Monday, March 5, 2018

Lessons in Power, Humility & Collective Learning

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of January 20-21, 2018.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

I would like to start with a brief story that was shared by the New York Times columnist David Brooks when he gave a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. In that talk, Brooks tells a story about President Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was fighting the Civil War, one of his early general-in-chiefs was General George McClellan. President Lincoln sought to see McClellan because he wanted him to fight a little harder, so Lincoln invited McClellan to the White House. But McClellan wouldn’t come, so Lincoln went to McClellan’s house. Lincoln arrives at McClellan’s house and the butler indicated that McClellan was out. Lincoln said that this was okay, he would wait. I little while later, McClellan came in the back door and went up the stairs. Lincoln waited for another 45 mins and the butler came down and said I’m sorry but General McClellan’s is too tired to see you. So this is the president of the United States sitting in the living room. He is with his assistant John Hay who says this is an outrage, he is insulting you. And Lincoln says it’s okay, I will sit here all day if I can get him to fight harder. Now Brooks’ point in telling this story is that it illustrates a man who is at peace, patient and persistent. Lincoln, the president and arguably most powerful man in his country, had no problem putting aside his ego for a higher cause, in this case unifying his country and putting an end to the horrendous practice of slavery.

What I am going to suggest today is that our readings have a lot to say about power, and more specifically, the insights and knowledge that is generated when power is inverted and humility is practiced. For that matter, I would argue that a significant portion of the gospel readings are actually radical and unconventional lessons for those who hold power and privilege. This seems more important than ever given the current #metoo movement, aimed at exposing abuses of power, and the temperament of some of our current leaders who lack sufficient peace to practice a Lincolnesque or gospel story approach to power.

In today’s Gospel reading from Mark, we learn about Jesus’ early ministry, a time when Jesus is assembling his disciples. More specifically, Jesus is walking along the sea of Galilea and he encounters several fishermen. In each case, he calls to them, midstream in their work, to stop what they are doing and follow him. And, remarkably, they do. They stop casting or mending their nets and follow him.

My initial instinct when reflecting on this Gospel reading was to focus on the disciples. How did they process this call and respond so quickly? But this is not where I am going with my reflection today, because I was drawn back to Jesus and his simple act of walking along the shore and recruiting followers. There is a certain humility involved in having to recruit one’s own followers. In my mind at least, great teachers don’t have to actively recruit because their reputations precede them - and followers or students just go to them. In fact, this is what happened in last week’s Gospel reading from John. In this instance, two disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask where he is staying. These disciples took the initiative and wanted to be with Jesus.

But while last week’s story featured a regal and wise Jesus – to whom followers flocked, the Jesus in today’s readings is much more humble, a guy who chooses to pound the pavement in order to attract followers and develop a community. This version of Jesus is also fairly consistent with many of the other stories passed down to us in the gospels.

From day one, Jesus’ very existence seems to be an exercise in humility. For starters, the gospel stories are about an almighty and all powerful God who decides to lurk among us in human form. If you were impressed by Lincoln’s ability to patiently wait in General McClellan’s living room, then what about God stepping down from her heavenly thrown to be among us, and with us, in our often crazy world. From there forward, Jesus’ life and comments - as shared in the gospel stories - are often unconventional lessons in how to practice leadership. In fact, Jesus often frustrates his followers by not exercising authority in the traditional way or fawning before conventional power.

While we traditionally think of Jesus as transcendent, all knowing and wise, I want you to imagine for a moment that perhaps Jesus, the teacher or rabbi, was a co-learner with his disciples. In other words, maybe his disciples were less followers or students in the traditional sense, and more members of an active learning community facilitated by Jesus. As such, perhaps divine insight or the divine itself is co-produced and among us – rather than an external force.

This idea is a hard thing to wrap one’s head around, the notion we are part and parcel of the divine. In today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah, we learn how Jonah wrestles with this in his own comical way. Jonah, after spending three days in a whale or giant fish, gets burped up on a beach after he agrees with God to go to the city of Ninevah. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is to tell the people of Nineveh to repent or they and their city will be destroyed. Amazingly, the people listen to Jonah, change their ways and God does not destroy the city. But, ironically, Jonah is disappointed that God does not destroy the city because he thinks it makes him look bad because he foretold the end of the city and then it did not happen. Jonah can’t get his head around the fact that he was part of the divine process – people listened to him and they changed. Jonah can’t get beyond this me-centric idea that he is an autonomous actor that exists outside of the divine, rather than an active participant in the process.

