Essay

Being Supersuit

For years of my childhood, my friend Chris and I would have hours-long G.I. Joe battles. We invented complex character traits for all the action figures. For example, the ironically named, Guile, was the loose cannon who was always threatening to trick or abandon the team. He was a loner (come to think of it, Chris always made his action figures “the loner.” X-Men’s Wolverine was one of his favorites). But the Joes would always reel him in just in time to ambush the evil Cobra forces … by driving a school bus right into the teeth of heavy machine gun fire from Cobras occupying the elevated position of the bookcase. My tactical understanding at that time was on par with Lord Cardigan, who commanded the charge of the Light Brigade. No matter. The Joes always prevailed in the end.

Sometimes instead of G. I. Joes, it was superhero action figures. Sometimes it was just the two of us inventing elaborate stories of our meteoric rise to NBA superstardom on my driveway basketball hoop. Sometimes we lived in the virtual space of video games. But as often happens with childhood friends, it wasn’t meant to last. Chris’ family moved to Arkansas and I did less and less imagining.

Before Chris, there was my sister, Jennifer. On land we were Jonathan and Jennifer, brother and sister dynamic duo, but when we put on bathing suits and jumped into our grandparents’ community pool, we transformed into the aquatic superheroes Supersuit and Buddy—oddly fitting alter egos in a universe populated by prosaically named superheroes like Super-man, Bat-man, Spider-man, Iron-man, Ant-man … need I go on?

My superpowers consisted mostly of doing chin-ups on the railing of the wheelchair ramp, aided by the buoyancy of pool water; or swimming underwater between my dad’s legs; or doing handstands. Her superpowers consisted of copying me. If we were feeling particularly brave, we would challenge the imaginary pool sharks hidden in the murky fathoms of the deep end of the pool. We were a poor man’s Batman and Robin, if the poor man were a merman. As we got older Supersuit and Buddy hung up our oversize trunks and frilly tie-dyed onepiece and became regular citizens. Without their fearless heroes, the retirement community of Tucson, Arizona is probably being terrorized by pool sharks to this day.

When I was in middle school, my parents took me to a garage sale, where I discovered stacks of Spider-man and Captain America comics from the 70’s, the “bronze age” of comics. I think the woman at the table was eager to get rid of them, or maybe she just saw the glimmer of longing in my eyes, cause I got a huge stack of them for $10. I read and re-read those comics, imbibing the delicious mythology.

I related most to Spider-man. He was like me: a shy, insecure nerd. But when he put on that red and blue bodysuit with the plump red spider design on the back, he had all the answers. I imagine on weekends he turned that bodysuit inside out and became the faceless neon green man who shows up at every tailgate event. But those weekend escapades never made it into the comic books, just the serious crime-fighting of a man in a leotard: the superhero’s business casual.

He was so free, swinging through the city on his homespun strands of web. His acrobatic battles with the likes of Dr. Octopus, The Vulture, and The Green Goblin were epic.  More often than not, it was his mind and not his muscles that saved the day. I got him. And I lived out my wildest superhero dreams through him.

I don’t mean to brag, but when I was a kid I could imagine with the best of them. When you’re an introvert a top-of-the-line imagination is a must. I’ve since traded my imagination in for bad puns and big words—and we think kids make bad trades. Bamboozled by linguistic legerdemain again! Holy Adam West!

But every once in awhile, something happens that makes this boy tear off his man suit with all its overseriousness and stuffy alliteration, and don the colorful duds of boyhood again. The Greater Chicago Snowpacolypse© did it to me last year. The movie Cool Runnings does it to me. Hanging out with little kids does it to me. Riding roller coasters does it to me. Being around women does it to me … hmm … no wonder I’m single …

It happened again a couple weeks ago when I saw The Avengers on opening night. As I was picking up the tickets I reserved for my buddies and myself, the Avengers themselves walked through the doors of the theater; or rather, adults dressed up like the Avengers walked through the doors. These weren’t cheap cardboard cutout costumes they were wearing, but serious Marvel brand business casual. They had either bought them from some Hollywood overstock prop warehouse or fashioned them in their basements with meticulous care. These people were Comic-Connies, and they perfectly set the mood of childlike whimsy.

