It was one of those moments when everything stopped. On the telecast, it seemed as if a hush descended on the entire stadium of 107,000 plus people. In one of the few unscripted moments that mark the liturgy of Penn State football, here was a sudden but welcome intrusion.
Both teams came to midfield, knelt down, and were led in prayer. Not a short prayer, certainly not a token prayer, but a heartfelt prayer. A prayer that acknowledged the victims of child abuse. That acknowledged the safety concerns of everyone present. That acknowledged the heartache of the previous week. That acknowledged the players who were about to play what they all knew was just a game.
But most of all, the prayer acknowledged God. It acknowledged that he is real, that he was present, and that he needed to be paid attention to. Because while there had been a lot of talk about Sandusky, Paterno, Spanier, and the football team the previous week, there hadn’t been much attention paid to God himself.
There’s something about sin in it’s most undeniable, awful, ugly, depraved forms that reminds us of our need for God, though. After the week we had here, the right response was to pray. While people in other cities make light of “Tebowing,” there was no argument about two entire teams “Tebowing” here. The stillness that settled over the crowd was the realization–even if just for a moment–that God needs to be part of this conversation. God needs to be acknowledged. No amount of candlelight vigils or dollars raised can cover over our collective guilt. And so a humbled, shamed crowd , watching in person, or watching on TV, quieted themselves and acknowledged God.
I don’t know how long that moment will last. I know that after 9/11, many people were moved to go to church, but the following Sunday churches were back to normal. My suspicion is that it will be the same here. But at least for one moment, people acknowledged God. May that not be the end of it.
[The following is the text of the talk I gave to Calvary Elements on Monday, 11/14, a little over a week since the news broke about the sex abuse scandal at Penn State].
Repentance & the Penn State Cult
23 Surely the idolatrous commotion on the hills
and mountains is a deception;
surely in the LORD our God
is the salvation of Israel.
24 From our youth shameful gods have consumed
the fruits of our fathers’ labor—
their flocks and herds,
their sons and daughters.
25 Let us lie down in our shame,
and let our disgrace cover us.
We have sinned against the LORD our God,
both we and our fathers;
from our youth till this day
we have not obeyed the LORD our God.” Jeremiah 3:23-25
The cries of “We Are…Penn State” have taken on new meaning this past week, a week that we will never forget and don’t want to remember.
I’ve struggled to put into words what this has felt like. I’ve heard more than a few people here compare it to a death in the family, or even our own 9/11, and neither of those is far off. The events of this past week have had a shocking, seismic, things-will-never-be-the-same quality, combined with our entire community processing grief and horror together.
Now, at the beginning of week 2 “after Sandusky,” the response has already begun, with prayer, the candlelight vigil, the blue ribbons for child abuse, and the charitable giving.
While I’m heartened by positive responses, my fear is that we will try to move on too quickly from this. It is crucial that we respond in thoughtful, heartfelt, and as Christians, godly ways, to the events of this past week.
The comparisons to 9/11 or a death in the family are worth exploring, because it should cause us to ask “What exactly has died?” Michael Weinreb, a writer at ESPN and State College native, wrote an article called “Growing Up Penn State” with the subtitle: “the end of everything at State College.” “Everything.” Interesting word choice. It’s not the end of Penn State. It was the end for Curley and Schultz, Spanier and JoePa. It was the end of Sandusky’s unspeakable acts. It is hopefully the beginning of the end for those who were victimized.
But I hope it was the end of something else here: our Penn State idolatry. Here in Jeremiah, he says the in the lands of the hills and mountains, people have believed an idolatrous lie. It’s the same way in the shadow of Mt. Nittany. Because let’s face it, we have given ourselves over to the rampant, idolatrous love of all things football, JoePa, and Penn State. We’re even enamored with our ability to pull ourselves together and show the rest of the world how fantastically great we are at doing good, whether it’s raising money for kids with pediatric cancer, or money for kids who are victims of child abuse.
I use the word idolatry intentionally here. And I mean it in all its awful, gory, biblical sense. It’s not uncommon for Christians to talk about idolatry, and say “I make an idol out of school, or relationships, or comfort.” I wonder if we (including myself) really know what we’re saying.
If we did, we’d probably soften our language, because idolatry is something that is radically destructive. It is disgusting. It leads to unspeakable horrors.
What’s so idolatrous about Penn State, you might ask? Well, think with me for a minute what we love, celebrate, treasure, and boast about around here:
- Our football program that’s never had a major violation
- The man who built that football, and in many ways the University, St. Joe.
- A world-class University, that could simultaneously be #1 party school and #1 recruiting destination according to the Wall Street Journal. We’ll have our cake and eat it to, thank you very much.
- The myth of safe, secure, comfortable, “Pleasantville” Happy Valley
No wonder people have been talking about the cult of Penn State, and the cult of Joe Paterno. As one student told me on Friday, “everybody who comes here has to buy in. If they don’t, they transfer out after a year or two.” How do you buy in?
Here in the Valley, we’ve allowed idolatry to flourish. We’ve been using religious and worship language about our devotion to Penn State for years.
- We have shrines & houses of worship. The Nittany Lion shrine is the 2nd most photographed place in Pennsylvania. The JoePa statue. And Beaver Stadium is a house of worship with seating capacity that is second only to one.
- We riot when our idols are taken away (just like the people of Ephesus in Acts 19).
- We worship sexuality, celebrating “do what feels good, it’s just a normal appetite,” words that Sandusky could have used to justify his actions.
- Finally, and most awfully, as Jeremiah says, idols “consume” our sons & daughters. The wicked Israelite kings worshiped the Canaanite god Moloch. This god was worshiped through child sacrifice, through the offering up of the first born in the flames. When this sacrifice occurred, the musicians were commanded to make so much noise so that the parents would not hear the cries of their child and change their minds. Idol worship drowns out the cries of the children.
Is Penn State idolatry all that different from the biblical versions? No, it’s not. And we are complicit in this. Haven’t you found part of your identity in Penn State? Haven’t you boasted about Penn State in some way? A little over a week ago, I would have told you I didn’t. I thought I had dealt with that.
But this crisis has uncovered Penn State idolatry in me that I didn’t see. In my shock, I see how I’ve idolized the myth of Happy Valley, that “those things don’t happen here.” In my sorrow over JoePa being fired, I see how I’ve elevated that man to too high a place. In my defensiveness towards the media and people on the outside “who just don’t get it,” I’ve seen a desire to justify myself and keep the Penn State part of my image intact. Like many of you, I’ve shed a lot of tears. Much of that was genuine grieving. But some of it was for the departure of idols close to my heart.
How about you? The words of our alma mater have gotten a lot of attention recently, particularly the line “May no act of ours bring shame.” But it’s the first words that have been sticking in my throat: “For the glory of old State.”
How do we sing of the glory of Old State, and reconcile that with the first of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me”? (Exodus 20:3).
No one here is completely innocent. That’s not to say we’re all equally guilty. But we’ve realized that we do, in fact, bear some of the blame in this, in elevating people too high, in winking at the seriousness of sin and saying “it’s just college kids being college kids,” in helping to perpetuate a system that allows these evils to occur, and in worshiping a University, bragging about it, and finding our identity in it, instead of in Jesus Christ.
So, if we realize we’re guilty of idolatry, what do we do about it? People typically do one of two things with guilt: the first tactic is that we minimize, deny, and ignore. We say “it’s not that bad, not that big a deal.” But the charges here are so awful, so horrific, and already so infamous, that minimizing and denial just won’t work. So that brings in the other tactic: make up for it. Atone for it.
That’s what I believe has already taken root. I’m seeing constant updates online about how much Penn Staters have donated to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. A worthy cause, and I’m glad Penn Staters want to see some good come out of this. But in the constant tweets and messages, I ask “Why are we doing this? Why do we need to let everyone know?” I fear the same old Penn State jingoism is already returning, the attitude that together, we can “overcome” this.
Do we really think that we can ever atone for these sins? What could we ever do that would somehow atone for the crimes committed against these boys? How do you measure it? How long should we feel bad for? How many blue ribbons should we wear? How many dollars should we raise? What kind of penance can we do? What on earth can atone for our sins?
Nothing can. We can never atone for these crimes. We can’t do enough penance. To think that we can only dishonors and minimizes the suffering of those poor boys. This is one of those rare instances when, if we’re honest, we see that we can’t right these wrongs. The sins against those boys have damaged them forever.
