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Did you know that Superman was a Unitarian Universalist? An embodiment of what is good about faith? I didn’t. Never had considered it. It seems silly to even think that a 75 year old comic book character created by two jewish boys in Cleveland Ohio could expand and grow a discussion of belief. And yet, he does. I only figured it out years after he saved my life.
Let me back up for a moment and start this story over a dozen years ago in October of 2002. Sunday October 13th to be exact. It was my first semester in college. Unbeknownst to my family or friends, and myself to an extent, I was not doing well. I was failing classes, unhappy with where I was, an 18 year old boy who wasn’t convinced of his own self worth. Two years before I had stood on an overpass looking down at a highway and considered jumping, and while I’m spoiling this part of the story simply by standing here, it is fair to say that life from my 18 year old perspective had not gotten altogether better.
So on this sunny October weekend I was back for a mid fall visit home. As part of this visit, I wanted to reconnect with my UU congregation I grew up in. Practically every Sunday since 1987 I’d been attending the Unitarian Church in Westport, and suddenly one of the few places where i’d been able to find some solace was no longer with me. I was being asked to speak on my experience so far trying to connect with the local UU campus ministry. It was just a small thing to say during the announcements, nothing more. I felt more like a prop really than anything else, and at the same time, it felt good to be wanted. I can still see myself walking into the sanctuary and my eye catching the back of a wheelchair with an oxygen tank. It was a moment of dissonance for me, as I don’t think at that time I’d seen someone in our sanctuary with a disability.
I step up to deliver my part of the announcements and service, only to look down at the wheelchair, curious to to see who is there.
Christopher Reeve, the man of steel, is currently in my sanctuary, and looking at me.
It is a surreal moment to meet a character from your childhood in person, a collision of your imagination and the concrete. I’m flustered, and stammer my way to saying something about why it is difficult to be a young unitarian universalist away from my home congregation. At this moment, I think it is safe to say I’m suffering massively from impostor syndrome. I don’t feel like I belong up here, with responsible Adults (and one last son of Krypton) listening to what I have to say. I wrap up what I am asked to speak on, and move to step down from the pulpit. I take one glance back over to Mr. Reeve, and suddenly my eyes are locked with his. He is following my movement with his head. I don’t know how much effort that could have been for him. He says two words to me while we’re looking at each other. He says “Thank you.”
Thank you. I hear those words all the time, probably dozens of times in a single day alone. No other thank you has stuck with me like that moment. Thank you. A simple recognition that what I had to say, that my own opinion and experiences up till that point, were both valid and substantial. Thank you. At that moment when I did not see much worth in my own life and the path I saw myself on, he did. Christopher Reeve, Superman, brought down to earth, sees in my words something valuable. And acknowledges me.
Mary Oliver describes her act of prayer in a small poem from her collection titled Thirst. She writes
“It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
I think this was the moment I started believing I was good person, where I had a truly moving experience of prayer that despite happening at a church, had nothing to do with church. Instead of a blue iris, I was meeting a man that once wore blue tights. A few words were shared, none of them at all elaborate, and no contest was ever entered into. Instead, in this unexpected moment I found myself in an encounter with something much larger. Scottish writer Grant Morrison in his book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human offers his thought on what this larger concept might be. “We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be.”
That’s faith. That’s our faith, and our relationship with faith. We love our faith because it doesn’t give up on us. We’ve analyzed faith until we know that river water doesn’t actually turn to blood, or that one loaf of bread and one fish feeding multitudes is likely a clever metaphor. We’ve mocked our faith with jokes, and even had our faith claimed dead by great thinkers and philosophers. And despite all of that our faith returns when we pay attention, whether in a vacant lot as Mary Oliver offers, or in the passing of two people on a sunny Sunday morning in October.
Many years after my brush with Mr. Reeve, I’d find a simple Superman story that upon reading I broke down smiling and crying. It is fitting then that the writer of this story was one Grant Morrison. It’s a sunny day, and a young woman was on a building ledge, preparing to jump. She’s dropped her cell phone and is raising her hands to her face, making last peace with her decision. Suddenly behind her we see a broad blue chest and hear the words “Your doctor really was held up Megan. I am sorry he isn’t the one here right now. Things are never as bad as they seem.”
The young woman Megan turns around and there he is, Superman. The artist seems to have even captured some of Christopher Reeve in his drawing. Without moving to grab the woman, all that is said by this Man from the sky is “You’re stronger than this, I know you are.”
The story ends with both Superman and Megan hugging each other on the edge of a building, she having chosen to keep her story going. She’s chosen to recognize the worth and dignity someone else has seen in her.