Sliding Scale


Agency describes the amount of power and control we are capable of exerting in a given situation.  It is our ability to act. Culturally we put forward the idea that we have nearly unlimited agency—i.e., we can act to effect change and bring about our desired future because we have at our disposal resources, time, and the energy to accomplish it.  “If you put your mind to it, you can do it.”  “The only thing standing in the way is you.”  Unfortunately many people live with very little agency, either by accident or design.  Some of our brothers and sisters live with a chronic or terminal illness, others live under the oppression of racism and sexism, others fight the battles of mental health, and still others find themselves in relationships of violence that deprive them of the ability to escape.  These circumstances stifle agency. 
However, in truth, agency is not a fixed reality.  None of us have unlimited potential to act.  Often agency is a very privileged capacity.  Just because we think it or hope it, does not mean it will come to pass.  Another way to put it is that endless “get up and go” is an addictive falsehood.  A better way to think about agency is as my teacher, Dr. Kate Bowler puts it, as a sliding scale.  When we wake up, it’s important to do what we’ll call a battery check.  How much energy can I put forward today?  What is my ability to give?  And this isn’t something we should ask not only as individuals, but also as neighborhoods, communities, and churches.  In different seasons of our lives our ability to act and bring change and give to the world around us waxes and wanes both as individuals and as a community of faith. 

So what can we do? 
Well, if agency refers to our capacity to act in the world then we need to view it, perhaps, as that sliding scale.  There are moments in our lives in which we have great control and power to make change and see things through in a favorable way, and there are moments when we feel very small, powerless, and weak.  Both of these points and all points in between comprise what it means to be human, and it’s okay to be exactly where you are.  
The question is, can we be honest about where we are so that we can lift one another up and shoulder one another’s burdens as the body of Jesus Christ? 
Living during this pandemic has made many of us keenly aware of this sliding scale of agency.  We have come face to face with our own fragility, and seen exposed how systems and institutions have benefited some and excluded others by design.  We have been called to a living hope in Jesus Christ, a hope that compels us to keep faith in the midst of our frail humanity that sometimes can act and that sometimes cannot.  And in the midst of that, we need to learn to have compassion for ourselves, to do that battery check, to maybe ask as Dr. Bowler does, “What is possible today?”  And day to day that will look different.  But maybe, just maybe, that gives us a more honest place to start considering what it means to “love our neighbors as we love ourselves,” as Jesus asks of us.  I believe that’s the gateway to learning just how much we need each other now and always. 


Pastor Patrick

Last Published: May 27, 2020 1:25 PM
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