TO GOD BE THE GLORY: Denver Broncos starting quarterback Tim Tebow offers up a prayer to God before a recent game versus the San Diego Chargers. His gesture of Christian devotion has become known as "Tebowing." (Photo: Michael Zito/Newscom)
In 2009, the Word of the Year was tweet; In 2010, it was app (both are better than 1999’s winner — you guessed it — Y2K). Words like “gleek” and “drone” will no doubt occupy (my personal favorite) the 2011 shortlist, but the wordologists better make room for a late surge by two serious candidates: Tebowing and Tebowmania.
Call it a fourth-quarter comeback.
The question about Denver Broncos star Tim Tebow is not (for once) whether he is a good QB. He wins games, and that’s good enough for me. He wins ugly, but with six fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2011 alone, Tim Tebow has become a phenomenon. His jersey sales are through the roof; ESPN spends at least four hours of daily programming dedicated to his name; and, for better or worse, Tim Tebow is the most polarizing name in sports (I just heard LeBron James sigh in relief).
Let’s be honest: Most of the love/hate relationship that fans and critics express regarding Tebow has nothing to do with sports. This is about a man’s faith — which for some is inspiring, and for others sickening. This is about a man who does more than wear Jesus on his sleeve; he draws Scripture verses under his eyes. Some people say it’s too much.
There’s nothing odd about Tim Tebow’s public displays of faith (PDF). He is “on fire” in just about every way that evangelicals use the term: unapologetic, loud, and inspiring. He begins most every statement in true Grammy-fashion: “First of all, I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ …” We knew who Tebow was back in high school — he is devout and virginal and has superior character to match his athleticism.
If you are a Christian, there’s a lot to LOVE about Tim Tebow. I know pastors who applaud Tebow for his abandon of spiritual censorship: he loves Jesus and he doesn’t care what you think (shouldn’t we all be so faithful?). Lately though, I’ve been wondering if his abandon is reckless abandon, and if his public displays of faith are doing more harm than good.
It began after one of his signature fourth-quarter wins where — while still on the field — a reporter approached him, breathless and in amazement, asking a very simple question, “How are you able to continue doing this?” Tebow replied with stone eyes, “My God is Big.” Whoa. He made that exact phrase a few more times, mixing in some thoughts about defense, finally closing with, “I serve a big God.” (Cringe.) Then last week, one teammate of his reported that Tebow said God speaks to him during the games. That’s when I decided that I would side with the critics — Would you just shut up already?!? — and for altogether different reasons.
My basic concern about PDF is that it is an ironic conquest. Openly giving God the credit for “miracles” seems to be exactly the opposite of what Jesus himself wished. There’s Mark 7:36 (and 8:30), and Luke 5:14 — “go and tell no one what has happened.” But then there’s Mark 5:14 — “go home and tell your friends” — so the “Messianic Secret” is far from answered, even in the Gospels. It seems to me, though, that the overwhelming portrait is of a quiet and humble Jesus who doesn’t want to be thanked at award shows or after athletic contests. Not because God isn’t worth recognizing, but something more dangerous happens when we too readily open our mouths in the Winner’s Circle. God becomes a “God for Winners.”
The most famous story of this is with Michael Chang, a tennis prodigy who at 17 was the youngest player to ever win the French Open. At the press conference, when asked how he was able to defeat Stefan Edberg, Chang replied, “I won because of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Well, he’s giving God glory, right? No, (according to John Feinstein, who reported deeply on this in 1989) Chang believed that his victory was the result of his having a closer personal relationship with Jesus than Edberg did. He honestly believed that.
Tebow and Chang are of the same evangelical cloth; we have to wonder if Tim Tebow believes his wins are the direct result of his personal relationship with God. His PDF is beginning to convince me he does. So what’s wrong with that?
God — if we may so feebly name the divine — is not a “Winner’s God.” More than half of the Bible is written for an audience that is losing, whether it be in culture, politics, or economics. In fact, by all societal standards (and messianic expectations), Jesus fails. And despite the adrenaline rush of victory, there’s nothing wrong with NOT winning. Hearing Tim Tebow only after victory may send an uncritical message about our “big” God: He creates and loves winners.
