Penn State & False Idols

“Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” – John Calvin

It seems like this Penn State story just won’t die. Every week there is a new angle to take, or another press conference to cover. First, we had the Sandusky verdict. Then we had the release of the Freeh report. Then the statue was taken down. Now, the sanctions were issued by the NCAA . At some point in this process, I am sure many Penn State fans were hoping for some sort of vindication for the longstanding face of the football program, Coach Joe Paterno. But at every turn, those fans are disappointed. The Freeh report concluded,

The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims….

Not good. What it says is that the most powerful people in at the University, and apparently that region of Pennsylvania — University president Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and coach Joe Paterno — did absolutely nothing to protect the dozen or so victims from a child sex predator. They exhibited an incredible lack of empathy by failing to inquire about the safety of the victims, and even allowing Jerry Sandusky to have continued access to official university facilities right up until his arrest.

If this had happened at any other University, the statue would’ve been torn down like it was the statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad. But the residents of the — now, fairly ironically-titled — town of Happy Valley, PA have protested tooth and nail every repercussion of these incidents.

This leads to the question, what is it about Joe Paterno and the football program at Penn State that makes covering up 12 years of sexual abuse okay?

I think the answer to this lies in what many have called the “cult-like worship” of Saint JoePa. For so long, Joe Paterno stood as this irrefutable figure, a pillar of exemplary class and work ethic. He was held up and idolized for hundreds of thousands of Penn State students, alum, and fans. For many, the statue of Joe Paterno outside of the football stadium still stood for this reputation for always doing the right thing. The only problem is, for most people outside of the reach of the Happy Valley kool-aid, that’s not what that statue represents anymore.

And that’s the thing with false idols — they always disappoint.

Early on in the Hebrew Bible — Leviticus for those following along — it says that we are not to turn to idols or make cast images for ourselves. And what’s a statue if it isn’t a cast image? Even though we can think of Leviticus as washed up and having no place in society — which some if it is — this part still hits the nail on its head. For the people of Penn State, the JoePa statue gave meaning and identity to the school and its students.

This is why people in the early days of the Israelites made idols. They couldn’t find God so they created statues and idols to be God’s place. But when we try to pinpoint God’s placement, it often doesn’t work well for us.

But we buy into this all the time, don’t we? We chase things that we feel will give us meaning — the newest technology, a nicer car, a bigger house — but they never do. That’s because it’s a sign of success, but it’s hollow. There’s nothing backing it except pride and desire for approval. There’s no faith. There’s no compassion. There’s no justice. There’s no love.

There’s just the hollow feeling that false Gods leave on their way down.

Cheers,
Eric

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Living the Questions: Where is Your Brother?

Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ – Genesis 4:9

When I was a kid, my younger brother went over to the neighbor’s house to play Sega Genesis (the cool, new, far-superior-to-our-Super-Nintendo video game system). My mom came up to me and asked if I had seen where my brother went and I — in my defiant 11-year-old wisdom — shot back with a “How am I supposed to know? I’m not his babysitter!” Defiance of the older brother at its best.

This defiance is the crux of Cain’s argument with God. Not only did he kill his brother because of the anger issues previously discussed. But then when God, knowing full well what Cain has done, asks him about it, he gives an indifferent I don’t know and then essentially says, “What am I, his babysitter?”

In 2010, there were just shy of 15,000 homicides in the United States. That’s 4.8 murders per 100,000 people. Most of the industrialized world has a murder rate somewhere around 1.3 murders per 100,000 people. For some reason, America has a pretty unhealthy obsession with killing each other. Here’s the astonishing thing… only 14% of those murder victims didn’t know the person who killed them.

That means that 86% of all murder victims know the person that killed them. It seems like we have a problem with being our brother’s keeper.

The story of Cain and Abel couldn’t have more to do with our modern situation. I don’t always appreciate the limitations of dualistic thinking, but it comes down to this, when God asks “Where is your brother?” what’s being probed is this very question: Do you practice a heart of protection or a heart of destruction? Are your actions merciful or hardhearted? Do they enhance or diminish another’s dignity? 

The community that we’re called to is beyond our family. For those of you who don’t have brothers, you may look at this and say “I don’t have a brother so my brother is nowhere.” If you’re thinking that, I hate to say it but you’re kind of missing the point.

