29, 2012

Today we are observing the feast of Saint James, our patron, whose actual feast day is July 25.  He is often referred to as James “the Greater” to distinguish him from the other disciple of the same name, who is known as James “the Lesser.”  In addition, there is James, the brother of Jesus, who was a leader of the church in Jerusalem. 

We don’t know very much about James the Greater.  He was the brother of John, sons of Zebedee, a prosperous fisherman in Galilee.  James, along with his brother and Peter, constituted a kind of inner circle among the twelve disciples.  They alone were privileged to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, and his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And, of course, James was a witness to the Resurrection – the sin qua non of apostleship.

The few references to James in the New Testament indicate that he and his brother were rather bold and more than a little hot-headed.  On one occasion, they wanted to call down fire from heaven to punish a Samaritan village that had refused to offer hospitality to Jesus and his followers (Luke 9:54ff); Jesus demurred.  They also got bent out of shape when they came across a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but who wasn’t following them.  Jesus essentially told them to lighten up: “whoever is not against us, is for us” (Mark 9:38-41).

Then there is the story we heard today, in which James and John themselves (in Mark’s version) or their mother on their behalf (in Matthew’s) brazenly request places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom.  We will return to that story in a moment, but it is no wonder that Jesus nicknamed the two brothers, “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Their personalities were more than a little stormy. 

James was the first among the twelve apostles to be martyred – approximately fourteen years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Like Jesus, he was executed shortly before the Passover celebration in Jerusalem; part of King Herod Agrippa’s attempt to curry favor with the Jewish aristocracy, who opposed the new Jesus movement.   He is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament.

Tradition has it that James preached the Gospel on a missionary journey to Spain prior to his martyrdom.  While this is unlikely, it is possible that his relics were brought there and interred at Compostela, which has been a major pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages.  It is said that when the Saint's relics were being conveyed by ship from Jerusalem and approached the coast of Portugal, a man happened to be riding his horse on the beach. The horse suddenly plunged into the sea, with its rider, making for the boat. They sank, of course, but then rose again, covered with scallop shells, and thus the scallop shell became the symbol of St. James.  Pilgrims to Compostela would attach shell-shaped badges to their hat or cloak as a sign that they had been to the shrine.

Beginning in the 9th Century, St. James was invoked as the patron of the crusades to expel the Muslims from Spain.  At the Battle of Clavijo in A.D. 841, the Christians were in retreat when King Ramirez of Leon had a dream in which the Apostle assured him of victory. He relayed his vision to his men, and the next morning he had his trumpeters sound the call to battle. There, on the field, the men saw St. James on a horse adorned with scallop shells, waving a banner. He led the Christians on to a clear victory, and ever since, the Spanish battle cry has been, "Santiago!"

St. James is the Patron of Spain, equestrians, blacksmiths, tanners, veterinarians, and those of us who worship here.  He is usually depicted in art with his symbols - the scallop shell, pilgrim hat, sword, and Sacred Scripture – or on horseback, usually trampling a Muslim.  Such are the uses, and abuses, of saints, who are invoked both to exemplify the highest aspirations of Christian spirituality and to justify the worst excesses of religious fanaticism. 

The image of James on horseback trampling Muslims may be a fair representation of the disciple wishing to call down fire on his enemies, but it is an ironic – and tragic – way to imagine the disciple who drank the cup that Jesus drank.  The James who ends his journey as a martyr is a very different man from the James who, at the beginning of his journey, is jockeying for power.  This is what makes James so interesting, this is what makes him a saint: the slow, uneven, but finally complete transformation he undergoes as he lives ever more deeply into his desire to follow Jesus.

The key that unlocks the door of transformation is this bare desire, this simple willingness, to follow Jesus.  We don’t even have to desire it for the “right” reasons!  At least at the outset, James appeared to be motivated purely by self-interest.  He thought following Jesus was the path to power, authority, success: not unlike the purveyors of the gospel of wealth today, who make discipleship just another get-rich-quick scheme.  Yet, despite his –  at best – mixed motives, his proximity to Jesus began to reshape his desire.

Jesus does not seem the least bit surprised or offended by James’ ambition.  In fact, there is something almost endearing about his shameless egoism.  He is like a small child, guilelessly saying, “I want that toy, I want that cookie, I want your complete, undivided, and adoring attention!”  Well, isn’t that what we all want?  Isn’t there something profoundly human about this desire to be recognized, to be heard, to be somebody?