The movie itself was sheer bliss; a convergence of sorts: childhood superheroes, meet masterful storyteller. I drank deeply from a vintage draught of fun distilled from the summers of my youth. The characters were compelling and winsome. The good guys were good guys, the bad guys were bad guys. The infighting of the superheroes was hilarious: comically futile battles between indestructible characters. And the electric synnergy of teaming up so many superheroes in one movie will make me feel the lack in future one-hero movies.

The expansive aerial battle scenes captured the thrilling velocity of a roller coaster, yet avoided the incomprehensible messiness of a Transformers battle scene. And throughout, there was an undercurrent of knowing glances and nods to a community that shares the common language of childhood. Several times, I felt myself involuntarily grinning, the boy inside coming to the surface. The Avengers took me back to the world of my childhood; back to a world where heroes always prevail.

Image credit: Unsplash/Phoebe Dill

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Just a Moment

Glass is a liquid. I can’t see it, but the pane is sagging under the weight of gravity ever so slightly. In a few hundred years it’ll be pudgy at the midsection—if the library surrounding it lasts that long. From my chair, all I see is a transparent wall separating me from Adams Park. I view the world like it’s trapped in an aquarium. Or am I in the aquarium? A magazine lies spread on my lap, but for this moment I’m in my head again. I can almost lose myself, eyes focused on what’s outside—trees and sidewalks and streets interlocked—as if this moment were all there is. I am just sun-warmth and breath, like a pie cooling on a windowsill.

I’ve just read in an article from The Atlantic on how lonely we’ve become: the Facebook generation. But I’m not lonely. I’m just alone. A fish in an aquarium above the street. The room I’m in is a shrine to reading. Some study, some read, some simply stare with an unnerving focus that wipes expression from their faces. I wonder about their stories. Why, like me, have they chosen to cool next to the window overlooking the sidewalk below?

I’ve put my cellphone away, so time isn’t passing. Time flows, but just like with the glass, I can’t tell. Not when everything around me moves so slowly.  Not without ticking clocks or anxious thoughts or rushing people. It seems to just stand still—a moment, a photograph, a single frame.

This is where I dwell most comfortably, in this timeless state, so immersed that I’m not even aware I’m immersed. Does a fish know it swims? Like fish, we all float through this vast universe, unaware that gravity is working on us. We can’t see the strings. We can’t see the gears inside the watch. We can’t see the picture flickering at 24 frames per second. But it is.

We can try to pretend that this world spins more slowly than our minds, but it just keeps spinning. While we try to vivisect it, it keeps going. While we hold up a magnifying glass, it moves beneath us. While I try to explain what’s happening, it is. We must learn to live in the moment. It’s all we have. We do all of our living and learning and loving and losing in the moment. Memories are the archival footage you can’t change and the future is a London fog.

How many hours have I spent robbing the present so I could pay for a glance forwards or backwards? We carry the past with us, there’s no need to backtrack. And trying to gaze into the future only makes us dizzy with all of the unactualized possibilities. Dwelling in the present is an act of faith. It requires letting go—of the impulse to hang onto the past as well as the need to control the future. It’s simply living in the moment and trusting that God will not waste your past experiences, that he will reward your faithfulness in the present, and that he is orchestrating your future for the best. For this moment, that’s enough.

Who Is My "Neighbor" in a Globally-Connected World?

Kony ’12. It seemed like a good idea at the time. For a day, I was inspired that perhaps change can happen if enough people want it to happen. I believed that we could stop a man who has been kidnapping, raping, murdering, and pillaging his way through Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan for a quarter century by raising such a large global outcry that he would be captured and things would be magically fixed. I was ready to buy the kit, ready to spread the word, ready to join the rallies, ready to help create the groundswell to sweep Joseph Kony out of power and into prison.

Then, within a couple days, as is often the case, cooler heads prevailed on me. These articles raise the issues more eloquently and poignantly than I can, so I’ll let the authors speak for themselves. I’ll just say this, creating awareness will not magically bring justice, and it is the height of pride to believe that North Americans can simply throw $30 apiece at a complex issue and expect it will go away. We create more problems than we solve when we buy into the “white savior” swooping in to solve the world’s problems overnight myth.

But far from letting me off the hook, this whole chain of events has forced me to do some deep soul-searching. Why did I care about this issue in the first place? Did I choose it because it was expedient, just a couple clicks here and there necessary? Did the beauty and artistry of the movie manipulate my emotions and bypass my judgement? Did I choose it because it was a sexy issue that would make me look good if I supported it? Did I choose it out of a sense of good old-fashioned Christian guilt? Did I choose it because of my personal battle with the need to “do” and not just “be”? Did I even really care about the people involved or was it just an issue to me?

