Hebrews 11:32 – 12:2

The Importance of Heroes

By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen

But where have all the heroes gone? Richard, the Lion Hearted, Luther, Sir Francis Drake, Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Admiral Bird, Madame Curie, Lucky Lindy, Patton, Churchill. Larger than life, towering over their time, inspiring the hearts of young and old, affecting the sweep of history.

Look about the landscape and where do you find their likes today? A columnist for The New Republic writes, “Two hundred years ago a little republic on the edge of the wilderness suddenly produced Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams and others like that. It had only three million people. Today we have over 250 million. Where are our great people? We should have sixty Franklins at least.

The absence of heroes may say more about us than it does about their scarcity. There is an egalitarianism abroad in the land which goes far beyond our founding fathers insistence on equality before the law. It insists we should all be seen as essentially equal in virtue, courage, accomplishment, enterprise. It involves a kind of leveling down that worries about elevation of the extraordinary for applause.

At senatorial confirmation hearings for a judgeship, one of the senators commented that the man’s record was one of absolute mediocrity, whereupon another senator bridled at his statement and said, “Why should that disqualify him. There are a lot of mediocre people out there who deserve representation just as much as the brilliant.”

Why do we wait to see the hero fall? Why will we almost instinctively assume the worst motives in the politician? Why are businessmen regarded cynically as nothing but greedy? Why are all the pretenders to noble motives or sacrifice immediately called into question? Why all this cynicism, inability to idealize, to hold on a pedestal?

The answer may not be that there are no more Lincolns and Lindberghs, Luthers and Birds and Pattons and Churchills. It may be that in a self-indulgent, consumer and pleasure oriented society, heroes are uncomfortable creatures to have around. They remind us of what we might be. The hero, by definition, is someone who achieves beyond the average, who stretches beyond the normal. A hero is someone who suggests by his very existence that I have not yet arrived, become all I could be. In many ways we may be an age that does not want to be stretched, stirred, driven to new heights of growth and challenge, adventure and conquest.

In any event, the result is that many of us no longer have heroes, especially the young people who need them most. In a recent survey of high school students, the most popular response to the question: “Who is your hero?” was “None.” Those who did answer wrote mainly of rock stars and celebrities. World Almanac polled 2,000 eighth graders to learn which people they most admired and wanted to be like. The students referred basically to movie stars and rock artists. Although half those polled were girls, only five women were on the list — all actresses, models or pop singers. There was not a single name on the list who was not an entertainer or a sports figure. Not a statesman. Not a scientist. Not an author. Not a musician, architect, physician, lawyer or even an astronaut. Societies need role models more than anything else. They need people they can look up to and emulate. A nation that does not reward and respect real accomplishments … is weakening its own moral fiber and preparing for its own collapse.”

Which leads us to “why” heroes are important. We require heroes, models who exemplify our ideals and shape our goals. A major dimension of our development as real human beings involves not only internalization of moral principles, development of a conscience which orders and restrains our impulses. It involves not only convictions about the “Thou shalt nots,” in life. It also involves deep feelings about what we can become, the internalization of a captivating vision of what kind of person we should seek to be, a vision strong and solid enough to last for a life-time. Freud called it the need for an ego ideal. We need to idealize captivating figures or we lose a sense of identity, hope and direction for our own lives.

For Christians there is one hero whom we look to and idealize above all others, who represents a vision of what we may be and should long to become, whose person should fascinate and captivate amidst all the trials and troubles of life. And I say it almost with hesitancy. It is Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, citizen of first century Palestine. Try telling the crowd at the cocktail party that Jesus is your hero.

In this old story that is what he is. He comes to us as a real human being whom we are to admire, to emulate, to follow, struggle to be like, whose mind and spirit we are to covet, whose life is to be the model for our lives.

“Come, follow me,” he said to the wise and simple of his time. “You will do greater deeds than I have done,” he said to his friends the night before he died. “Have this same mind, attitude, spirit in you which was in him,” writes the Apostle Paul to Corinth. “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection…” writes the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Is Jesus even remotely a hero in these early days of the 21 st Century? Do we live grounded in our admiration of him and his way, determined before we die to come as close as we can to his mind and spirit? I wonder.

It seems that for many he has become a kind of supernatural figure of marvelous powers and divine beneficence who at the same time bears no relationship to life in this real world. It never occurs to many that his way of dealing with the hurts and trials of this very human life, his spirit and attitude as he relates to others, his courage and hope in the face of an uncertain and unknown future, represents a real possibility for us all as we seek his way, his truth, his life. Somehow we have failed to make him real, attractive and captivating to the intelligent mature involved adult of our day, not to mention the young whose surroundings are so devoid of heroic figures. With every new generation, we need, as the apostle Paul puts it, to learn Jesus. Jesus as the hero who invites us to imagine ourselves becoming like him.

The hero as model of real life. Of course, one way Christians down through time have gotten close to him and his vision is by getting close to more contemporary figures who have managed by the grace of God to live out that vision in a major way in their time. That is why the Roman Catholic tradition has paid so much attention to the saints of the church.