We need something else, something outside of us. We need someone: a Savior. As our heroes fall, we’re reminded there’s only one man who was perfect, one man who is worthy of our worship. Like Jeremiah says, “Surely in the Lord our God is our salvation.” Not in us. We need someone else to take the guilt. We need someone else to deal with these sins, so that justice is served. That’s the point of the Cross—that Justice is served, sin is punished—but that grace is simultaneously extended to us, the guilty ones.
We can’t approach a Savior by thinking we can work our way out. That’s penance. We can only approach God through repentance. The difference between penance and repentance is that penance tries to earn our way out, while repentance confesses that we can’t. We are guilty, and can’t save ourselves. Repentance is owning our sin. It’s humbling ourselves. It’s throwing ourselves at the mercy of God. There’s no other way. Repentance is also turning from our sin. It’s taking action.
How do we know the difference between penance and repentance?
- Well for one, we’ll make it about God, then others, then us. That’s what was so powerful about that midfield prayer on Saturday, when EVERYONE stopped. It’s about God first, others second. Psalm 51.
- It’s not about us. We won’t brag about what we’re doing. We won’t keep score of how much money we’ve raised.
- We won’t be defensive when the media or others attack Penn Staters, rightly or wrongly.
- We’ll get rid of our idols. Turn from them.
And that’s what we must do now. It’s not time for “back to normal.” It’s time to repent. In the Bible, God commanded his people to destroy their idols, so that they would not be tempted to worship them. I have a JoePa cutout in my basement, which has some other Penn State décor in it. I took down JoePa today, probably some other stuff soon. Spending some time fasting and praying is appropriate. I can’t go back to “normal,” because normal was idolatrous. What about you?
Finally, what about those on our campus who haven’t been driven to their knees? It struck me that the Ninevites declared a fast and put on sackcloth and ashes. We…tailgated and had a football game. Not everyone is repentant. And this is where we, as Christians, come in.
The Bible is full of examples of godly men and women who stood in the gap. People who took action on the behalf of others. Like Jeremiah, who I quoted at the beginning. Many others, like Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, repented for the sins of others, even sins that they did not personally commit. Abraham and Moses bargained with God, pleading for him to spare wicked people. Esther acted courageously, believing God had put her there “for such a time as this.”
Friends, it’s the same way for us. This is why God has brought us here—to intercede for our community. If you love Penn State and this community, let’s repent of our own sins, and then identify ourselves with our community, confessing their sins as well. That’s the Christian sense of “We Are…Penn State” this week. Let’s not get back to normal, let’s call sin for what it is, so that everyone would truly know the power and grace and forgiveness and healing of Jesus Christ. Psalm 79 shows us how to pray:
8 Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers;
may your mercy come quickly to meet us,
for we are in desperate need.
9 Help us, O God our Savior,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us and forgive our sins
for your name’s sake. Psalm 79:8-9
We have spent enough time exalting football, and people, and Penn State. It’s time to exalt Jesus Christ! For a long time, some of us have prayed that Penn State would be more famous for what God has done, than for football or partying or THON. We now have that opportunity. The THON mantra of “FTK, for the kids” was a modification of gamer lingo, “for the kill.” Let’s see that redeemed further to be “For the KING!” Instead of singing about the glory of Old State, let’s sing about the glory of our King!
Since the news broke about the horrific events that have occurred here at Penn State, I have been haunted by one passage I included in my book. In it, I discuss the role of a college minister as shepherd. I quote, with approval, the words of Joe Paterno in Sports Illustrated. Here’s that passage:
“Joe Paterno has recorded the most wins of any college football coach of all time; he’s also a man of deeply held convictions. From the beginning of his tenure at Penn State, he has sought to cultivate not just football players, but men. He’s made it clear that Penn State Football will do things the right way, will strive for “success with honor.” In a profile in Sports Illustrated, Paterno offered some advice to his son Jay, who is an assistant coach. It’s also a good piece of advice for campus ministers:
Every player we have, someone—maybe a parent, a grandparent, someone—poured their life and soul into that young man. They are handing that young man off to us. They are giving us their treasure, and it’s our job to make sure we give them back that young man intact and ready to face the world. (Joe Paosnanski, “Joe Paterno Top of the World, Pa!” Sports Illustrated, October 26, 2009)
In campus ministry…reminders like this one that I’m being entrusted with someone’s treasure are helpful. It’s an important perspective to maintain.”
