I’m a Penn State alum. I stayed up way too late Wednesday night glued to my Twitter feed, scanning updates of the riots that were raging in Happy Valley. Or what used to be Happy Valley. This unfolding drama at my alma mater is arresting my mind, my heart and my tears.
This past week at the Pennsylvania State University, former Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting nine young boys over the course of 15 years. Joe Paterno, coach of 46 years, accused of negligence related to the events, announced his retirement after this football season, but the PSU Board of Trustees then refused to suffer him even that and fired him Wednesday. The university president, Graham Spanier, was also summarily dismissed by the Board. And by 11 p.m. on Wednesday night, more than 20,000 university students had taken to the streets to tear the town apart.
What was once a wholesome football program is now marred beyond recognition, and an idyllic American town is left reeling (and rioting). After all, these were the hallowed leaders of the city, and the revered halls of a highly respectable institution. The curtain has been pulled back, and the sight isn’t pretty. What now?
Ezekiel, a prophet of the exile, might be able to help us. Seated on the banks of the Chebar canal, he might have been surveying the landscape of Babylon in disgust of the open perversions and idolatry, and feeling like God was a million miles away. Suddenly, God arrives in a whirlwind chariot (God is in Babylon?!), and before he knows it, Ezekiel is whisked away 500 miles west to the Temple in Jerusalem. There God shows him the secrets, what the leaders are doing behind closed doors, and Ezekiel learns the ugly truth. At first Ezekiel sees just one idol in the Temple, but before he can even process the implications, God confides, you will see even greater abominations. And so he does. Ezekiel sees priests worshiping not just one idol, but scores of idols. In the dark, in their “room of pictures,” the leaders are exulting in filth. By the end Ezekiel sees every indicator that the people of God are participating in cult-prostitution. Ezekiel learns that not only is God closer in the hour of exile than he had imagined, but that he has no business pointing the finger at the idols in Babylon; when God visited his home-turf, the temple at the center of his own “happy valley,” he found it filled with the same perversions.
And so progresses the scandal in State College. With each passing day, another victim steps forward, and another leader is implicated. The sinister implications of what has been happening behind closed doors and in hidden rooms of pictures comes to light. With each new development, our hearts sink and we ask silently, How can it get any worse? Yet we brace for the worst and fear that the Spirit’s still small voice might be saying, You will see even greater abominations.
Just like Ezekiel, the Church today can hardly point a finger at Coach Sandusky or the Big Ten, or college football, or any of the other secular idols or temples. If God would probe the hidden depths of any of our own bastions of faith, our halls of fame, would He find anything less egregious? We can only wonder, but when scandals of similar magnitude have disgraced the church institutions in recent years, we hardly want to find the answer. But this much we do know: The same sorts of sin is endemic to a pedophile-coach is common to all men. To cry out in judgment would be to overlook the log in our own eyes.
So must the Church retreat and be reticent, cowering lest our own indiscretions come forward? Far from it. This is the hour in Happy Valley, and in the country at large, where people need spiritual leadership more than any hour prior. But if we are to lead, we must not shout directives from afar, or accusations from above, but we must take our rightful place: among the broken, among the captives, weeping by the shores of Babylon.
Daniel, another prophet of exile, knows how to do it right. This is a man of prayer, three times daily from the days of his youth, who survived a night in the lion’s den, and whose friends were tossed into the fiery furnace. The Lord esteems him, and esteems his righteousness. And yet, when Daniel talks about the sin of his nation, he uses the first person plural: we. “To us, O God, belongs shame of face, but with you belongs mercy.” He connects with the truth that though he is a man of God, he is still a member of a larger community that has failed significantly in the eyes of God. He needs grace as much as anybody.
If the Church is to show the way out of such a debacle, they must adopt the posture of Daniel, and lead from a low place. We as believers must demonstrate the grace of God to others by openly calling upon it for ourselves. To us—those of us in the Church and out, all of us of sin-saturated and over-sexed Americans—belong shame of face! The polluted Temple of Beaver Stadium could easily be the sullied Temple of First Church of the Cross—and it probably was in last week’s headlines. But a community like State College will only find healing in repentance, in calling upon the name of the Lord. And the Church must be first in line.
Presidents, pastors, coaches, bankers, educators, all members of this fallen Babylon of a modern world, need God more than we can ever imagine. When our heroes have fallen, and our bastions have been razed, God draws near in tenderness, much nearer than it feels. What remains to be seen is whether or not we will call out in agony for God to visit our cities with a revelation of His love and grace—not just for them out there, the unsaved, unreached and unchurched. But for all of us to whom belongs shame of face, who have lifted our souls to foreign gods of wealth, and sex and power, and who are now desperately in need of mercy.