Recently, while walking to the park, my son engaged me in an unforgettable conversation in which he asked, “Dad, is Superman real?” I’m not exactly sure how I responded in the moment, but later in the conversation his question evolved into, “Are you Superman?”
I smiled knowing that this was an elusive moment in time. I knew I needed to capture this conversation because it likely would be an important memory to recall during his teenage years.
I’m certainly not Superman, but I did stop a train a few weeks back.
I’m not an activist (in the traditional sense). Joining this demonstration stretched me in some very important ways. For the past 6 months The Black Lives movement has provoked me to re-consider Christian ministry as I’ve wondered how my quietly contemplative leaning personality could possibly contribute to justice.
This developing movement has served as yet another powerful wake up call within my spiritual journey. The spiritual life is indeed more than just prayer and piety. It requires tangible demonstration – actual behaviors that shift our faith into direct action for the sake of the poor and oppressed.
When our faith is alive and well there is a balanced yet life-giving blend of both action and contemplation.
Eight years ago I experienced a similar wake up call when I made several visits to New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. Those unforgettable visits marked the first time I truly awoke to the reality of institutionalized racism as thousands of black lives were clearly left to fend for themselves in the wake of the hurricane’s brutal devastation. I had no category no imagination to place the chaos I witnessed – the blatant neglect and dishonoring of human life by the powers we expect to help when we most need it.
So now here I am again in this season. As the stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and so many other eliminated black lives have hit the mainstream conscious of concerned white America we again have the opportunity to offer our faith in the form of practical action.
But again, I'm humbly reminded that I am not superman.
During the WWJD bracelet era I remember sporting an additional bracelet, which simply read, “Save the World.” How we ever acquired the notion that it’s our destiny to save the world, I’m not sure. Have you ever recognized yourself holding the weight of saving the world?
There’s an important phrase I’ve heard among people of faith over the years, “There is a Messiah… and you’re not him.”
The world is certainly hurting and there’s a restless raging fury inside of us that longs for healing, but…
We are not the Messiah.
We are not super-human.
And that's ok.
As those created in God's image our destiny rests only in becoming our true self – the person we were created to be. But in that quest for my true self I frequently come against these typical barriers.
- I’m scared. There are certain situations and environments that overwhelm me creating severe discomfort and personal insecurity.
- I’m preoccupied. I tell myself that for the sake of productivity and effectiveness there's no time to pray or even to rest. I unconsciously tell myself it would be inefficient to take time out to collect my fragments and offer up my anxieties.
- I hate to wait. In my ministry I want to see fullness, reconciliation and healing. And I want to see it now. My urgency isn't always paired with grace.
Too often we follow the illusion that we're called to be Superman and this mentality has left a wake of pre-mature death and burnout. Other times we react to our limitations by trying to justify our apathy or laziness. Either way, we end up sabotaging the critical development of our true self.
The following invitations are the counter balances in which I'm recognizing as essentials for me to become more of me - the contemplative activist.
- Go scared!
The developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, believed that in order to grow up in our thinking we need to be a little scared once in awhile. He called it disequilibrium and it’s the idea that the learner needs to be thrown off balance just enough to set the table for a new perspective.
In the Gospels, we see Jesus frequently practicing this method by teaching through parables and paradox as well as by leading his disciples into disorienting environments in order to invite them to see their world through new eyes.
The older I get the more I seem to crave a sense of order, routine, and comfort. We tend to shape our lives in such a way that avoids feelings of awkwardness and insecurity.
We get scared.
Denver activist and minister, Dawn Riley Duval, who I had the honor to work with in Ferguson last month has this simple mantra, “Go scared.”
This brief yet power packed phrase reminds Dawn to be her self regardless of how uncomfortable and threatening the environment might seem. I've had the opportunity to see Dawn live this value out in a variety of settings where as an outspoken black woman she has been the minority in the room. And with her ridiculous courage to Go Scared! I've witnessed a humble power that speaks volumes regarding the journey toward the true self.
In one form or another "Do not be afraid!" is the most common imperative throughout the scriptures. It doesn't mean there's something wrong with us if we find ourselves insecure and afraid. Recognizing our fear isn't meant to result in paralyzing shame, rather that recognition of fear is a sacred voice inviting us to become who we truly are by deliberately walking toward the center of those places of deep insecurity, awkwardness and fear.
- Seek out the still point.
The poet TS Eliot describes the tension between time and transcendence like this:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance. (Eliot, 1952, 119)
An important aspect of the still point is that place of humility in which I locate the reality of my egotistical desire to be superman. It's only when I sit, reflect, pray through the paradoxical tensions expressed so well in Eliot's poem that I begin to feel a sense of center and sanity.
The voice of the false self whispers, "Do I have time to rest and pray?"
In this current season of parenting 6 and 4 year old boys and trying to direct not one but two non-profit ministries that elusive still point gets buried under a pile of demands, emails, and exhaustion.
Again, I'm reminded - I'm not Superman.
Often times we avoid seeking the still point due to the misconception that the end all/be all of life is productivity and effectiveness. That's a lie - a misconception - the voice of the false self. Life is about wholeness... not productivity.
On more than one occasion, Jesus sought that wholeness by retreating away from the groping chaos of the crowd in order to be alone with the Father to pursue the still point.
Depending on the distinction of the season locating my still point takes a variety of forms. Some days it's a scripture or a quiet 20 minute sit in a chapel. Other days it's a walk in the woods or listening to that certain song.
What T.S. Eliot says about poetry is true about all pursuits of centering ourselves:
"Poetry may make us... a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves." (Eliot, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1948)
- See the long view.
Among all the greatness of our digital age with it's instant connectivity to virtually all things, comes the challenge to see the long view.
The bumper sticker on the car in front of me this morning read: "Slave to the traffic light" implying the illusion that the goal is to be productive and time is the enemy.
As humans we are on a journey within the confines of time and as we pursue wholeness, reconciliation, and healing the reality of waiting feels like nothing more than bondage.
WIth the frantic pace of culture seeing the long view becomes an act of rebellion.
For the activist, waiting can feel like such a passive, finger tapping on the table, empty waste of space. But the waiting modeled by folks like MLK, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela among so many courageous others points to the paradox that God's people deliberately practice a peculiar way of active waiting or impatient patience. In other words, seeing the long view, where God's love and purposes transcend our obnoxious confines of time.
The Hebrew word for "to wait" - Qavah - is defined as "a binding together." (Similar to the latin root of the word, "religion" also defined as binding together.) The definition of Qavah provides helpful perspective as I'm reminded that amidst all the waiting that is apparently so essential to the spiritual life there is a quiet and sacred union taking place... an intimate bonding between me and the Creator.
Time is not the enemy.
My only hope for coming to terms with the long view comes through my willingness to risk both going scared and seeking the still point.
God transcends our human definition of time, which reminds me once again... I don't have to be Superman.
There are many other important pathways toward the true self, but in this season those three seem to be especially relevant.
In this point in time, perhaps the most common and convenient response to the overwhelming complexities of our hurting world is the position of the slacktivist - to sit comfortably staring at the screen of your phone or computer while reading a blog like this, signing an email petition, or posting a clever angst filled message in 140 words or less. Of course, there's power in social media but it certainly has it's limitations and far too often social media affords me the distraction I need to put off all three of the values I listed above.
The reality of a hurting world reminds me that while I'm not Superman, I am human. And as human I am invited to Go Scared!, Seek my still point, and take in the long view. Because being human is enough.