The truth is, I’m not ready to invest in Uganda long-term. I have no plans to continually give to the cause of rebuilding Uganda. I’m not going to fly over there and get to know the people for whom this is a daily reality and not just the flavor of the week. I saw a movie, was moved, and in effect, pressed the “like” button on the issue. Because all I could promise was solidarity. I couldn’t promise commitment.

And this is the constant dilemma of our globally-connected society. If we cared about every issue we’re aware of enough to throw our weight behind it we’d soon succumb to compassion fatigue. We were not designed to bear the weight of the world like Atlas. And yet, there is a greater danger in the polar opposite: not throwing our weight behind any issue. Apathy is the imitation of death, and the ultimate surrender. So how do we decide what is worth spending our time, energy, money, blood, sweat, tears, gifts, and talents on?

I think one way to get at the answer to this question is to rephrase it and ask, who is my neighbor? You’ll recognize that this very question was asked of Jesus in Luke 10. He responded with the parable of the good Samaritan:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

There are a lot of things I could say about this passage, but allow me to make three observations related to this discussion:

1. Jesus always prioritizes the person who is immediately in need in front of us.

Call it triage if that’s helpful. If donating to a cause will take something away from someone in more immediate need, you should give it to the person more immediately in need whom you can most directly help at that time (especially if that person is in your physical vicinity). This may mean that you choose to buy groceries for a neighbor who can’t afford them (as someone in my church recently did for a couple struggling young men) rather than donating to an overseas ministry like Invisible Children (if you can afford to do both, then more power to you).

Here’s a practical negative example from my own life. As I was driving to my church to feed the homeless in Chicago with a group of volunteers, I passed a family broken down on the side of the road about a block from my house. I was running late, so I didn’t stop. I think it’s pretty clear that I should have stopped and risked missing the van to Chicago.

2. Jesus expects us to do the work to understand the nature of the need and let that shape our response.

A lot of the criticism being leveled at the Kony ’12 movement is that it misunderstands the nature of the need. Perhaps the money being used to raise awareness and fund making posters and movies and bracelets would be better spent by the people on the ground in Uganda who are rebuilding the country. Furthermore, many feel that military action against Kony would only lead to more bloodshed (as it has in the past), and that there are other, better ways to bring peace and renewal to the region.

For another example, it’s easy to throw money at a homeless person, but often that is not what that person needs. That doesn’t mean you pass up the homeless person and do nothing. Perhaps sharing a meal with them, or buying them a public transportation pass, or simply hearing their story and letting them know you value them as a human created in the image of God is more in line with what they need.

3. Jesus expects us to see it to completion.

“Completion” will mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes, you will be able to solve the problem completely, such as when you help someone change a flat tire. Sometimes, “completion” will mean handing someone or something off to someone who can better help and then following-up later. Sometimes it will mean committing yourself to pursuing a solution to an issue long-term, and perhaps even moving to be closer to the center of the issue.

There is a place for donating money to causes, but we are responsible to know where our money is going and carefully select those who will steward it well (after all we are only stewards of it ourselves). There are several organizations that can help you choose the right one. If you’ll allow me to indulge in some self-promotion for a moment, Christianity Today published a couple helpful articles on the Church’s role in fighting global poverty and the effectiveness of popular methods that are generating lots of helpful responses.

So, who is my neighbor?

I want to humbly submit that our primary responsibility is to the neighbors God puts in our way daily. That may be the neighbor we regularly see or the neighbor we only see once in a lifetime. We have to be ready to drop everything to help when the need arises.

Our secondary responsibility is to the neighbors we “choose.” These are the tricky ones. These are the ones we may never see face-to-face: the sponsored children, the orphans, the refugees, the political prisoners, the persecuted minorities, the survivors of war, the hungry, the poor, the foreigners. They are tricky because they can become faceless masses or simply remain a face on a postcard. They can be a source of smug satisfaction (if we do something for them) or vague, relentless guilt (if we don’t). The temptation is to simply throw money at them to solve their problems. But they are more than their problems. They are people. If we decide to help them, we must commit to understand their situation. We cannot know our neighbors’ needs unless we know our neighbors.

