What is Power?

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Chalice lighting

You may arrive today feeling strong
You may arrive feeling tender
You may arrive feeling capable and hopeful
You may arrive feeling as though nothing you do can make a difference

We are more powerful than we can imagine
When we join our strength with others, we can change the world
May the light of this flame remind us of the power we carry
And guide us to channel it for love and for justice


Reading: A Brave And Startling Truth, by Maya Angelou

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet

Traveling through casual space

Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns

To a destination where all signs tell us

It is possible and imperative that we learn

A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it

To the day of peacemaking

When we release our fingers

From fists of hostility

And allow the pure air to cool our palms

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet

Whose hands can strike with such abandon

That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living

Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness

That the haughty neck is happy to bow

And the proud back is glad to bend

Out of such chaos, of such contradiction

We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it

We, this people, on this wayward, floating body

Created on this earth, of this earth

Have the power to fashion for this earth

A climate where every man and every woman

Can live freely without sanctimonious piety

Without crippling fear

When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

That is when, and only when

We come to it.

Reading: by Adrienne Rich

My heart is moved by all I cannot save;

so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those

  who, age after age,

perversely, with no extraordinary

power, reconstitute the world.

Message: by Rev. Andy Pakula

I’ve run into several people lately who are ignoring the news altogether. They don’t want to see it on TV or hear it on the radio and they’re not going to read it in print or online.

I can’t blame them. I do continue to consume the news and it is not a pleasant experience. I get that. So much bad is happening here, in the US, and it seems like almost everywhere – except Norway, where everyone continues to be tall, healthy, educated, and happy.

But everywhere else is a mess. Trump, Brexit and Venezuela are at the top of my mind but there are so many others. Even Canada has a political scandal now – a scandal that wouldn’t register anywhere else but a scandal nonetheless. In all of these places, those who have the power are making decisions and policies that hurt people – and hurt people badly. And in many places, people are getting angry and even violent in response.

It’s not just that the news is bad that makes it so hard to hear. It’s that we feel like there is not a damned thing we can do about it.

That is to say, we feel powerless.

Today is the first Sunday of our three month theme on power. You’re going to hear a lot about power in April, May and June this year.

Although in the hands of some leaders power is a bad thing – and although we hear that “power corrupts” – power is like any tool. It can be used for good or ill. The Palestinian author Sadiqua Hamdan wrote: “Power is like a knife. It can be used to cut bread to share with your neighbor or stab you in the back.”

The term “power” comes from the Latin posse [possˊ-ay] – meaning to change, to influence or effect.

Having power simply means having the ability to change something. Without power, you are at the mercy of the forces around you.

There are so many ways to think about power. Sometimes we think first about formal power – power that is conveyed by rules or laws or hierarchies. A police officer, a teacher, a CEO, a Prime Minister – these are all roles that come with formal power.

But individuals can have informal power. You’ve probably seen it in workplaces, communities, and congregations. If a person is convincing, charismatic, trustworthy, smart, it doesn’t matter what their title is – people will listen to them and tend to follow their lead. They can create change. They have power.

From our reading: “We, this people, on this wayward, floating body, created on this earth, of this earth, have the power…” Maya Angelou is reminding us that that although we may not think so, we – as individuals and groups – have power. In the end, we have all the power if we can learn to join together and to use it.

And, of course, that’s a big “if”. We are held back because we feel despondent. We are held back because we don’t trust each other. We are held back by lack of focus. We are held back because we just can’t quite agree on a strategy.

People power is the power that can be found and generated by those who don’t hold office or wear a badge.

Throughout history, groups and movements of people in various configurations and with diverse strategies did change things. They caused change even when the people holding formal power – the kings and queens and prime ministers and presidents and police and governors and mayors and generals and parliaments – didn’t want the change to happen.

