Monday, August 18, 2008

Michael Phelps, Batman, and Other Heroes

It was an amazing thing. On Saturday night, I was invited by some of my company's lawyers to a gathering in a luxury suite at a AA baseball game in Frisco. (Yes, in Texas, even the minor league ballparks have luxury suites!) As is common in these suites, there were as many people inside watching TV as there were outside watching the game. Since the Olympics were on, I suppose that was more understandable than usual.

The baseball game ended about 9:30. (Frisco beat the Northwest Arkansas Naturals 3-2, if you are keeping score.) Remarkably, nobody left. If you looked out the window at the other suites, nobody left them either.

You see, Michael Phelps was going to swim at 9:55. He and his relay partners were going for a gold - his eighth of these Olympics.

As you know by now, he won it. He holds the record for most golds in a single Olympics and most golds all time. More than Mark Spitz. More than Carl Lewis. More than Michael Johnson or Jesse Owens or Nadia or anybody else.

He is an American hero. And a bunch of often-cynical adults refused to go home from a minor league ballgame until they could watch him win a swim race. We all cheered and stood for the final leg and held our breath and yelled as Jason Lezak touched the wall first. We were like little kids.

Phelps, if you believe the puff pieces on NBC between events, was picked on as a kid because of his unusual physical appearance and his ADHD. He is the child of a broken home who is double-jointed. He is 6'5" and eats 8000 calories for breakfast and cannot crack 200 pounds.

And he overcomes. He practices. He makes the most of his talent and his opportunities.

And a bunch of lawyers waited around in a minor league ballpark and cheered like ten-year-olds for a swimmer. Amazing.

I saw another hero this weekend. (Warning, if you have not yet seen "The Dark Knight" and don't want to have the ending spoiled for you, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. I will put a line in in capital letters to let you know where you can jump back in.) I went to the movies.

When I was five years old, I watched the old campy "Batman" TV show religiously, every afternoon at 3:30, right after "The Munsters." I thought Batman was THE hero, because he did not have those dumb super powers like Superman or Aquaman or Wonder Woman and yet he still won all the fights. Biff! Pow! Zowie!

I would get my mom to safety pin a towel around my neck, and I would put on some goofy sunglasses, and I would BE Batman in the back yard.

In the new movie, Batman's biggest heroic act is not hitting anybody (Thwack!) or running real fast or catching the bad guy. His biggest heroic act occurs at the conclusion of the movie. Gotham's DA, Harvey Dent, is a public hero, but he turns out to be a bad guy in the end, having killed several police officers after suffering his own personal tragedy. He tries to kill Batman but instead is killed himself. After Dent's death, Commissioner Gordon laments the fact that Gotham's hopes will be shattered when they learn what Dent has done, but Batman will not let that happen - he tells Gordon that he, Batman, can never be the true hero Gotham needs. Gotham needs "a hero with a face." He persuades Gordon to tell the city that it was Batman, not Dent, who committed the murders, so that the police will chase Batman and let Dent's reputation survive unscathed. Gordon remarks that Batman is "the hero we have, but not the hero we need." Batman accepts responsibility for Dent's actions.

In other words, he takes the sins of the enemy on himself. Paul might say that He, who was rich, became poor for the sake of another. C.S. Lewis would call it Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time.

For all that Michael Phelps has accomplished, he is no Batman. He does not - for indeed he cannot - take on the sins of another.


We need more heroes. We have needed Michael Phelps these days, like we have needed Nastia and Shawn and Kobe and Misty and Kat and so many others. We need to see those who take what they are given and make the most of it and overcome. We need to see what can be done. We need to see hope fulfilled.

But more than that, we need Batman. No, we don't need someone who dresses up and captures the Joker. We need that one who understands sacrifice, who puts the needs of others over the needs of self.

Batman is, of course, fiction. There is only one hero like that. And we all need Him.

I am glad that He is both kinds of hero - He is hope fulfilled and He is sacrifice. He overcomes, and He takes on our failings because we need Him.

It is trite to say that He deserves a gold medal or an academy award or the cheers of a bunch of adults in a luxury suite.

He simply deserves the best we have. He is a hero.

He is the hero we need. Fortunately, He is also the hero we have.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Vacation Thoughts

Just back from the mountains. I am not ready for a full-fleged blog yet, but some thoughts are running around in my head that I want to share while they are fresh:

-- If you have not read any of Jan Karon's "Mitford" books, I recommend that you give them a shot. Thoroughly G-rated, they are simple stories about simple people in a simple place. Don't pick them up if you are looking for a potboiler, a war story, a murder mystery, or suspense in the typical sense of that word. But they are real stories about could-be-real people going through real events, and as the series progresses, the theology and the worship contained in the books are, at least for me, refreshing and worthwhile. For years, I have told my Sunday School classes that when I meet a Christian whom I had not previously known, the Holy Spirit in me reaches out to the Holy Spirit in that person. That is how I feel when I read Karon - I have never met her, but I know her soul.

-- Like the beach, the mountains are a view I need periodically to rest my restless spirit. I live in the flattest part of the country, and seeing the Smokies reminds me of God in a way I need periodically. It is not that I have forgotten Him, but I need to see mountains in the same way I need to recite the Lord's Prayer and sing "It Is Well" and read the 23rd Psalm. I know they are there, and I can close my eyes and picture them, but climbing up in them and experiencing them again is necessary for my spiritual well-being.

-- Watching my kids makes me know how much I missed in not having siblings of my own. I am not complaining, for my life was and is good, but I am so grateful that they have each other.

-- There is a profound freedom in visiting a strange church for worship. I mean "strange" only in the sense of "full of strangers," for the church I visited was very much home - I knew the hymns, heard conversations very much like many I have had myself, and knew the stories of many of the people although I could not match which story went with which person. Again, the Holy Spirit in me found Himself replicated in good folks around me whose names I will never know. But worshiping where literally nobody else in the room knows my name removes some natural distractions and allows God to speak in ways that I often do not otherwise hear.

-- It is good to be home. I think the best vacations are those that we are thrilled to take and happy to return from. My kids are glad to be home. So am I. I won't mind going back to work.