The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus had a conversation with a lawyer about eternal life. Jesus affirmed the man’s answer that loving God completely and one’s neighbor were at the core of what it means to be truly alive. But the man wanted make sure that he was doing absolutely everything he had to do (he is a lawyer after all). So he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the lawyer a story of a crime victim in the ditch alongside the interstate. Two very respectable community leaders drive past him and do nothing. They are not evil or malicious people. But at that moment in time, they lack mercy. Then a third person comes by. She’s from another country. Maybe she was in that country illegally. It was this foreigner who stopped and showed compassion for the victim, binding his wounds, medicating them, and taking the man to an ER and paying the bill for him.

Jesus then turns the question back around on the lawyer and, like God to Cain, says, “Who is the neighbor?” The lawyer answers, “The one who shows mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” 

“Where is your brother?”

“Who is my neighbor?”

These are both questions about how we relate to those around us. Do we act with grace and love or do we act with jealousy and anger?

Are we most often like the Good Samaritan? Or are we most often like Cain?

Where is your brother? Where is your sister? Where are those in need of protection? Where are those who need mercy? And what are you doing to protect them?

Living the Questions: Why Are You Angry?

“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 
but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 
The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry,
and why has your countenance fallen?'” – Genesis 4:4-6

Of all the questions to live, this one is probably the hardest for me. Anger lives in a very dark place. But if we look at the story of Cain and Abel, it’s a pattern we know a little too well.

Proceeding any of this is an offering. Cain makes an offering to God — something that he gave his life to. His brother’s offering was met by God’s approval and satisfaction, his was not. We come with offerings everyday. In a very real way, Cain and Abel were offering their livelihoods. Looking for their worth. In essence, Cain’s livelihood was met with rejection, while his brother’s to satisfaction.

After Cain’s rejection comes anger. But the anger is just what’s on the surface — as is so often the way. Anger is all the deep-seeded emotions that we have boiled to the surface, but it’s not what’s so deep down. Anger is a surface emotion.

Behind anger is often where jealousy is found. 

A lot of times jealousy can rear its ugly head and take us off course faster than we even realize. With Cain and Abel, the jealousy isn’t too far from the surface. Abel’s sacrifice was excepted. Cain’s was not. BAM! Jealousy. Where does jealousy creep into your life? A lot of times we don’t even become aware of it until it’s already taken hold. We don’t even notice it sneaking into our thoughts until its already firmly planted there.

The grass is always greener

One of the things we have to realize, but is so faulty with our thinking, is that no matter what we do, if we get that thing we’re jealous of, if we get our neighbor’s new Porsche, or the promotion or whatever, we’re still going to be jealous. It just moves on to something new. So behind anger is often jealousy — with Cain it certainly is the case.

Behind jealousy is pride.

Pride is one of the things I fall victim to a lot. With Cain, he had pride in his crop. I have pride in my ideas. I want my ideas to be found the best among all others. That’s where my pride comes in. And it can be awfully hard to have so much stake in such fluid objects as “ideas”. But there it is.

A lot of times we take pride in our work — and that’s okay, “I’m not saying don’t take pride in your work.” But when it becomes a barrier between you and other people, that’s when it’s a problem. For Cain, pride lead to jealousy, anger, and ultimately killing his brother. I’m going to go ahead and say that was not the “good” kind of pride.

Be proud of your hard work.

Be proud of projects that have taken you a long time.

Be proud of overcoming things that have been difficult for you.

BUT

Don’t let it become a barrier to you. Because when it becomes a barrier, you do things like killing your brother. Not good. But even at pride, we’re still not at the root of the problem. We’re not at the very core of what the issue is in Genesis 4, the question that God asks of Cain.

So we have anger ==> jealousy ==> pride. And now we have one more dimension to add on.

Behind pride is selfishness.

This is where Genesis ultimately leads us — back to selfishness. Cain’s parents (Adam and Eve) went against the command of God because they were selfish and put their own curiosity above living with God. God’s only rule was “Don’t eat the fruit from that tree over there.” That was the only rule.

But then, when someone tells you there’s only thing you can’t do — every bit of you longs to do that one thing. It doesn’t matter how little sense it makes at the time. When someone prohibits, our desire is to test that rule. To push it just a little bit further. Because we’re selfish. Because we look out for numero uno — ourselves.