So how does inverting power, practicing humility and co-producing the divine potentially play out in our own lives? Let me share a brief story with a couple of caveats. First, this is not to suggest that I have it figured out, but to imply that even very flawed people like myself can engage in such a process. Second, I realize that I am blessed with extreme privilege given my race, gender, economic status and education. As such, I likely can pursue ways of inverting power differently than those with less privilege.

My story dates from the time when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa in the mid-1980s. I was stationed as an agricultural volunteer for two years in a small community of 200 people. I was the first volunteer to live in the community and they welcomed me with open arms. I suspect, however, that they also had a lot of ideas about me and how I would pursue development. I was white, from the United States, the richest country on the planet at that time, and presumed to possess a lot of relevant technical knowledge. Some aspects of my life were perplexing to my village, including my desire to live with a local family, eat local food , wear local clothing, and learn the local language (all of which were part of the Peace Corps approach and philosophy at that time). But other aspects of my life were completely consistent with their expectations for an American, including some of my possessions, such as a short wave radio and a motorcycle given to us for work. Early in my Peace Corps tenure I used the motorcycle a fair bit to get around. The young men in my village really liked the fact that I had this motorcycle. It was relatively small by American standards, but actually quite large, flashy (painted red) and substantial compared to the local mopeds. I believe they liked the bike because it conformed to set of expectations for young males or machismo.

Early on in my tenure as a volunteer, an unfortunate incident occurred which even further endeared me to my young, male, village friends. One lazy Saturday afternoon, I was in my courtyard doing periodic maintenance on my motorcycle (I think I was cleaning the carburetor). After completing this task, I wanted to merely start the engine to see how it sounded – not to drive anywhere. Well, for reasons that I have never been quite able to figure out, the motorcycle immediately began to rev at full speed, and engaged, with me on top of it. I then proceeded to literally race, at a terrifyingly high speed, in the wheelie position, straight through the middle of town. The miracle is that I didn’t injure myself or anyone else, somehow managed to hit the kill switch, and the motorcycle decelerated, and turned off three quarters of the way though my small village. I then got off the bike and walked back to my house, trembling after what had just happened. Back at my house all of my young male friends were clapping and cheering. I was one cool cucumber for that fleeting moment. In their minds, I was like the Sylvester Stallone’s character Rambo and I had come to live in their village.

The problem was that the motorcycle represented power and wealth – and it put distance between myself and members of the community, especially older people and women of all ages. So after a few months, I made the decision to park the motorcycle. I would use it once every few months to go to the capital city some three hours away, but the rest of the time I would walk or ride a bicycle. Of course, this was deeply disappointing to my young male friends. If I had this symbol of power and wealth, why not flaunt it? However, over time, this decision yielded tremendous results, especially when combined with my insistence that I was a facilitator rather than a development expert who had all of the answers. I just became Mambi (which was my local name). I was the American guy who lived in the community, spoke the local language, hung out in the evenings drinking tea with his village friends, and who liked to talk to old people and work on gardening projects. I proactively decided to let go of the trappings of power and it enabled me to do better work by learning from my village friends. This led to tremendous personal growth and to shared development efforts rather than imposed ones.

Let me end with a couple of thoughts. First, while there is a lot in the Christian tradition about justice for the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised, Jesus had just as much to say about the exercise of power. In fact, Jesus’ life is a lesson in how to lead differently by building a community of learners and leaders, rather than exercising top down control.

Second, places like Cabrini can and do model different approaches to power when they engage in learning and spiritual growth as a shared exercise. When we hear someone on this podium share a reflection, this person often imparts the thoughts of an army of people behind them. Our liturgist feeds us relevant background information, we hash out our ideas with the Word Team, we talk it over with our spouses, and they critique our rough drafts. While I am the messenger when I share reflections, and take full responsibility for any poor word choice or potentially offensive comments, anything of value that I have to offer almost always comes from this community that helps me shape a reflection.

Lastly, let us just imagine that Jesus operated in a similar fashion. Perhaps his pearls of wisdom, handed down to us as his parables and stories, were the result of a collective and shared process of co-learning with his disciples. This makes his stories our stories. These are stories which offer insights born of unconventional leadership, the inversion of power, humility, and the embrace of the wisdom of everyone. Indeed, we are all people of God. Thank you.

The author may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at

1 comment:

  1. It's about the power of Love, not the love of power.