Jesus is way cooler than Spider-Man!

“Why is Jesus cooler than Spider-Man?” asked a seventh grader.

His question wasn’t completely out of the blue. He, along with dozens of us spending the week at  Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in northern Montana, had recently learned a new way to proclaim God’s glory: “Jesus is cooler than Spider-Man, KSHHHH*, Spider-Man, KSHHHH*, Spider-Man!”  *Denotes both the sound and pose of web-slinging.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

The question about Spider-Man came up while I was sitting on a panel for a “Pastors Pondering” session — a small-group gathering in which youth can confidentially write their most burning queries about faith and (hopefully) receive an answer from a pastor. (Though I am neither Lutheran nor a pastor, the camp had graciously invited me to participate anyway.)

Much to my surprise and delight, the seventh grader’s rather cheeky query inspired one of the most profound conversations about Christian theology that I’ve ever been a part of.

So why, exactly, is Jesus cooler than Spider-Man? Here’s what we came up with:

Jesus is there for us all the time, not just during an emergency

Spider-Man swoops into people’s lives to stop the villains when a situation reaches a crisis point; then he swoops right back out again, leaving those he rescued staring off into the distance where he disappeared. But Jesus never leaves us. Our lives don’t have to be threatened for him to care about us, and — though we may experience moments of awe and marvel at his greatness — we never have to stare off into the distance wondering when or if we’ll ever see him again.

Jesus lives in community, while Spider-Man is a loner

Peter Parker must lead a dual-life, hiding his most authentic identity from those to whom he is closest. But the Jesus of the Gospels is surrounded by people who know who he is and what he does … and who truly love him. Jesus does not build credible alibis; he builds deep and mutually-loving relationships. He inspires his community, teaches them, and empowers them to continue his work. I’d much rather be friends with that guy.

Jesus doesn’t need to use violence to defeat the bad guys

The death and destruction Spider-Man leaves in his wake sometimes cause people to wonder if having a neighborhood superhero is even worth it. But Jesus doesn’t have to maim, kill, or destroy to win. Whether he is confounding the Pharisees to rescue a woman about to be stoned to death (John 8:1-11) or mysteriously passing through an angry crowd intent on killing him (Luke 4:28-30), Jesus manages to undermine the evil intentions of villains without ever physically hurting them. And although Jesus’ famous instruction to “turn the other cheek” is sometimes mistaken for passive surrender, it is actually one of many acutely subversive acts of resistance to injustice that he demonstrates in his life. (For more about Jesus’ nonviolent subversion, I highly recommend “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne and “Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way” by Walter Wink.)

But the point is: unlike Spider-Man, Jesus fights — and wins! — the good fight without ever harming his enemies or creating collateral damage. To a peace studies major like me, there’s just nothing cooler than that.

Jesus is a savior, not a superhero

Spider-Man always wins the day. He uses his super-human abilities to vanquish villains and receives public adulation in return. He defeats the bad guys and re-establishes proper order. Jesus, on the other hand, loses … badly. He ends up disdained and condemned by his own people, abandoned and betrayed by his best friends. He begs God to spare him, but still succumbs to an agonizing, unglamorous death. Yet somehow, in doing so, he defeats death itself and upends the proper order of things forever. Jesus’ story is not heroic … but it is salvific.

Jesus loves the bad guys just as much as the good guys

I don’t know about you, but I often wonder whether I would be the hero or the villain in many scenes in my life story. My autobiography is tainted by moments of cowardice, hubris, and even outright maliciousness. In short, I’m a sinner. Given the right circumstances, I have no doubt that I would find myself on the wrong side of Spider-Man’s relentless quest for justice. But Jesus’ quest for justice is rooted in radical grace, so that even the rich man who cannot part with his possessions is loved (Mark 10:17-22); and even the fraudulent tax-collector is invited to dinner (Luke 19:1-10); and even the soldiers who nail Jesus to the cross are forgiven (Luke 23:33-34). It may not be a Hollywood ending, but it’s beyond Good News for me.

