May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Sermon: Sustaining Your Inner Superheroine

Sustaining Your Inner Superhero, delivered to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, April 15, 2012.

            I'm glad you're here.  I'm glad we're here together.  Thank you.
            I invite you to think back to when you were just starting out in this world.  Now that we've got our three year old son Henry in our life, so often the things he does and says remind me of when I was that age. 
            If you were like me, the rocketship in your hand was a real rocketship, as were the dinosaurs, the Hotwheels cars, the Tonka trucks and the dolls.
            To my adult mind now, those toys held an astonishing  allure, and I see a serious amount of imaginative play at work in Henry's life as well.
            I recall back when imagination ran full-tilt.  My bicycle was the batcycle.  When I laid down on the top of the sofa with my arms out, I was flying.
            Since then, something’s changed.  I got educated into the world, I became more and more aware of the world, and adult reality set in.
            I still want to cling to the idea that there are good guys and bad guys, superheroines and supervillainesses.   I know that’s no longer true.  Actually it’s my understanding that’s changed, not the world.  I know that the good-slash-bad binary has never been true.  As Alexandr Solzhenitsyn tells us in The Gulag Archipelago, “If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
            We have a tendency to lose track of our superpowers, or our plain old power even, and just settle in to what we've been assigned, or what's expected of us, and this is what divides our hearts.  But to really connect with our superpowers doesn't take superhuman effort.
            It takes imagination, and it takes the will to bring that which you imagine into real being.  That's it.
            Before we can sustain our inner superhero, we need first to imagine it, to find it, to discover it.  What is the self within us that—as our first reading tells us—wants to do the right thing: to act for justice and peace, and at times, kick serious ass?  I believe we each have this potential within us.  We just need a good process to help our inner superhero come out into the light of our awareness.

            First, we need to recall that justice and injustice are not monoliths.  If we treat them as such, they are gigantic inseparable abstractions that we can't get any grasp upon.  We must find specific justice targets which really match our individual passions.  There are plenty of areas in the world that need justice, and when the good people of the world are working as a team, there will be plenty of people to address those areas.  Otherwise, to try and take on “injustice” as a category is simply overwhelming.   As Howard Thurman says, “Don't ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go and do that.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 
            Last month, myself and three other members of this congregation attended the Gamaliel community organizing training.  One of the key learnings for me was that every person has experiences in their history that guide their vision.  Figuring out those formative experiences can clarify and unlock your self-interest. 
            Recognizing self-interest is a healthy habit.  It's not selfish where you just try to get others to do for you.  And it's not selfLESS where you put on a martyr's altruism and help others fulfill their dreams, and put your own on the backburner or even take them off the stove.  When you know your self-interest, you've got your foundation under you, and are one important step closer to being strong for what you believe in.  You have the river of truth at your side, and are ready to say “No, YOU move,” or are ready to interrupt the situation when you witness an injustice you've prepared yourself to face.
            A second element of this discovery process is to be gentle with yourself.  You're not magical, and the world does not rest on your shoulders.  At least it shouldn't.  Wolverine made an important point about superheroes and superheroines—that they're made, not born, and it's their guts that make them super.  Here's a little aside: Back when this sermon was hatching almost twenty years ago, I heard some song lyrics by an English band named Black Grape:
Don’t talk to me about heroes
Most of these men sing like serfs
Jesus was a black man
No Jesus was Batman
No, no, no,
That was Bruce Wayne.

