Q Los Angeles 2013
Arts + Entertainment
Science + Tech
Finding Redemption at Penn State
The news trucks have not left our streets since November, since the Penn State child sex abuse scandal broke open and revealed the junk in Happy Valley that no one wanted to acknowledge. The eyes of the nation have been on our community ever since. We’ve been on ESPN more times in the past three months than we were during the great football years. For those outside of State College, PA, it’s been a sensational news story. For those in our community, it’s been a gut-wrenching season. And in the aftermath of this scandal, Coach Joe Paterno—a grandfather to tens of thousands of students, a coach and mentor to hundreds of football players, a philanthropist to the university, and a good neighbor to the city—was fired, and then died.
I’ve lived in State College, home of Penn State University, for 17 years. Our city is the winner of countless quality of life awards; it is also the city where children are sexually abused. Our city is a place where students riot and where they also hold candlelight vigils. Our city is the home of
(the largest student run philanthropy in the world) and also a top-rated party school. Our community is caught in more tension and more turmoil now than at any point during the last 17 years.
The question now before me, a pastor and a leader, is the question of redemption. How do we partner with God to redeem seasons of turmoil and tragedy? How do we, as the Church, live as agents of redemption in our very broken city? I’ve found the most helpful answers in Isaiah 62’s city-redemption metaphors. Isaiah 62:4-5 reads:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you...
Married to the land. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you (the city). Over the last 17 years, this has been a dominant city-redemption metaphor in my life and in our community.
Are we married to the land? Do we love our city?
The watchman metaphor follows this in Isaiah 62:6-7 and is more fully developed in Ezekiel 33. The watchman’s responsibility is fulfilled when warning is given. Too often, this is the only role the church takes in a city. Only watching and only warning. Imagine that your only communication with your spouse involved warning; warning her when she was doing wrong, warning him when he was headed in a dangerous direction. Not helping, just warning. A watching-and-warning only relationship probably would not last long–my wife Lynn nods her head in vigorous agreement. Even though the warnings are needed, they would probably not be heeded.
When we are married to our place, we realize that watching and warning is never enough, necessary at times, but never enough. We are called to see our city as she could be, and called to love our city until she is what she could be. In the midst of the turmoil, being married to the city has shaped the response of the church. When you love a city, you pray for its peace. You give grace. You warn, but you are part of the warned and as such you go all-in to lovingly redeem.
Do you know what we have found being married to State College in this tempestuous hour?
We have found that when multiple pastors and congregations begin to grasp the call to marry the city, unity follows. We have had more united prayer gatherings in the last three months than in the last three years. Twelve congregations began to strategize together for the redemption of our city. We started the year with a joint sermon series that ended with a challenge to start a gospel movement.
Do you know what else we have found? We have found that our watching has a greater urgency and our warnings have a more receptive audience when we are committed to loving the city. I love the fact that, unlike Ezekiel 33, the primary audience of the watchman in Isaiah 62 is God. Cry out to God and do not give him rest… Even–or perhaps especially–when the audience is God, our warnings have a more receptive audience when we love the city. We have sensed this in our prayer gatherings.
In the last year, I’ve been pondering Augustine’s descriptions of the City of God and the City of Man. In a sermon on Jonah, Tim Keller also talks about these two cities. He describes the City of Man as a place of exhaustion and oppression, a place where people go to take from the city. In the City of God, however, the City’s energy comes from grace, not human effort. People seek to give back to the City of God rather than to consume it. When we give our lives to benefit others, we are building the city of God. To extend the metaphor, albeit crassly: it is like the difference between sleeping around and being in a covenantal marriage. Perhaps an indicator of the City of God coming alive in the City of Man is that the church begins to marry the city.
For the last few months, the eyes of the nation have been on us. In some ways that’s not an uncommon experience; with half a million alumni in the U.S. and thousands more around the world, with a football team that draws 100,000 fans a game, we have, at times, felt the eyes of the world. But these last few months, the eyes on us have seen darkness in our city. When I need to regain hope for the City of God to be built in our city, I read the first few verses of Isaiah 62. I substitute Happy Valley for Mount Zion and State College for Jerusalem, and it becomes a prayer of faith that one day the eyes on us will more clearly see the City of God than our City of Man,
Perhaps that is already starting to happen. a few weeks ago, I received a letter from a Penn State Alumnus:
Dear Pastor Dan:
I attended Calvary while I was a Penn State undergraduate and graduate student… When I heard about the scandal, I felt like my heart had been ripped in half. I cried for and grieved over the victims. I felt like I had been betrayed. I was angry at everything that Penn State and State College stood for. But as the events continued to unfold, my heart began to soften. I saw the vigil that the students held. I heard the ESPN reporters gush over the efforts of the students to raise money for sexual abuse victims, and I heard about the great hospitality they extended towards the Nebraska fans. In short, what I saw was Jesus in the midst of chaos. The reporters haven’t given it a name yet, but they see it and are talking about it. There is a mysterious peace and an overwhelming love that is exuding from State College and its name is Jesus.
Everywhere I go—work, shopping, church, radio, TV—the scandal is still there and people are trying to figure out how to deal with it. They are looking to State College for answers, and I see the Christians of State College rising to answer them. Your love and compassion are spreading even to the Lehigh Valley, and people don’t understand it. They are amazed at your ability to forgive those involved, and your abundant generosity towards the victims. It is a constant topic of discussion and, consequently, I have had many opportunities to tell people about Jesus’ love.
I am no longer ashamed or angry to be associated with Penn State, because the Christians there are redeeming it. The Church of State College has… given Christians everywhere the chance to redeem Christianity’s reputation. Even today in my church, the pastor encouraged the congregation to ride the wave of love and compassion that State College has started, because this is how nationwide revivals begin. This is our chance to change the world…
If the world sees Jesus when its eyes are on you, the City of God will grow. If all they see is you, God will move elsewhere. And that is my prayer for Happy Valley. God when their eyes are on us, let them see Jesus.
Sadly, sexual abuse is common in our broken world. What does God's redemptive grace look like in the community after these tragedies are exposed?
What does being married to
city look like?
ALSO IN CITIES
Renewing a City
by Wayne Gordon
Grace and The City
by Tim Keller
by Mel McGowan
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