The Formula for Hero


(The following is a sermon delivered on September 12, in remembrance of the events of 9/11.   The original story of Al Braca was published in Guidepost Magazine)

This morning part of me wanted to speak about Terry Jones, and his plans to burn the Quran, as part of his church’s remembrance of the events of September 11, 2001.   With how riled up this country has become over it, I imagine that there are countless churches, synagogues, and mosques across this country that have spent considerable time on the subject. 

 

I am certainly heartbroken, discouraged, frustrated, and angered that stuff like this keeps happening in the name of my faith.  Harsher to stomach is how helpless to stop it I feel.   All week, I have been reminded of a quote by Jonathan Swift, an Irish writer from the 1700’s;  “We have just enough religion to hate, but not enough to love”.   Regardless of your thoughts on this man, there is certainly a degree of sadness that must be shared by all of us.

In the end, and to be completely honest with all of you, I’m tired of it all, and today I have decided to take another route.  Today, I want to take a different course.   I don’t want to afford the Terry Jones’ of this world any more of my time.   I refuse to legitimize his participation in the discussion, by giving air to his warped views from this pulpit.   He is yet another individual who personifies all that is wrong with our faith.  

When one of his followers called him “a modern day hero”, I felt sick to my stomach.    At the same time, I started to think that perhaps we need to step back and ask ourselves who are hero’s are and what makes them that way.

Webster defines a hero as a person of distinguished courage or ability that are admired for brave deeds and noble qualities.   That definition seems straight forward, and without confusion.  Yet, when we look to the day to day of our lives, we see a wide range of people we have chosen to label as our heroes.  I have heard the hero tag given to Britney Spears, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Cruise.  Although they may or may not have distinguished ability, I don’t see brave deeds and noble qualities. 

Dictionary.com, on the other hand, defines heroes as “the model of the ideal”.    Maybe that makes a bit more sense.   Open a newspaper and you’ll see Tom Brady or Angelina Jolie listed as heroes.   An argument can certainly be made that this people have distinguished ability, and for some model the ideal or some target of near perfection.   Yet, in the end, I cannot help but think that our heroes have to be more than that.  They have to be more than football players and actresses.

As I searched out the answer to this question over the past week, I found all types of definitions and all types of heroes.    As I waded through the net, I found heroes that made me cringe, and heroes that made me think.      I saw adults listing rock stars, businessmen, and politicians.   I saw children list police officers, firefighters, and soldiers.   

My quest grew.   I started to think that perhaps I would have more success if I started to consider, what made all these people similar.    Maybe there was a smoking gun, or a gimmick.   Perhaps, just under the surface all these people share a trait in common.   Perhaps there is a Holy Grail for Heroes.  Imagine the difference it would make in our lives if we found it.   I need that “thing” now more than ever.

My eldest daughter Annie had her thirteenth birthday last week.  She likes to say she is smack dab in her birthday month; and a birthday month means 30 days of full out celebration of the fact that she is yet another year older.   In the midst of all the required pomp and circumstance that she demands, I am starting to think that thirteen is the scariest of ages for fathers.   I need to slow things down.   I need to slow things down because I have yet to figure out all the details of this “Dad” thing.

All of a sudden you realize that you only have a few years left before driver’s licenses, dates, parties and skipping curfew.   Well before the first of September, a giant alarm began going off in my head and it keeps ringing to remind me that I don’t have much longer to instill all the values, virtues, and safeguards that she will need to make sure the bad decisions of 16, 17, and 18 don’t blow up her world.  13 is also scary, because I look back and I see how much has changed, and cringe as to how much is yet to come.   

All this research on heroes got me to thinking that there was once a time when I too was a hero.   I was a hero that made all pale in comparison. I would come home and I would be rushed at the door.   I could fix anything.   I could lift anything.   I was the wisest man on the planet.    I was stronger than superman.  There was nothing I couldn’t do, and there was no kryptonite to slow me down.   