Basically, it boils down to this: Jesus is cooler than Spider-Man because Jesus is God, and he chose to die for us — all of us — anyway. Spider-Man just can’t come close to that.

. . . Nonetheless, at the end of our Pastors Pondering, we did have to admit one thing: Spider-Man has much cooler clothes than Jesus.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her Lutheran pastor husband and their two daughters. She is grateful to Pastor Dan, Pastor Tanner, and her husband for being part of the amazing Pastors Pondering that inspired this post. She also apologizes to any die-hard Spider-Man fans for any character errors; she admits that she actually knows very little about Spider-Man.

 

Be perfect

Hypocrisy. According to Google, it’s “The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.” It’s a dirty word; the worst of insults in religious circles. Why, then, do those who consider themselves clean of heart, hand and tongue seem to so relish the taste of it in their mouths?

Recently, I came across a conversation in the vortex of Facebook that inspired this reflection. It began with a link to an article for the latest pop aggrandizement of abusive relationships, “Fifty Shades Darker. The person who posted it had commented “I can’t help but wonder how many who claimed to march for women turn around and support this as healthy entertainment. Shaking my head!”  Her expression of disgust led to a comment from one of her friends who replied, “How many of these women who either read the book(s) or saw or will see these movies are also the ones so outraged by comments made by Trump? The hypocrisy is amazing!”

woman-covering-mouth
Image courtesy of everydayfeminism.com

My gut reaction was to devise ways in which I might remind this woman, whom I’ve never met, of her own potential conflicting ideologies. It’s easy to make assumptions and I’m quite adept. I quickly conjured up a litany of instances in which this person, completely unknown to me, may herself be “claiming to have moral standards or beliefs” to which her behavior did not conform. They were harsh and pointed and quite possibly accurate. But then, an intervening thought: What would be my motivation in crafting this comment? Would I not be mirroring the very practice of generalized accusation that had triggered my own anger? Even if what I was saying was true, would I be speaking truth in love? Was my goal mutual clarification and conversion, or self-defense and condemnation? St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have not love, I am nothing.” Intent matters. However right or pure we may be, what attitude toward that other person and outcome are we desiring–for ourselves–as we slap others with our truth?

It strikes me that implicit in the use of the words “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” is a reflexive attempt to discredit ideas and actions of those who differ from, challenge, disgust, or in other ways stimulate discomfort. Denigrating the other allows those of us who do so to prop up our own fragile sense of righteousness while simultaneously freeing ourselves from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to listen or understand. In doing so we are rejecting the call to love or, at the very least, to respect the dignity of the other.

Trying to understand would require the mindfulness to overcome impulsive, emotional reaction and look more deeply at the words, actions or images that have triggered such reactive response. Trying to understand would mean developing an awareness of our own tendency toward generalizations and assumptions and to willfully discard such tools as they inhibit our capacity to think creatively, compassionately and clearly–very hard work but necessary if what we genuinely desire is to create love and peace in our hearts and in the world. If that is not what we desire, an examination of conscience is in order.

Recently, during the Gospel reading at Mass, Jesus said, “I tell you unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:21).”  The following week; “Be perfect, as your heavenly father (a.k.a. the God of All Things!) is perfect.” These can be felt as discouraging, improbable, even impossible exhortations. But if we consider the lens through which Jesus was gazing as he spoke, it may change how we receive the words.

I have been slowly reading Henri Nouwen’s “The Life of the Beloved,” a short, sweet book that articulates in simple and profound language how deeply loved we each are by God. As Nouwen emphatically asserts the belovedness of the individual, he indicates how an awareness and embrace of one’s own condition as beloved can transform the way in which that person engages with the world. A perception of ourselves as foundationally beloved would fill us with such a sense of confidence, gratitude, grace and generosity that we would manifest these qualities as we related to others and the world we share.

“How different our life would be,” he writes, “if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply … Imagine your kindness to your friends and your generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds can build their nests … Imagine that you’re trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles.”

