I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my ministry over the past year with the Board, and with the Committee on Ministry the last couple of weeks. I’m paying attention to not jump into situations or create change without thorough discernment. Through my own reflection I’ve discovered that I want you to have what you deserve. I want you to have the things you’ve waited for and I want you to have them now. There is just one problem. The few times I’ve jumped in too quickly created a “situation” that undermined our shared ministry. In the context of silent power I lost power in these instances. The power of restraint, the power of confidence, and the power of my authentic self, which knows to do the opposite. I hope you’ve learned that I didn’t arrive to mastermind a power grab which, truthfully, stops ministry dead in its tracks. The power I am intentional about is the power of being trustworthy, credible, restrained, non-judgmental, faithful, and honorable. All of these are silent power, power that is revealed and afforded by those around me and only grows when I am centered.
When I say the word “power,” what comes to mind? I wonder if words like oppressive, unjust, controlling, and privileged come to mind. We mustn’t be surprised as this is what our society teaches us that this is what power is and what power must be. Who has the power in our nation, our communities, and around the world? You need only pick up the newspaper and those with power will instantly be revealed, like yesterday’s Palm Beach Post in which a 20-year-old woman was said to be sexually assaulted by the police officer transporting her to where her family was waiting for her, or in the New York Times where big business has the power over our economy AND our government. These are two examples of how we might view power. It’s the abuse of power that comes to mind.
I want to share other examples of power. Power that isn’t necessarily related to oppression, but inward power that we may not understand or know that it even exists. A new kind of power.
Tracy Cochran, the Editor of Parabola magazine, tells us, “new powers may be revealed in beings and situations we judge to be powerless.” I’ve been reflecting on examples from our human history that explain new and revealed power. Believe it or not George Washington and Gandhi fall into this same category. Both possessed revealed power. I’m sure they grew to understand that power, but might have been unaware of it at the starting point. George Washington’s ability to appear as an eloquent statesman was power. Author Linda Kohanov writes, “Jefferson complained that the persistent image of the elder Washington on horseback always seemed to trump spirited speeches and persuasive intellectual arguments anyone else devised in opposition. Without saying a word, the man radiated dignity, compassion, and power.” In his book Quiet Gandhi writes, “I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of truth. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”
Washington’s mere dignified presence and Gandhi’s passivity was strength, was power. They are excellent examples of silent power. Power that is revealed. Silent power is not “in your face” power. We may not recognize it in others or in ourselves unless we begin identifying and relating to a new idea of power -- not the first words that came to mind when I asked you to think about power minutes ago.
Let me offer an example of being transformed by power we didn’t even know we had. If you haven’t visited our Thrift Store lately, please do. I usually tell Barbara, our office administrator, that I’m going to the Thrift Store to pop in and say hello to the volunteers. Unfortunately, for me, my ability to simply pop in is a farce. I don’t pop in anywhere. I’m a talker. I lose track and apologize to Barbara and she always says, “I know it’s hard for you to get out of the Thrift Store.” My last visit was this past Friday. I didn’t realize who would be volunteering that day. It was Mary Reynolds. Mary and I are the worst possible combination. We are both talkers. Not your average talkers, but major league talkers. We are able to flip from conversation to conversation, topic to topic, and sometimes even finish sentences for one another. This gift of gab is a slippery slope for people like us. I leave with advice, book recommendations, recipes, and enjoy our laughter and storytelling. However, I did leave on Friday with a recommendation from Mary that caused me to rework my already- developed sermon for this morning.
Mary recommended that I watch the documentary titled Buck, and so I did. Buck is a man with a traumatic childhood. He was a blindfolded roper as a child. The first one in fact. His father forced Buck and his brother to perform. If he did not perform in a way that was acceptable to his father he would receive a vicious beating. In fact he would be beaten immediately after the performance, on the way home when his father would stop the truck and beat him, and when he arrived home he received another beating. Buck would never look at his father because his father would rage and ask him what he was looking at and offer a severe beating. Buck was eventually removed from his home by authorities and remained in foster care until he was an adult.
You wonder what happens to a child who endured such a life. Buck thought of himself to be powerless. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that his power he didn’t know he had was revealed. Buck was able to tame horses and teach people to tame horses that no one else could tame. You see we often think of power as control or in this case needing to break the spirit of a horse. Some have a need to dominate to feel their power. Remarkably, given his childhood, Buck tamed horses using his power of gentle teaching, earning trust, restraint, and so on. He is a true horse whisperer because of his revealed power. He didn’t know about the power that was inside of him, not until he began working with horses. You see it became power for Buck because everyone around him had been unsuccessful with what comes naturally to him. Buck was capable of exercising an expansive, non-predatory power, one that would transform into mindfulness, courage, and poise. Buck’s capabilities became his power.
Author Linda Kohanov tells us, “Power is discovered … the seemingly more mysterious abilities involved are nonverbal and unphotographable, but not supernatural.” That is, the silent and hidden power we possess is available to all of us to experience. We simply need to take the time and practice for discovery and claim our power. In all the cases and stories we’ve shared this morning, we are, as Lorraine Krhealing puts it, “using power that we inherited as living members of Earth’s community; we are transforming what the earth yields into energy we humans can use.”
Understand that silent power works just as effectively for the immoral. Sometimes we can go into overuse of our personal power to an extent that we act against our values. Think about leaders in our history that possessed a charisma, a silent power so influential that they were able to lead millions. Hitler and Alexander the Great come to my mind. If we think about all of the traits we would expect in effective leadership we would find them in these two men. Here is the problem, they are fine examples of immoral leadership. Humans have the capacity to use their silent power for evil. Both Hitler and Alexander were possessed with the need to conquer, to kill anyone in their way, and use power immorally. So the attributes that are revealed as power for Gandhi are the same attributes revealed as power for Hitler and Alexander. They understood their silent power but used it in opposite ways. The difference between compassionate, disciplined, and moral power and effective yet harmful immoral power.
It’s like I’ve told my children, “If only you could use your powers for good!” It's a funny line but think about how true it is. As Unitarian Universalists most, if not all, of our work is to live our power in ways that heal, support, provide, and build. Personal power is our personal brand -- where we come from a place of strength -- aligning and igniting values, personality preferences and what we stand for with how we behave and live in the world. Power, at its core, is not evil. In fact, it is a standard theological concept dating back to at least St. Augustine that abused power is not power at all, but a falling away from true power. Power needs to be used rightly, which means shared, cooperatively and creatively, for the sake of the common good. We should not fear power; we should fear its misdirection and rely on ethics to direct our personal power. We are on the front lines of teaching the world to divest ourselves from the immoral use of power and work toward justice and transformation; to use our silent powers for good and not evil.
Let us do ourselves a favor and invest some thinking into how we access each of our sources of power -- for good and for evil. Let us become connected to our unphotographable or silent personal power. Eighteenth century American essayist William George Jordon, writes “Into the hands of every individual is given a marvelous power for good or evil -- the silent, unconscious, unseen influence of his life. This is simply the constant radiation of what man really is, not what he pretends to be.”
Let us engage the work that our Unitarian Universalist faith and tradition calls us to do. Let us use our marvelous powers be a beacon of hope and radiate love, compassion, justice, and peace for others to follow. Good will triumph. Good must triumph.
May it be so.
Power, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor delivered at 1stUUPB, Nov 2, 2014.