I’m glad that we are the church of St. James.  Our icon of holiness gives us permission to come to Jesus with our egos on our sleeves, letting it all hang out.  Oh we may try to dress up our self-seeking like James – “I’m really doing this for mom, not for me; she’d be so proud if I was sitting at your right hand!”  Yeah, right!   The truth is, we come to Jesus for all kinds of reasons, sometimes driven by motives of which we aren’t even consciously aware. 

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t fear being contaminated by our distorted desire – rather, he is delighted with our desire to draw near to him at all, for whatever reason – knowing that it is we who will be contaminated by his love, and that this love will begin to reshape our desire.  As our desire for Jesus is transformed, it becomes less and less about what we can get from him – security, status, even goodness or healing – and more and more about how we can become like him.  We discover that our deepest desire is to give ourselves away in love.   The more we succumb to this desire, the more deeply we drink from Jesus’ cup; paradoxically, it is in giving ourselves away that we receive everything we need.

This, it seems to me, is what happened to James.   The James who starts out wanting to lord it over everybody, to be a big dog, ends up giving himself away in loving service to others.  He dies a martyr’s death because of his witness to the way of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve; not to trample on Muslims or anyone else, but rather to give his life away so that many (not just a few, but many, up to and including all) could be set free from the forces that dam the flow of love.

This is the criterion by which we must judge our invocation of the memory of St. James and all the saints, as well as the reality of our experience of the living Christ: does it nurture our desire to give ourselves away in love, or does it justify our distorted desire to lord it over others (or, for that matter, to be lorded over)?  When we gather to drink the Lord’s cup and to eat the Bread of new and unending life in him, we do so to feed our desire to give ourselves away in love. 

“The table is now to be made ready.  It is the table of company with Jesus, and all who love him.  It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself.  It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate.  So come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; if you have tried to follow Jesus, and you have failed; come.  It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.”[1] 

Come and find the fulfillment of your heart’s desire.  Come, eat, drink, and like Saint James, you will be changed in ways you could not have imagined.  Amen.

[1] “Prayer for Communion/Eucharist” in Shane Clairborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2010), p. 564.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Way to God is Down

"I had to be forced underground before I could understand that the way to God is not up but down."

So writes Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.  In his case, Palmer is reflecting on his experience of clinical depression and the way in which it taught him to accept his limits, his vulnerability, and thus his humanity.  For each of us the way down may be different, the source of gravity emanating from a different place, but the downward movement is inexorable.  Each of us hits bottom at some point and, if we are the least bit open, touch God.

This is a difficult truth for those of us who were taught that the way to God is up, an ascending from triumph to triumph.  "Defying gravity" is what we aspire to do, as Elpheba sings in the Broadway musical, Wicked.  But in art, as in life, Elpheba must lose her life in order to gain it.  There is grace in accepting our limits as well as embracing our gifts.

There are workshops, trainings, and books galore on identifying and sharing our gifts.  In the church, we often focus on honoring people's gifts: code for recruiting volunteers!  The church readily conspires with the culture's emphasis on "leading with our strengths" and "cultivating habits of success."  It's all about being productive so that we can feel good about ourselves and be helpful.

Is that really what it is all about?  What ever happened to being redeemed by a God who loves us in our brokenness, a God whose strength is made perfect in our weakness?  Surely, at least half of what "it" is all about is knowing what we can't do, as well as what we can.

I've seen a great deal of harm done to self and others when people live in denial of their limits, often because of the fear that they will not be accepted if they don't appear to "have it all together."  Frequently, this is done with the best of intentions.  But as Palmer wisely notes, when we try to give what we do not have our gifts mask an emptiness that can consume us.  He is worth quoting at length.
When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality, loveless - a gift given more from my need to prove myself than from the other's need to be cared for.  That kind of giving is not only loveless but faithless, based on an arrogant and mistaken notion that God has no way of channeling love to the other except through me.  Yes, we are created in and for community, to be there, in love, for one another.  But community cuts both ways:  when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to the person in need. 
One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout.  Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess - the ultimate giving too little!  Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have:  it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.
The good news is that this revelation of nothingness can be the means of grace whereby we come to accept our dependence upon God, and begin to rightly discern between our gifts and our limits.  When we touch bottom, we discover that only God can love unconditionally and, resting in that love, become willing to offer the conditional love that is ours to give, with compassion and humility.

