Since it’s St George’s Day I thought we might reflect a bit on national heroes.
A friend of mine once told me a story. He’s an actor, this friend, and he’d been working late one night, recording additional bits of dialogue for a film in which he had a role. By the time he left the studio in Soho it was almost dawn and, before heading home, he thought, I’ll stop for a quick coffee at Bar Italia on Frith Street.
The place is empty. He buys his coffee, sits down and is about to take a first sip when the street door opens and in walks… David Bowie.
It’s just the two of them in this small bar at five o’ clock in the morning. I asked my friend, What did you do? He leans in close, tells me how Bowie ordered a coffee, lit a cigarette, but didn’t sit down. Stood at the bar. There’s a car waiting for him outside. Engine running. ‘So,’ I ask again, ‘what did you do?’ My friend tells me, ‘I downed my coffee, got up, and walked towards him…’
‘I breathed his air.’
Is that it? My friend didn’t dare say anything, couldn’t say anything to his hero; he just ‘breathed his air’ and left.
These days we might accuse my friend of flouting social distancing guidelines. But back then his actions were just… well, creepy.
I was reminded of my friend’s story yesterday when I went with my teenage son to pick up some emergency food parcels to deliver around the parish. When we arrived at the Church Centre, Glenda, the wonderful parish administrator, was still packing up bags and boxes for people. My son and I came into the room but we stood back. Although Glenda is a hero, we didn’t want to breathe her air, or make her breathe ours. We’re suddenly conscious, all of us, of the air we breathe and share.
Bowie was my friend’s hero. Heroes must have many qualities, I suppose. But the most important is surely that we don’t know them. When we get to know them, when Bowie turns and says, ‘Hey, Alastair, what a lovely surprise, how are you doing? Sit down. Cigarette?’ then he’s no longer your hero; he’s your mate.
There was a young Jewish boy once who had learned all the Psalms by heart. From an early age, he could recite them perfectly, parrot fashion, for his parents at social gatherings. Or almost perfectly. He’d slightly misheard (and therefore mis-learned) the penultimate verse of Psalm 23:
Instead of saying: Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, he always gave the line as:
Surely, good Mrs Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life.
I love that! I love it partly because I think the child is right. Goodness and mercy are grand, abstract principles. Hero words. Hero ideas. We might want to breathe their air, but we wouldn’t dare sit down and talk to them or call them our friends.
But good Mrs Murphy on the other hand, we know her. She’s the one packing up food parcels right now in front of me and my son. She’s the one calling her neighbours to check they’re all right. She’s reading with kids in school, dropping meals round to people she knows need a bit of extra care and love. She’s everywhere, been following us all the days of our lives.
Talking about goodness and mercy tells us something about God. But good Mrs Murphy – she shows us something about God, how God acts in the world and how we are called to act. For Christians, God lived and lives with us, a God ‘that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands.’ (1 John 1:1) As a result, for Christians, God is not ultimately understood or recognised as unattaintable, unreachable, unaddressable, like one of our heroes. But as a person – frail and vulnerable amongst the frail and vulnerable, like one of us.
When the Risen Lord Jesus stands with Peter on the shore of the lake, he asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter’s positive answer draws a command from Jesus: ‘Feed my sheep, tend my sheep.’ To love God – to love anyone – is willingly, joyfully to accept a series of duties and mutual obligations: to care and to nurture and to cherish one another. Not his air, not my air. Our air.
Jesus’ words to Peter by the edge of the lake don’t express big, abstract, heroic, philosophical ideas; they’re much deeper than that: they are how the world works. This is just the deep functioning of God’s creation: Love.
If you still want an explanation, there are libraries of books on moral philosophy and ethics. But my suggestion is: go find good Mrs Murphy. Watch how she feeds her sheep, how she tends her flock.
Donatello’s Saint George: shield, armour, sword, manly profile? Spare us! Look for heroes in church centres and parish rooms around the country; driving buses, sowing crops, delivering mail; above all: look for heroes clustered around the nurses’ stations in our hospitals.
At the edge of our hospital beds, at the edge of that lake.
To return for a moment to Bar Italia on that early morning, David Bowie’s song Heroes is not about a man in armour with a spear and a dead dragon at his feet; it’s not about superhuman, godlike (godlite) Marvel-style comic-book heroes; it’s just about two young lovers kissing, divided by a wall, by a careless world. But they can be heroes. We all can.
God of goodness and mercy,
follow us all the days of our life.
God we can hear and see and touch,
walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
God at the lakeshore,
call us and commit us afresh to your flock.
Amen and Amen and Amen