A few years ago, my friend, Kirk retired from his teaching position at Boston College, a school by the way, that is not a college and is not in Boston. To date, however, my suggestion that the institution be renamed “The University Right Outside the City Limits of Boston” has yet to receive the enthusiastic approval I believe it so richly deserves. But I digress. What I really want to tell you about is the night Kirk had to make a tough decision.
Here was the situation: Late one Saturday night, Kirk was driving through a very dangerous part of Boston, when he stopped for a red light. As he waited for the light to change, from out of nowhere, a naked man jumped out, holding a tire iron, and he began to pound on Kirk’s car door window, screaming for Kirk to let him in.
Being of sound mind and body, Kirk instinctively stepped on the gas. He drove just a short distance when, for some reason (a reason I’ll come back to), he changed his mind. He then returned to the stranger and told him that he’d take him to the local police station, if he’d drop the tire iron, and if he’d throw a blanket (from the back seat) around himself.
If this were a TV commercial, this is where the Don Pardo-like narrator would say, “Kids, don’t try this at home!” So let me state as clearly as possible that I do NOT want you stopping in the middle of the night, in a dangerous neighbourhood, to pick up a naked stranger, who is carrying a weapon!
But back to our story. As Kirk drove the stranger to the local precinct, he learned what had happened earlier in the evening. Because it had been a hot night, his passenger had been sleeping soundly in his birthday suit, when his own roommate, who was experiencing a LSD-induced trip, came into his room and attacked him with a tire iron. The naked man instinctively jumped out of bed, grabbed the weapon from the drugged out assailant, and ran out into the street just as Kirk was pulling up to the red light.
The question at the heart of the story is this: Why did Kirk change his mind? Why did he turn that car around?
Kirk does not fancy himself a hero. When asked about his decision, he admitted that he didn’t stop because of his belief in the dignity in the human person. Nor did he stop because of his school’s mission statement, the IB learner profile, the US Constitution or even the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Kirk said, “I stopped because the hero of the story I believe in said, ‘clothe the naked.’”
While Kirk happens to be a Christian, my emphasis this morning isn’t so much on religious dogma, as it is on how we are shaped by stories.Why do stories have such power? I think it’s because we are story-making and story consuming machines. When you were young, wasn’t there something magical about the 4 words, “Once upon a time”? We love to tell one another the stories of our days; it is a way for us to make sense of things, and perhaps even a way to understand our lives.
This may sound a bit esoteric, especially early on a Monday morning, but I think it is actually helpful to think of your life as a novel. Your life may not feel at all like much of a story just yet, but that’s just because you are stumbling through an early chapter. In time, if you look for it, you may see the Dickensian dimension to your existence! Know that as your story unfolds, there will be more tension, more suffering, more points of conflict. That’s why you – and I know this sounds narcissistic – but you need to force yourself to see yourself as the hero of the story. When something painful happens to you, ask, “So what does the hero do now? Does he pout when he is treated unfairly? Does he whine when he experiences misfortune? Or does the hero persevere? Does he show resolve? Does he dig down, endure the adversity, and come back in the next chapter, determined to be just a little bit stronger?
If you are really ambitious, you might push this thought further and consider the possibility that all of our stories are actually — and perhaps mysteriously — connected; that we are part of a grand epic, a cosmic narrative of sorts. Look around this room and ask, “What are the odds that all of us would be here today, right here, right now?”
Let me end this morning by acknowledging that last week was a tough one. UCC lost a teacher, an advisor, a mentor, and friend in Miss Kouremenus. Days later the world lost Nelson Mandela. Let’s also acknowledge that we will continue to experience these kinds of losses in the future. We will be dope slapped by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and sometimes the “Big Arbitrary” will literally knock us to our knees. When we are down on our knees, we need to turn to stories. They may be stories of a religious or spiritual nature, or they may have some other tradition, some other context. No matter what that is, we need something that will help us make sense of our lives, especially when we are stuck in a difficult chapter.
In the spirit of Christmas I feel particularly generous this morning in offering you not just 3 but 5 takeaways:
First, I strongly encourage the use of pajamas, because you never know where a story may take you.
Second, in the future, I strongly encourage you to put some thought into the roommate selection process. I’d opt to avoid the LSD using, prone to violence in the middle of the night profile. But that’s a personal preference I have.
Third, it’s always good to have a blanket in your car. (See takeaway #1 for details.)
Fourth, I hope that you find a story that will help you make sense of life. I hope that story offers you both consolation and purpose.
And finally, I hope that you can begin to see yourself as the hero of your own life story. Again, it may sound a bit narcissistic, but thinking of yourself in this way may help you get through life’s tougher moments. Whether it’s facing an English exam or persevering through a principal’s long winded-speech, heroes need all the help they can get!