The Household Power Structure Changes!

Pictured here are Connie, with Sméagol the cat, and Nell the sheepdog. I’m John, taking the photo.

In the life of Heatherhope Farm, over the 18 years of its existence, Sméagol has run things inside the house. He meows like a Chinese water torture to impose his will on Connie and me, Gollums for all the world like he is dying when we are not quick enough to open a door for him, and puts the Border Collies in their places with a stare, or with an occasional terrifying hiss. The sheepdogs only come in from their kennel, and from their work in the field, on occasions; and when they do, they have learned to defer to the cat.

But this past week our oldest Border Collie, Nell, alarmed us with the size of a growth in her groin area. It turned out to be a mammary tumor; so she spent last Monday having the mass removed, and being spayed at the same time. Monday evening she came home with a line of staples above and sutures below a foot long, along with strict instructions from the veterinarian to be kept quiet with an Elizabethan collar on until the staples come out in two weeks.

Now Nell, like our late, great, Mirk, came from shepherding in Scotland. Neither were indoor dogs, neither had seen cats before they came to Heatherhope, and both were absolutely transfixed by Sméagol. Through the years, just about all our other Border Collies were easily trained by the cat to keep their distance. Mirk, and the late Miss Bess, would stare and stare, and then pounce, and come almost nose to nose to Sméagol, but then back off and grant him his dominance.

But Nell, seems to be in perpetual creeping statue mode. She locks in. She slow-motion stalks closer and closer. Without enormous volume and effort on the part of the humans of the house she impinges and makes Prince Sméagol very uncomfortable, until he begrudgingly gives ground.

The result of Nell’s fortnight of convalescence is that every citizen of this household must now reconfigure. We must adapt. Cat must come down a peg or so. But isn’t that what life is all about—adapting?

In my ministry I sometimes got complaints. While I assiduously avoided being partisan in my diagnosis of the sins running rampant in the nation and the neighborhood, I was occasionally accused of being too political. “Politics should stay out of the pulpit,” I was sternly warned.

In reply I tried to explain that politics is about the distribution of power—and so is the Kingdom of God. The rule of the Lord is a regime where no one is chased from the table—where all are given respect, and all possess their rightful and necessary portion of power.

Politics could just as easily be described as the art of adaptation, because power distribution is always changing. At Heatherhope it must change because Nell must now be inside, and Nell must recuperate, and Connie and I must take special care of her. The cat too is precious, but he cannot be allowed to dominate now as he has in the past.

I can see all sorts of analogies to our nation today. Those outside have suffered for centuries. They are suffering disproportionally now because of the pandemic. And their pain has come to a critical point. We must do something about the tumor of systemic racial injustice. We must adapt or die.

And when we do what we must, and shift balances around, and change the configuration of our society, it will spawn many confrontations, stalemates, and political battles. But there is no alternative. We will not want to give up any comfort or any power we enjoy to others who have lived without. So they must take it from us. And when they do we will feel injured.

But Jesus is not just a name. He is a person who did not continue to grasp his godly prerogatives. He emptied himself to become a human and to put others above and ahead of himself. He startles and upsets us still, to the point of dying on the cross, not only for us, but for those we have gotten used to looking down upon. And in this very political act, he showed us the way (Philippians 2:1-11).

It is an absolutely necessary way. If our household of humanity is to face inevitable change with courageous adaptation we must genuinely be followers of this self-emptying Jesus. That is the only way we will know his peace and salvation.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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