Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why I Wear a Cross (the power of the cross, part 2)

In my last post I noted that I wear a cross beneath my shirt every day.  However I also bemoaned the devolution of the cross from powerfully potent symbol of subversive defiance to mere fashion accessory.  Doesn't my wearing of one play into that downward spiral?

A story:  The first church I served after my ordination was the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine.  It's lovely New England meeting house was built in 1860, shortly after the Unitarians split off from the Congregationalists (whose meeting house is still right across the street!).  (As an aside, the congregation is called First Universalist instead of First Unitarian because the Unitarians and Universalists of Yarmouth merged in the early 1920s, long before the national merger in 1961.  The Unitarians had the better building, but the Universalists had just received a sizable bequest.  Guess whose name went above the door!)

Over time the sanctuary came to have a fairly large chancel area, separated from the pews with a dark wooden wall that extends up to just below the chest of someone standing on the platform.  There is a pulpit on one side, and a lectern on the other, with a set of stairs between.  Beneath the pulpit and the lectern there were beautiful red velvet drapes.

One Sunday, as I was preaching about modern Unitarian Universalism's historic roots in the Christian tradition(s), I had two parishioners come forward and lift up those drapes.  The long-time members were not at all surprised by what was revealed, of course, but many of the more recent members had never even thought to look behind the drapes and, so, an audible gasp arose as people saw the two golden crosses that were built into that wall.

I said in that sermon that no matter how much the congregation wished to distance itself from its Christian "parents," the fact is that it would be impossible to do so. As Unitarian Universalists, our Christian heritage is part of our DNA, and is always with us whether or not we know or acknowledge it.  Similarly, I think, I have chosen to wear a cross as a reminder that Christianity is part of my religious DNA, too.

I was born into the Presbyterian Church, but I like to say that I was raised by the summer camp programs of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I took religion seriously.  (At 16 I was already feeling a call to the ordained ministry.)  Eventually I was ordained -- an Elder in the Presbyterian Church.  (I was the "youngest Elder" in the history of the Long Island Presbytery!)  I remember quite vividly that moment during the service when the Elders placed their hands on me and Rev. Princh read words from the Gospel of John:
"You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would abide ..."
At that moment I felt as though an electric charge was running through my body.  And, as I said, to this day I can remember it vividly.  So no matter how much I may have tried to distance myself from my religious roots, they are always with me.  Perhaps I have finally decided to stop running from that appointment.  I wear the cross as a reminder.

I don't always were my cross.  There are days that I forget, and days when I don't feel "worthy" (whatever that means).  Most days, though, I put it on as I get dressed in the morning.  And I do not always think about the "powerfully potent symbol of subversive defiance" I am putting around my neck, but I often do.  And it reminds me that each day -- in each moment -- I have a choice of whether or not to settle more deeply into my comfort or to "launch out into the deep" and take the risk that I believe all real religion is.  More often than not, I confess, I make the first choice.  But because I've chosen to wear the cross, though, I have with me always a reminder ... and an encouragement to make a better choice.

So ... a question:  do you have a touchstone, a talisman, something that reminds you of the higher self your faith calls you to?  Perhaps it's something you wear, or carry in your pocket, of have sitting on a private altar at home or in the office.  Maybe it's an image you have on your phone.  Please -- I encourage you to leave a comment telling what serves for you the purpose(s) the wearing of a cross serves for me.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Power of the Cross

In my post a couple of days ago I used this picture of a Celtic cross and received several very appreciative comments.  For the record, I bought it at a Michael's arts and crafts store.  It is cast metal.  And ever day, beneath my shirt, I wear this cross.

But I'm an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, right?  Do I really buy into all this Christ-died-for-our-sins-on-a-cross stuff?  No.  But for me, at least, that's not the point.  As I noted yesterday, my favorite definition of what it means to be a Christian is the one Marcus Borg devised, "it means taking seriously what Jesus took seriously."

If that's so, then what's the big deal about the cross? 

In Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth -- chapter 1, verses 23 and 24 -- he wrote, "we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."  Scholars believe that this letter was written around 55 C.E., or roughly 20-25 years after Jesus was crucified.  According to Marcus Borg and other New Testament scholars, this letter is the third oldest piece of Christian writing in the official canon.  (Only the first letter to the Thessalonians and the letter to the Galatians are thought to be older.)  That would make this assertion that "we preach Christ crucified" to be an extremely early expression of Christian theology.