I remember that once we were watching a football game together, and Annie looked at me, and with a face full of dead seriousness, she asked if I really loved football.    “I most certainly do,” was my reply.    “Then, I think you should play for the Patriots too!”  It was that moment that marked the pinnacle of my life as hero.  This was the time when I was richer than Bill Gates, more athletic than Tom Brady, and smarter than Einstein. 

Of course, in response, I told her that they wanted me of course, but being away from the family for so long was something I didn’t want.   I got a hug in exchange for my little white lie.  For such a long time, I was a hero, and even then I knew it wouldn’t last forever.   I guess that is how I justified the revising of my own personal athletic history.

Much to my chagrin, with each passing year I become less of a hero, and become that uncoordinated, old fashioned, father who makes her cringe with embarrassment each time we go out in public.   She once stood in my shadow looking up to me.   Now, she looks down and shakes her head.  Once the girls used to volley to hold my hand at Wal-Mart, but now they are fight to keep a solid ten feet in front.    I am starting to come to realize, that I am not as big a hero as I once was.  

It’s all slipping away too fast.    I need to make it stop.  If I was her hero again, maybe the advice that I give over the next 5 or 10 years, will be from the smartest of men, rather than Curly from the three stooges.  If I was her hero, she would be sure to listen, or at least stop long enough to consider.

As I researched heroes this week, I found myself looking for that common trait.   Now imagine this;   if there is some unseen trait, some invisible quality, that defines heroism, and I can employ it in my own world, I could slow, if not completely halt, the gradual transition from Superman to Stooge.  Maybe there is some trick I can employ or take advantage of.   Maybe there is some gadget I could buy.

Maybe if I had the white hat.   Good Guys always wear white hats.     The good guy that comes to the rescue of the town in trouble or the damsel in distress wears a white hat.   I could wear that white hat.     I could make it my signature logo, or my trademark.  

<<Note:   At this point in our service of worship, I pull a white cowboy hat out from behind the pulpit, to test the logic>>

 

Sadly, putting on the white hat isn’t enough.   I don’t look like a hero, but rather a hillbilly with questionable fashion sense.  Maybe it’s more than a white hat.  

Maybe I need a more formidable presence.   I need to commandeer a room when I walk in.    The hero of business turns heads with his presence.   The politician turns heads with his power.    The actor turns heads with his chiseled good looks.  Although you would all certainly agree that I do possess Kennedy like charm and boyish good looks, they are not of legendary status, so I need to turn it up a notch.  What I need, is a theme song.   All the greatest hero’s have theme songs.

<<Note:   At this point in our service of worship, I had the theme song for the 1950’s television show, The Lone Ranger, play across the audio system of the church.    >>

As you can all now attest, theme songs don’t cut it either.  Despite the great logic in all of this, nothing that I can add to my day to day is going to prove to have the magic touch.    No matter how much I would like it to be, the formula for heroism is not quick, easy, or simple.   Heroism is not about the presence we command when we enter the room like a great president or business leader.   

Heroism is not the fairness of complexion or the perfection of form that is seen in someone like Brad Pitt.   Heroism is certainly not about the gimmick or the prop; whether it is a football, basketball or a microphone.    The prop, be it any of these things, or the flaming Quran, is not what makes a hero.  Props do not make the hero.

After searching all week, and coming to the faithful conclusion that there was nothing I could buy that would elevate me to this mythical hero status.  I drew my quest to an end.   As so often is the case, when I stopped looking I found my answer.   I found my hero.  I found one born on September 11, 2001.

On this, the anniversary of September 11th, a moment that changed everything, we have a choice.   We can embrace the hope, promise, and heroism that thousands showed on that day, or we can get lost in the hatred, anger, and zealotry that led to the event.  Today, I chose to turn to that day, to answer my questions and to complete my quest.    Today, I turn to the story of Al Braca; and I discover the recipe for hero.

