Lent Devotions: On heroes

Design by Doug Puller/Bread for the World.

Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

By Rev. Jerry Van Marter   

Philippians 3:17-4:1

During the 27 years that I wrote for the Presbyterian News Service, my favorite column was one I wrote in 1995, shortly after the deaths of three heroes of mine: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees, and Sybil Wangberg of Fruitvale Presbyterian Church in Oakland, where I served as pastor.

In that column, I wrote that these three were heroes for me not because they were perfect, but because they were faithful to the gifts God gave them in Christ to touch the world despite being perfectly imperfect.

Jerry Garcia was a notorious drug abuser, but God gave him the gift to play guitar like few others, and Jerry used that gift to inspire and connect legions of “Deadheads” from all walks of life in every corner of the world. Also a renowned abuser of his body in various ways, Mickey Mantle nevertheless played through all sorts of physical ailments in his entire career and led his team to unmatched heights of baseball glory. “I struck out 1,700 times,” Mickey would say, “and every one of ’em was almost a home run.” He ALWAYS swung for the fences and no amount of failure could dampen that striving. Sybil Wangberg was an always stubborn, often-cantankerous “little old lady” who loved Jesus as much as anyone I’ve ever met. Though others would often grouse about her set ways, Sybil would do anything for anybody. Despite physical frailty, she had the most open heart and arms I’ve experienced in 45 years of ministry.

I cannot read today’s scripture passage from Philippians without adding Paul to my collection of heroes, along with Jerry, Mickey, and Sybil. “Join in imitating me and observe those who live according to the example you have in us,” Paul tells the faithful. But his attitudes towards so many of his contemporaries were so harsh that I imagine he was hard-pressed to find many friends, much less hero-worshippers. Even today, Paul’s message is far more revered than he is.

But no one can question his love of God, his absolute loyalty to Jesus Christ, and his determination to spread the Gospel however he could at whatever personal cost. In this season of Lent, when we observe Jesus risking and sacrificing all for our sakes, may we, too, with all our frailties and faults, determine to use every gift God has given us to proclaim and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Rev. Jerry Van Marter is an alumni relations advisor at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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