A Blog by Jennifer Aulthouse

A heart for those who want more of God. A desperate plea for those who don't.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Some Thoughts on Penn State

I’ve never actually been on the other end of a knee or punch to the gut, but I imagine that part of the pain in receiving such a blow is that you don’t see it coming. A sensitive part of you that’s left generally unprotected is attacked, and the force of these things coming together leaves you doubled over, consumed momentarily by the violent intrusion of pain, arms thrown around the area in an effort to bring relief and further prevent the area from any more harm. The wind is knocked out of you; just regaining normal breath takes some time.

And so will it be for the Penn State community.

Saturday, May 16, 1998, I sat on a folding chair on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center (BJC) at Penn State University and listened to a handful of speakers address all of us College of the Liberal Arts graduates as we transitioned from the world of underclassmen academia to the real life stuff of careers and marriages and bills and the like. Of course, since we were Liberal Arts students – sort of the next step removed from the Division of Undergraduate Studies people who also still hadn’t quite figured out what they were actually there for – I’m betting at least some of us weren’t yet sure what we were exactly transitioning into. I sure wasn’t. Penn State hadn’t really helped me figure that out as much as it helped me figure out what I didn’t want to do. But that’s okay. That’s still a step forward, and as much as I put into it, I had a good experience there, one that I reminisce about in ways that I imagine parents whose children have moved onto adulthood remember the toddler and preschool years: as precious, fleeting moments, gone too soon. It doesn’t quite ring with truth to the mom who’s up to her eyeballs in potty training and dirty dishes every day. Nevertheless, I graduated with feelings of pride for my Penn State degree, even if I didn’t know what on earth to do with it.

Elsewhere on campus and in the State College area during the month of May, 1998, a victim was assaulted in a shower a few buildings away from the BJC, police were called about it, emails flew back and forth, and meetings were attended in which such things were - or were not - investigated and discussed and debated and what have you. And here I sit today, 14 years later, momentarily hunched over, searching for relief and protection from being dealt another blow like the ones felt over the past eight months, and especially, the past two days.

This isn’t about me, though, or any attempt to dramatically tie myself into what happened. I’m just one of thousands of alumni who went about my business and was entirely clueless that any of this was going on. Yet like a bad gene that is passed along from one generation of a family to another, it’s part of my history, too, and it has to be accepted as such, sort of like what I imagine the residents of Columbine, CO, have to live with.

Sometimes Jesus shows you how He’s been victorious in your life in the seemingly strangest of moments. Sometimes it’s when you realize that you’re actually looking forward to the spinach salad on the lunch menu instead of desiring the huge cheeseburger that used to be such a stumbling block. But sometimes it’s when you witness a man found guilty of horrifying crimes being led away in handcuffs, receiving a punishment he richly deserves, with a crowd cheering and hurling insults towards him as he walks, and you realize that you are filled with a sorrow that feels too big to be contained because there just really isn’t anything good in the whole wretched affair. Yet, as you look in the man’s eyes, aware of what he’s done and heartbroken because of it, something greater begins to grow out of that immense sorrow: the realization that this is a person God intensely loves, and that as long as he’s breathing, God hasn’t given up on him. And because you love the Lord, neither can you, and so you find yourself praying in brokenness for him, because you know firsthand the greatness of God’s mercy and the healing and hope that’s waiting there for all of us. Whether your name is Jerry Sandusky, Graham Spanier, John Doe, or Jen Aulthouse, it’s available for all of us.

At least as far as I’ve come to experience it, grace has nothing to do with ignoring sin. It’s believing the worth of the guilty person is greater than the pain and the destruction his or her sin has caused. Sometimes there’s accountability; sometimes not. Sometimes there’s reconciliation; sometimes not. Sometimes there’s a wonderful rising-from-the ashes story; sometimes not. These are secondary things which should be considered in light of what best will help the guilty person understand his or her worth, understand how his or her sin has failed to reflect that worth, and then begin to live in belief of that worth, whether it’s in the free world or in a jail cell. That’s the grace that Jesus offers us and the grace that we’ve been directed to live in. It requires self-examination and a daily awareness of how dependent we are on God’s mercy. In a way that is only God’s, realizing our smallness in Him produces an awareness of his tremendous love and affection for us. Living in this awareness means that step by step, we walk away from our own quests to find worthiness—and the abuse of others that often comes with it—and instead can be used to point others to the One who has answered that question for us.

A person is more than a timeline – more than a collection of dates and events. An institution is more than this, too, simply because it is made up of people. Penn State fans/alumni, those of us on the periphery that are not directly related to any of this stuff, it has to be processed like the death that it is. Whether the way you particularly embrace and adore Penn State is of a healthy level or not – whether it’s about revering a football program and somewhere internally making its glory your own, or admiring an academic institution, rich in history and with seemingly impeccable priorities in place, or simply embracing the school because your family has a proud connection and tradition of doing so – you’ve lost something, and the way it was is never coming back. It isn’t about leaving alone or removing statues, or renaming buildings, or whether records should or shouldn’t count, or whether there should or shouldn’t be football this season, or anything else that at this point really is a side issue. There are brilliantly thought-out arguments on all sides for these things, and a time will come when it’s appropriate to address them and decide what’s best. We need to gracefully and soberly accept that this is part of our history, and concentrate on making each moment in the present and future count for good, not so it can be a positive public marking on an institutional timeline, but because it’s just supposed to be the way we live. That’s true whether you’re part of Penn State or not. What’s happened cannot be rewritten; we learn from it, take an honest self-accounting of whether our attitudes contributed to the out-of –whack environment of misplaced priorities that may have shaped such a colossal nightmare, and we move forward. And while we most certainly need to listen to the views of those genuinely outraged or broken by what has happened, pay no attention to hecklers and those who lodge verbal assaults that have no sound reasoning or evidence of good intention behind them. What they say does not matter and isn’t worth your response.

I know in the days and weeks ahead, I will have absorbed the blow and will stand upright again and go about my business; I also know that there are those who were affected by this whole ugly chapter in much weightier and damaging ways than I can imagine, whether they are victims or ones who themselves directly contributed. They will obviously need much more time to recover, whether the wounds were self-inflicted or not. Part of making the best of each moment is finding ways we can help them to begin to stand upright again, and as the church, we don’t get to choose whose quest it may be that God longs to use our lives in pointing the way to Him.

Because “there but for the grace of God, go I.” – John Bradford