We have seen social movements campaign for gay rights, leading to the availability of same-sex marriage. British slavery was abolished in the 19th century. Women fought for and won the right to vote in the early 20th century. There have been movements fighting for equal rights for people with disabilities, for the environment, and movements to get more people to adopt vegetarian and vegan diets. Elsewhere, we can’t forget movements against South African apartheid, the American Civil Rights struggle, and the independence for India movement.

There have been and are today more movements than I can possibly catalogue here and you are undoubtedly aware of more.

Not all of the aims of these movements were achieved. The enormous protests against UK involvement in the Iraq War failed to achieve their goal. Many efforts are still ongoing, or may have retreated to regroup and return another day.

It is always important to remember that social movements make sense only in retrospect. Was the movement to keep the UK out of the Iraq War a complete failure? Some have suggested that those protests kept the UK out of war in Syria. Occupy was an enormous phenomenon. It did not win an economically fair society here or elsewhere, but it had an impact. It raised awareness and taught us about new ways of campaigning and creating movements.

The impacts of the Occupy movement may yet appear more strongly as awareness of and anger about economic inequality continues to simmer under the surface.

Our sense of powerlessness is unfounded. We have the power. If we remember that change takes time and that power must be carefully and strategically focused, we will recognise that we are not powerless at all.

For a very long time, I have felt powerless about climate change.

Even if we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions here, it wouldn’t make much difference when nations around the world - and especially the United States - won’t act on their emissions. Our action would create huge economic damage in the UK without significantly impacting the problem. That all feels pretty disempowering.

A lot has been tried. There have been conclusive scientific studies, there are frequent warnings of disaster. The United Nations loudly proclaimed the danger of a coming cataclysm, the World Wildlife Foundation and Greenpeace have pitched in. There have been others as well. It didn’t seem to make a difference – maybe it will turn out in the end that it did, but it doesn’t seem that way from this point in time.

So, many of us have done the little things we can. We install low energy light bulbs, we turn down the heat, we try not to fly or drive, we adopt vegetarian or vegan diets… If everyone in the UK did these things, it would make only a tiny dent in greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe we do these things because it helps us to feel a bit less powerless.

More recently though, it has felt to me like there is a fresh wind of change. It is called Extinction Rebellion. It is far too early to know how much impact it will have. Maybe it feels powerful because it has been so local. Maybe because it is not part of the establishment environmental groups. Maybe because it has been daring taking direct action to disrupt traffic, because of the participants’ willingness to be arrested, or because of showing up nearly naked in Parliament’s viewing gallery, gluing their palms to the glass, and directing their bums at the MPs – MPs who were busily engaged in failing to come to any kind of solution for the Brexit crisis.

A big test for the Extinction Rebellion movement comes later this month when, in the week commencing 15th April, there will be actions in 27 countries including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada, France, Sweden, Germany, Colombia, New Zealand and a one-day event in New York City.

Suddenly, it feels like there is power being harnessed and focused to address climate change in a way it hasn’t before.

What does all this tell us?

Firstly: even though we tend to think we are powerless, we are not. Remarkable change has happened throughout history when ordinary people found ways to use the power they had to change things in remarkable ways.

Secondly: change can take a long time. Just because nothing changes immediately doesn’t mean it won’t in the end. Every successful change with its great story of leadership and power leaves unmentioned the work that helped to prepare the ground, the work that changed attitudes, the work that encouraged further work.

And finally: change is messy. It does not go linearly. It does not usually fit nicely in a project plan or a Gantt chart. It is full of unexpected connections and consequences. It never seems clear until we can gaze at it in hindsight and craft a tidy narrative – a story that may oversimplify the reality.

You have the power. You may have different kinds of power but you have power. The challenge is finding a way to join our power together, to harness and focus it for the change we want to see in the world.

Let us work to bring out the power in each of us and to work together to use our shared power to build love and justice in the world.

Closing words

From Maya Angelou:

When we come to it

We, this people, on this wayward, floating body

Created on this earth, of this earth

Have the power to fashion for this earth

A climate where every man and every woman

Can live freely without sanctimonious piety

Without crippling fear

When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world