What makes the message of "Christ crucified" so important?  You might think that the answer is, "Christ resurrected," but that's not necessarily true.  The earliest of the Gospels -- Mark -- doesn't mention resurrection at all and, at least according to scholars like John Dominic Crossan, the Greek word that's used later for the idea of "resurrection" is not the same word that would be used to describe, as Crossan puts it, the resuscitation of a corpse.

Besides, if it's the resurrection that's important then that wasn't unique to Jesus.  After all, in Luke's Gospel we're told that Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, and both Luke and Matthew tell of him bringing back to life a little girl who'd died.  And in Matthew's telling of the crucifixion of Jesus there's this detail -- at the moment of Jesus' death, "the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many."  It seems to me, then, that the resurrection really isn't the most important part of the story.

I think it's the crucifixion itself.  Not because his death "redeemed" humankind from our essential nature as sinners.  I'm too much a Universalist to think that God demanded a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity -- both corporate and individual.  (And, while we're at it, I don't believe that "sin" is our essential nature, but that might need to be it's own topic for another post.)  I think that the real importance of the crucifixion is the cross itself.

Jesus was not the only person who was crucified, of course.  Shortly before Jesus’ birth, the Roman General Varus quelled a peasant uprising in Palestine by attacking the cities of Galilee and Samaria, selling their inhabitants into slavery and publicly crucifying two thousand of the uprising’s leaders. In her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Paula Frederickson said this about crucifixion:
Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement:  Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar.  The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching.  Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.

That's what makes the cross such a powerful symbol, and why "preaching Christ crucified" would be thought of as a "stumbling block" and sheer "foolishness."  Getting crucified was not a sign of God's favor.  If anything it would be a sign of God's rejection and abandonment.  There was nothing worse that could be done to you than to hang you on a cross.  (And John Dominic Crossan adds the detail that the bodies of the victims of crucifixion were unceremoniously dumped outside the city wall and left there for wild dogs to scavenge.)

Yet the early Christians were saying something utterly astonishing -- that God was with Jesus on that cross.  That God could make even something as horrific as the cross of crucifixion into a symbol of hope.  And as you can imagine, to embrace the cross as a symbol was an act of bold defiance.  It says, "You may want to terrorize us.  You may want to demoralize and dispirit us.  You may want to crush our will, but we will rise again.  Your instrument of torture holds no fear for us.  Do your worst.  We will survive."

Two more thoughts.  First, to paraphrase Jesus, you have heard it said that Jesus' death was preordained and that he had to be crucified for God's plan to manifest, but I say to you that Jesus most likely did not want to die.  He did not go to Jerusalem so that he could get arrested, tried, and executed.  He did not commit, as one person has said to me, "suicide by cop." 

I believe that Jesus didn't want to die, but was willing to.  That's a distinction I made in my recent sermon "I May Not Get There With You."  Martin Luther King made clear that he did not want to die.  In his last speech he said, "Like anybody I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place."  Yet he also made equally clear that he was not going to let the threat of death stop him from the work of building the Beloved Community.  I cannot but believe that this was true of young Yeshua ben Miriam, as well.

The last thing I want to say about the cross -- for this post at least -- is that I believe the cross has largely lost what power it once held.  When Constantine looked up before a battle and saw a cross in the air, the cross ceased to be a bold declaration of defiance against "the powers that be" -- it became the sign of the powers that be.  It was no longer heretical and counter-cultural.  We need no proof that this transformation is complete than to see how often the cross, today, is used simply as a fashion accessory. 

Having recently read James Cone's groundbreaking book The Cross and the Lynching Tree I can't help but wonder whether a noose might be a better symbol today.  The cross was originally a shocking symbol of God's presence with the lowest of the low, a promise to the oppressed that there oppressor did not wield ultimate power.  The cross was a tool of the oppressor; it became a rallying sign of the opposition.

Especially in the United States, who has been more marginalized than African Americans?  And what tool was used most often, in the words of Paula Frederickson, as "a form of public service announcement?"  The lynching tree.

Christianity is supposed to be challenging, is supposed to be daring, is supposed to be risky, is supposed to engage in the work of overturning the status quo and ushering in a very different kind of kingdom, a radically new kind of commonwealth, a truly transformed nation state, a new world.  It is supposed to be subversive.  Yet Christianity as it is most commonly found today seems to have forgotten all of this.  (And, I would argue, this seems especially true among liberal Christians.)  The work, though, still needs to be done.