Obviously, I wish that the same concern had been shown for the victims. They were someone’s treasure too. Beyond heartbreaking.
The following is the substance of a brief message I gave to Calvary Elements students on Monday night. There’s obviously much more that needs to be said, but this is a start.
1. We Should Care—for the Right Things
For most of you, it’s a given that you’ll care deeply about what’s happening. It seems that everyone is talking about it, and has strong feelings about it.
But for those of you who are feeling detached from the whole thing, who tend to think it’s just a media circus that’s been blown way out of proportion…think again. We should care about everything that’s happening right now. We should not distance ourselves from this, even though it’s painful and disgusting. Nor should we just be detached in a voyeuristic, morbidly curious way.
We should care because this is our university. We should care because thousands of lives are being changed right now. Yes, we should care because it seems the entire media universe has descended on our little town. But most of all we should care because of the fate of those 8 (and counting) boys whose lives have been unspeakably damaged. We should grieve for them. We should mourn for them.
I’ll confess that when this story first broke over the weekend, the enormity of evil was slow to dawn on me. I was in denial. Some of my initial thoughts were about Urban Meyer and if he would be Penn State’s next coach. But then the horrific nature of what transpired snowballed through my mind. And now that care has descended on many of us like a dark, heavy cloud.
So let me address those of us who care deeply: let’s care for the right things. More than football, more than the University’s reputation, more than JoePa’s legacy, we must care for those kids! Let’s pray for them, as Joe and others have continually reminded us to. Let’s pray that something redemptive can come out of this. Perhaps a new initiative to curb child abuse that puts THON to shame in terms of money, energy, and success?!
2. Pray for Justice to be Done and for Mercy to Triumph
God desires justice. He hates injustice. He hates those who oppress the weak, the orphaned, the powerless. He hates those who are dishonest, who play favorites, who lead in self-serving pragmatism rather than doing what is right. Because God cares about justice, we should care to. And we should leave justice to him, and to the authorities appointed to carry out justice.
And since all of us stand before a holy God as guilty, and in need of God’s mercy, let us pray that mercy wins out. Yes, even a Jerry Sandusky is not too evil to receive God’s mercy. I see an understandable tendency for people to distance themselves from such a monster. But the truth will not be so neat. Even as new details emerge, and as people condemn and vilify those that should have done more to stop this, we will need mercy. We will need forgiveness. We will need grace. And grace only comes through Jesus.
3. Be a Light
It’s for times like these that God has put Christians at Penn State. Amidst the sadness, grief, brokenness, confusion, and anger, Christians must be light. We can offer hope. As people sort themselves into camps for and against JoePa, Spanier, the Board of Trustees, the media, and more, we can offer people a different choice: neither blind rage nor naïve hope in the people and institutions that have failed us. The smug, self-righteous condemnation of people on the outside is offensive. But so is the reflexive defense of anything and everything Penn State. We can offer people the light of Christ—light that exposes the deeds of darkness. Light that exposes what is truly evil and wrong, and calls it that; but also light that purifies and gives life. We are here for a reason, to be the light of Christ.
And so let me challenge you here, with something that is proving to be hard for me: Don’t be a mere partisan in this. Don’t be content to simply take sides like everybody else, and ride the waves of outrage and media news cycles. Let your opinions reflect those of Christ. Talk about Christ. Reflect on what all this means from God’s perspective, and how this points us to our need for a Redeemer. Times like these uncover a lot of raw things in people’s lives—minister to that with the Gospel. Offer them the hope and light of the Gospel.
One Final Word: And let me be sure to say this—if you are one of those who have been abused and unspeakably wounded in the ways mentioned in this case, please talk to someone. Please receive help. I know that coming forward and talking about it can be incredibly hard, but come into the light. Receive the healing and hope of Jesus to free you from fear, shame, and guilt. Please, don’t miss this moment.
Great advice for anyone who wants to create something.
[HT: Scott Lee]