Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Good Guys Wear White, Right?

            When linebacker Pete Giftopoulos intercepted a Vinnie Testeverde pass in the end zone with seconds left in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl sealing the victory and national title for the Penn State Nittany Lions, I just knew that it was a case of the good guys once again beating the bad guys. The game was billed as good versus evil and the participants played their parts with extraordinary authenticity. The suit and tie wearing Nittany Lions came into the game as seven points underdogs to the thuggish camouflage wearing University of Miami (Florida) Hurricanes and road off into the Arizona sunset like the white hat wearing heroes of the serial cowboy movies from the 1950’s and 60’s. In spite of my deep Southern roots and partially through my stepmother’s familial connections to the cities of Altoona, Huntington, and Mount Union, I found myself rooting for the gritty, soft spoken boys from the steel mill cities of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. They were like me and were the image of what my parents hoped I would become. Penn State symbolized the old fashioned values cherished by my family: simplicity, honesty, integrity, and industriousness. Their purity was as evident as the dazzling white of their away uniforms. On that early January evening twenty-five years ago, the good guys were a reflection of their leader, Joe Paterno, and prevailed over the blight of major college football, “The U”. Only a handful of people witnessing that triumph of good guys over bad boys had an inkling of what evil lay beneath the surface of all that was decent and pure about Penn State football.
            Public reaction to the release of the Freeh report has been swift and with a few notable exceptions has been hailed as a tragic but exemplary exploration of the horrific systemic failures at the highest reaches of the Penn State community which allowed a predator to stalk the hallways and locker rooms of Nittany Lions’ athletics unchecked for decades. The grotesque details that have emerge from the report highlight the shocking amount of power that had been accumulated by the football program and its unwillingness to accept and even hostility towards anything that might cast the program and its leader in an unflattering light. (I have not given the report the full reading it deserves since I’m currently on vacation at the beach, but I was moved enough by the recent attempts by select members of the board of trustees, the former president, and the Paterno family to discredit the report’s claims to download it and read the more damning portions.) Even if only ten percent of the Freeh report is accurate then the Penn State community needs to engage in a period of serious self examination reflecting on the proper position of athletics in the educational process of our nation’s young people. In short, the report makes it abundantly clear that football in Beaver Stadium is the tail that wags the dog in University Park. That the board of trustees has delayed a decision on whether to remove the statue of Joe Paterno from the stadium because they refuse to be bullied by the court of public opinion is just one more indication of the total lack of perspective displayed by the Penn State community. Their arguments sound eerily similar to those made by “heritage” groups in my native South Carolina who vehemently oppose the removal of the confederate battle flag from the State house grounds in spite of how the symbol is perceived by the vast majority of people. Some may walk by the statue and see the good done by Coach Paterno during his tenure, but if even one victim of sexual abuse walks by and has to relive the horror then the statue must go. That the board cannot or will not see this is just one more reason the university community needs to enter into a period of reflection and repentance even if this means encountering the “death penalty” for its football program.
            In the Reformed Tradition there is an understanding that some sins are communal in nature. This is why most worshipping communities in the Reformed Tradition include a communal prayer of confession in their intentional encounters with God each week. My own faith tradition the Presbyterian Church USA acknowledges that every individual member of the congregation is not guilty of the sins enumerated each week, but that each person is touched by the sin committed by those in our community. We do not all commit sins of commission but by remaining silent we sin by acts of omission joining with those who have sinned overtly. This calls for us to actively engage in the process of repentance which is much more than just confessing the wrong we have done without addressing the underlying cause of our sinfulness.
The word we translate as repentance is more accurately rendered in English as “the act of turning away from”. For the Penn State community to truly repent for the evil perpetrated in its midst it needs to turn away from the actions that allowed such horrors to continue unobstructed and unreported. They need to turn away from the power, prestige, and money of their football program at least for a little while. They should not wait for the NCAA to decide if it will hand down the dreaded “death penalty”.  They should voluntarily shut the program down, release the current players from any obligations to the university and assist them in finding new homes for their athletic skills, they should honor the contracts they have made with other athletic programs and with the current coaching staff, and they should set up programs to assist victims of childhood sexual abuse all while the stadium remains silent during the autumn football season. That would be an example of true repentance and may lead to a season of grace and healing which is desperately needed in Happy Valley.
            If Penn State University really wants to redeem its tarnished image, the board of trustees may want to follow the example of the University of Chicago who’s Maroons were a major college football power in the early part of twentieth century and a founding member of the Big Ten conference. Fearing the influence of the athletic program, the university leadership abolished the football program in 1939 and withdrew from the Big Ten in 1946. Lest anyone thinks this be a minor thing, the Maroons were coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg and featured Jay Berwanger, the first recipient of what is now the Heisman trophy. It was painful at the time for them to turn away from the acclaim and prestige that a successful football program provided, but sixty-six years later the school is known not for salacious scandal but academic excellence. It is a beacon of knowledge, truth, and light serving as an example not only for the nation but the entire world. If Penn State wants to reform its image, then dying to the old and being born again as something new just might be in its own best interest.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lost In Transition

Last week I attended a conference in Dallas optimistically titled Next Church 2012. In hindsight, I find the name humorous and a tad ironic since the conversation acknowledged that we are in an age of transition moving towards something new but without a clear vision of what that may be. The name, Next Church, and the associated workshops seemed to imply that those who organized the conference had a clear vision of what might be coming next. I guess I went hoping to gain insight into what the future holds for the PCUSA in general and the congregation where I am pastor in particular. I certainly do not want to be left behind if the church is headed towards some new and exciting future. While there was not a moment of divine revelation with angels singing “Alleluia,” I did come away with a sense that all gathered were united in an understanding that something new and different is on the horizon.