Perhaps it would help if we stopped looking at the image of an innocent, poor, and marginalized Jewish man hanging on a cross (when we know the man is really God in disguise and the cross is a fashion statement).  Perhaps, instead, we should look at the image of an innocent, poor, and marginalized African American man hanging from a tree.  In both cases an innocent man was murdered to maintain a system of oppression that desperately needs to be overturned.  In both cases we are promised that death is not the final word.  In one, though, the death is merely a story and, so, the promise is not something to believe.  In the other, though, the horrific reality of the death may serve to shock us awake to the reality of that promise of life.

Pax tecum,


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Twelve Little Words

I have continued to think about Marcus Borg, who died on Wednesday.  I noted in my last post that his work deeply influenced me, and I hope it was clear that this influence was both in my personal and my professional life.  I concluded by saying, "I would not be who I am today if it weren't for him."

I've been thinking about how, out of all the words of his I've read there are a dozen that were revelatory and revolutionary for me.  Of Christianity he said, "it has everything to do with taking seriously what Jesus took seriously."

Let that sink in for a minute.  To be a Christian, he is saying, has very little to do with the affirmation of certain creedal declarations.  Instead, being a Christian means "taking seriously what Jesus took seriously."  And according to the Gospel accounts, at least, he was consistently clear about what he took seriously.

In the Gospel of Luke, the 4th chapter, the story is told that after spending 40 days in the wilderness being temped by the devil, Jesus begins to preach and teach in the local synagogues.  Luke 4:14-21 gives these details:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Proclaiming good news to the poor.  Proclaiming freedom to the prisoner and recovery of sight for the blind.  Setting the oppressed free.  Proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor.  Not a lot in there about doctrinal correctness. Not a lot about purity of belief.  He is not remembered as having said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim that this denomination is better than that one."  Or "because he has anointed me to proclaim that some people matter more than others."  Or that, "your material success in the world is a sign of his blessings."  He doesn't even say anything about traditional vs. contemporary music in worship!

No.  He's pretty clear, and not just in this scene from Luke, either.  Re-read the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 5, 6. and 7).  If that weren't enough, in chapter 25 Matthew depicts a now famous scene in which Jesus separates those bound from heaven from those bound for "the eternal fire."  What was his criteria?  Did you give something to eat to the hungry and something to drink to the thirsty.  Did you invite the stranger in, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner?  Again, nothing about being able to quote chapter and verse (I had to look up these references!).  Nothing about have the "right" stance on abortion or marriage equality.  If being a Christian has "everything to do with taking seriously what Jesus took seriously," then being a Christian means caring for your society's "least."  And not caring in some kind of abstract way, but in a direct, active, hands-on way.

At one point I thought that I'd given up the Christian identity I had in my childhood.  I'd become a Buddhist, an eclectic, a Unitarian Universalist.  Yet something keep tugging at me; something that hadn't let go of me even if I'd rejected it.  And it was Marcus Borg who opened my mind so that my heart could once again be touched.  "Being a Christian" didn't mean I had to get plugged back into the matrix and forget all that I had learned beyond what I'd been taught in Sunday School.  It meant, simply, looking again to the stories of Jesus -- and to the stories of the Jewish people, only in the context of which could the stories of this particular Jewish teacher make any sense.  

Yes, other people have pointed in this same direction; yes, there are other teachers.  I respect and honor them, and my heart and mind have been touched by their teachings as well.  They continue to be.  One of the great gifts of being a preacher and teacher in the Unitarian Universalist tradition is that I don't have to limit myself to only one expression of these universal truths.  But for me, in my own spiritual life, the example in the stories of Yeshua ben Miriam calls to me as does no other. 

But doesn't one have to "buy" all of the stuff that comes with the name "Christian"?  Doesn't a Christian at least have to worship Jesus as God?  Not if Borg is right.  All one needs do is "take seriously what Jesus took seriously;" all one needs to do is to look to the model Jesus offers as we try to live our own lives.  A Franciscan -- another "label" I embrace -- doesn't worship Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (known to his family and friends as "Francesco").  A Franciscan simply seeks to emulate this simple saint -- including his admonition on his death bed, "I have done what is mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours."  The question isn't "What would Francis do?" or "What would Jesus do?"  More to the point is the question, "How will the love of God that inspired Jesus and Francis manifest itself in and through my life?  That, to me, is what makes one a Christian.  And without Marcus Borg, I would never have known that.

