What is true, life-giving power?
Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffee
I happened to be watching a home shopping channel the other day for various reasons, none of them particularly grand. In the midst of hawking that day’s best value, the host mentioned she had been talking with her daughters about the meaning of mercy. Surprised, I thought, “Huh, what an interesting word to explore with young children.” I began thinking about my seven-year-old son, Gabe, and our adventures in spiritual formation. Feeling expansive, I decided to choose a “word of the month” to explore and discuss together, not unlike a vendor’s Today’s Special Value, perhaps. I guess you just never know where inspiration will crop up.
In honor of summer’s effulgence and the sun’s ever-reliable gift of light, we began with the word “generosity.” There were many life lessons and examples to share, and inspired by this initial success, I decided to be a bit more daring in my choice for September. I chose “power.”
Our world is full of examples of the abuse and misuse of power, but what is true, life-giving power? Could I explain it, not just in the negative but in a positive way that left a meaningful impression on my son’s young life? I researched examples, stories, and quotations looking for a wise and solid definition, eventually defining power as the ability to take action for good. Such a simple definition, though, belies power’s great complexity. Power certainly conveys a sense of dynamism, but it also includes the choice not to act. Power carries a sense of strength, whole-heartedness, clarity, and resolve. But power is also experienced in vulnerability, tenderness, and tears. Power suggests freedom, but we all know epic stories of those who have been imprisoned and deprived while still possessing great personal power and freedom of spirit. True power holds together freedom and responsibility, strength and wisdom.
What about those times when we experience deep vulnerability and we struggle to trust ourselves, feeling afraid and quite disempowered? Gabe reminds me nightly, without fail, to pray about his “scary things,” a list of dangers I memorized long ago. It includes, “tornadoes, twisters, hot lava, hot lava tunnels, whirlpools, volcanoes, earthquakes, and giant robots.” Occasionally, he will add some other perceived threat from his day. I often don’t know how to quell his fear. I tell him that we don’t live near a volcano, earthquakes are very rare, and there’s no such thing as giant robots (at least not rampaging ones!), but that kind of rationality doesn’t soothe his vibrant imagination and the growing awareness that he is vulnerable and the world is indeed full of wildness. I usually just pray that he will be able to feel the powerful spirit living inside him, filling him with confidence that he can handle whatever comes his way.
At this point I immediately find myself asking the question that so many teachers, parents, and leaders must ask—do I really believe this? Do I live with faithful confidence, acting on behalf of myself and others? Truthfully, I probably embody my power in fits and starts rather than in the consistent tenor of my days. The great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, suggested that we all undertake a hero’s journey replete with sunshine and shadow, periods of isolation and pain as well as strength and great homecoming. The real question according to Campbell is not one of remaining safe and invulnerable, but “can I say yes to my own adventure?” Can I remain whole-hearted and present in the midst of the dangers of my experience, arriving eventually at a deeper sense of self and of renewed power?
My favorite story about power is obscurely tucked into the narrative of 1 Samuel 25. David and his men are living in a desert wilderness when he asks for kindness and provision from Nabal, a prosperous landowner in the area. Nabal, being a surly sort of chap, disrespects David and refuses his request, upon which David orders every man in his company to strap on his sword. He sets out to avenge his honor, intent on killing Nabal. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, gets word of his plan and she rides her donkey to intercept him and save her household from disaster. She approaches David, appeals to his integrity and reminds him of the bigger picture. She beautifully entreats him to refrain from violence, stating that David’s life is “bound securely, in the bundle of the living.” Some versions translate the Hebrew as, “bound securely in the treasure pouch of God.” Abigail’s power and wisdom calls forth David’s better judgment and destruction is averted.
Human behavior is ever unreliable until rooted in the Divine. Abiding in the divine life ensures both the wisdom and spiritual freedom required to live powerfully and well. In practicing the right use of power, we help others preserve the connection between strength and compassion. Power finds its highest expression in intimacy with the One who is always present, active, and working for good. Fear is allayed as we offer a brave and responsive yes to this lifetime adventure in a wild universe full of possibility and freedom, at once both beautiful and terrifying. Perhaps, at night, when those fearful possibilities approach, we might hear a kind voice saying, “Sleep well. I have given you a powerful spirit and you can handle whatever comes, not because it won’t be scary, or painful, but because your life is held securely in mine as my own special treasure.”
The late Irish author, John O’Donohue, offers these words of blessing in To Bless the Space Between Us for those who hold positions of power. Ultimately, this includes us all, for we are all empowered people, nourished and growing in the divine life.
In your heart may there be a sanctuary
For the stillness where clarity is born.
May your work be infused with passion and creativity
And have the wisdom to balance compassion and challenge.
May your soul find the graciousness
To rise above the fester of small mediocrities.
May your power never become a shell
Wherein your heart would silently atrophy.
May you welcome your own vulnerability
As the ground where healing and truth join.
May integrity of soul be your first ideal,
the Source that will guide and bless your work.
May it be so.
Savannah Kate Coffey is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program for which she now serves as adjunct staff. She lives and writes in South Carolina.