On Prayers Over Pastrami

My neighborhood sandwich shop is a great place to people watch. On any given day, you can witness hungover college students gulping down giant sandwiches, priests and nuns passionately debating the latest Catholic news, neighborhood kids ordering milkshakes they can barely carry, beggars shuffling through the store asking for money, pamphleteers taking a break from changing the world one leaflet at a time to chug a soda, and local beauty school attendees nervously studying up on the latest hair-dos (and hair-dont’s, for that matter). I never know what I’ll encounter, and I guess that’s half the fun of walking down a few blocks for my usual ham sandwich and chips.

Yesterday, as I waited patiently in an unusually short lunch line, an older woman pushing a wheelchair caught my eye as she approached a monk quietly enjoying his lunch in a sunny part of the shop. I could not hear what was said, but the body language, the eyes, the mouthed words indicated to me that these two people did not know each other. I wondered, with at most half-interest, if she was asking for directions, or inquiring as to his funny-looking robe. Then, among the crying baby, the teenage girls on their cell phones, and the panicked clerk floundering behind the counter to make change, my world slowed down as I watched the lady reach out to hold the monk’s hand and bow her head as he said a prayer.

It’s not unusual to see someone pray in public. Although I will always maintain that Jesus does not want any soul to invoke his name over a plate of McNuggets, I grew up seeing families bow their heads before a meal, teammates take a knee after a hard-fought game, and students gather around flag poles to join hands in prayer. Despite being a faithful churchgoer all throughout my childhood and youth, these displays always seemed a little showy to me, almost profane to make something so personal so public. As I got older, grew into myself, and abandoned the orthodoxy if not the lessons of the church, the call to prayer, faint as it had ever been, left permanently. Over time, I viewed these public prayers with bemusement and perhaps a little self-satisfied indignation.

The woman holding the monk’s hand in the sandwich shop was different, though. She wasn’t putting on a show, waiting to be seen, or going through the motions. I don’t know what compelled her to approach the monk. She was pushing a wheelchair carrying a man I presume was her husband. Maybe she was praying for a miracle that he would walk again. Maybe she was simply tired. Maybe anything. Who knows?  It doesn’t really matter, and it’s none of my business. The sincerity of her approach, the respect she held for the monk was evident, though. That level of faith and belief is simply inaccessible to me.

I don’t know why people pray or believe in God or attend church. As someone rejected by the larger institutional church, it’s all a little hocus-pocus to me. Perhaps a sincere hocus-pocus, but a hocus-pocus nonetheless. Magical spell or no, the lady in the sandwich shop was a believer, and her humble exchange with the monk transcended the precision of science and rejected my smug certainty. I doubt I’ll ever approach a stranger in public for a prayer, but I will admit to a little jealousy, for I find something beautiful about this woman’s world. A world where, among sandwiches and soda pop, strangers can transcend the known world, invoke all-knowing and all-loving power, and comfort each other with their faith. True or not, in its sincerest form, it has a poetry. Even over pastrami.

On Jesus’s Super Powers

As a kid, I loved comic books. I was fascinated by the idea of having super powers — flying, teleporting around the world with the blink of an eye, reading people’s minds, having super strength. To this day, I gleefully head to the movie theater to watch my childhood daydreams brought to life, and I love every minute.

I was also a faithful churchgoer as a child and youth. Every Sunday, I was there in the red pews, singing (badly), praying, and listening to the sermons. I loved the church youth group, and like most people, I assume, the periphery of the church experience — holiday events, pot luck meals, social gatherings — held more appeal and meaning for me than the underlying church orthodoxy. Nevertheless, over the years, I absorbed the basic tenets of a Methodist belief system and came to know and understand the story of Jesus.

Despite years of comic book reading and years of churchgoing, I found myself gobsmacked five years ago when I listened to comedian Patton Oswalt riff on Jesus’s super powers. I had never considered the miracles of Jesus, such as walking on water, raising people from the dead and multiplying loaves of bread and fishes to be super powers. Obviously, Jesus’s miracles and Superman’s ability to fly are both extra-human, but, in my mind, I had never conflated the two. It was one of those moments where the scaffolding of your mind collapses under the power and weight of a new idea.

Comic books, like all great art, are escapism. A good comic book story lifts you out of the here and now and takes your mind to a different time and place and allows you to transform your weak body and trifling spirit into something stronger, something faster, something amazing. In those childhood daydreams as you imagine yourself web-slinging from building to building like Spiderman, or as you defeat the super baddie with your super speed and strength, your own tiny world and tiny problems no longer matter. They fade away for those precious few moments, and you gain the greatest super power of them all, even if only temporarily, to recreate yourself.

The story of Jesus offers the same escapism. Whether it’s the miracles of Jesus or the promise of Heaven, religion dangles the hope and promise of something better. And, by also promising the forgiveness of sins, the story of Jesus, and Christianity as a whole, the true believer can recreate himself or herself, almost at the blink of an eye.

As I got older, comic books lost a little luster. Sure, I still found the stories entertaining, and, as mentioned, I love the movies that now bring my heroes to life in new and exciting ways. But I no longer dream of having super powers, at least not in the same way. We grow up, mature (a little), understand more of the world, appreciate its grays and nuances, and go about the real heroic challenge of creating a life for ourselves, mortal power and all. Our mind places our comic book loves on the back shelves of our spirit, perhaps next to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. We appreciate them for what they are, but now we define their magic differently.

Jesus sits on that same shelf in my spirit. I no longer believe in God (if I ever really did), and I don’t believe a man ever walked on water or raised people from the dead, if the historical Jesus even existed in the first place. That said, the lessons we can take from Jesus’s miracles/super powers, just like the lessons we can take from Superman’s goodness or Thor’s honor, are timeless and worth daydreaming about. Part of the human experience is the desire to be more than we are, to be delivered somehow from the brokenness we find ourselves in.

Whether your salvation is from Jesus or Wonder Woman, it’s fine by me. No matter what, though, you must only use your powers for good and not evil.