Pax tecum,


Thursday, January 22, 2015

R.I.P. Marcus Borg -- thanks for reintroducing me to an old friend

March 11, 1942 – January 21, 2015

The New Testament scholar and prophet of progressive Christianity, Marcus J. Borg, died yesterday at the age of 72.  I never met him, yet I wouldn't be who I am today without him.  And I know that I am not alone in having been deeply and profoundly touched by Marcus Borg's keen mind and compassionate heart without ever having any kind of direct, personal encounter.  His spirit flowed through his words, and his words reached millions.
These are just a few of the nearly two dozen books Borg wrote over the years, and through them and his prolific public speaking, he became one of the leading voices in progressive Christianity.  This is the kind of Christianity that encourages intelligent questioning, is unafraid to challenge long-standing traditions and teachings, and focuses on love and justice more than creeds and catechisms. 

As I've written in my own book -- Teacher, Guide, Companion:  rediscovering Jesus in a secular world -- after my mother died I had a "crisis of faith."  By this I mean that I suddenly found myself entertaining thoughts and having experiences that I thought I'd long left behind me.  I was rediscovering a feeling of faith, and it was a "crisis" because I had thought I'd "not only thrown out the baby with the bathwater, but [had] tossed out the tub, shut off the lights, and walked out of the house, locking the door behind [me]."  So I didn't know what to do with the experiences I was having.

Marcus Borg was one of the people who helped me to see a way to bring together my, if you will, post-Christian understanding of the world with my deeply rooted Christian identity.  He offered me, indeed, a "new vision."  And his invitation to "meet Jesus again for the first time" was incredibly exciting -- I had, of course, previous "met" Jesus in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches of my youth, but this would be the "first time" I did so with my more mature perspectives.  I had by this time studied Buddhism on and off for a couple of decades, had gone to divinity school where I focused on cross-cultural studies of spirituality, had been ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry, and had started serving a congregation.  I was not the same person who'd encountered Jesus before and, as Borg showed me, neither was Jesus.

I have since continued to renew my acquaintance with Jesus, who I once described in an Easter sermon as "an old friend I seem intent on forgetting."  And I have found other guides: John Spong, Dominic Crossan, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Karen Armstrong, and Anne Lamott, to name just a few.  Still, it was Marcus Borg who opened my eyes in such a gentle yet powerful way.  I would not be who I am today if it weren't for him.

Pax tecum,


PS:  If you're interested in learning more about progressive Christianity, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of any one of Marcus Borg's books.  You could, of course, always get a copy of my own Teacher, Guide, Companion, or the truly wonderful Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism.  You might also want to visit or the website of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship.

Friday, January 16, 2015

What About Robin?

This past week I preached a sermon about heroes as a means of exploring issues of identity.  On Wednesday I posted a reflection on a comment someone made as they left that service, "How many identities does the Joker have?"  Somebody else that morning made a request:  "Next time talk about Robin."

Of course, as my fellow comic nerds will tell you, that's not such an easy thing to do.  First, you'd have to decide which Robin you're going to talk about.  Dick Grayson, the first of the Robins?  Jason Todd, the one who got killed by the Joker?  (Actually, he was killed by-a phone in vote in which readers were asked if he should live or die -- he lost.)  What about Tim Drake, who actually figured out the Batman's secret identity, and who was temporarily replaced by Stephanie Brown?  Damien Wayne, Bruce Wayne's son with Talia al Ghul?  Duke Thomas, who becomes Robin five years or so after current continuity?  What about Carrie Kelly, the Robin of Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Night Returns?  (Which, as an aside, my good friend Jimbo gave me years ago and which reignited my childhood fascination with comic book heroes.  Yes, this is all Jimbo's fault!)  There are others in other iterations of the DC comics universe(s), but that's probably enough links for now.  Suffice it to say, there have been a lot of Robins, so to talk about Robin we need to know who we're talking about.

It gets even more complicated when we consider that some of these Robins have also been other costumed heroes.  Dick Grayson becomes Nightwing.  Jason Todd becomes Red Hood (and a few others).  (Yes, I know, I'd said he'd died.  Not, apparently, such a final thing in the comics!)  Tim Drake becomes Red Robin.  And if this weren't enough to scramble your brain cells, there have been different versions of the DC multiverse that contain different stories for these characters.  The combinations are virtually endless.

All that said, though, I think that this is much more than that parishioner wanted to know.  I think she was saying, "What about the dark and brooding Batman having a young and bright sidekick?"A good question and one which, as with so many other things, the comics have explored over the years.  In his fabulously interesting -- and fun! -- book Batman and Psychology:  a dark and stormy knight, Professor of Psychology Travis Langley devotes a chapter to the question of "Why Robin?"  He demonstrates that, whether the comics' authors were aware of it or not, the various Robins actually show traits appropriate for their "birth order" and psychosocial stage at the time they joined the Caped Crusader's crusade.

