I ran across a website this week that was really encouraging. The name of the website is “My Hero” (www.myhero.com). It is a website dedicated to the everyday people who do things that serve others in selfless ways. People can log onto the website and nominate people who have been their hero. The stories you find there are what we might think of as simple acts, but meant so much to those who received from these heroes.
For example, there is Claudia Martinez, who with bright elastic bands and simple care is smoothing the edges of suffering for earthquake victims. The 31-year-old Dominican tends to dozens of hospital patients who have made it across the border to her country, tenderly combing and braiding their hair for free.
Carrying a basket filled with colored elastic bands and a comb, Martinez comes every day to Santo Domingo's Dario Contreras hospital where injured people with broken bones and shattered lives come for healing.
Her task may seem trivial, but she believes restoring a bit of beauty and humanity to people who have lost everything and survived deplorable conditions is important. Martinez says she just wants to make people feel "clean and a little bit better."
Or, there’s the story of Clara Hale, who in 1940 faced the most tragic thing in her life. Her husband died, leaving her with her two children. Desperate to find the resources to take care of her children, she got a job as a babysitter for children with mothers too busy to take care of their own children. She soon learned that she could become a licensed foster mother..
During the next 25 years, she was a foster mother to over 40 children, all with unique and different backgrounds and religions. Many of them were children whose mothers were drug addicts, or children who had contracted AIDs from their mothers. Clara’s goal was to take in all of these children which no one wanted, and she accomplished that goal very well. Clara was a loving, generous mother to over 800 children in her life. She dedicated her whole life to these unwanted children. Her life ended with a great feeling in her heart that she had changed people's lives.
With so many scandals being reported in the news lately, we could easily be led to believe there are no heroes any more. There are no great personalities that are being held up for others to emulate. Only narcissistic, self-indulgent entertainers and politicians whose lives seem constantly out of control.
In a Time magazine article about the Millennials, one section had the heading which read, “Leaders: Heroes Are Hard To Find.” Listen to a portion of that section:
Today’s potential leaders seem unable to maintain their stature. They have a way of either self-destructing or being decimated in the press, which trumpets their faults and foibles. Says Christina Chinn, a 21 year old from Denver, “Now you get role models like our presidential candidates…--no one with real ideals.”
I have felt for a long time the need that the twenty-something generation is now beginning to articulate on a large scale: the need for more heroes. But the more I thought about trying to hone what I mean by a hero, the more I begin to fumble. Once, the poet Robert Frost was asked, “What is poetry?” His answer was classic. “Poetry,” he said, “is something poets write.” We may have to answer in the same way about the hero. A hero is someone who does the heroic. But then we’re right back where we started: What does it meant to be heroic?
The inability to pin down a clear definition is compounded with the problem that the Time magazine article highlighted. Many of the people who have been put forward as positive role models, even heroes, have self-destructed, or have not stood the scrutiny of the public eye.
That seems to be a reality that we would have to deal with in trying to figure out a definition of a hero or positive role model. None will be found who will come out squeaky clean. The Bible is unashamedly clear on this point. All of it’s characters are real people with chinks in their heroic armor. And those chinks aren’t just little spaces here and there, but large openings of vulnerability. Abraham lied to save his own skin. Jacob was a first class cheat. Moses was a murderer and whiner. David committed adultery, and then lead a cover-up that included murder. Peter blasphemed and denied he ever had anything to do with Jesus. Paul was a murderer and torturer of Christians. And on and on.
Oliver Cromwell, once lord protector of England, Ireland and Scotland, was having a portrait of himself painted. He never looked at it until it was done. When he saw the finished work, he was quick to realize that the artist had left off several facial warts. Cromwell then stormed those now famous words, “I want the portrait redone, warts and all.”
The significant characters in Scripture, we are also quick to realize, are all fashioned from the same clay as the rest of us. Scripture portrays them “warts and all.’’ So, our definition of hero, if we are honest, can not include flawless character. Perfection is not a part of what it’s going to mean to be heroic, or on a lesser scale, a good role model.
Another problem I run into when thinking about society’s need for some heroic personalities is in the form of a question: What kind of living do heroes inspire? What kind of living should they inspire? It seems to me what happens most often is, instead of learning heroic behavior, we simply succumb to hero worship. Rather than trying to forge a similar kind of positive lifestyle using the building blocks of what it means to be heroic, we more often just become worshippers of the positive. We dress like the heroic, we talk like the heroic, but deep down there has been no significant change. Instead of becoming people of more depth and character, we become simple coat tail riders. We miss the fact that maybe we are supposed to assert ourselves toward being positive role models.