That curveball about Bruce Wayne kind of cracked me up, and I figured Jesus probably wasn't a black man—I bet he looked kind of like the people of the Eastern Mediterranean, though the part that really stuck with me was “Jesus was Batman.”
            I didn't really make my own real meaning of it until after finding Unitarian Universalism.  See, many Christians understand Jesus as some type of otherworldly being begotten outside of time and space, more akin to Superman from another planet with powers that none of us could ever hope to accomplish. 
            As a Unitarian, I came to appreciate Jesus as being closer to the style of Batman--of being one of us, working smarter, doing pushups, and developing skills.  Wonderwoman, while working tirelessly for justice—originally fighting against the Nazis during world war two—like Superman, also has superhuman abilities, descended from a mythic Amazon warrior culture.  It's good that she's on the side of justice, but no amount of pushups is going to help bridge that gap between where we are and her super-humanity.  I could go through the Marvel and DC comic superhero inventories trying to determine whose powers were innate and whose were developed, but the inclusion of these three makes my point without going past my depth and into an area which would only entertain the most hardcore comics fans here today.  The  superheroes and superheroines within each of us—which need not match our birth gender—require our work and intentionality to come into being.  We start with what we are—what we really are, not what we're told we are (in so many categories)—and find a way to become more ourselves.  We don't have to have superhuman strength or speed, or be able to turn back time by flying backwards around the Earth until Lois Lane comes back to life.  Our superpower can be as straightforward as preparing ourselves, then having the courage to show up and speak our truth when it matters. 

Now that we've identified the superhero within us, we're ready for the third element of this discovery process.  Here, we get to the part about actually sustaining our inner superhero.  Sustaining is the key, and is what will really serve our momentum.  An example from the world of music may shed some light.  Each instrument has its own style of making notes.  A guitar is strummed and then the strings slowly die down.  A drum or percussive instrument gets hit for a very short sharp transient note.  And a violin or a synthesizer (or a wine glass) can hold a note steadily for a long time.  This ability to draw out a note is called “sustain.”  In the quote at the top of your order of service, from Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, he notes that by playing the music loud, his guitar has extra long sustain.  That sustain comes from a mild form of feedback.  The oscillations in air pressure caused by the loud amplifiers are actually strong enough that they're like wind blowing on the guitar strings, which allows them to keep ringing on for a long time.  Feedback is what we need to sustain us.  Feedback in community.  When we're loud enough in words or action such that others hear us and some resonate—though certainly not all will resonate, (and that's okay)—when some resonate with us, we find a momentum that sustains.  Through conversation you may find that your imagination matches theirs, or your imagination may inspire others, or their imaginations may inspire your own. 
            And good conversation may include agitation and clarification as well.  We tend to shy away or give complimentary feedback, perhaps so that we'll be liked by the listener, or because we want them to feel liked.  But that's not genuine.  I invite you to be both kind and clear when reflecting your feedback, whether it be critique or praise.  Critique, not to be confused with it's negative cousin criticism, spurs people to go deeper and find their genuine selves.   Conversations of this sort—deep, connected interactions beyond small talk and the events of the day—are a path to spiritual growth in community.  In this congregation's behavioral covenant, we're seeking to acknowledge each other's value and treat each other accordingly.  To me, this means that we will level with each other, and do our level best to stay in relationship with each other.  When we know that we can offer genuine feedback and not fear rejection, that to me indicates that we value each others' authentic selves.
            And all of this serves to help vivify our imagination, so that we may become more adept at fostering it into becoming real.  After all, almost everything that comes into existence in the human world begins as a thought in someone's imagination.  From there, if voiced, it turns into a conversation, and if worthy of action, may even turn into an institution. 
            [slower] Now this feedback, this conversation, happens within each of us as well.  From Howard Thurman's advice, we must seek community within our own spirit, searching in our experiences with the literal facts of the external world, to bring order out of chaos from this collective life, and we will be sustained and supported by life.  In other words, as our inner sense of community is in conversation, we become harmonious to our own self. 
            This work within ourselves and beyond ourselves in accountable community is crucial for sustaining a steadfast spirit.  I will close with this question: Against all the messages which may make you feel separate from your inner superhero, can you imagine yourself developing a pattern of responding with a steadfast spirit?  Amen.

I invite you now to join in singing one of my favorite hymns, How Could Anyone?            #1053 in your teal hymnals.
. .
lyrics: How could anyone ever tell you you were less than whole?

pax hominibus,
agape to all,

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