He also addresses the charge, originally made in 1954 by Dr. Fredric Wertham, that Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson are gay.  (He never actually said this straight out.  He did say that the two lived "a homosexual fantasy lifestyle."  In his book The Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham wrote, "Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychology and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend 'Robin.'")  This understanding of the relationship continues to this day.  Frank Miller, creator of some of the most compelling comic book storytelling (including the aforementioned The Dark Knight Returns), had this to say about the Batman's sexuality:
"Batman isn't gay.  His sexual urges are so drastically sublimated into crime-fighting that there's no room for any other emotional activity.  Notice how insipid are the stories where Batman has a girlfriends or some sort of romance.  It's not because he's gay, but because he's borderline pathological, he's obsessive.  He be much healthier if he were gay."
So why then this steady stream of young side kicks?  And why are they so often so bright and colorful, a marked contrast from the Dark Knight himself?  One reason is that Bruce Wayne was himself a young child when his parents were murdered during that mugging-gone-wrong, the event that gave birth to the Batman.  Bringing these young men -- some no more than children -- into his mission can be seen as trying to provide the mentorship and support that he never received.  There are exceptions, but several of the Robins -- including the first -- suffered losses similar to Bruce's.  Young Dick Grayson was part of an acrobatic troupe -- the Flying Graysons -- and saw his parents murdered as part of an intended extortion scheme.  Bruce Wayne was in the audience that night when their trapeze wires suspiciously broke and he recognized something of himself in the suddenly orphaned Grayson.  It's been noted that Grayson, Todd, and Drake have often been drawn as looking like younger versions of Bruce Wayne.

Practically speaking, the authors of the comic who actually introduced the Robin character have said that it was getting difficult writing all of the "thought balloons" necessary to convey the Dark Knight's thinking.  With a partner, a side kick, he could talk out loud the things that were going on in his head, and with someone who was a little less perfect with whom the reader might be able to relate a little more readily.  After all, didn't Holmes need a Watson?

From a psychological point of view it can be said that Bruce needs a Robin to remind himself of himself and the reasons for his crusade.  He also, at some level, is aware that he cannot continue this fight forever and so he's training the next generation of crime-fighters, as it were.

But why so bright and cheery?  That original Robin costume, with it's bright yellow cape, red jacket and, as they're not so affectionately known, "pixie boots" would certainly stand out, contrasting quite dramatically with the shadowy Batman.  So what's up with that?  Again, a practical answer is that the too grim detective/vigilante needed to be toned down for readers and that a bright side kick was a way of doing it.  (Adam West and the rest of the gang did it even more in the Batman television show of the 1960s.)  It also makes some good psychological sense.  With his parents gunned down before him at such a young age, it could easily be argued that part of his psychosocial development was halted there, and that while he matured in many other ways a part of him remains that little child.  The brightly clad Robin -- which in a recent depiction of his origins is noted to be a sign of spring -- represents his childlike hope and optimism.

My favorite understanding, though, comes from a flashback in a one-shot from November 2014:
Robin (apparently looking at his costume for the first time):  It's a little, I don't know, bright.  I mean, you get to wear all the black stuff.  You get to use the night and the shadows and things.  Won't everyone, like, see me out there?
 Batman:  Do you know how to use the shadows and the night?
Robin:  No, but ... 
Batman:  You wear black and you rely on the dark.  It becomes your crutch.  Someone takes it from you, and you fall.  Wear your outfit so they will see you.  Then beat them when they see you.  When you're ready, wear mine.  Earn the night.
Earn the night.  And he does.  As Nightwing, his costume is mostly black.  And when it is thought that Bruce Wayne had died, Dick Grayson dons the cape and cowl of his mentor and friend.

One of my mentors charged me, at my ordination, "don't be an old curmudgeon until you are one."  He might have been saying, "earn your curmudgeonliness."  And I can think of so many other parts of my personality that I have had to "earn," as well as many I'd have to admit that I haven't quite earned yet.  Perhaps you can, too.

And I think that all of us can stand reminders from time to time of who we once were -- of the optimism, and the dreams, and the ideals we once had.  St. Paul aside, we should not always "put away childish things."  Perhaps we could all use a Robin in our lives.

Pax tecum,


A portion of the so-called "Bat Family" (l-r) Red Robin, Batwoman, Robin, the Batman, Nighwing, Batgirl, Red Hood

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Do Villains Have Secret Identities?

