We Can Be Heroes

fireman heroWhat does it mean to be a hero?  To live heroically?[1]

In 480 b.c.,  the Persians led an army of over one hundred thousand soldiers north across the Helispont, west across Macedonia, and south towards the heart of Greece.  Word spread quickly throughout the Greek mainland that the Persians were coming . . . but not quickly enough.  The Persian army threatened to overrun Greece before the armies of Athens and Corinth, Delphi and Sparta could be mustered.

To buy time, Leonidas—King of Sparta—took three hundred Spartan soldiers and made a suicidal stand at Thermopylae, a narrow pass on the major coastal road into Achaia. There, for three days, the three hundred held off one hundred thousand.  For three days, they allowed the armies of Greece to gather while they bled in a delaying action.

Those Spartans died to a man, falling to Persian swords or falling on their own swords at the end.  And the story of Thermopylae is still being told because of what they did.  We call such men, such actions, “heroic.”  Why?

What does “hero” mean?

When the word “hero” is used, do you think of “superheroes” with their special gifts and supernatural abilities?  Do you think of sports figures and rock stars—people who are sometimes (and inappropriately) called heroes?  Do you think of people with exceptional courage?  Sergeant Alvin York?  John Paul Jones?  David fighting Goliath?

It’s hard to define “hero.”  We just know there is something special, something unusual about those who deserve that title.  But it’s not gender—heroes can be male or female.  And it’s not age—heroes can be young and old.  Heroism isn’t related to education or economics, to occupation or temperament.  It isn’t even related to cause—there can be heroes on both sides of a battle.

Heroism is a quality that anyone can exhibit, although few do.  It is a quality often expressed in times of crisis, though the crisis does not have to be large—a nurse with her one patient can act as heroically as a General with his armies.  Heroism is a quality that seems to be rooted in character, in who someone is, not just in what he or she does.  “Heroic” describes the person, not just their actions.

Oh, and one more thing:  Heroism is always about what one person does for another, what one person risks for another, what one person gives for another.  Climbing a mountain peak may require courage, but it isn’t heroic.  Surviving in a lonely life raft may take fortitude, but that’s not heroism.

Significance or Comfort?

We all want our lives to be significant.  Every one of us wants to make a difference, to invest ourselves and our energies and our gifts in something that matters.  Oh, we’re not expecting to be world famous, or discover the Theory of Relativity, or be elected President of these United States.  But we do expect that our lives will count for something, that the world will be a different place, a better place, because we have lived.

The idea that who we are and what we do may have no real purpose, may make no real contribution, may contain no real meaning is a thought too depressing for most of us to bear.  And yet, many of us have come to a point in life where significance is precisely the point in question.

All of us in our youth had great dreams, great plans, great ambitions for turning the world upside down.  In our youth, we were all going to be heroes.  But time and bitter experiences wear away our dreams.  We discover our reach is never as far as our hopes.  Our gifts are not as great as our ambitions.  Our dreams always outstrip the realities with which we must live.

It happens to us sometime in our middle years—this plaguing doubt that who we are, that what we do, matters.

In the movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays a man just turning thirty nine.  He is balding.  His marriage has grown routine.  His work is unrewarding and unexciting.  He comments to his boss, “Did you ever wake up one day and realize this is the best I’m ever gonna be, the best I’m ever gonna feel, the best I’m ever gonna do—and it ain’t all that great?”

All of us who live long enough wake up to that sad reality one day.  And it is at this point that many of us make a tragic decision.  If we can’t be significant, then at least we’ll be comfortable. If we can’t dream great dreams, we’ll settle for minor ones. Instead of changing the world, we’ll buy a red convertible or have liposuction or set ourselves up to play golf in retirement.

This compromise with the comfortable is understandable.  It may even be normal.  But it is the very opposite of heroism.

Comfort and the Church

Sadly, nowhere is the compromise with comfort more evident than in the church.  In the very place God intended to be a radical, world-shaking, life-changing, bold, subversive, counter-cultural influence on this dark world, we discover that questions of comfort have stolen God’s agenda.  “We’ve never done it that way.”  “What will other people think?” “That’s too risky.  What if it doesn’t work?”

Don’t believe me?  Consider a few examples.  We, the people who have been commissioned to change the world, have actually come to the point where “change agents” are considered dangerous and heretical. 

My elders at a former church received a letter from a member, barely legible because his hand was shaking so badly in anger.  And what prompted this anger?  Someone, in the assembly, had dared to come forward, fall on his face prostrate before God, and weep over sin.  It made this brother uncomfortable!  And with his discomfort came anger.

Some of us, who are not particularly disturbed that our efforts to evangelize this community have been anemic at best, would be greatly disturbed if we made a change in service times on Sunday morning.

It’s easy to get mad at Christians who act so pettily, but we have trained them to do so.  For centuries now, mainstream churches have sent the message to their members that we no longer believe churches can change the world.  We don’t expect the church to make any significant difference in our country, or even in our community.  We have no grand dreams.  We have no consuming ambitions. We have no mission that pushes us and discomfits us and calls us to sacrifice.

In its middle years, the church has made a fatal decision. This is as good as we’re gonna be.  This is as good as we’re gonna feel.  This is as good as we’re gonna do.  And it ain’t all that great.

And so, if the church can’t be significant, at least it can be comfortable.  If the church can’t dream great dreams, we’ll settle for minor ones. Instead of changing the world, let’s focus on liturgy and conferences and Sunday school curriculum.

Hold on to what we have.  Circle the wagons.  Or better yet, don’t ever venture into dangerous territory to begin with.