The way to God is down.  One way down is through suffering.  But there is another way: through contemplative prayer.  We can descend by the force of suffering's gravity, perhaps kicking and screaming.   We can descend through cultivating intentional awareness, including awareness of our limits.  In my experience, it can be a combination of both ways that take us there.  Either way, the way to God is down.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Reflection on Healing

St. James Episcopal Church San Francisco, California
July 22, 2012
By Elizabeth Nelson

Lectionary: Jeremiah 23:1-6;   Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

       I’ve been asked to preach about healing today, and I’ll do my best. But before I do, there’s another theme wandering through these readings that we need to maybe pat on the nose and herd out of the way.

       How do you feel about a set of Biblical metaphors that compare you to a sheep? I have mixed feelings about it, myself. On the one hand, I have great respect and affection for ruminants, especially the woolly ones; they’re peaceful, and productive, and cooperative. On the other hand, it doesn’t thrill me to be described as part of a herd – a herd that, by reputation, is not all that bright, that for its own good needs to be tended and led by somebody smarter. And that somebody is ... who, now? The Lord is my shepherd – that, I have no problem with; Jesus can call me a sheep whenever he wants to. But human shepherds of human sheep? I’ve lived too long in a democracy to sit easy with that image for leadership and community – even, especially, for the community of the church. Maybe I’d feel different if I’d spent more time with actual sheep, and actual shepherds.  Maybe we all could have a conversation some time about what images of community and leadership could work better in a 21st-century city church like St. James.

       But today I’ve been asked to preach about healing ... and I’m going to start, unusually for me, by asking you to look at your service bulletins. Turn, if you would, to the Gospel reading, and look at the scripture citation, where the chapter and verses are listed; read that over. Anything strike you as odd? ... like that nineteen-verse gap in the middle? Anybody notice that gap before we went looking for it just now?

       There’s nothing sinister in those nineteen verses. If you go home and look them up – and I hope you will – you’ll find two miracle stories: Jesus feeding the five thousand, and Jesus calming a storm. If you’ve been coming to church on a regular basis recently, you’ll realize that we’ve heard both of those stories in the last few weeks. In fact, if you sit down and read all of chapter 6 in Mark’s Gospel – and I hope you will – you’ll realize that we’ve heard most of it on Sundays over the past couple of months; it’s just been cut up in bite-sized pieces, and rearranged. Mother Church, like the good shepherdess she is, has been hand-feeding her lambs.

       And that’s not bad. Ruminating on bite-size pieces of Scripture can help us digest the message, and it definitely makes liturgy more manageable. Sometimes, though, it’s important to take the book in your own hands and read through an whole chapter – or more – to see how all the bite-size stories fit together. It’s important this morning to situate today’s patchwork Gospel reading inside the big story that Mark’s Gospel is telling. Jesus’ disciples have just come back from their first ventures out on their own as teachers and healers. Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, a holy and fearless truth-teller, has just died a horrible, sordid death at the command of Herod the king. Jesus badly wants some quiet time for himself and for his disciples, and the crowds will not leave him alone – and when he sees the crowds following him, he can’t leave them alone either. He has to teach them, he has to feed them. He’s so tired on the way back in the boat that he falls asleep in the middle of a storm. Wherever he shows up, word spreads, and people come carrying their sick relatives and friends, trying to get them close enough to Jesus to touch him and be healed. As the story goes on he’s going to continue teaching, and healing, and feeding. He’s also going to start arguing – loudly – with the Pharisees and lawyers. Before long he’s going to start talking to his disciples about Jerusalem, and the death that’s waiting for him there.

       Why is this big-picture story important today? It’s important because I’ve been asked to preach about healing, and the one thing I know for sure about healing is that it happens right in the middle of everything else – in the midst of joy, and horror, and politics, and grief, and hunger, and storms, and exhilaration, and exhaustion. When you and I join hands and pray for healing, everything that’s going on in your heart and in mine, in your life and in mine, is part of that prayer. We come as we are, in the midst of whatever kind of day we’re having. And God meets us there.

       And that’s the only general truth that I’m prepared to proclaim about healing, because I don’t actually understand much about it. How it works, why it works differently at different times for different people, I can’t begin to explain. So the rest of what I have to say this morning is not a sermon, it’s a story – my story, the most direct and personal experience I’ve had with healing prayer.