On Sunday I preached a sermon that used the classic superhero motif of identity/alter-identity as a way of exploring the issue of identity in our own lives.  On the way out of church two people had two very intriguing comments.  One asked, "and how many identities does the Joker have?"  As I thought about it I realized that a great many of the comics' villains have only one identity.  The Joker is the Joker.  He had once had another identity, but now all he is is the Joker.  Same with the Penguin, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn, Victor Zsasz, Killer Croc, Bane ... the list could go on and on.  Yes, Catwoman is Selina Kyle, and there are a few other, yet even those who do have an alter-ego rarely are depicted as having a secret identity.  It seems that everybody knows that Edward Nygma is The Riddler and that Jonathan Crane is the Scarecrow.

I can think of several reasons for this.  First of all, the stories are generally about the hero with the villain serving primarily as the hero's foil.  The villain exists to give the hero something to do, to provide the necessary challenge that every hero must face.  (See Joseph Campbell's concept of the monomyth if you have any doubt that all heroes must have trials to face and obstacles to overcome.)  To the extent that this is true, then, the villains don't need to be as fully fleshed out as the hero.  It's true that if you stay with the characters for a while they are shown to be more than cardboard cut-outs, and there are certainly more than a few stories told from their points of view.  Yet predominantly it's not their internal struggles that we care about.  And in terms of these archetypal mythological figures helping us explore our own lives?  We're more likely to identify with the hero than the villain.  I relate to the Batman -- or his first protégé, Nightwing -- far more easily than I do to Poison Ivy or Clayface.  

Of course, as in any dream, all the archetypes in these stories are intended to reflect dimensions of the human condition.  This is as true of the villains as the heroes.  The disinhibition of the Joker, the quest for power of Bane, the conflicted nature of Two-Face -- all of these reflect experiences we know.  So perhaps there's another reason that so many villains have only one identity.  Perhaps that's the reason they're villains.

In my sermon on the heroes I said:
Superman needs Clark Kent.  The Batman needs Bruce Wayne.  And you and I need those parts of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge.  We need to be our whole selves, not just those parts we think are acceptable or that project what we think we should be like.  Years ago the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen popularized the phrase, “the wounded healer” as a way of capturing the idea that it is precisely our wounds, our woundedness and our weaknesses, that are our greatest strengths.
That’s not exactly intuitive, is it?  Not, apparently, logical.  Not even, if you’re anything like me a good bit of the time, all that believable.  Yet apparently it’s true.  Superman and Clark Kent need each other; Bruce Wayne and the Batman need each other.  And you … well … you need …you.  We can’t split off part of ourselves and still be whole.
Perhaps the reason that the villains are villains -- aside from whatever origin story they may have -- is precisely because they don't have an alter ego.  All they are is chaos, or greed, or unrestrained power, or manipulation, or revenge, or vanity, or what-have-you.  So perhaps they too tell us that we need to have at least some kind of balance in our lives; that our whole selves are needed.  Perhaps they provide cautionary examples to us.

Pax tecum,



PS -- I'd said that two parishioners left the service on Sunday with intriguing feedback.  I'll deal with the other in my next post.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Death to Clark Kent

“A mask may reveal as much as it conceals.”
~ Unknown

 This a version of this sermon was originally preached at the First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine in 2005.  This version was offered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA on Sunday, January 11, 2015.  A podcast will be posted here so that you can listen if you prefer.