This is how it’s always been. And until we can break out of this mold, or at least acknowledge there are people outside of ourselves — we will always be a culture steeped in anger. But when we move beyond our anger to name and acknowledge the jealousy, pride, and selfishness behind our anger, it can do a lot to really get us to acknowledge the things we have in common — our humanity.

A little acknowledgement was all Cain ever wanted anyways.

So what are the things that make you angry? What gets you really pissed off? And what experiences could you share about how God works in those times of anger?

Cheers,
Eric

Living the Questions: Who Told You [That You Were Naked]?

“Adam said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid,
because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ God said,
‘Who told you that you were naked?'”
– Genesis 3:10-11

One of the things that’s so key to understanding this question, is that for the majority of human history, nakedness had nothing to do with shame. It’s a pretty common reading of this to think that Adam felt shame, which is why he hid. But actually, it has everything to do with vulnerability, not shame.

A few years back, when I was spending my summers working at Bible camp, our most intense nights of worship were always on Thursday nights. We had spent the week together, had gotten to know each other, and felt an incredibly strong bond. It was an incredibly authentic time. We had become immensely vulnerable with one another.

When was the last time you opened yourself up to let someone else in?

A lot of times we throw up our defenses in the face of vulnerability. What’s the old saying? It’s better to be silent and thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt. Whenever we’re afraid of being found out, exposed for who we really are (whatever that means), we put up defenses and act differently from how we might otherwise naturally act. But here’s the thing…

IT’S A FAULTY SYSTEM

We were created unaware of our vulnerability — our nakedness. But there’s something in our brain chemistry — or perhaps the way we’re socialized — that gives us a sense of shame. Religious communities call it sin or brokenness, but it’s a feeling everyone experiences regardless of religious affiliation. The problem with our thinking is that we assume vulnerability is a weakness. When in fact vulnerability is one of the only ways that we can make real and authentic connections with people.

We can all tell when people are being inauthentic. We all have finely tuned B.S. meters, some more than others. As soon as we sense someone is not being genuine. It’s incredibly difficult, if not downright impossible, to feel a genuine connection with someone when you don’t actually know the person you’re talking to — the real person. That’s what makes my experiences in intentional communities (like summer camp) so memorable. There aren’t many people who can be that exhausted, and still put up a front. So community is formed.

The bottom line is the world is all about genuine connections. If there’s one thing that moving to a brand new community has taught me, it’s that life isn’t a worth a whole lot without connections. Without connections, we miss out on being in relationship — both individual and communal.

The point is to let yourself be seen (and heard)

Be yourself. Be human. Nobody’s perfect 100% of the time. And if someone was, they’d be hated by everyone else. Be vulnerable.

Share your challenges.

Share your struggles.

Share the things that scare the hell out of you.

And then watch what happens.

You’ll be more relaxed. You’ll be more confident. You’ll be more… you.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam chose to hide his vulnerability. I’m saying, choose different from Adam.

Choose to be open. To show your true colors. To be more you. It’s the only thing worth doing.

Cheers,
Eric

Living the Questions: Introduction

A few weeks ago, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary said farewell to a highly esteemed group of graduates, including yours truly. It was the end of a journey and the beginning of another. A main event of the graduation weekend was the actual service itself. It was a combined baccalaureate/graduation service.

Our preacher was our former sem prof [and current Augsburg religion guru] Marty Stortz. As a part of her sermon, she included an invitation to live some of the deep questions of the faith. She outlined the first five questions that God asks in the Bible as questions that we should use for reflection and a kind of personal Bible study now that we’re out of seminary. So for the next week or so, I’ll be reflecting on the first 5 questions God asks in the Bible. Here they are.

Question #1 — Where Are You? (reflection on Friday, the 15th)

Question #2 — Who Told You? (reflection on Monday, the 18th)

Question #3 — What Have You Done? (reflection on Wednesday, the 20th)

Question #4 — Why Are You Angry? (reflection on Friday, the 22nd)

Question #5 — Where Is Your Brother? (reflection on Monday, the 25th)

I think there is a lot to be gained from exploring some of these questions, not only for us as Christians, but for us as people as well. They’re questions that reach to the foundation of who we are. So, at least for the next week, I’m going to live these questions and spend some time in reflection on here.

You’re welcome to join me in reflecting on these questions and sharing this journey with me. I look forward to our exploration.

Cheers,
Eric

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