       Some of you know that my father died a few years ago, at the end of 2007. A few of you know that for months before that – especially during the year before he died – I showed up Sunday after Sunday at the healing ministry in the side-chapel during Communion, asking for prayers for my father. I had some pretty specific ideas about what I wanted God to do for him – ideas that weren’t really that remarkable or miraculous, unless you happened to know my dad. For example, I wanted him to see a doctor – to get a medical evaluation, and maybe some treatment, for the physical troubles that were making him more and more miserable; this, for a man who’d prided himself his whole life on staying away from doctors. I wanted him to get some help to ease up on his drinking – this, for a man who’d been self-medicating with wine and bourbon for years. I wanted him to accept a little more assistance, and a little more company, from his family and his community – this, for a man who had never much enjoyed the company of other people unless he could be outside with them, doing chores. Most urgently, I wanted my father not to take his own life, which he’d started talking about doing and which he had the means to do – this, for a man convinced to his core that death on his own terms was infinitely preferable to helplessness and hospitalization.

       So, I prayed – in great and specific detail. The community offered up more opened-ended prayers, for strength and guidance and healing. And what happened? Well, Dad never did see a doctor. He never did stop drinking. He wanted no more company and no more help than one of my sisters could give him on the weekends. Those things didn’t happen. Here’s what did: he found one reason after another to postpone ending his life. He spent time with all of his daughters, for the first time in a while, and his daughters developed some new lines of communication with each other. And when he died, it was at home, of natural causes – not a suicide, and not in the hospital.

       This is not a story about the remission of illness and suffering; it’s not a story about the flowering of peace and joy in the midst of pain. That last year of his life was a hard time for my father, and a hard time for the people around him. But some love soaked into the hardness of that time, and some light found its way into the darkness of that time, and as time goes on I understand more and more clearly that God is nowhere near finished healing my father. That love, that light, that understanding ... are not the healing that I prayed for. But they’re healing even so. And this community’s prayers helped to create the space for that healing to happen.

       That’s my story. Other people have their own. I don’t know why the stories are so different; I don’t understand how this works. I do know that Jesus tells us to pray for each other – to carry each other’s pain and neediness to God, to let others carry our neediness and pain. We come just as we are, in the midst of whatever kind of life we’re having. And God meets us there.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Becoming Myself

At St. James, we are beginning a three session discussion of Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.  The heart of Palmer’s teaching is that vocation is rooted in identity: in the expression of authentic selfhood.  What we do with our lives – if it is to be done with integrity – must be rooted in our nature, our unique gifts and limitations. 

Vocation, then, comes from within.  It requires us to listen to what our soul is saying to us.  “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not.  It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”  (Palmer, p. 10)

Too often, we look outside ourselves for a sense of purpose or direction, as if vocation is a function of conforming to an abstract ideal or norm external to us.  This is a recipe for frustration, resentment, and harm to self and others. 

Palmer quotes May Sarton’s poem, Now I Become Myself:
Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces . . .
Our lives can become a mask worn to please or placate others, or perhaps an imitation of a respected role model, but in any case another person’s face bearing little or no resemblance to our own visage.

I know I am often tempted to wear other people’s faces: especially the face of the prophet, the social justice advocate, the movement activist (an ideal or model I “ought” to emulate); or the face of the nonprofit manager, the community organizer, the institution builder (what I perceive others wanting me to be).

My own face appears when I am listening deeply to others in pastoral conversations or in the context of spiritual direction.  My vocation is to help others to listen deeply to their own soul – and delighting with them in discovering the surprising things our soul sometimes is saying!  It is in this attending to God with and on behalf of others in prayerful discernment that I find the greatest congruence between my being and my doing. 

Whose face are you wearing?  Who are you trying to be?  Is the life you are living the life that wants to live in you?  Join us as we explore these questions at St. James, July 17, 24, and 31 at 7 p.m. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

New Monasticism: A Form of 21st Century Church

For the past several years I have been observing with great interest the emergence of the new monasticism movement within North American Christianity, and the movement’s experiments in new ways of being church.[1]  Although its roots are largely among young disaffected evangelicals unhappy with the culture wars dividing the churches and the nation, the new monastics have a deeply ecumenical outlook nurtured by a discerning attempt to retrieve ancient Christian practices and adapt them to the needs of contemporary society.  Their project is provocative, inspiring, and challenging. 

In 1997, Shane and Katie Claiborne helped to found The Simple Way, a prototypical new monastic community in an impoverished neighborhood of North Philadelphia.  Moved by the plight of homeless people in the area, they made a decision, along with other young Christians, to live and serve among their poor neighbors.   The Simple Way members meet together for daily Morning Prayer, as well as weekly Bible study and Evening Prayer.     

