One of the most striking passages of the Bible relating to the question of authority can be found, among other places , in Mark 10:42-44, which reads: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.” No matter how clearly Jesus said that lording it over people is not to be the way that brethren behave, such advice often goes in one ear and out the other, because it is natural, at least according to our fallen nature, for us to want to dominate and lord it over others when we have the chance. If we are slaves to our fallen natures, the commandments of God only remind us how far we fall short of them, and we are quick to rationalize and justify our sinful behavior, regardless of what it may be.
This afternoon, as I was chatting a bit between choir practice and the beginning of Sabbath School , I happened to see some wee children come to services with a strange oppression of spirits. The last time two out of the three had been at services, there had been a particularly unfortunate accident about which I will say no more , and it had been before that when the youngest and littlest among them had been well enough to come to services, and after feeling particularly grumpy and sad, all of them soon realized they were around friends and were much more their usually affectionate and playful selves. Given the fact that I am often plagued by nightmares and awkwardness relating to church, something that has been the case for years, I can relate to that unfortunate oppression of spirits that often results when one has to steel oneself to obey the commandment to fellowship. Likewise, there are no doubt quite a few people who have either felt it necessary to steel themselves to be around me or were not interested in trying. Considering the alarming frequency of my own nightmares, I am aware of how oppressed my own spirits are. I am told that I hide it well, that I appear far more lighthearted than I am. I am not sure whether that is a compliment to decades of practice, or whether it speaks of my character as if I am a hypocrite in appearing what I am not.
What is it that makes our spirits oppressed? I speak not of the ultimate causes of this, or those who would seek to profit from this, but rather the gateways of our vulnerability. We feel great oppression where our desires and longings are contrary to what we feel to be our duties and responsibilities. When we act in accordance with what is right, what is proper, we feel like we are slaves to duty, and find no joy in doing what is right, and we feel oppressed by it. I know of people who for decades did what was right and felt no joy in it, and as soon as they heard that what they had been doing was no longer necessary or applicable, wasted no time in changing their ways to no longer feel enslaved to those ways. When duty and desire conflict, there is a strong tendency to seek out authorities that will encourage the desires, so that we need not any longer feel the tension between what we want to do and what we should do. None of us are immune to this tension, and to its unsuccessful resolution either in killing the desire that makes us alive as human beings, or in killing the sense of duty that rises us from mere animal or that delivers us from diabolical evils of the mind and spirit.
Our spirits can be oppressed in many ways. We can be tormented by nightmares, plagued by fears, tormented by our own anxieties, by our social awkwardness in that we find ourselves caught up in drama and difficulty, feeling ourselves to be under surveillance, to be subject to critical and hostile gossip and slander, and we preemptively defend ourselves by feeling oppressed. We can be oppressed by the thankless chore of doing the right thing, or having to resist the pull of doing the wrong thing, or feeling that we are misjudged and misinterpreted, or even knowing that in some cases we are being judged correctly, if excessively. Yet we find it difficult to get ourselves out from that oppression. How do we train our minds to sleep peacefully? How do we direct our thoughts away from that which worries us or bothers us? How do we find joy in doing the gritty and necessary but far from pleasant thing, so that our lack of joy and our frustration leads us into error that only makes our situation worse?
I suppose, given the many ways that we can be oppressed on this earth, that it is little surprise that we see so much oppression of spirits in illness or in various kinds of suffering and torment. What is a surprise is that our longing to be free is so strong. That longing may not be wise, in fact, it often leads us to do what is deeply unwise. Yet our slavery to addictions, our tormented response to traumas, our fears and anxieties, our worries and our gloom does not generally kill our longing to be free. And part of what makes the Passover season such a glorious one is that it celebrates that longing to be free by pointing out that it requires great effort by God, and also that God wants us to be free of the sin and oppression that bring us down. Yet what God wants to make us into is terrifying as well, in that we are small in our own eyes, and the tasks that we are called to do are far beyond anything we can conceive of doing. Is being free and changed into what God wants to make us into a better option than remaining as we are, little and oppressed, helpless in our own eyes? The Israelites never were able to accept what God was doing to them; will we fare any better ourselves?
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