A cancer-stricken believer was dying. I was in his room as his family gathered around him. One by one he spoke to his children, to their spouses, and to his young grand children. He gave each a loving, tender blessing. Even his warnings were spoken with gentleness. He reminded them to keep the Lord in the center of their lives. We wept together, knowing that soon he would no longer be with us. A few days later he was gone.As a "cancer-stricken believer" myself, I can hear and acknowledge the aspirations that this story represents. When my time comes I, too, want to leave my family with a parting blessing. I am encouraged when I hear that people are inspired by my "perseverance", or that somehow I am a "role model" to them.
I'm also frightened by the story. Because the role of "role model" can be a burdensome one. If someone is looking to you to see how a "cancer-stricken believer" should behave, what if it all becomes too much? What if, at some point, I am in such pain that I want to scream obscenities or such fear of death that I am reduced to despair? What becomes of the "role model" then?
I know Eli/Miriam wrestled - much more deeply than me - with this same issue, the issue of the heightened expectations created by being a "role model" to some. Although "cancer-stricken believer" isn't everybody, it's not all that uncommon a status. "Transgender Christian" - now there is someone a little out of the ordinary! For many people, Eli was their only model for this role - and he knew it - and he wanted, to the end, to live it out. And sometimes, being this model was a burden to him also.
In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings Frodo - the hero and "role model" of the story - having resisted, until the last minute, the lure to power that the Ring represents, finally succumbs and claims the Ring of Power for his own. At this point he is not a role model at all - Tolkien even received a letter suggesting that he should have been executed for treason, rather than honored - but his failure is redressed by a gracious, providential act: Gollum, grabbing his "Precious", overmastered by demented joy, topples into the fire and achieves the destruction of the Ring that Frodo was unable to bring about by his own efforts. (It is clear from Tolkien's letters, especially #246 in the edition edited by Humphrey Carpenter, that he regarded this point as extremely important; Peter Jackson's elision of it in the movie edition seems to me to be a serious misunderstanding.)
The point I am trying to make is that the role of "role model" is ultimately too much for any human being (save one - see Hebrews 12:2) to sustain consistently. Especially when the "role" being modeled is a minority one, especially when it is one which "endures such hostility" (oops, I slipped back into Hebrews again), as Eli's was and mine is not. Sometimes you don't want to be a "role model" - you just want to be your ordinary, fallible, beautiful human self - a unique person made in God's image, yes, and also a person who needs some space away from being "on duty" the whole time.
So let's show our role models some grace, whoever they may be, in the anticipation of that final act of redemptive grace that Tolkien symbolized in his narrative of the Sammath Naur. What's more, let's remember that each role model has a network of supporters ("Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam, would he, Dad?") who make any "modeling" that we do see possible and effective. Do not these supporters need to receive grace too? Let us all consider how to stir up one another to love, to quote from Hebrews one last time (10:24). Amen