Thursday, July 05, 2007

Excess Baggage and the Illusion of Control

Following Jesus is at the same time the easiest and yet the hardest thing in the world. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus invites us to make our home with him:

"Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my load is light."

What could be easier, right? Well, that is, until we start to think about what wearies us and weighs us down. I think that to some extent we are wearied and weighed down by others, but I would suggest that for most of us, most of our burdens are much closer to home. I would suggest that most of our burdens are self-induced by our compulsive need to control things. Because of our own unlimited capacity to think about things with which to weary ourselves and weigh ourselves down and our limited capacity to actually control these things, we are fighting a frustrating and futile battle. What's more, to what extent can we truly have control over anything? The things of this world are so fleeting - they are here one minute and gone the next. And even if it was right to have control over people, how could we do so? We can say and do all the right things, but it won't force others to love or respect us, or to truly submit to our demands. And indeed, we can have no real control over our very lives, for who by worrying can add a single day to his or her life?

I write this with the all too real knowledge that I can tend to be a bit of a control freak at times. Even with the realisation that I have no real control over the things of my life, I still cling onto my illusions of control like a rat on a sinking ship. Perhaps this is why Jesus' teachings in the lectionary reading really knocked the wind out of my sails. In the second narrative (Luke 9:57-62), Jesus meets a couple of men who seem rather eager to be his devoted disciples. However, they both have one small caveat - one needs to go home to bury his father, while the other simply wants to say goodbye to his family. Especially considering the importance of family in Middle-Eastern culture, these seem like most reasonable requests. I mean, doesn't the Torah say that you had to respect your mother and your father? But Jesus won't even let these men exercise control over these things - rather they are to give them up for the sake of the gospel. They are to give over their control of control itself to Jesus. I wonder how many people could truly say that they have done that?

In the first narrative (Luke 9:51-56) we see an entirely different form of control. Jesus' disciples pass through a Samaritan village seeking hospitality for themselves and Jesus on the way to Jerusalem - but the people in the Samaritan village refuse this request. It is important to realise that we are dealing with a Middle-Eastern culture that places a high level of importance on hospitality as a common courtesy, so we need to recognise that Jesus' disciples would not have merely been frustrated by the inconvenience they faced, but they would have also been quite personally affronted by this profoundly disrespectful display. Trying to regain some semblance of control for themselves and for their master, they suggest to Jesus that they draw on their God-given resources and call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritan villagers to consume them. After all, they reason, they're doing God's work. And isn't calling down fire upon one's enemies Biblical, since God called down fire to consume Sodom and Gomorrah and Elijah called down fire too? But Jesus rebukes them, for his mission is not to destroy life, but to save it.

I think this first narrative has something quite profound to say about the complex interplay between control and power. Not all of us have the same amount of power. In our sick and ailing world, there are the powerful and the powerless. While we may not consider ourselves to be powerful, the extent of our power compared to a person in the third world is quite considerable. We can choose to use this power in one of two ways. The first option is to choose to use our power to consolidate our power base and further our illusions of control. The latter option is to choose to use our power to empower the powerless and to give them a voice. I believe that it is only through choosing the latter option that we are doing the work of God and promoting His Kingdom. Indeed, I am quite adamant that if we choose the first option we actually choose to stand in the way of the Kingdom of God and the pleas for mercy and justice made by the prophets that are so close to the heart of Jesus.

To give an example on a personal level, the use and abuse of power among bloggers is quite noticeable. Indeed, just this week, I have encountered the actions of two bloggers desperate to reassert control through subverting opinions that challenge their own. In order to do this, they have effectively blacklisted me from their blogs. Indeed, this is profoundly disappointing, since it has always been my aim to empower the powerless and to give them a voice. This said, it is not my place to fight the weapons of this world with the weapons of this world. To do so would be to try to reassert control myself, which I believe would be contrary to the Spirit of Christ. It is also important to view things within the context of the bigger picture. These actions are the tip of the iceberg - they are merely symptomatic of the way in which their religious traditions have sought to assert control by empowering themselves at the expense of others. This is the battle I must keep myself focused upon. At the same time, it is important to recognise that these people are mere prisoners of a system that tells them that control is good, that violence is legitimate if the end justifies the means and that might is right. For this reason, I need to act with both compassion and patience, realising all the while that I am by no means free from the allure of control and power.

There is perhaps one final respect in which we must seek to forfeit our illusions of control and self-governance. For some reason or another we have this idea that we are able to give things over to Jesus in our own strength. We believe that we have control over control. For as long as we hold this attitude, we will never get anywhere. To the extent to we try of our own strength to forfeit control to Jesus, control actually controls us. There is only one way to get around this dilemma - we must humbly submit to Jesus and ask that he would help remove the heavy weight of control from our weary shoulders. Only then will we be free.

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