On my flight to Orlando I sat next to a woman who was travelling to Florida to run a marathon.  It only took me a few minutes to identify that she was a serious runner.  She had the well-toned legs of a runner, and she carried her most prized possession with her on the airplane — her running shoes.  I asked her what she expected her marathon time to be and when she told me close to four hours, I knew that I would not be sharing with her my near seven-hour times in the two marathons I had limped through.  I asked her what prompted her to train and run marathons.  I learned that although her times were very different from mine, our motivations for running are similar, “It is something in my life that I can conquer,” she explained, “And that feels good!”

I understood.  I ran my first marathon shortly after my marriage had fallen apart.  With every step of the 26.2 miles I told myself, “I can do hard things.”  There is nothing wrong with attaining goals, mastering difficult circumstances, and overcoming overwhelming obstacles.  One of my brothers runs 50-miles races.  He has even completed a 100-mile race!  I’m a little bit in awe of him for these heroic accomplishments, but when asked by others, “Why do you do this?”  his reply is simple, “Because I can.”  That answer makes me think of one of our former presidents who engaged in a huge indiscretion in the midst of national and world chaos.  When asked why he did it, he too replied, “Because I could.”  It seems to be the American spirit to manage calamity and crises by focusing on what we can do.  We even recently elected a president who gave us the mantra, “Yes we can!”

I was thinking about this “can-do” spirit when I stumbled on to an article about a sculptor by the name of Henry Moore.   Moore was a highly succesful English artist and sculptor.  He is renowned for his abstract creations, but I was more compelled by something he said in an interview near the end of his life.  He was asked, “What is the key to a succesful life?”  His answer: “Find something — one thing — that you are passionate about and live for that.”  That sentence in itself is thought-provoking, but Moore went on to say something else that I cannot stop thinking about:  “And that one thing that you live for — it needs to be something that is impossible for you.” 

Impossible.  The reason that Moore’s words stopped me in my tracks was that he seemed to be saying that we should live for the very thing that I have been running from all my life — powerlessness.  Live for something we can’t conquer, we can’t overcome, we can’t do?  I think I joined in the hopeful national chorus of “Yes we can!”, because so often I have experienced the opposite personal reality, “No I can’t.” 

I have felt powerless in my relationships, in my behaviors, and in all my efforts to prove that I am good enough and to protect myself from being hurt.  I remember crying out to a dear friend, “Why do I have to be so broken — a lonely, fearful, insecure, and needy woman?  Why can’t I make these realities go away?”  He responded quietly and simply to my angst, “Have you ever asked God that?”   Quite honestly my first internal response to his question was a mocking answer, “No, I’ve never asked God that.”  I think my cynicism was in part a fear that God wouldn’t answer and in part a fear of how he has already answered.  The New Testament reveals the heart of God without apology for powerlessness, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,”  “If you want to find your life, you need to lose it.”  The New Testament words of Jesus all point to powerlessness.  No wonder I didn’t want to ask God about the presence of powerlessness in my life.  At some level I already knew that it was a gift from Him. 

Powerlessness is frustrating.  Ask the couple who has been married for twenty years, have four kids, and cannot figure out how to love each other again.  Their histories, the wounds they’ve inflicted on each other, and the temptation to believe that the grass really is greener elsewhere all fuel their powerlessness to remain committed to their vows. 

Powerlessness is scary.  I know a sixty-year-old man who is sitting in a cheap motel room, alienated from his life and his family because he cannot stop drinking.  He’s been to treatment.  He has experienced legal consequences.  He doesn’t want to drink, but he can’t stop.

Powerlessness is humbling.  My friend is in his mid-thirties and built a multi-million-dollar company from the ground up.  But he can’t control the stock market.  His company crashed, his investors sued, and he lost his home, his Lexus, and his self-confidence. 

Powerlessness is shattering.  Ask me.  Without powerlessness I would not have known thirst, aching loneliness, shame, chaos, humiliation, and loss.

Powerlessness is the gift that makes our hands bleed when we open it, and so we often hide this gift in a dark, locked room in the basement of our lives.  Could powerlessness really be the gift to reveal what we are intended to live for?  On some days I believe that it can be.  Those are usually the days that I start in a room full of other powerless people confessing, “My name is Sharon, and I’m an alcoholic.”  On those mornings I can see a few gifts that a powerlessness-driven life is revealing to me . . . .  

Powerlessness can propel me to let go.  Richard Rohr writes, “The only ones who can accept the path of Jesus are those who have nothing to protect, not their own self-image or their reputation, their possessions, their theology, their principles, or their certitude.”  As we say in Alcoholics Anonymous, when we let go, we can let God — we can let God love us for who we are, not what we do.  Rohr continues, “The Gospels say very clearly that God loves imperfect, powerless people.  But it’s only the imperfect and broken who can believe that.  Thus it happens that God throws a party — and the “good” people don’t come.  That’s why God says that cripples, the lame, and the blind are to be invited — and they would be ready.”  Powerlessness allows us to give up being dependent on a perfectible self and become dependent on a God who not only loves imperfect people but invites them to intimacy.

Powerlessness can compel me to community.  We are more likely to let other people in and to move outside of ourselves when we are broken and unashamed of our brokenness.  The mystery and vulnerability of powerlessness is that we connect with other powerless people.  I don’t know about you, but I am drawn to people who have suffered, people who are twisted out of shape, and people who limp through marathons, but I have to embrace my own suffering, mis-shapen life, and limping before I can embrace that in community.  I am discovering that this is an act of compassion that I am powerless to produce, but powerlessness makes room for this gift of compassion and real community.

Powerlessness is the only way to experience grace.  Grace is broken body, shed blood.  When I experience my own brokenness, I am more open to let in the grace of Christ.  Thank God that He redeems us inspite of ourselves, not because of our abilities, accomplishments, and ideas.  When I experience compassion for my own powerlessness and the powerlessness of others, I am radically converted and experience — heart and soul — radical grace.

Why do I have to be powerless?  The answer that God is revealing to me is so that I might be loved, be in authentic community, and experience radical grace.  There is one more part to this evolving answer that came last night while I was reading the story of the powerless, prodigal son in Luke 15.  I read about the self-reliant older brother who was doing what he could and frustrated that the party seemed to be for those would couldn’t.   Robert Capon, an Episcopal priest, writes about this New Testament story.  He explains that the older brother was invited to the party too.  The father went out to the field to invite the competent brother.  When the brother refused, determined to stay in the hell of his own effort, Capon imagines the father saying, “Stop it!  Just stop it.  This isn’t about bookkeeping.  It’s about life and death.” 

I can imagine the Father tenderly and sternly answering my question, “Why do I have to be powerless?” by saying, “Sharon, just stop it.  Stop proving yourself.  Stop protecting yourself.  This isn’t about saving yourself.  It’s about dying and it’s about resurrection.”  Powerlessness becomes the path to life.  The powerlessness-driven life becomes the path to the Life, the Truth, and the Way — and He is the One worth living for.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.  With less of you there is more of God . . .
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.  Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are —  no more, no less.  That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.  He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world — your heart and mind — put right.  Then you can see God in the outside world.” 
Matthew 5