Our Opening Words are from the Gospel of Quentine Tarrentino, Kill Bill, Vol. 2.  Bill speaks:
“An essential characteristic of the superhero mythology is, there's the superhero, and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When he wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic that Superman stands alone. Superman did not become Superman, Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses, the business suit, that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak, he's unsure of himself... he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.” 
* * *
Even a cursory look around my office—and even more so if you could see my office at home—you will discover something very important about me: I am into comic books and super heroes.  (Big surprise, right?  Nikki Skaggs even embroidered superhero logos on the back side of this really beautiful stole.)  I recently cataloged my comic book collection at nearly 2,000 issues, and I have a little  more than fifty action figures.  (Most of them variations of the Batman.)  And let’s be clear – I’m not one of those white-gloves and tweezers kind of collectors who keeps everything in its original packaging so as to maintain its maximum value.  Oh no! I read my comic books and, since I’m among friends, have been known to play with my action figures from time to time.  I’ve even started making stop-motion videos with them.  So yeah, I’m a comic book geek.
Yet this morning I want to use the superhero as a window through which to explore something really quite relevant to us—you and me—and not just something for folks who’s super powers include fitting into incredibly tight spandex outfits.  Before we get into that, though, I want to quibble a bit with the reading we heard as our Opening Words.
You see, as I said, I’ve read a lot of comic books.  And believe it or not, a great many of them explore real philosophical issues (in-between super powered smack-downs of course).  And one of the favorites, the one that was the core of our opening words, is the question of identity.  Just who is the Batman:  is he the man or the mask?  Over and over throughout the years Peter Parker has thought about, and tried, opting out of the super hero biz, but again and again the question comes up – can he simply throw away the costume and live a normal life, or is he somehow destined to be Spiderman?  This kind of exploration is actually in a lot of comics — the ones, at least, by the good writers.  And with all due respect to Mr. Tarantino, the current consensus is that while Superman may in fact be a “strange visitor from another planet,” his true identity is the simple Kansas farm boy, and millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is really just a more or less convenient persona into which the Batman retires at the end of a shift.  Still, his essential point remains correct:  part of the classic superhero myth involves the interplay of identity and alternate identity.
And see?  That’s where it gets relevant for us.  After all we, too, wear a variety of masks in our day-to-day living.  Don’t we play a multitude of roles, finding ourselves to a greater or lesser extent revealing or concealing our “true selves” depending on the situation?  I’ve had stay-at-home mothers come to talk with me, once their kids had grown up and were spending more and more time out of the nest, talk to me with great concern because they felt that they had played the role of “mommy” for so long that they no longer knew who they were “in real life.” 
And don’t we, at least sometimes, find ourselves playing a role that really feels removed from who we really are?  Able to bend steel with our bare hands we feign difficulty opening the lid of a mayonnaise jar.  I’ve had women and men talk to me about the difficulties of having to hide—or, at least, seriously downplay—parts of who they are while at work, for instance:  everything from people who pretend not to be as smart as they really are, to people who’ve had to deny the existence of the person they love most. 
You know what I’m talking about – right?  We know what it’s like to play more than one role.  Do you ever wonder which one is you?  Which one is the real, the authentic, the true you?  It can be hard to know, can’t it? 
This sermon this morning is an update of one I preached ten years ago in another congregation.  That one was suggested by a Worship Weaver I was working with then.  He brought that Tarrentino reading to my attention, and suggested the title – “Death to Clark Kent.” I think the title was his way of expressing that yearning we all feel to be ourselves—just ourselves—no games, no masks, no roles; to simply be our full, complete selves all the time.  This is no new longing.  It’s a frequent form of the hero’s journey – the discovering of one’s true identity – and it’s a goal described in a lot of the world’s spiritual literature. 
Again and again Lao Tsu and Chuan Tzu talk about the “self free person,” the person who plays no roles, who simply is.  Tilden Edwards, one of the founders of the Shalem Institute, speaks of Jesus as one who was “always discovering his identity, [and who was not] possessed of one.”  Or, we might say, possessed by one – forced into a role rather than freely and organically discovering himself in each and every moment.  This was, in its simplest terms, the idea behind the “go and find yourself” movement.  There’s this fantasy that Superman could throw off his glasses and funky suits, could get rid of the geeky and gawky Clark Kent and be, once and for all, the Man of Steel he was meant to be.  And if he could do it, maybe we could, too.
I have to admit, though, that I wonder about this quest.  There’s no question that in my lifetime I’ve played a lot of different roles, and I know I've even played roles that have not felt completely authentic, but I’m not so sure it’s all that easy to know which “me” is me.  I’m a parent, a partner, a pastor, a prestidigitator, a published author, a pain in the neck (who apparently really likes alliteration), and each of these – all of these – is me.  I’m courageous and cowardly; I’ve been incredibly insightful and incredibly off the mark.  How do I determine which version of me is the “real” me?