“Movements, like people, can forget themselves.  Interrupted or distracted, they can lose the thread that holds their activities together and gives them coherence.  One moment we are marching along with a sense of purpose and identity.  The next we are sitting paralyzed on the ground, wondering how we got here and where we are going.  Something breaks into the flow of our activity and we find, to our surprise, that we can no longer recall what it was we were attempting to do.

“[We] are in such a period today.  Somewhere along the way we have forgotten what we were doing and why.  We find ourselves confused over the most basic questions:  Who are we? and, What is our purpose?  We’ve lost the thread that gives meaning to our activities, and, having done so, many of us have lost the motivation to continue doing what we no longer understand.  We find ourselves paralyzed, not because we are too tired to go on but because we despair of our activity resulting in something that God values.” [2]

A Time for Heroes

And then God gifts us with a crisis—like September 11.  Not that he caused the crisis.  Not that he wanted it or approves of it.  But he takes what has happened and uses it to wake us up from our lethargy and our narrowed vision and our compromise with comfort.  He uses events like September 11 to arouse his people and cause them to question whether there still might be room for heroes in this world.

One of the blessings God has given us in recent events is a demonstration of what “heroism” really is.  Firemen and police officers are being called “heroes.” Office workers—secretaries and accountants— are being called “heroes.” Crane operators, truck drivers, welders and FBI agents are called “heroes.”  People handing out sandwiches and giving bottles of water are called “heroes.”

Why?  What heroic things have they done? 

Some of their deeds have been dramatic.  Rushing into a collapsing building in an attempt to save the lives of others is heroic by any standard.  Carrying the wheel chair of a disabled woman down 80 flights of stairs when everything in you is screaming to push her aside and get out quickly is heroic in the extreme.

But many of these heroes have done nothing very dramatic at all.  They dig through rubble and cut steel beams apart. They sift through wreckage.  They remove body parts.  They take vacation time to travel to Ground Zero and offer what help they can.  They give food to hungry workers.  They counsel with emergency personnel who are trying to cope with what they’ve seen.

These quiet heroes are widows who hold on to their children, speaking words of comfort when they have no comfort themselves.  They are friends and relatives and loved ones who cope with their grief each day by the simple, courageous act of remembering and going on with life.

What is a hero?  You don’t have to defend a pass against an invading army to be a hero.  You don’t have to slog through jungles or face down bullies.

To be a hero, all you have to do is find the courage to get over yourself, to do something selfless for someone else in their time of crisis and need.

Heroism and the Church

I wish I had something dramatic, something world-shaking to offer you this morning: a multi-million dollar plan for evangelism; a daring plot to win Afghanistan for Christ.  After last week’s lesson, several of you asked, “What now?”  And, of course, the temptation is to think in terms of big and bold and ambitious.

The time will come for that. On behalf of the leadership of this church, I make a promise that we will be coming to you with something audacious.  We will challenge you with something that requires dedication and boldness of us all.  The time is coming when we will be called to exhibit the kind of heroism that is dramatic and sacrificial.

But, today, I call you to a different kind of heroism. A heroism defined not by great deeds but by noble character. A heroism displayed not in the big but the small. A cup-of-cold-water kind of heroism.  A kind word and a listening ear kind of heroism.  An open home and an open life kind of heroism.  The quiet, daily sort of heroism that notices people in pain and does something selfless to relieve it.

You and I will not travel to New York City to sort through the rubble of the World Trade Center.  But there are people you work with every day whose lives are in rubble.  Are you willing to put on your work gloves and sort through the wreckage of their marriages or their finances or their poor choices?

Chances are you and I will not be called to rush into burning buildings, to carry people bodily from the danger.  But there are other kinds of fires confronting us daily—the destructive fires of prejudice and hatred, of bitterness and disappointment.  Will you rush into the lives of people whose dreams are smoldering and whose hopes have burned to ashes?  Will you carry such people to the safety of second chances and fresh beginnings?

There are people bleeding all around us.  Oh, their clothes may not be torn.  Their wounds may not be physical.  But they are dying by inches and need us to notice them, to move beside them, to minister to them. 

Sometimes heroism is a simple matter of waking up each morning with the expectation, the anticipation, that God is going to bring someone into our lives this day . . . someone needy and in crisis . . . someone who requires bandaging and care.  Sometimes heroism is no more than keeping our eyes open, seeing the needs, and stepping in to offer a helping hand.

Jesus told a story about that kind of heroism.  Once there was a man who took the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He fell among thieves who beat him and stripped him and left him for dead in the ditch. 

As it happened, a priest was passing by that same way and saw the man in the ditch.  But he did not stop.  Instead, he passed by on the other side of the road.  In the same way, a Levite happened by.  But when he saw the man in the ditch, he too passed by on the other side.

Finally, a Samaritan came along.  He saw the man in the ditch and went to him.  He washed the man’s wounds and bandaged them.  He put that man on his donkey and traveled to the nearest inn.   He cared for him all through the night.

The next morning, he gave the innkeeper what money he had and told him—if the man required more—he would pay the extra when he came back.

The Samaritan didn’t fight off those thieves single-handedly.  He didn’t carry this victim on his back, whacking his way through dense jungle and scaring away wild beasts.  He didn’t do CPR.  He didn’t adopt this stranger and leave him a fortune. 

He didn’t do much of anything that was dramatic or intense or dangerous.  He just noticed a man who needed help.  He was willing to get his hands dirty in order to render assistance.  He gave a little time, a little money, a little of himself to ease the suffering of a stranger.

At the end of the story, Jesus asked, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” 

He could just as well have asked, “Which of these acted like a hero?”

[1]     Preached at the Otter Creek Church on September 30, 2001.

[2]     Tim Woodroof, A Church that Flies.  Orange, CA:  New Leaf Books, 2000. Pgs 11-12.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.