All this to say, if you decide to give to Invisible Children and support the cause of Kony ’12, do it with my blessing. It would be wonderful to see a man with a shockingly warped mind who is guilty of such heart-wrenching atrocities be brought to justice. But if you do give, please be sure you know why you are doing it. Bringing Kony to justice will not be as quick, simple, and violence-free as the movie implies. We see but through a glass darkly, and do not know the full repercussions of bringing down a warlord (see Iraq/Afghanistan). Ultimately vengeance and justice are in the Lord’s hands. We are simply called to love.

(photocredit)

Quarters

When I was a young boy, one of my favorite things to do when my family went to Wal-Mart was to “play” the arcade games near the entrance. As the demo version played on the screen, I would press buttons and swivel the joy stick, pretending that I was playing the game on the screen.

Sometimes I would get really lucky and someone would insert a couple quarters and start actually playing the game. I would stand there looking over his shoulder (at that time it was invariably a “he”), and as the action on the screen got more and more intense, I would begin to bounce up and down with excitement. Who knows what the people around me thought of this, but I didn’t care. I was totally absorbed in what was happening on the screen.

I remember a few times when my dad took me to a real arcade; the ones with aisles and aisles of arcade games. The rooms were filled with seizure-inducing flashing lights and a garbled cacophony of music and sound effects. Each console seemed to compete for your quarters like a street vender in an Arabian bazar, playing its music loudly and calling out to you as it hawked its most engaging game footage to lure you in to play it.

I’d follow my dad over to the change machine and watch him feed paper money into it. The bill would disappear into the bowels of the machine, some hidden gears would whir, and magically, change would spill out into the tray below. It felt like winning the jackpot in slots. With change in hand, he and I would set off together to find a game. At that time, I was a huge fan of any game starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When we found a Turtles game, my dad would reach down and drop a few quarters into the slots below as the game chirped its acknowledgement of the money. With much anticipation, we poised our hands over the “start” buttons and together we pressed them. And the adventure began.

After a few minutes, one of our characters would die, and dad, without a word, would feed more quarters into the machine and the character would be resurrected to battle some more. I think this memory stands out in my mind because it was one of my first realizations of the prodigal nature of my dad’s giving toward me.

Now let me quick clear something up for those who, like me, thought prodigal meant “runaway” or “lost,” as in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Tim Keller, in his book Prodigal God points out that prodigal actually means “profuse or wasteful expenditure,” and the parable is talking about the wasteful spending of the son, not the fact that he was lost and wandering. But Keller points out that prodigal can also be applied to the father’s freely lavish and extravagent giving in providing a feast for his son when he returned.

Back to the arcade. To my young mind, quarters were a lot of money. My dad was relatively frugal and normally didn’t throw money around. Now he had a pile of quarters that he got from his paper money, and he was spending them all on me. Every time I let my character die, he just put more money into the machine to bring him back to life. He didn’t tell me to be more careful. He didn’t make me feel like I was wasting his money. He just let me keep playing with his quarters. I could tangibly see his quarters disappearing, yet he didn’t care. He just wanted me to have fun playing.

I think you probably see where I’m going with this. We serve a prodigal God. Every breath we take, every new day we are alive, every wonderful experience we have, every kiss from a puppy’s tiny tongue, every delicious bite of rich chocolate cake, every burst of laughter that leaves you gasping for breath and shedding tears, every clear starry night, is like another quarter dropped into the machine. Our God continues to feed quarters into the arcade game despite the fact that He could play the game better Himself. It’s an incredibly prodigal act if you reflect on it. Every moment is a vote of confidence from God that says your life, your pleasure is worth His time—more than that—is worth surrendering His very life.

Spend some time with God. He’s got a pile of quarters with your name on them.

“In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Ps. 16:11, NASB) 

Let it Go

William Borden (1887-1913) epitaph: “Apart from faith in Christ there is no explanation for such a life.”

Let it Go. This seems to be the theme of the week for me.

