We have all been disgusted and full of outrage this week in the wake of the Freeh report, detailing the actions of Penn State leaders as they began to realize that they had an “alleged” pedophile in their midst. It appears that Jerry Sandusky’s reign of terror on children could have been cut considerably shorter, if those in leadership had simply decided to involve the authorities instead of attempting to protect their football program, and their friend.
In retrospect, in addition to the immoral aspect of the cover up, it all looks so foolish now. Penn State’s football team is likely to suffer NCAA penalties and old fashioned decay for many years in the wake of this scandal. The leaders of the institution have all been dismissed, criminally charged, and are about to be sued for everything they possess. Joe Paterno’s legacy is forever tainted.
So how did otherwise intelligent, sensible people allow it to come to this? I believe at its core, the issues at Penn State point out an idolatry problem. Not the Old Testament kind of idolatry which resulted in Golden Calves and Asherah poles in the front yard. This new idolatry is more subtle, which I fear makes it much more difficult to combat. Gideon could always cut down the Asherah pole in the still of the night, and Moses can grind down the Calf and make the people drink their “sin.” But how do we deal with our love for football… our veneration of sports heroes… or our blind and passionate support for our teams and schools, no matter what.
Apparently, humans have a powerful tendency to elevate certain affections to such a degree that they blind our sensibilities, and even dull our spiritual compass. If these affections were as crude as venerating gold statues it would be one thing, but our usual affections, our new idols appear harmless. What could be wrong with loving a sport or venerating a star, or turning a coach into a legend or supporting a school? The answer is clear. Our life, heart and passions were designed with a God ordained order. Right, honor, and integrity must come along with victory, or there was no victory, only winning. And our heart can only have one primary passion or else it will always beat out of spiritual rhythm.
Time to confess. I grew up in the shadow of Texas Stadium and in the wake of yearly excellence from my Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were religion and ritual and all that was right with the world. Every Sunday it was church, which never ended quite fast enough, then a race home to catch kick-off and watch Rodger and Tom and Calvin and the other saints of my childhood win. More important than worship… a Cowboys victory. Want to ruin a perfectly good week created by God, give me a Cowboys loss. My affection for the ‘Boys blinded me to what was really important about Sunday. My mood was not set by my spiritual condition or God’s goodness, but instead, what silliness, by the outcome of a sporting event that had nothing to do with me! IDOLATRY. A Cowboy player could have been out robbing banks for all I cared during the week as long as he was delivering ‘W’s’ on Sunday.
A day came when I had to grind up these blind affections for something real. (Exodus 32). Penn State teaches us that it is dangerous to allow such passions to grow out of control. What seems fun, and harmless, can become dysfunctional and poisonous. In Colossians 3:5 Paul wrote, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” “Put to death.” Those are really strong words. What do you need to grind up… to “put to death” before it becomes the monster that devours your good sense? Maybe a habit, or a passion or a relationship? Think about it.
In general we have so elevated sport in this nation that it is frightening. We worship our sports starts and shower them with millions. We overlook their boorish behavior and dream of being them for just a moment. Parents place their seven year olds on “traveling teams” and the next decade of their lives has just been charted. They will spend their youth traveling, throwing, dribbling, and scoring. Sounds okay, but often times sport ends up coming before the parent’s needs, the sensibilities of balanced marriage and family life, the team will often trump being in church. In times of economic difficulty we build billion dollar cathedrals called stadiums that would make the royal family blush… so people can attend eight games a year in ultimate comfort? It all seems just a bit much, and I’m a crazed sports fan. “Put to death therefore…. whatever is idolatry…”
And you shall now the truth…