For Al, September 11th was no different than any other morning.  He rose, he showered, and he had a cup of coffee with his wife and kids before heading to work.    He took the same train.   He carried the same briefcase.   He read the same newspaper.    Everything was routine for him.   It was the routine that began with his first day, almost twenty years earlier.  

He hated his job.   For a long time he fought with simply quitting.   The job seemed so out of line with his faith and his values, that for a long time, he felt like he wasn’t being true to God.   Eventually, he began to understand that sometimes God calls us to serve, where we are.    That’s what Al Braca did.   

He stopped hiding his faith.    When something seemed to go contrary to what he believed he spoke out.   He started to spread the Gospel in his example of a different life.    Some people sarcastically called him the “Reverend”.   Others searched him out, when they were in trouble or needed advice.   He talked to them about his faith, and both the promise and the invitation that was available to them too.  

Early on the 11th, his wife Jeannie, turned on the news to find out the weather for the day, only to learn that a plane had struck the building.   Al was there already, she said to herself, but he will be alright.   He was alright the first time the building was hit in 1993, and he would be alright again.   She never would have imagined, that Al would never return home again.

A week later, Al’s body was found in the rubble of ground zero.   There were 50 other associates from his floor that lost their lives when the building crumbled.    They were several floors above the impact site, and from their position, there was not even a chance for them to escape.    The Braca’s, Jeannie and their teenage son Christopher, were devastated. Their hero would not be returning home.

 

About a month after the attacks, the family started to piece together the events of the final moments of Al’s life.   Some of the families of other victims from floor 105, received last minute emails and text messages from their loved ones.   Many of these messages spoke of a man named Al leading everyone in prayer.  The same people who mocked him the previous morning, now knelt beside him and looked to him to ease the fear and to provide some final comfort.

As he led others in prayer, he also found a moment to call home.   Unfortunately, phone service was down throughout the city.   After trying several times, he eventually connected with a phone operator from AT&T.   He told the operator where he was, and asked the operator to find his family, and tell them that he loved them.

It took almost two months for the family to hear Al’s final comments.   When asked, his son said “the last thing that Dad focused on was that which was most important to him;  God and Family.  It takes a bit of the hurt away, and I am proud of Dad being a light in the darkness.

A light in the darkness.  

I finally found my answer.   I discovered that ingredient that makes the ordinary, heroic.   Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “a hero is no braver than the ordinary man, just braver longer.”   The hero is no truer to self than the ordinary man, just truer longer.   Many of the firefighters, the police, the air passengers over Pennsylvania,  and the office workers became heroes that day.   They became heroes when they chose to be light in the darkness of the moment.    This is what defines heroism.

We all have that choice.   We can chose to stand and burn over hatred because we are face to face with that which is different, uncertain, or unknown or we can choose to be a source of light.    I believe this is exactly what Jesus meant in the words of Matthew 5:16.   He was telling each of us how to live out our faith.   He was giving us that illusive recipe for heroism.

•          In being braver and truer longer, in being a light within the darkness I can be the hero for my daughters, my coworkers, and my community.

•          In being braver and truer longer, in being a light within the darkness, you, and I, and this church can be heroes.

We need to let our light shine, despite the darkness around us.    Jesus told us just this, and we need to do so now more than ever.   We need to be lights in the darkness of pain, apathy, ignorance, exclusion and hatred.    When we are faced with the cheap trinkets of this world that promise answers and quick solutions; we need to be a light in the darkness.    When we see our neighbors stumbling over the mistakes and poor choices that come all too frequently;  we need to be a light that shines on a better path.    When our lives come face to face with the pain of sickness or heartache in our community or families;  we need to be the light that will not be hid.

“A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

We need to be lights in the darkness, because this is exactly how we become the heroes we are meant to be, and ultimately, how we become the people of faith we are called to be.     I don’t know about you, but I want to be a hero…and I am going to let my light shine.

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