What about the losers of our society, the poor and the politically oppressed? Does God only love the 1%? Is this “God” only on one sideline, rooting against those with lesser faith? Is God BIG for Tebow and small for Marion Barber?
I don’t want to believe that God cares that much about sports: that would break my heart considering how much real pain and suffering yet remains in this world. And I certainly don’t want to believe that God loves only the winners, as the poisonous Prosperity Gospel proclaims (that would explain the Cubs’ “curse,” though. Hmm …). But that’s the impression we get from these snapshots of Tebow’s faith. Admittedly, he probably needs to break it down further, and a press conference is not the time.
So rather than a half-baked faith, I say to Tim Tebow: SHUT UP ALREADY! Not for me, but for the teenager who idolizes you and prays and fasts before games, just like you do, believing that God will “show up” for him on the field. When that young man loses, it won’t be because of the size of his God, it will be because the other team was better on that day (and even in defeat, To God Be the Glory).
We didn’t hear much about Chang’s God when he started losing. I wonder if the same will be true for Tim Tebow, though we may not find out this season. When the defenses do finally catch up to Tebow, will it be bad for Faith as well? That’s my only concern.
SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)
It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.
In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.
Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.
We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.
DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)
We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.
Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.
What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.
In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.
We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.
Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.
That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.
He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.
ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)
When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.
The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.
Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.
It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.
The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.
Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.
You’re an adult. You hear of or even see another adult sexually abusing a child. It could be at your church or school. It could be next door or in your own home.
What would you do?
You would do everything in your power to stop it, or at least call the police, right? Especially as Christians who take seriously God’s command to protect “widows and orphans” (in other words, the most vulnerable in society), there’s no way you would let another adult abuse a child. So, why is there likely an adult near you in position of leadership such as, a priest, pastor, coach and mentor, who is abusing a minor?
It’s estimated that one out of three girls and one out of six boys in the U.S. is molested by an adult annually. The abuser is usually someone close to them, such as a family member or coach on their team. There are an estimated 493,000 registered sex offenders across the nation. Many of them were child abuse victims.
The Penn State University tragedy, where former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 40 criminal counts of child molestation has returned this issue to the forefront. Sandusky denies molesting several boys in his Second Mile mentoring program, during a 15-year period. The revelation that has only this year come fully to light, has led to the resignations and firings of top university officials, including the president and legendary head football coach Joe Paterno. The Penn State community is in shock. Sounds like the church.
Child molestations perpetrated by men of the cloth have been well documented. How do molesters go unnoticed despite other adult Christians being around? The signs are there but not easy to detect. A search of several websites yielded molester profile clues such as:
• Adults who prefer jobs where they have access to children
• Men who seem to love children and to whom children are drawn.
• A person who is either extremely authoritarian or passive.
Basically, the only near certainty is that most molesters are men (though based on recent media coverage there seems to be a growing number of women offenders as well). Anyone — teacher, coach, priest or pastor — can be a child molester.
But adults don’t always want to see the signs, either. Adults have jobs and reputations to protect. If we blow the whistle, it could lead to a firing or losing that next promotion or pay bonus. Adults put other adults on pedestals; when our icons are accused of wrongdoing, we identify personally and go into denial. Adults build and worship institutions that become our identity. We pride ourselves in attending a prominent school or church. This is in part how priests and pastors have been able to molest minors with impunity. But eventually as we put more value in the institutions than in the caring for those most vulnerable among us, the institutions, like all idols, must crack, even fall. They can never bear such weight that is reserved only for God.
Still, sometimes adults sense the sin, and just don’t know what to do. The American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry advises to do the following if a child hints that they’re being abused:
• Take them seriously and show that you understand and care.
• Don’t be judgmental, but encourage them to talk freely.
• Tell the child the abuse is not their fault
• Tell them you will protect them and act to prevent the abuse
• If you’re a family member, report the abuse to the local Child Protection Agency
• If you’re outside of the family, report it to police or the district attorney.
God reserves a special place in his heart for children, and he views their innocence as a virtue that we must all embrace. Recall, for example, the words of Jesus in Luke 18:
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The Bible doesn’t specifically address child molestation, but it’s clearly a sin. Doing nothing about it is a sin, too. James 1:27 reads:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Penn State community is asking itself, “How did this happen to us? Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we see the signs?”
They are questions for all of us adults to ponder.