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,

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