Anyway, as part of my early exposure to blogging and the online community, I decided that on one of my websites I would open an agony aunt forum where I would read and respond to problems posted into me by my subscribers. As if being 13 wasn’t enough to demonstrate my lack of life experience, I also called the agony aunt forum “Dear Nibbler”, after my recently deceased guinea pig, Nibbles, as if to pay homage to the great hay-inspired advice he must have given me. Sure enough, people wrote in to Dear Nibbler every week, and every afternoon when I’d get in from school I’d be eagerly awaiting the next problem I could fix – the next crisis I could solve.
My next chance to be a hero.
I’d like to say that as I got older and grew out of teen-dom that my need to fix and please was something I grew out of at the same time. I’d also like to say that the profession I’ve chosen is one that doesn’t encourage this behaviour in me – or hasn’t made me even more aware of my hero complex than ever. But can you blame me? In my whole 3 years of professional youth work, more often than not, I seem to find myself in the company of actual superheroes. Whilst these superheroes don’t clothe themselves in jazzy capes and outrageous colours – or pants that for some reason have to be worn over trousers – they still seem to have an unnatural ability to turn up, avert disasters, and show people how it’s done.
And I so wish I was one of them.
Instead, it’s common that I find myself returning to the days of Dear Nibbler – except this time with a bit more life experience and much more awareness of where I lack said life experience – yet still feeling that I need to have all of the answers, the solutions and the healing in my wings (I’ve not made it to cape-status, yet). These tools help me to demonstrate to young people the way to behave, think and feel. I need to have all of my stuff under control to be able to be good at my job and to be a real youth worker. To be a superhero. To avert disasters in the lives of young people. To save them from the dangers around them.
It was during my youth work training that I realised that it wasn’t just me with a serious hero complex. Even the genuine superheroes I saw on the job tended to let the mask slip and let their humanness to show. My lecturers used to talk about boundaries, and finding the line between professionalism and being the person you really are. During these lectures, I found myself really struggling with my professional self and the light that the Gospel sheds on that. Where are my hypocrisies? What is genuine and what has been covered up? Where do I draw the line with sharing Annie with young people?
As cliché as it is, Jesus really is a superhero. My colleagues and youth work brothers and sisters might be superheroes, but I’ve never known them to rise from the dead. I’ve never seen them heal someone, or multiply a McDonalds for a group of hangry teenagers. Jesus does and has and continues to do this though (maybe not the McDonalds, but I wouldn’t put it past Him).
Jesus calls us, even us youth workers with a hero complex, to a place of authenticity and living a life worthy of a disciple. I suppose my challenge to this idea is what we think a life worthy of a disciple is; is it someone who’s squeaky clean and has never committed any kind of sin? I hope not – otherwise the 12 lads we read about definitely mislead us with their anger and greed and betrayal. What they did have, though, was an authentic relationship with the Lord Jesus who knew all about their sin, their failures, and their inadequacies – and they took it from there. There’s no pretence with Jesus, no boundaries to put in place (although many of us still seem to do this), and no need to hide ourselves from Him through a thick fog of professionalism. Jesus knows. And thankfully, Jesus loves.
Rather than clothing ourselves with capes, masks – and those ridiculous underpants! – what would happen if we clothed ourselves instead with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14), or with a robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10), or with gladness (Psalm 30:11), humility (1 Peter 5:5), or compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12). What would happen if we clothe ourselves with Christ?
Would it not take off the pressure to know that even in our weaknesses, the King of Kings can become our strength? In those difficult conversations with young people – especially those that makes our sin and our stuff rear its tricky head – would it not be genuine and authentic to know that the Lord of all Creation sits with us and walks with us and those young people?
It helps me. Big time. My boundaries are not meant to be a false mask that I hide behind, but perhaps a protective wall of the healing that Christ is doing in me. My professionalism doesn’t have to be a stronghold of false pretence but rather it can be another authentic part of Annie and the way I carry out my practice. Annie the Youth Worker isn’t a superhero – because Annie isn’t a superhero. She’s a follower of Christ, doing her best to live the life worthy of a disciple.
Remember those other superhero youth workers I was telling you about? It turns out they’re on the same journey too – utterly imperfect, but perfectly loved by Him.