Have you noticed that people seem to be at a loss right now? Our elected officials in Washington are certainly at a loss. Our old comfortable ways of doing things—from diplomacy to entertainment—don’t seem to be working well anymore. Sources we have long turned to for the truth—I’m thinking of Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings here, which tells you how old I am—are few and far between these days. Is the media we’re listening to reporting objectively or offering their position on one issue or another? How can we tell, either way?
Wouldn’t it be nice, right about now, to have a superhero just fly in and tell us what’s what? He or she could clean up all the blurry lines, put things back in order, sweep away the falsehoods and hidden agendas, and put the villains either behind bars or on a planet so far away they’ll never trouble us here on Earth again. It would be such a relief to be able to relax and know our world is back in balance, restored to clarity and justice, in tune with that sense of harmony and well-being for all. If only someone would take care of that for us, we’d feel like we could get back to our regular lives again, wouldn’t we?
If you read comics when you were young, you probably remember DC Comics, available for one thin dime at the corner drug store. Superman was the first to appear on the horizon in 1938. Can you imagine what it would have felt like as a child in the 1930s to read a Superman comic for the first time? Families were still struggling with the effects of the Great Depression. The rumors of war in Europe were getting louder. Money was tight. Jobs were scarce. Worry was in the air.
Enter Clark Kent, a soft-spoken, polite young man who works as a reporter for the Daily Planet. As we learn more about Clark, we find out he was raised on a farm in Kansas, a normal everyday guy from a normal everyday place, just like thousands of young boys all across the country reading his story faithfully. But soon we learn there’s more to Clark than his unassuming demeanor. He’s actually from another planet and he has superhuman abilities—he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Superman used his gifts for the betterment of others, seeking to bring villains to justice, to restore the social order, to push back on the powers of oppression and inhumanity. He was using what he had to bring more light and peace to the world.
And even though Superman had this great, superhuman strength, he was also a vulnerable soul—vulnerable in the places he’d been hurt. When he was a tiny baby, his scientist father had put on a spaceship and sent him to Earth to save his life, moments before their planet exploded. Part of Superman’s story involved his feelings of being alone and isolated. At times, he was tempted to despair. It’s possible that the superhuman strength that enabled him to fight for the powerless grew from seeds that were planted when he was small and alone, when he needed someone with strength to protect and comfort and guide him in his life.
If you’re a fan of Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen all the different quizzes you can take—what your favorite color says about you, what your rapper name might be, or which member of the royal family you most resemble. The “What Is Your Superpower?” quiz asks you a series of questions—where you live, what you like to do, what your favorite pet is, how you make decisions (for example, do you listen most to your head, heart, gut, friends, or family?). And what you’d do with a superpower if you had one (you could choose from make a change in the world, get rich, help random people, just have fun). The quiz also asks, “what’s the worst thing ever?” and shows pictures of difficult situations. It’s trying to get at what frustrates or bothers you. A crying baby on an airplane? Being stuck in traffic? Being trapped with overly friendly strangers?
That question fascinates me because something in there rings true. The seed of the gifts we wind up contributing to the world, the place where we feel moved to reach out and try to make things better, often has something to do with a time of pain we’ve lived through in our own lives. Like Superman developing superhuman strength after arriving on this planet as a tiny, helpless infant. Like a mother who dedicates her life to working with juvenile offenders after her own son was killed in a gang fight.
A quick search online will display a list more than 100 superpowers you could develop—anything from invisibility to supreme speed to spinning like a cyclone to being able to fly, shapeshift, or camouflage yourself at will. And while some of those powers sound like they might be more helpful than others—I’m having trouble imagining when it would be helpful to be able to turn yourself into a snowstorm—the real power isn’t in the form of the help being offered but in the love that inspires the offering and the willingness to do what we can to help.
Writing on his blog this week, Quaker Parker Palmer quoted a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on August 16, 1967. He talked about the relationship between love and power. He said:
“[O]ne of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love….
…Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love….
Here’s a question worth asking: Am I using whatever power I have in the service of love — via my voice, my vocation, my personal and public witness?”
That’s a superpower right there. And maybe, in Dr. King, there was a superhuman as well. Certainly he possessed a superhuman faith, a superhuman vision.
But I think one of the most important thing God helps us learn in this life is that our help doesn’t come from out there, from one extraordinary person who swoops in and makes everything right. It might be started, as in Dr. King’s case, by the inspired ideas that person plants in the hearts of those who hear him. But the day of celebrity is drawing to an end, and I think part of what we’re experiencing now in our world is that that belief—that people and organizations “out there” have the power to change who we are “in here”–is dying an ugly death. For generations we have been enamored with appearances and we are learning now—painfully, but maybe with some relief and a sense of right order—that the superpowers we are waiting for are inside us. God has placed them there. Jesus told us that when he said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” And through the experiences of our lives, those gifts in us mature and deepen until the perfect time when they can be used—in the service of love—to bring healing and hope to those who cross our paths. That’s a superpower, already here.
While we’re trying to get through a difficult and stressful time–maybe a job loss, a conflict in the family, a serious illness, or a time of heartbreaking grief–all we want is for the pain to go away, for life to be less raw and more predictable, so we can feel up to coping with our daily lives. We may not see that during those painful and dark days something beautiful is being planted in our hearts—something that will bear fruit at just the right time, with just the right person, in just the right situation that calls forth our light.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is instructing them on the basics of a good life—what to stay away from (the verses before this warn them against debauchery and strife) and how to recognize the fruits of a life lived in accord with spirit: He writes, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
These are the natural fruits of a life full of experience with God, the subtle evidence of the superpower of love shining out through the cracks of difficult and demanding times. Our life experiences fit us for a special strength that will be a help to others at some point. God will point the way, and we’ll feel the tenderizing of our hearts. We’ll get that internal nudge from spirit that says, “You can do something here. This is yours to do.”
When our hearts are open to others, not only will the light we carry gently bless those we care about every day, but we will also find ourselves drawn by the grace of God into moments where we find ourselves loving the unlovable, being kind to those who are hard on themselves, sharing peace with those at war within, offering patience and a long view to those at a loss and searching for answers. Our superpower—whatever form it takes—is at essence our willingness to shine the light God gives us so that it can touch and heal and bless anyone who needs it. Our part is simply to show up, to care, and to be willing to use whatever gifts we have in the service of love, and we can be confident that God will do the rest.
- OT: Psalm 144: 12-15 (p. 580-581)
- NT: Galatians 5: 22-23 (p. 191)