Together, they founded an after-school tutoring program, a garden project, a flag football league, and a food bank.  Members of The Simple Way also lead campaigns against home evictions, hold rallies for the rights of the homeless, and a Good Friday vigil at a gun store whose products have been traced back to neighborhood shootings.  Members even went to Iraq as part of a Christian peacemaking team to provide a prayerful witness in Baghdad when the US invasion began there in 2003.

Drawing on the teaching and practice of traditional Benedictine and Franciscan monasticism, as well as the modern Civil Rights and Catholic Worker movements, The Simple Way has inspired similar communities around the country.  The new monastics form intentional Christian communities with a disciplined life of shared prayer, service, and witness, but they do not necessarily live together and include married couples and families.

These new monastics are creating a new form of church that seeks to offer a credible witness to the Way of Jesus.  As Shane Claiborne admits,

Christians have often been the biggest obstacle to God. Forgive us -- for blessing bombs, for the crusades and "holy" wars, for creating an apologetic for torture, for holding signs that say "God hates fags", starting apocalyptic militias, and blowing up abortion clinics. These things are not the Christianity of Christ. If they are Christianity, it is a Christianity that has grown sick, sick beyond recognition. It does not look like Jesus. . . .
There is a growing movement of Christians who are convinced that our faith is not just a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the hells of the world around us. There is a movement of Christians who know that our Christianity is not just about going up when we die, but bringing God's Kingdom down ... "on earth as it is in heaven", as Jesus said. We are not willing to settle for a Christianity that only promises folks life after death when people are asking, "but is there life before death?"[2] 
New monastic communities take a variety of forms adapted to their circumstances, but they do share a common set of precepts.  At a gathering of new monastic communities in 2004, these were identified as the “12 Marks of New Monasticism”:

1) Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
3) Hospitality to the stranger.
4) Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
5) Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
6) Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
8) Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
9) Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
10) Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
11) Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
12) Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.
What is interesting about these marks is that they identify a way of life, a practice, which embodies Christian faith.  Over the next year, I will offer monthly reflections on each of these marks in the St. James Journal, our Facebook page, and my blog.  I invite your comments and questions as we explore what Christian practice looks like in our context.

[1] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove provides an apologia for the movement in his New Monasticism: What It Has To Say To Today’s Church.
[2] Shane Claiborne,  “Death Be Not Proud:  The Easter Gospel of Nonviolence,” published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shane-claiborne/death-be-not-proud_b_524340.html.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Three Types of Power

When you think of images of power, what comes to mind:  President Obama reviewing the predator drone kill list with his first cup of coffee on a Monday morning, or senators fawning over Jamie Dimon, despite his overseeing JP Morgan Chase’s 2 billion dollar loss on risky investments?  What does power look like to you?  To me, it looks like Karen Ridd.

While volunteering for Peace Brigades International in 1989, Karen Ridd and her friend, Marcella Rodriquez, were suddenly arrested by the Guatemalan military.  Falsely suspected of affiliation with the guerrilla group FMLN, the women were bound, loaded on a truck, and taken to a prison.

Fortunately, Karen, a Canadian national, was able to alert the Canadian consul and another PBI volunteer of her danger prior to her arrest.  At first, her confidence that PBI and her government would bring pressure for her release, and the civility of the soldiers, brought her a measure of consolation.  That soon changed when they arrived at the prison.

Marcella overheard the soldiers describing them to their new jailors as “terrorists from the Episcopal Church.”  They were subjected to hours of interrogation, blindfolded and tortured as they listened to the screams and sobs of other detainees.  Now, it was a race against the clock to see if international pressure could save them in time. 

PBI did alert its worldwide network to their plight, and the Canadian government quickly brought pressure to bear on the Guatemalan government, hinting that their extensive trade relations could be compromised if Karen was not released.  No such effort was made on behalf of Marcella, a Columbian national.

Within a few hours of the Canadian government’s intervention, Karen found herself walking through the prison yard to a waiting embassy official.  But she couldn’t shake from her mind the vision of her friend, Marcella, blindfolded and battered, slumped against the prison wall, that she had witnessed when her own blindfold was removed. 

Glad as she was to be alive, something tugged at her.  She made some excuses to the shocked and exasperated Canadian diplomat, and walked back into the prison.  Not knowing what she would do or how the soldiers would respond, she informed them that she would not leave without her friend.   

The soldiers were as shocked as the diplomat.  And they were angry.  The immediately handcuffed her again.  They informed Marcella, while banging her head against the wall, that some “white bitch” was stupid enough to come back, and now she’d see how terrorists should be treated. 