Who are the saints? The saints are anyone in whom we sense the presence of the spirit of Jesus, anyone who makes Christ real and relevant to our lives. I have my own collection who are my life blood. Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Lincoln, Tom Dooley, Joseph Harotunian, and a dozen other mentors and friends who have been a part of my life down through the years. I try to listen to them. I try to remember them. See Jesus in and through them. Let them help me keep my eyes on Jesus. When Earl Marlatt published his book, Protestant Saints, he was asked by a small friend, Philip Fox, six years old, “Uncle Earl, what’s your book about?” Uncle Earl hesitated a moment before he answered: “I’m afraid, Phil, it’s about something you never heard of —saints. Do you know what saints are?” Little Phil’s eyes lit up, as if he were remembering a room of stained glass windows at Sunday School. “Sure,” he said. “I know what saints are. They’re the people the light shines through.” Indeed they are. So look around. You need your collection of saints, heroes, whom you can listen to and admire again and again, remember when life gets rough, look to as models of what you may be.

That’s what my saints do for me. Let the light of Jesus shine through into my heart and life. On my work desk next to the picture of Marlene is a picture of a friend who died eight years ago, Reinhold Schmidt. We first met in 1972 when we managed through considerable subterfuge to travel to his home in East Germany.

Let me tell you just a bit of his story. Reinhold was about twelve as World War II drew to a close. He and his family fled their home in what is now Poland, traveling to the Oder River in the back of a military truck returning empty from the eastern front. From Frankfurt on the Oder they tried to get a train to Berlin where they had relatives, fleeing before the advancing Russian armies. Fortunately Reinhold wore a sign on him indicating their address, because he got lost from his family and it was only through other helpful refugees that he was reunited with them some weeks later.

So Reinhold grew to manhood in war torn Berlin, learned the trade of cabinet maker and helped support the family. They were devout Christians and as a young man he came aware of the desperate shortage of ministers in his land and so decided to try and study for that vocation. As he finished his training, the Bishop of Berlin begged the young graduates to consider serving in communist East Germany where there were almost no clergy. Reinhold and his new bride, Ingeborg, after much prayer decided to answer the call.

And there amid the stress and dangers of a hostile state, he and Ingeborg served for over thirty-five years, raising two sons and a daughter, enduring the persecution and hardship of an atheistic regime and an economy in shambles. When others fled by the thousands to the west, he remained. After the wall went up, we managed to get him for a visit. But he and Ingeborg returned, leaving mother and family behind in the West Germany, ever faithful to his people. In the midst of it all he was called to be superintendent of a circuit of forty churches which he and 12 other clergy had to try and serve. Where others capitulated to the demands of authority, he remained consistent and unwavering, refusing to vote in the elections which were no elections, refusing to accommodate to the system. In all these years he neither fled nor surrendered, never questioned his lot, sustained a faith, courage and serenity that he carried with quiet humility to the very end. At his memorial service clergy and lay people from all over East Germany appeared to honor this quiet soldier of Jesus Christ. Over three hundred of our young people who have traveled with us to Europe since 1972 fell under the spell of his gracious spirit, and returned to write numerous essays about this special hero. He was and remains for me a model of what it means to follow Christ, to keep my eyes fixed on him.

Heroes as models. Heroes as motivation. As inspiration.

We draw strength and life from them. By their lives they say to us, “You can do it, too. You can rise above the common, the ordinary and reach for a life that is rich and noble and Jesus- like. You can. You too can be a hero.”

I said at the beginning that heroes have disappeared from our culture today. Not true, not quite true. They may not be there in the headlines or on the world stage anymore. But they are there to be found if you look for them. You may even be one of them. Ever occur to you that someone is looking to you for guidance and inspiration, model and motivation; looking to you to lift and encourage, guide and inspire by your quiet leadership, your gentle hope, your patient ways?

A teacher asked her class of fifth graders to write about their personal heroes. One little girl brought her essay home and showed it to her parents. Her father was flattered to discover that his daughter had chosen him. “Why did you pick me?” he asked proudly. “Because I couldn’t spell DeCaprio,” the little girl replied.

Daniel Inouye writes of his father, “Throughout history, people have shown a craving for heroes who are larger than life, grand giants. My heroes are people you’ve never heard of. My father was my hero. He worked two jobs all his adult life, until he had his heart attack. His reward was to see his four children go to college, something that was denied him. You can repeat that story thousands of times through the United States. This is still a country of heroes. When I left home to join the Army during World War II, I was 18 years old. My uniform did not fit right. I was not glamorous at all. He was riding with me on a streetcar — we didn’t have a car of our own. He didn’t say much. Finally, he turned to me and said, ‘This country has been good to us. It has given us a good life. So be it. Whatever you do, do not lose your faith and do not dishonor your family.’ It took him less than two minutes to say that to me, but it said more than a book. And I have lived off that ever since.”

Dr. Deborah Hyde-Rowan, a neurosurgeon, writes, “My grandmother has been my hero, the most influential person in my life. I cannot think of her without a swell of pride at my heritage. Articulate and dynamic, she was a leader in our church and community. I am convinced that had opportunities for furthering her education been available, she would have been a powerful force in our society. Fortunately for me, she was not only my mentor, but my best friend. She constantly told me I was somebody and could be or do anything on this earth if I would study hard and keep my faith in God. And more than once she took me aside and said, ‘Please remember your roots and be proud of them.'”

“Therefore, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that weighs us down and the sin that clings, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking above all to Jesus, author and finisher of our faith.”

Copyright 2004 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.