How different indeed, but what hard work to be ever mindful, ever transforming! Much easier to point out someone else’s hypocrisy! And yet, what purpose does such labeling serve, accusing others of what we would excuse in ourselves? Does it bring assurance or peace or joy? Does it create positive change? I find that the time I’m most ready to cast judgment tends to coincide with when I am most insecure and serves only–ultimately–to exacerbate my own insecurity and anxiety.

No doubt there are times when the hard and loving work we have to do is indeed to name sin when it rears its ugly head, or to get in the way of someone who is causing harm to another either with words or actions or both. But let us be vigilantly mindful of our motivation and carefully conscious of what we hope will grow from the seeds planted by our every word and deed. Let us remember that when Jesus said “Be perfect,” it wasn’t a condemnation, but a vote of confidence.

“I know that you can do better. I love you, no matter what.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Our hidden illness

Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My  daughter has asthma.

People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.

Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again.  It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.

At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.

I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”

Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.

Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?

I suspect the answer is almost every time.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:

Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.

Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.

Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.

Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.

Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.

We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.

Photo courtesy of freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of freeimages.com

The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).

Grace and the Incomplete Flush

By Sara Zarr

Almost two years ago my husband and I bought a condo in a cool old building downtown. Great location, hardwood floors, exposed brick, pocket doors—charm and more charm. The trouble with cool old buildings is that they are rife with plumbing and electrical issues as ancient systems jury-rigged to keep up with modern times continually fail.

Our previous home had these same issues. The electrical never bothered me much—an ungrounded outlet here, a shorted breaker there, a little smoke wafting out of the dimmer switch of a summer evening. Life.

But the plumbing. The plumbing is another story. The primary symptom of its troubles (and all of my angst about it) coalesces around what is known in the biz as an “incomplete flush.” No matter how many times you flush the toilet, you can never quite get rid of all evidence that you had to use it.

This creates a low level of stress that’s with me all the time. What will I find when I go into the bathroom? What will remain when I leave? How do I politely explain to guests what to expect and not to worry about it?

“It won’t overflow,” I assure them. “It only looks like it will.”

What will they think of me?

 

I have a number of recurring anxiety dreams.

One is about being in college and realizing I have a test in a class I’ve somehow neglected to attend for the entire semester. Common. Another common one is a version of “the actor’s nightmare,” in which I’m about to go on stage before an audience only I’ve never seen a script and I might also be partially nude.

The third that I often have involves toilets, some variation of “I gotta go” and I can’t find a single toilet that isn’t dirty, overflowing with waste, in a stall without a door, in a room without a stall, or, oddly, in a flooded gym locker room. I assume this one is pretty common, too.

 

My friends and I, when we talk about our various spiritual and psychological and childhood issues, often say: “Oh, I’m just dealing with my shit.” Or, “Sorry, my shit was coming up,” when we overreact to a perceived slight or rejection.

Anything that feels like evidence of what we find ugly or gross about ourselves we equate to literal crap, and ideally we could just flush it all away and never have it bubble back up at inconvenient moments, never look messy, never feel soiled.

Sometimes I have a difficult time maintaining relationships once they feel dirtied—and they all get dirtied. I want tidy closures and sparkling reconciliation, for everything that seemed foul and repulsive to be whooshed away into the great sewer of the universe and be completely forgotten.

I have this belief that it would be less painful to be a young widow than to have to struggle through a difficult conversation in marriage, that it would be neater to have no friends at all than to work at loving people and letting them love me once we’ve seen what’s down there clogging up the drain, that it would be better to move on from a job once I’ve sent a regrettable email or missed a deadline.

I guess what I want is for there to never be evidence of my sin. I guess what I want is to never need forgiveness, understanding, patience, or mercy. I guess I don’t want to need saving. I guess I want to be perfect.

I joke about being a “perfectionist” and how it can freeze me up when I’m trying to write. With writing it’s one thing, just a minor symptom. It’s serious, though, when it comes to my spirit and my ability to have meaningful relationships (including with myself) in the light of the gospel.