Laughing, the soldiers asked Karen if she had come back for more.  She patiently explained to them her devotion to her friends in words that they could understand.  “You know what it is like to be separated from a compañero,” she told them.   That got through to them.  The released the women, and Karen and Marcella walked out of the prison together, hand in hand under the stars.

What was the source of the power Karen exercised over these hardened killers?  How was it that her very vulnerability became the vehicle for exercising this power? Is this kind of power available to you and me?

There is the power to control.  There is the power to acquire.  There is the power to heal.  All three kinds of power are present in Karen’s story.  Notice how they operate.

The power to control works through coercion.  It makes use of the capacity to threaten and follow through on threats to get its way.  In Karen’s case, the soldiers exercise threat power:  “You do what I want or I’ll do something you don’t want!” 

The power to acquire works through the medium of exchange.  It makes use of the carrot instead of the stick.  In Karen’s story, the Canadian government uses trade relations as a form exchange power:  “You give me something I want and I’ll give you something you want.” 

The power to heal works through vulnerability.  It makes use of empathy and compassion to foster integration.  In Karen’s story, her willingness to risk her life for her friend, while simultaneously recognizing and appealing to the humanity of her captors, was an expression of integrative power: “I will practice self-giving love, and together we will become more fully human.”[1] 

Threat power works only so long as the imbalance of force is maintained, at the cost of trust and freedom.  We cannot control anyone or anything forever.  The war in Afghanistan is a contemporary example of this truth.  Exchange power works only so long as I have what you want and vice-versa, at the cost of objectifying everything it touches.  Everyone and everything is not forever reducible to a commodity, as the reality of global climate change reminds us.

Integrative power endures because it respects the dignity and fundamental interconnectedness of life.  Agents of integrative power refuse to coerce or manipulate others.  They do so even at the risk of their own life, but never at the risk of their integrity.   It is their vulnerability that allows the power of love to flow through them as a healing force in the world. 

This is beautifully illustrated in today’s Gospel story (Mark 6:1-13).   Jesus and his disciples are focused on their mission of multidimensional healing: restoring bodily integrity (cure), freedom from the domination of alienating desires (exorcism), and conscious awareness of reality (repentance).   Notice that their power to heal is based entirely on trust.  There is a relational dimension of healing that requires mutual vulnerability.  In the absence of trust, they can do no deed of power. 

Jesus and his disciples do not heal people against their will; in fact, they cannot, because to do so would violate the integrity of the person that healing seeks to restore.  It would replace one form of domination with another.  Acceptance of the real possibility of “failure,” detachment from any particular outcome, is part and parcel of the vulnerability they must accept as the means to exercise integrative power.

Notice too, that Jesus and his disciples freely offer healing without expecting anything in return.  And yet, they travel light, entirely dependent upon the generosity of others to sustain them on their journey.  They give themselves away freely, and trust that others will respond in kind.  Here again, there is a recognition and acceptance of mutual vulnerability, and validation of their own humanity and that of those with whom they serve.  To expect others to be simply the objects of their integrative power, and not also its agents, would be to undermine the possibility of its authentic exercise.  To be fully human, completely whole, is to exercise our gifts as well as humbly accept our need. 

This is why Jesus and Karen Ridd are such iconic images of power.  The integrative power they exercise calls upon the trust, compassion, and generosity even of their enemies; it opens up the possibility for everyone to be more fully alive, for everything to become more completely whole.   It is through their very vulnerability, their weakness as St. Paul put it, that they become strong, capable of evoking the humanity of others as love mirrors love. 

It is in this context that we can understand St. Paul’s joyful affirmation of the Lord’s word to him:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)

When I am vulnerable, then the healing power of love, integrative power, can flow through me.  Love risks everything in order to heal everything. 

Jesus invites you today to make his power – the power of love – perfect in your weakness. It’s really quite a relief, when you think about it.  No more need to pretend to be anyone or anything other than you are.   He doesn’t ask you to be anything else other than human, vulnerable, open. 

What risks are you being called to take today for the sake of love?  What is it in you, in your life, in our world that only integrative power can heal?  Will you exercise that power for nothing, without regard for the outcome, in trust that love endures when threats are exhausted and there is nothing left to leverage? 

[1] The story of Karen Ridd and the discussion of the three types of power are taken from chapter two of Michael Nagler’s book, Is There No Other Way?.