One of the best questions asked during one of the workshops was how is church a noun and how is it a verb? My experience in the church makes me believe that when the general question of what is church is asked the answer assumes bricks and mortar. We have been conditioned to think in terms of buildings, structures, and institutions, the nouns of the church. However, if we begin to think in terms of mission and ministry church becomes a verb. During periods of shifting paradigms this distinction is what often gets lost in translation or lost in transition. Often when faced with the challenges of a culture shift we seek to find ways to improve the old models rather than creatively imagine a new way of doing things. We keep trying to improve our old mousetrap even though it hasn’t caught mice in years. To be something new or next we sometimes have to quit refining the old and come up with the radically different. As Stacy Johnson, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary put it, to be a new church we have to stop reinterpreting the devotions of old and come up with our own new devotions (paraphrased).

I believe we are on the cusp of some radical re-conceptualization of how church exists in the western world particularly in the United States. Historically and culturally it feels like the conditions are ripe for a new reformation of the church. I believe the church is moving away from structures and institutions to personal and communal connections. Reformation has often been defined as moving back towards an apostolic understanding of church. In this way I think we will see church growth move away from monolithic brick and mortar edifices back to house churches. For the PCUSA, I think the connectional church is going to be less defined by polity and bureaucracy and more by dynamic relationships.

I am not advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water, but when it’s time to change we need ensure that all we have is the baby and not the rubber ducky, the non-skid stickers, the layette, the tear free shampoo, and the diaper rash ointment that tend to be the objects of our concern. What this means, however, is somebody will have to give up his or her turn to be in charge. People conditioned by the status quo are rarely good change agents, and once we get into a position where we can make a difference we have been so indoctrinated by the system that we are ineffective at reformation. Which brings up a larger question, who is going to be the person willing to sacrifice so that transformation can occur? We in the church forget that “success” in Christian terms is defined by the cross. Something has to die so that it can be reborn in new and glorious ways. Here’s hoping and praying the church of now is willing to die to itself so that it can be reborn as the Next Church.          

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Turn Out the Lights

Willie Nelson once recorded a song which I believe is most appropriate for this morning, http://youtu.be/tsTAUs_h_uY. Somewhere down New Orleans way the streets are being swept, the beads are going back into storage, and hurricanes and beignets have been replaced by water and bread. Gone are the outlandish costumes and wild makeup schemes featuring the ubiquitous colors of green, purple, and gold. In their place we see simple frocks and violent slashes of black on foreheads. McDonald’s is toning down its marketing of the Big Mac and trying to entice hungry customers with offers of the Filet o’ Fish. Yes friends, it is Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season is upon us, and the Christian world is moving beyond the festivities of Mardi Gras as it focuses on six weeks of reflection, repentance, and a hope for redemption. For many Christians, the emphasis of the Lenten season will be austerity and piety as they seek to become aware of their need for salvation by fasting. Many have spent the last few days trying to decide what they would “give up” for the liturgical season.  

However, people who have been nurtured in the protestant or evangelical traditions often look upon the practices with a skeptical eye. For centuries, Protestants and Evangelicals have been warned against any religious practice that smacks of the papacy. The idea of setting aside specific times of the year to focus on the spiritual discipline of fasting was seen as redundant since it should have been part of the regular practice of one’s faith. Being marked with ashes as a sign of penitence was too akin to disobeying Jesus’ command to avoid extravagant displays of suffering during fasting. We Protestants have been warned about the sins of wearing of faith on our sleeve lest it be a mile wide and an inch deep. Besides who needs a season of fasting and repentance when the ultra-orthodox fundamentalist followers of Calvin, the Puritans, raised austerity to an almost idolatrous level. Thanks to them, we of the post-modern world harbor the notion that John Calvin would have sucked the fun out of everything, hence Lent just is not necessary.

The problem with that notion is Calvin continually called on the faithful to rejoice and be glad in the day God has made. His was a theology that emphasized gratitude for the many gifts from the fount of every blessing. Calvin did not have anything against people having fun and enjoying life, he just wanted them to be more aware of the world around them and their place in it under the sovereignty of God. Moderation in all things good judiciously avoiding idolatry would be a better way of characterizing Calvin’s approach to daily faithful living.

So where does that leave us modern or post-modern Protestant disciples when it comes to the cultural phenomenon that is the celebration of Lent? Rather than “giving up” something as a sign of our devotion maybe it would be better to take on a new discipline. A dear friend and colleague told me that he will be riding around with five rolls of quarters in his car which he will give to anyone asking for money. For the season of Lent, he will not inquire about need. He will not roll up his window and assume the steely straight ahead stare. He will just give up some of what he has in an attempt to see the world more clearly. Coffee, chocolate, alcohol, or Facebook will not be some perverse idol worshipped by its absence. No, a discipline will be taken on which will open eyes to the sin that has been committed thus reflecting a truer sense of the meaning of the Lenten season. As for me, having been exposed to the sin of sloth which often binds me, I will be writing in my blog every day during the season. With that practice hopefully I will see the world and its brokenness more clearly as I join with its groaning anticipation of ultimate redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria