Friday, November 25, 2011

We Are

We are Penn State.

More than a mere rallying cry, this mantra reflects a near universal truth in college athletics: fans and alumni are more intertwined with the team here than in any other sport. This is mostly due to the fact that we have given tens of thousands of dollars to a particular school and rightly can claim at least a slice of ownership. I lived out the four most influential years of my life at Penn State, and I (well, my parents), shelled out more than a few paychecks that helped line lots of Nittany Lion pockets. I’ve earned the right to cry out “We Are Penn State” with full throat.

And yet this level of passion, so often celebrated when people tick off reasons why college football is the best sport in America, has a subtle dark edge. Perhaps uninhibited zeal for a simple game, even when it’s so deeply tied to a place of significant financial and emotional investment, is dangerous. More than that, it’s idolatrous and will only lead to disappointment.

In the three weeks since the Penn State scandal erupted, I have experienced a wide range of emotions: shock, sadness, outrage, confusion, anger. And I’ve contemplated a number of things to write about, though until now I’ve either felt that it wasn’t the right time, or haven’t had enough of my thoughts together to be able to communicate anything intelligible or meaningful. I’ve had to process through the shocking series of events and converse with other Penn Staters about what we’ve seen and what it means.

It has been brutal. Penn State has the reputation of being a squeaky clean place, but my experience there has proven it to be otherwise: it is very much the typical college campus, full of drunken destruction, riotous raging, and every other type of immorality found at any American college campus. Even so, this scandal has been completely unexpected and deflating. Watching the constant news cycle, even from the other side of the world, was surreal. Each day brought devastating new surprises: is a 20 year path of child sex abuse really possible from such a public figure? Did Tim Curly really lie to a grand jury? Did they really just fire Joe Paterno?

In addition to the immediate and infinitely more devastating damage of the victimized children, this affair has brought the collateral damage of dragging the Penn State name through a sizable puddle of grime. That is one of the primary reasons so many of us Penn Staters have reacted so strongly: in some way, our reputations are tied to the university’s. If we are Penn State, we are directly affected by everything we’ve watched unfold in State College.

This is one of the uncomfortable realizations I’ve had during this time: just how much of my identity belongs to Penn State.

It’s understandable, of course. Like many, I came of age in college, and I have hundreds of wonderful memories from that campus. Those days, in many ways, were the best of my life. My deepest friendships were formed there, I met my wife there, I learned what it meant to be a man there, and most importantly, I began to follow Jesus there. This event, and to a lesser degree the others, truly shaped my life. A foundation was poured, cured, and anchored at Penn State, and though the place itself had nothing to do with it, the setting of Penn State became a treasured, almost mystical, place in my life.

Now, none of this has anything to do with football. But at Penn State, everything has to do with football. It’s the face of the university, and has become, apart from my relationships, the strongest remaining connection to that place and that part of my life. Because it’s such a part of life at Penn State, you form a bond with the football program and it becomes more than just a team. It does become the face of the university. This is why passion among college football fans runs so deep - your heart and your life are in some way a part of that campus, and by reciprocation, that team. When you watch them take the field on Saturdays, you vicariously live out a part of your college experience. It’s an emotional connection that’s difficult to describe, yet very tangible and real.

I reacted with more outrage to Joe Paterno’s firing than to the heinous crimes committed against young boys. It was an uncomfortable thing to recognize, and upon reflection I came face to face with two unsettling things: I was exalting a man beyond what he deserved, thinking that JoePa wasn’t capable of anything more than passing transgressions; and the fact that my strongest emotional response was tied to the demise of the football program rather than the physical and emotional trauma done to innocent minors showed me that I was far too attached to that program. It pointed to a problem of identity - I was finding a significant part of my identity in Penn State, much of it through the football program. Essentially, this is an issue of idolatry.

Your identity is what makes you, you. It is how you define yourself, how you want others to perceive you. You ascribe your worth as a person to the things you base your identity on. You find value in it. The things you identify with become powerful; they dictate your demeanor. When they look good, you hold your head up higher. When they look bad, you share in the shame.

We find our identity in lots of things. We find it in a job (I am an engineer). We find it in a hobby (I am a golf nut). We find it in family (I am a Weimer, or I am a father). We find it in what we like (I am a LOST fan). We find it in personality or temperament (I am friendly and competitive). We find it in where we live (I am a member of this gated community). We find it in where we went to school or what football team we follow (We are Penn State).

The problem with this (or, should I say, one of the many) is that these things will always fail us. Without question. We’ll end up dissatisfied with job or house or possessions, or something will happen to tarnish the worth of what we identify with, like the scandal engulfing Penn State.

This is what has happened to me and many other Penn Staters. Penn State fell from grace, and a part of us did too. You could see it in the reaction to Paterno’s firing as well. So many Penn Staters were instantaneous in our defense of JoePa. We assumed that there was no way he would not go the extra mile, or worse, potentially be involved in some sort of massive cover up. We placed too much stock in a mere man, who is just as flawed, broken, and fallible as any. We placed him on a pedestal he didn’t deserve. We made him, and the university and football team, out to be more than it should be. We became idolatrous. And this scandal exposed us as much as it did the people directly involved. It exposed us as people far too ready to trust in men, far too quick to find part of our worth in a team or a game, and far too eager to let “we are Penn State” mean too much.

Incidentally, this overinflation of program and coach had something to do with what happened over the last 15 years. Whether to a small degree or an uncomfortably large one, the power and prestige of the Penn State football program had a direct affect on Jerry Sandusky being (allegedly) enabled to abuse young boys. Like it or not, it’s true.

As I’m faced with my own misplaced identity (which I also misplace in dozens of different ways), I’m saddened over my foolishness and sin, and motivated to change. As a Christian, I’ve found that life involves a series of intentional choices to place Christ above all else. It doesn’t happen all at once, even if I think it does. When faced with situations like these, I’m faced with the clinging roots of my own idolatry and moved to surrender to Christ and allow him to chop those roots down.

When it comes to identity, if the things we so commonly place our identity in inevitably fail us, where do we turn? This is a significant question, one worth pondering for any college football fan, or any sports fan or human being in general. Who am I? How am I defined? Is a university, a sports team, or a job truly where I want the sum of my worth to be found in?

I’m persuaded to believe that there is only one place my identity, my worth, my personhood is worthy of. It’s in Jesus Christ. He is the only one who will not let me down. As the Creator of the world, He is infinitely supreme and powerful. As the Sustainer of it, He is in full control. As the Savior of humanity, He is worth my full devotion. As the King of Kings, He rightfully deserves my submission. And He is supremely worthy of it. As the Apostle Paul states in book of Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

If these things are true of Jesus, and I sincerely believe they are, there can be no nobler aim than to follow Him, exalt Him, and live fully for Him and His purposes. I want to find my full identity in Him, saying “I am a follower of Jesus. I belong to Him. He possesses me. His death is full payment for my sin, it no longer has a grip on me. His righteousness and character are given freely to me and they now define my character and righteousness. I am His.”

As I go through life, I want to continue to dive deeper into this. I hope that you do as well. I hope that you can join me on the journey of escaping the empty identities of the world and embracing a rich identity in Christ.

We are Penn State. Yes, but in a much smaller sense. I’m affiliated with the university and always will be - it was a significant part of my life - but it does not define me.