Though the anxiety of not being perfect crosses every social divide, religious anxiety and some types of doctrine can really exacerbate it. My Mormon friends deal with this, I know, as do my friends from evangelical backgrounds.

But in theory, anyway, it seems like Christians should be the best at being okay with not being perfect. We confess our inability to save ourselves, and exchange our imperfection for Christ’s perfection. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to let Christ’s perfect love live in us and through us, and to know that and nothing else as our salvation.

Still, there is a point in every day where I have some version of the thought: But tomorrow I will be perfect.

The thought isn’t spiritual; a thought nowhere near to taking hold of Christ’s perfection.

It is a thought that encompasses what I will eat and how I will exercise, and that I will say nothing mean or sarcastic to my husband, that I will write a thousand perfect words and only tweet perfect tweets. I will make my hair perfect and my clothes perfect and this will probably involve buying something.

I’ll make sure no one sees me being petty, afraid, envious, stupid, or uninformed. And I will do this all through sheer force of will. Jesus doesn’t even cross my mind.

Then I wake up to the new day of perfection, and I have to use my cranky old toilet and go another round with the fact that I am messy, and my ways are messy, and my thoughts and issues are messy, and my relationships don’t always have the whiff of clean summer breezes, and everybody knows it.

Today I will need grace; I will need salvation.

Tomorrow, I will need it again.

The above originally appeared on Good Letters at Patheos and is reblogged with the permission of the author. 

 

Sara Zarr is the author of five novels for young adults, most recently The Lucy Variations, which the New York Times called “an elegant novel.” Her sixth, a collaborative novel with Tara Altebrando, came out December 2013. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, The Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. In fall 2014, she received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at www.sarazarr.com.

Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You (part two)

Guest blogger, Amy Nee, part two of two (here’s part one)

I caught that train and took it to Cermak-Chinatown. The Congress on Urban Ministry had converged on the Hyatt at McCormick Place (a hotel and convention center the size of a neighborhood) and was hosting free “Words and Worship” services in the evenings. That night Shane Claiborne was scheduled to speak. He is an author and activist and part of “The Simple Way,” a community that calls for a way that is both simple and profound. The residents recognize people around them as neighbors—whether those people are gang members, prostitutes, school children, investment bankers or Iraqi citizens on the other side of the world. Shane is a representative of people who take seriously Jesus’ advocacy of neighbor-love, and enemy-love. He talked that night about grace as the backdrop for peace.  Grace, he said, is seeing the same things, the same people, with new eyes; it is seeing beyond surface and assumptions.

Closing his talk, Shane shared a video clip filmed during his time in India working with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. The camera holds closely the image of a child shaking with terror from an accident he has just survived. Malnourished, the boy’s skin is stretched tightly over his bones. His head appears too large for his birdlike body which convulses in the arms of a Catholic sister who is leaning over his railed bed. She firmly but gently rubs his fragile frame, over and over. Her hands transfer compassion and healing and gradually his tremors still. The boy’s body becomes loose and limp, his angular head tips toward the sister. His eyes, deep, dark pools, meet hers. The hospital is crowded with children no doubt in equal need, but she holds him.  Infinity in their gaze. A look of recognition.

My heart stirs, a desire rising. I want to go to India, to be her, to hold him. But there is something beyond this want. I desire that type of engagement—with the afflicted, with my Mom, with the woman behind the cash register, with the man asking me for change and the prisoner I can’t see—awareness, presence, compassion. I want to recognize people and to give people the opportunity to recognize each other. If not to see Christ in the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, the loved and the unlovely; to see ourselves.

How can we “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” when we move through life like casually skipped stones, skimming the surface, making occasional, brief contact—splish, what they seem to want—splash, what we think they need—plunk, deep, drinking desire.  We are awestruck out of our element there.  It is a scary thing to sink into the unknown.  I can say that I am called to this as a Christian, and I am.  But I want to clarify that I think Jesus’ mission was not to make a Church but to teach us to be whole humans, to restore the earth and its residents to life.  Thus, whatever my religion, I am called to this as a living being.  Waking life requires it.