Like many people, I’ve been rather surprised to hear that Oscar Pistorius has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend.
The South African athelete, who is a double amputee, is known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon fiber legs and his speed. Pistorius was a symbol that persons with disabilities can achieve great feats, like being a world champion runner. Yes, he was to use that tired cliche, an inspiration. He helped put the Paralympics on the map, helping us to see it as a serious sporting event on par with its sister event, the Olympics.
I remember watching him run in the quarterfinals during the London Olympics. He didn’t get farther than the quarterfinals, but even in that he was a winner.
So, it’s shocking to see him brought low, quite possibly by his own actions.
We’ve seen to have a run of sports figures who have been revealed to be human after all. Besides Pistorius, there’s Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire…and I could go on.
It would be easy to look at all this with a sense of contempt. We can look at sports figures or priests and shake a waging finger at them thinking we are glad we aren’t like them.
Except that we are. More than we care to admit.
Ash Wednesday was this past week. This is the one day where we have to face not only our finitude, but the fact that all is not well with us. No, I haven’t killed someone, or covered up child abuse or cheated on my partner or taken performance enhancing drugs. But more often than not, I have cut corners or looked the other way when someone was doing something that wasn’t right. As the old pop song goes, I’m not that innocent.
Laurie Feille, the Senior Pastor at First Christian, preached from Luke 22 this past Wednesday. It was an odd text to use since this tends to be passage we don’t hear until Holy Week. But we heard the story of Peter’s denial and of the rooster crowing and something else, that of Jesus looking at Peter. I’ve never given that much thought, but Jesus looks at Peter. The fisherman couldn’t hide. He was caught.
That sense of being found out is what seems so central to the time of Lent. It’s not about beating ourselves up or saying we are no good, but it is about realizing how fallible we are, how we can be so good one moment, and beastly the next.
But maybe having Jesus look at us can also be freeing. Maybe it can mean we don’t have to play games, pretending everything is okay when it isn’t. Maybe we can reach out for help, instead thinking we can make it on our own. Maybe it can mean laying down the burden of keep up appearances.
Amy Butler is the Senior Pastor or Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. (I was a member of the congregation in the mid 90s.) She has this to say about Ash Wednesday at her urban congregation:
…our urban congregation spends an awful lot of energy trying to get those folks through the doors, to demonstrate in real and meaningful ways that the gospel — and sometimes even the church — has something of value to offer their lives. Attractive signage, convenient scheduling, witty sermon titles, easy parking, thoughtful worship, free child care — we do the best we can to pique the interest of someone, anyone, in the stream of people who walk or drive by our building every day.
Oddly, every year it’s Ash Wednesday when we welcome so many people whom we’ve never seen before. Out of all the days of the church year, it’s this day — the day we focus on our sin and humanity — that draws in the most strangers. Past the imposing steeple, in through unfamiliar doors, up the steep stairway and into the dimly lit sanctuary they come, seeking the imposition of ashes.
Every year when I see unfamiliar people wander in among the regulars, I wonder why we all seem to need Ash Wednesday so much. Why do we crave reflective moments to ponder our shortcomings?
Reminders of the ways in which we’ve failed are all around us every day; why seek them out? But people do.
I do. And I am coming to believe that we do because we all desperately need a place to stop for just a little while, to lay down the heavy burdens we carry, to be — if only for a moment — honest about who we are.
Because this busy world in which we live never seems to give us a break. Like the shiny church signs advertising only exciting, intellectually stimulating topics for worship, we get up every morning challenged to convince the world that we’re worth its time.
We’re smart and good, pretty and talented, witty and full of great ideas. We go to work every day wearing our titles like Boy Scout badges informing the world that we know what we’re doing. But secretly, we’re scared someone will find out that we really don’t.
I think about all of those fallen sports heroes. It has to be hard to keep up a facade of perfection. But then, it’s work to hide things from each other. When Adam and Eve ate of the apple and realized they were naked, they had to spend time finding fig leaves.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are designed for us to face some hard truths about ourselves. It isn’t a happy time. But even in this time of uncomfortable introspection, there is grace, as Butler notes. Even in the midst of judgement, there is freedom.
No doubt I will follow what happens with Oscar Pistorius. And I hope I will also look at myself and ask God for help, because I am more like Pistorius or Paterno or Armstrong than I care to admit. Because we all fall down.
All of us.