The real goal of having a role model, it seems to me, is not to be just like them, but instead to inspire us to find ways in which we can also be exemplary people given our individual characteristics and unique situations.
The role that God asked Jeremiah to model was that of truth speaker. Jeremiah is someone who speaks the truth with passion. There is an alarm in his voice. He will tell us unflinchingly, as we look at his words in the coming Sundays, where we have fallen our faces. He will warn us, honestly, where the traps are hidden along the way that seek to slow us down or sidetrack our devotion.
As a truth teller, Jeremiah’s words are not easy to listen to. Not many model for us such utter honesty. God gave Jeremiah a very difficult role to play. God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says,
"Behold, I have put My words in your mouth
See, I have appointed you this day
over nations and over the kingdoms,
To pluck up and to break down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:9-10)
God gives Jeremiah the role, through his words, to pull down people’s lives so that God can rebuild them.
In our dedication to God, the truth is, we are either in the process of become less or more. Certainly God desires that we would constantly become more, not less. Jeremiah, if we let him play his role in our lives, will give us the truth we need: tearing down or building up. It may be a little of both.
Eugene Peterson wrote:
A prophet wakes us up from our sleepy complacency . . . and then pushes us onto the stage playing our parts whether we think we are ready or not. A prophet angers us by rejecting and ripping off our disguises, then dragging our heartless attitudes and selfish motives out into the open where everyone sees them for what they are. A prophet makes it difficult to continue with a sloppy or selfish life.
As we shall see, Jeremiah was a reluctant role model. Time after time he complained to God about the role he felt he’d been forced into. But yet, Jeremiah pushed on. Jeremiah had such a heart for the people he spoke truth to, that at times it hurt his feelings more than the feelings of those he had to speak to. That was the burden of the role he had to play.
Jeremiah becomes the kind of reluctant hero that surfaces in all imaginative literature. In these kinds of stories the hero is often the person you would least expect. In the legend of King Arthur, for example, the boy Arthur pulls the sword from the stone after all the champions--the expected heroes--have tried their hardest and failed.
In the imaginative tales of J.R.R. Tolkein, in The Lord Of The Rings, the heroes are characters who have no quality of the heroic about them. There is nothing that would distinguish them as models of high morality or daring do. Instead, Tolkein’s main characters are a couple of Hobbits named Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. They are stick-at-home kind of creatures who would rather just sit in their easy chair, smoke their pipes, read good books, and eat good food.
What makes both Bilbo and Frodo heroic role models, eventually, is that they are called to go on a quest of great and grave importance. Their success or failure would determine the future of their people forever. Both, in their turn, accepts the challenge. In their quiet, simple, yet bumbling ways, they slip unnoticed into and conquer the threatening powers of evil.
As I said before, there is nothing about Bilbo or Frodo that would give you the impression that you were in the presence of greatness. They were both normal, everyday characters who were called upon to accept a challenge that was larger than anything they had faced before. It was simply in their willingness to accept the challenge that elevated Bilbo and Frodo into the level of the role model, even the hero. It is one of the main themes of that set of books.
So, let’s put together what we’ve got so far concerning our definition of a role model and hero. First, a hero is a real person, imperfect in some ways, and who must definitely be taken warts and all. We will be disillusioned if we expect otherwise.
Secondly, a hero or role model, is someone we are not to worship or copy in a second-hand way.
And thirdly, heroes are the role models they are because they rise to the occasion when it is presented to them. They use the talents they have--even their weaknesses--for the cause of God’s good.
That’s the kind of person Jeremiah the prophet was. Jeremiah is a person we can look up to, someone we would unflinchingly call a positive role model. Jeremiah is so, because he has a passion more for God than for himself.
It is this prophet and this prophet’s message that we will be focusing our attention upon in the coming weeks. He is the kind of role model who is universal to time and culture because his message and his personality speak truth loud and clear to the excesses as well as the measly ways people choose to live. He is the kind of role model who will challenge you to live a God-centered life. He will make you squirm in his challenges. He is a true hero in that he refuses to let us live life on his, or anyone’s coattails. Instead he calls us to honestly live faithfully and creatively in our unique situations.
He is also a person not without some quirks and glitches. We’ll have to accept those along the way. As we move through Jeremiah, it is my hope that we will not just be imitators of him, but instead discover for ourselves, what it means to be faithfully heroic.