Fish out of water, bull in a china shop, square peg in a round hole . . . these idioms sum up my wife’s words in 2012 as we left our church home of ten years, “We just don’t fit.” Although we fully believed those words applied to the church we were being called out of to find a new place to spend our Sundays, neither of us knew the full meaning of those words would lead us down the path we’re at today best described by yet another idiom, sticking out like a sore thumb. Refusing to buy into systems you once supported which tell you you’re required to dress a certain way, give a fixed percentage of your income, attend a certain amount of events per week, or insist you do or do not behave a certain way because “Christians don’t act that way,” is not readily accepted. The moment you start questioning it and insisting it is all meaningless and not required, you have become the proverbial sore thumb. How ironic a journey we chose to begin because we didn’t fit in has brought us to a place where fitting in is not as important as it once was.
Irony, by definition, is a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects. As I’ve shared previously (A Secret No Longer), I’ve been a fan of the Incredible Hulk as long as I can remember. The fact a well-mannered, normally reserved, and appearance-driven churchboy is enamored by a rage-filled, uncontrollable, growling, larger than life, angry green monster who leaves destruction in his wake, yep, I would call that irony. It may be considered not only ironic by some but also hypocritical and, yet, it is one of many confessions this recovering churchboy is relieved to admit as I am admitting who I am. In fact, I would like to share one of my favorite Hulk scenes below. (SPOILER ALERT: If you are a fan of the MCU and have not yet seen Thor: Ragnarok, you may want to skip the few paragraphs.)
In 2017, Marvel studios released the third installment in the Thor movies series, Thor: Ragnarok. In this film, we learned the whereabouts of Hulk during the cinematic universe’s Civil War. As Thor is imprisoned on the planet Sakaar and forced to compete in the gladiator arena, he finds his opponent is none other than the big green guy. The fight itself is quite a spectacle as the god of thunder is convinced he does not need to participate in a battle against his former Avenger cohort:
Thor: Yes! Hey! Hey! [referring to Hulk] We know each other. He’s a friend from work. [to Hulk] Where have you been? Everybody thought you were dead. But so much has happened since I last saw you . . . Oh, Banner, I never thought I would say this, but I…I’m happy to see you.
Hulk: No Banner. Only Hulk.
Thor: What are you doing? It’s me. It’s Thor! Banner, we’re friends. This is crazy. I don’t want to hurt you!
Thor: All right. Screw it. I know you’re in there, Banner. I’ll get you out! What’s the matter with you? You’re embarrassing me! I told them we were friends!
The contest ends with no real winner ever fully decided, and the dialogue continues in the scenes following the battle, as Thor and Hulk both recover in the same quarters:
Thor: So how long have you been like that?
Hulk: Like what?
Thor: Like this. Big, and green, and stupid.
Hulk: Hulk always Hulk.
Thor: How’d you get here?
Thor: Yes! Yes! I’m getting us out of here. This terrible, awful place. You’re gonna love Asgard. It’s big. It’s golden. Shiny.
Hulk: Hulk stay.
Thor: No, no, no. My people need me to get back to Asgard. We must prevent Ragnarok.
Thor: The prophesied death of my home world. The end of days, it’s the end of… If you help me get back to Asgard, I can help you get back to Earth.
Hulk: Earth hate Hulk.
Thor: Earth loves Hulk. They love you. You’re one of the Avengers. One of the team, one of our friends. This is what friends do. They support each other.
Hulk: You’re Banner’s friend.
Thor: I’m not Banner’s friend. I prefer you.
Hulk: Banner’s friend.
The Ragnarok film presented viewers with not only a talking Hulk we had not yet seen to that point, but a Hulk who is confident, competent, and fully embracing being the Hulk. He has learned to live as he really is. Hulk has become so comfortable in his massive, green skin he dismisses any thought of returning to his human counterpart, Bruce Banner. Earth hates Hulk for the destruction and chaos he causes and Thor is Banner’s friend for what Banner has to offer not for who he is. Banner in his human form is much like a churchboy. He is not comfortable being himself. He lives in near constant fear and anxiety of his nasty, ugly side slipping out and people catching a glimpse of who he really is. Banner goes to great lengths to maintain control. On the planet Sakaar, Hulk has found freedom to be himself and has learned, “Hulk always Hulk.” It is on Sakaar irony once again takes center stage as Hulk is no longer just an angry, irrational monster but has learned to live peacfully as himself.
My life as a churchboy was a life of not being who I really was. Much like Bruce Banner is on constant guard lest the Hulk reveal himself, I lived life striving to maintain an image of who I thought I should be, who I thought others expected me to be, and, more importantly and frightening, who I thought God expected me to be. I allowed myself to be convinced pleasing God came only through following church customs and traditions I accepted without questioning. Condemnation is overwhelming when you fall short of reading the prescribed amount of scripture per day, if you skip a church meeting, if church members discover the television shows or movies you like to watch or realize you listen to music which is not only not played on the local Christian radio stations, but does not mention God or Jesus at all and simply describes the ups and downs, joys and heartaches of life. Life as a churchboy, described more fully here, is a life of shame hiding who you really are believing no one would truly accept who you really are just as Hulk is convinced Thor is only Banner’s friend. The churchboy doesn’t realize, “Hulk always Hulk.” He isn’t aware his true self is always there and the uncontrollable beast within can only be tamed so long before it erupts.
In Psalm 139:14, David makes a statement I could never admit as a churchboy:
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
He acknowledges he was created and made by God and based on that acknowledgement confidently admits God’s work is wonderful. Known as a man after God’s own heart, David did not live life as a churchboy. The Message shares David’s confession (along with verses 13 – 16) with poetic beauty:
Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day.
David was convinced of not only God’s love for him but also God’s intimate knowledge and involvement of every detail of his life.
To stick out like a sore thumb means to be obviously different from surrounding people or things. When you have a sore thumb, it’s not something you have to announce or proclaim. The thumb is obvious either by the bandage it wears or simply by protruding from its normal location. In recent conversations, my voice broke and I was shocked to hear myself say aloud, “For the first time in my life, I know who I really am and I am at peace with that.” I am finally comfortable in my own skin and I pray it displays with a joy and peace that is so obviously different from those around me their curiosity is piqued enough to ask.
Churchboys believe God is just Banner’s friend, but, much like my beloved big, green monster, the love and grace of God is wild, ravaging, and uncontrollable. The wake of destruction left in Hulk’s path pales in comparison to what truly remains as the tidal wave of grace destroys false traditions, thoughts, and ideas we once believed. There may be some who, like Earth, hate Hulk and are truly only Banner’s friend seeking only what Banner has to offer but true grace is comfortable sticking out like a sore thumb and isn’t just Banner’s friend.