Do we have heroes anymore? Do we need them? Those people to whom we look for inspiration, for courage, for the possibility of living and doing things beyond what we otherwise might imagine or dream? Perhaps we convince ourselves that real heroes are only the perfect. They’re the ones that never stumble or fall, never say the wrong thing at the wrong time, never leap before they look, never make bad choices, never have to face the consequences, always seem to come out smelling like a rose, and maybe never even spill food on their clothes most especially when dining someplace that’s not fast nor fried has cloth napkins and multiple instruments with which to eat in an order someone devised but kept secret (just speaking for a friend). Somehow I think we believe that perfection in a person is the ideal, but is that real? Or does that simply put them so far out of our reach that we don’t have to be responsible for the possibility of our lives being inspirational for others? If I’m so far from perfect, then I don’t have to think about what my choices, or words, or actions might mean to another person. We can just say that people should know better than to expect great things from us.
Mother Teresa was canonized on September 4, 2016. Formal Canonization to Saint status requires two accepted miracles, and both for Mother Teresa had to do with prayers for healing of brain tumor and absesses, the first of which Pope John Paul II accepted, and the second of which Pope Francis accepted. Her life was examined both in faith and work, and she was found worthy – not perfect. Her journals show she had doubts about her relationship with God and questioned how there could continue to be such pain and suffering among the poorest of the poor. Yet her doubts never stopped her passionate and enduring work for those who continued to be pushed aside and sometimes literally thrown away. She’s one of my spiritual heroes, not simply for her accomplishments, but because she was as human as the rest of us who are seeking to strengthen our faith which sometimes means being filled with doubt.
Sojourner Truth is another of my heroes. She was a black woman preacher when those three things were mutually exclusive. She was born into slavery, sold three times over, and escaped to freedom with a son in 1826. She spent the rest of her life passionately fighting for the abolition of slavery and the cause of women’s rights across racial divides. In 1843 Isabella Baumfree took the name Sojourner Truth and became Methodist! A few years later, a white Methodist preacher in Ohio hearing that Sojourner planned to come and preach proclaimed he would burn his church down before he would let a woman, let alone a black one, preach from his pulpit. To which Sojourner replied, “Then I will preach standing in the ashes.”
How many of us long to have that passion, that enduring passion that carried both of these women in different eras fighting different battles, yet sharing a faith that while beaten down by the realities of the indifference if not intentional degradation of one human being by another, stayed strong in their life and work to bring about justice when it seemed the last thing likely to happen? That is a unique courage, but neither perfect nor impossible, which makes their heroism realistically reachable, perhaps so much so that it will not leave us out nor alone in our unique calls to do our part.
We live in an increasingly polarized society – we fear difference, we’re angry at whatever unfairness we can find to name that we can blame for our unhappiness. We sorta want to be victims of whomever we name that is in charge of why we aren’t doing as well as we think we should. Life is so complicated and complex, sometimes we simply don’t want to think about whether what we’re hearing is valid, if it agrees with where we are already, it must be right. That list is kind of a sign of giving up I think. At least I know that about myself sometimes. When I’m ready to throw in the towel, to give up the fight for justice, to put my mind on auto-pilot because I don’t want to think in gray areas any more, I can let myself sink into the despair that nothing I do or say will make a difference.
But then there’s Mother Teresa, and Sojourner Truth, and Maya Angelou hanging around in my spirit, reminding me that a lifetime committed to justice may not see justice done, but it is part of the story and the poetry and the preaching and the teaching and the working and the serving that might just make a difference in the long arc of a history that bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King, Jr. would say.
So maybe we still need heroes – not the perfect – but the very human beings who are willing to risk the vulnerability of imperfection to try and make the world a little bit better for those around them in this chapter of life. Who are yours – those voices and lives and stories that give you courage and keep you moving when you feel like giving up? May we be stronger in the sharing!