When David Bowie died last week, I turned to YouTube to listen to Heroes. The song, a story of star-crossed lovers, has come to be known for the inspiration in its steadily building crescendo and the repeated statement, “We can be heroes, just for one day.” The song speaks to something in all of us that wants to be able to even momentarily transcend our limitations—to be heroes.
This weekend, we pause to celebrate one of my heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr. This year as I began to reflect on his legacy, I started to think about when I first remembered looking up to him, and I discovered that I can’t really remember not knowing who he was.
As early as I remember being able to read, I remember having a collection of books my parents gave me about American heroes—people like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember reading those books over and over again, and I have counted these men among my heroes ever since.
At the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall, the memory of each of these men intersects. Several years ago I spent a wonderful evening with a group of teenagers there. We were in Washington on a youth choir trip and one evening as the sun was setting a group of us walked from our hotel down to the memorial. The weather was perfect and I was excited to show them Honest Abe lit up at night.
We walked into the memorial and looked up at the great man and read the words of the Gettysburg Address so appropriately and permanently etched in stone. And then we walked outside the columns and sat on the edge of the monument with our feet dangling over the side of the memorial as we looked out over the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument.
Unhurried and unburdened we just sat in the darkening twilight and talked and laughed and had a great time together. And then before we left, I made sure to find the marker. Near the top of the Lincoln Memorial there’s a marker, a brass plate in the stone steps that marks the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood to deliver the “I Have a Dream” speech.
I had a few of the teenagers with me as I wandered over to find it and then a few more came. As we looked down and read the marker, a thirteen-year-old girl looked up at me and said a little unbelievingly, “That happened here?” And then with wider eyes and more excitement, “Martin Luther King stood here?!?”
As most of our group gathered around and we stood where King stood, we looked out over the reflecting pool spread out below us. They’d seen the pictures. They remembered the crowds. And now they were making the connection of just how big the space was and how many people it would take to fill it.
Some took pictures of the marker. Some took pictures from the marker. Some took pictures of themselves on the marker—some with exaggerated poses as if they were giving a speech themselves. One asked if she could borrow my phone to call her mom to tell her where she was.
When we got back to the hotel, as I was walking down the hall, right before I opened the door to my room, one of the guys said, “Thanks, Matt, for taking us tonight. That was really cool.”
Teenagers don’t often show how impressed they are. They don’t often show excitement or interest in history—or anything else for that matter. It’s not cool. But for some reason that night they did. It didn’t last long, though. The next day they mostly shrugged as they stood in front of paintings by Picasso and Monet.
But for one night I got to share my heroes with them, and they responded in a way that made me feel like a little bit of a hero myself—if just for one day.
Many of the heroes we idolize come from childhood, before we’re too jaded and world-weary to believe in heroes anymore. And then we get older and learn that our heroes aren’t perfect. And for many adults, the discovered imperfections leave our heroes seeming a little less heroic. But we can respond another way, too.
When we recognize that our heroes are ordinary people just like us, we can choose to be inspired. Lincoln and Washington and King were ordinary people just like us--ordinary people with the courage to go all in, to hone their talent and ability, to pursue the dream, the message, the vision and the purpose God had given them, with single-minded devotion, undeterred by fear of opposition or rejection or failure, undeterred even by their own limitations.
That’s what heroism is. Heroes are ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, who find both the momentary and sustained courage to rise above their limitations.
When we recognize that our heroes are just like us, we remember that we can be heroes, too.
See you Sunday.