My friend Takeo Fujikura told me something about his language that I find really profound.   In Japanese, he said, there is no single first-person pronoun, no way to say "I."  Or, to be more precise, there is no single single first-person pronoun—there are, if I remember correctly, something like seven.  He said that this is because Japanese culture recognizes that there is no single "me."  (As Walt Whitman said, "I contain multitudes.")  The “me” I am with my parents is different than the “me” I am with with my friends, and both are different than the “me” I am with my kids.  The “me” I am in the break room is different than the “me” I am when I’m called into the boss’ office.  I mean, yes, it’s all “me.”  But …well … you know what I mean, right?  You’ve known those differences, too.
The cover of our Order of Service has on it the cover of JLA #51, which is the beginning of an absolutely fabulous four-issue story arc featuring the Justice League of America.  As my fellow comic geeks know, there have been many iterations of this super team, but at time of this story it consisted of the big guns:  the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter.  Now, if I can resist going into way too much detail, let’s just say that in this story there’s a sixth dimensional creature with the ability to grant wishes.  (And if you think that sounds weird try reading the book of Revelations sometime!)
So, this creature hones in on Superman's thought in a moment of frustration that he wished he and the others didn’t have to live with two identities.  And, suddenly, there is both a Superman and a Clark Kent, a Batman and a Bruce Wayne.  Over the course of the series, each of these figures begins to change, to transform, and not in particularly pretty ways.  Superman, without the humanizing influence of his adoptive parents, becomes more violent and coldly authoritarian.  Batman, without the driving passion of his grief over his parents’ murder, becomes unfocused and ineffectual, an empty shell.  Clark Kent, on the other hand, without the cape and tights, becomes the coward he portrays.  And Bruce Wayne, without the Dark Knight, begins to lose his mind because there’s no outlet for his raging grief.  Similar difficulties befall each of the heroes, until they finally realize that they each need to reunite their now separate selves. 
Which brings us back, quite nicely, to one of my favorite theological positions —“both/and.”  A number of years ago I read about a psychologist at Harvard who was studying why it’s so hard for people to change behaviors they themselves find objectionable.  Even though there are aspects of their personalities or behavior that they really and truly would like to change, no amount of effort seems to have any lasting result. Maybe you’ve heard about people like that.  I think I saw a movie about people like that once.
Anyway, as part of her study this psychologist had people make a list of the behavior traits that disturbed them the most.  She also had them make a list of the behaviors that they were most proud of. What she found was remarkable – the two lists were almost invariably mirror images of one another.  Let’s say that a person was bothered about never being on time and rarely following through on commitments; at the same time, though, this person would take great pride in being free and spontaneous.  Somebody else who thought that their rigidity was problematic also thought that their discipline was a positive.  The psychologist posited that people have so much trouble riding themselves of their most negative traits because they are so intimately tied to their most positive ones.
Superman needs Clark Kent.  The Batman needs Bruce Wayne.  And you and I need those parts of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge.  We need to be our whole selves, not just those parts we think are acceptable or that project what we think we should be like.  Years ago the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen popularized the phrase, “the wounded healer” as a way of capturing the idea that it is precisely our wounds, our woundedness and our weaknesses, that are our greatest strengths.
That’s not exactly intuitive, is it?  Not, apparently, logical.  Not even, if you’re anything like me a good bit of the time, all that believable.  Yet apparently it’s true.  Superman and Clark Kent need each other; Bruce Wayne and the Batman need each other.  And you … well … you need …you.  We can’t split off part of ourselves and still be whole.
But does that mean we’re condemned to be, to stay, as we are right now?  Does that mean we can’t – or shouldn’t – try to change?  To improve?  To grow?  There’s another comic book arc in which Superman loses his powers but still wants to fight the bad guys.  So he goes to the Batcave and undergoes a kind of superhero boot camp.  Clark Kent wants to be a hero even if he’s lost the “super.”  Change is possible, but it can’t simply be done by negating or rejecting those parts of ourselves we find unlovable.  A Christian colleague and friend likes to say, “God loves you exactly as you are, and loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
The key to change, the key to growth, the key to living as our true and authentic selves is learning to recognize and appreciate the strengths in our shadows (and the shadow of our strengths) and then to integrate the two.  Near the end of that JLA story line, the two aspects of the heroes join, but not fully.  They coexist, yet still remain less than integrated – two heads, four arms, torsos joined like victims of some awful transporter accident on the Enterprise.  And, of course, in this state they are virtually useless (as well as, you know, in agony).  And many of us get stuck in this in-between place when we first try to acknowledge our “dark side” yet are not quite ready to embrace it.
It’s Wonder Woman who finally saves the day since in truth we are always wholly ourselves and Wonder Woman is, in essence, the Spirit of Truth.  The narrator has this to say,
“The Spirit of Truth.  The only force on earth that has even a chance of galvanizing her friends and allies … of forcing ten men to acknowledge that they are but parts of a whole … useless, crippled, fragments who cannot coexist apart … who must for once … just once in a world of never-ending battles … stop fighting … and surrender … to each other.”
Stop fighting and surrender.  Good advice, and a quest worth pursuing.

Pax tecum,