It started with the CD my dad got me for Christmas. The poor guy bought me Inception, not knowing that I had already gotten it for myself. As we were browsing through my parents’ local Christian bookstore, I found the new LeCrae CD on one of the racks, and he gamely asked if he could give it to me for Christmas. Of course, I agreed.
It has been a huge encouragement already. The lyrics are saturated with scripture, and the beats are incredibly catchy. Hip-hop has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s refreshing to have some that’s not embarrassing to play.
Anyway, the theme of the album is: “Let it Go” (money, cars, fame, ego, control, addiction, etc.). Just let it all go. Reminds me of Mark 8:35-37:

35 For whoever wants to save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37 Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

I’m struck with how tightly I’ve been hanging on. The suburbs are designed with this idea in mind. Houses are built in safely tucked-away neighborhoods. Cars take us conveniently from place to place without having to interact with strangers. Every need is immediately met. If I’m uncomfortable in the slightest, I can immediately get rid of that discomfort by retreating or sleeping or turning up the heat or eating a snack or watching TV or reading a book or seeing a movie.

My reason for mentioning all of this is not to knock the suburbs. I believe the suburbs are a blessing. Life is good and friendships are rich and full. It’s a lifestyle that can feel heavenly at times. Just as city or rural life comes with unique temptations and struggles the suburbs have unique temptations and struggles. Each are just places. 

I think the danger comes with the natural impulse to hang-on to these things. We are strangers here, and we can’t forget that. We can’t have treasure here and in heaven, seek comfort at all costs, neglect our neighbor, be self-sufficient (or self-centered) … pick your facet. It all comes down to the fact that we are travelers, just passing through. Beyond this, we have been given an assignment by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe and a finite amount of time to complete it. We are actors in His play, written to bring Him glory. We are His image bearers in this dark world. When we forget that, people get hurt.


Gandhi is rumored to have said: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” This is a loaded statement and much could be said in response (that’s why we worship Christ and not Christians, there are may Christians who do live as Christ did, etc.), but I think it gets at a deeply felt need that non-Christians have to witness authenticity. If you want me to believe what you say, you need to back it up with what you do.


In Revelation 2 & 3, Jesus gives loving warnings to the first century churches that they need to remember their first love and stop being lukewarm. I’ve been thinking about that message a lot. It means something different for each of us. We need to be diligent and aware for opportunities to shake-up our dead patterns and empty religious rituals and live lives defined by the gospel.


As Dr. Litfin used to say: “Crown time will come, but now is cross time. You can’t do everything, but you can do something.”


Amen.

Restoration and Incarnation

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the idea of restoration; specifically, as it relates to the work of Christ.

My small group has been going through the book of John for the past semester, and it has been a very insightful trip through a book I have come to love. This time through, I’ve been struck by the way that Jesus works to restore people.

This is most obvious in his miracles and his discussions. One minute he’s giving sight to a man who has never seen. Another, he’s raising a good friend from the dead. One minute, he’s chatting with a pharisee about spiritual rebirth, the next with a Samaritan woman about living water. Throughout the book, he presents himself as the solution. He makes all kinds of “I am” statements (I am … Word, bread of life, living water, God’s son, the resurrection and life, the vine, etc.) which tie him to God the Father and present him as the ultimate solution for which everyone has been waiting.

But there is something more subtle afoot here.

“What is the meaning of life?” is a question that everyone asks, and that we’ve been asking ever since the garden. Chris McGarvey, my former college pastor, put the answer this way: We are meant to be reflectors. God built deeply into our DNA an aching longing to be a reflection of greatness.  Talk to anyone for 20 minutes, and this is immediately obvious.

The problem is, we’ve set the bar too low. Lucifer was the first one to do this. Isaiah 14 is terribly tragic:

12 How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
13 You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
15 But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.
We followed suit by deciding to reflect ourselves. God had designed us, in His own image, to be the crowning jewel of His creation: creatures who could think, and feel, and relate, and speak, and worship like no other being ever created. He made us truly great. We turned our vibrantly lit, blazing mirrors around toward ourselves and the light went out.
Ever since then, we’ve been stacking stones, trying to get to heaven, or wallowing in the mud, looking for someone who will think we are something special.
And that’s where Jesus comes in.
Contrast the above passage with this one from Philippians 2:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:


6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Mirror images, right? Jesus became a man and a perfect man at that. He was the image of God that reflected God’s glory perfectly. Jesus restored more than just physical and intellectual wholeness. He gave us our purpose and significance back. He healed the broken mirrors that we are, and mended God’s image within us.

Now our failures are always tempered by an undying hope. We don’t have to find significance in being perfect, or looking perfect, or winning a championship, or becoming the best in our field, or supporting our families, or being a faithful friend, or anything else. God just wants us to love and reflect Himself. That’s it. He’s already done the rest.