I forgave Ben Johnson

Twenty-five years ago this week our country was in turmoil. There was only one thing we wanted to hear about on the news and there was only one thing we discussed at the coffee shop. Even on the playground at my elementary school, all we wanted to talk about was how much we hated Ben Johnson.  Only a few days before, of course, he was our greatest hero. His monumental victory at the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics was our victory too. His enemy, the cocky Carl Lewis, was our enemy too. So when Ben tested positive for use of performance enhancing substances and his medal was stripped away, it was as though Ben had allowed our enemy to celebrate. The joy we felt in the moment of his win was turned to agony and was stretched out for weeks and months after that.

In the time that followed, we as a nation became quite introspective. We wanted to know just how rampant this kind of drug use was among our athletes. Other countries were happy to believe that their programs were fine, but our international reputation had been scarred and we needed to fix that. We interviewed doctors, coaches and doctors. A number of atheletes came forward and admitted their drug use. They publicly recognized the impact their behaviour had on us, their fan base, and they apologised. They told stories of broader drug use and an internationally corrupt system, but we didn’t believe them and while we may have heard their apologies, we certainly didn’t forgive them.

More recently the sports world has had to come to grips with drug use in cycling.  A similar hero admitted to using similar substances which was followed by a similar scandal. In the years since 1988, six of the eight runners in that 100m dash final have had positive drug tests.  The skeptics would say that we can no longer assume that our athletes are all clean. But it certainly paints a clearer picture of the world that Ben Johnson was competing in.

Some would say that he doesn’t deserve it, but I have forgiven Ben Johnson. After all, he apologised. He later repeated his mistake and coached others to do the same, but he has punished for his transgressions, and then some. We were wrong to hold him up on a pedastal like we did, and when he fell off of it, we were wrong to kick him while he was down. I think any of us as parents, teachers or community leaders can identify with the risks of being held up too high and the grace required when one does not live up to unrealistically high expectations.

I think he has some more apologising to do, but I would be willing to forgive Lance Armstrong too. For a long time, he would aggressively defend himself against any accusations of his drug use and now he has admitted that it was all true. For all of those who put their faith in him, forgiveness will be difficult.  For all those left in the wake of his compulsive self-defense mechanisms, forgiveness will be a long journey. From the outside though, I see in his defensiveness the same patterns of deception that all of us are capable of when we too are caught in a lie. When we try to be alone at the top of the ladder, we will find that the bottom is even lonelier.

The greater question, though, is,  “Can I forgive Carl Lewis?” While some suggest otherwise, officially he has nothing to apologise for. Even if he did, the greater problem is the resent in my heart. There is a quote that says, “Forgiveness is like setting a prisoner free, and then realizing that the prisoner is you.”

For all of the Ben Johnsons, Lance Armstrongs and Carl Lewis’ in your life and for their adequate and inadequate apologies, it is important for all of us not to live in that past, but to look toward a future free of the burden of resent that we all carry.

 

Still buying green bananas #MennoNerdsOnLoss

At the hospice I visit from time to time, there is a list in the staff room of things not to say.  It’s a good reminder that even the things said by well-meaning people can be difficult for people to answer if they are dying or watching a loved one die.  Among the expressions on the list are trite little sayings like “Everything will work out for the best,” and “It’s time to move on.” Those two seem obviously insensitive, but the list exists because these things are not obvious to everyone.  So, when I set out to visit seniors, or people that are ill, I am equipped with nice things to say, and I’ve even trained myself not to say a long list of potentially hurtful things.  But one of my common greetings, is also near the top of this list.

“How are you doing?” is a funny greeting.  There are really only three permissible responses.  If you are doing slightly better than fine, you say something along the lines of “pretty good, actually,” where you admit that doing well is an anomaly.  If you are doing slightly worse than fine, you say something along the lines of “not the greatest,” as though it were no big deal.  If you are doing fine, of course you say that.  Also, if you are doing extremely well or extremely poorly, you just say “fine” because you know that nobody wants to hear about your extreme emotions.

More than once I’ve asked someone how they are doing and only realized once those words left my lips that they might not be ready to answer that otherwise rhetorical question in an honest way, and I might not be prepared to hear their answer if they feel free from the normal restrictions connected to that question.  One group that seems to be unaware of these unwritten laws are the seniors that I have had the pleasure of visiting as a pastor.  When I ask them how they are doing, a funny thing happens, they tell me.

Obviously, when people tell you they are doing well, it’s your job as an active listener to rejoice with them.  On the flip side, we understand that when someone tells us they are not doing well, that we should build them up and discourage any more negative thinking.  Sometimes it is the possibility of hearing negative thinking that makes us think twice before we ask someone how they are doing.  But when someone has experienced major loss or when they are facing their own impending illness or death, “negative thinking” is a fairly relative term.

In some of my pastoral visits, I have been naive enough to think I could cheer up someone in these shoes.  I have also felt the urge to cower away from the obvious topic on their minds.  The real challenge is to be present in a conversation that might otherwise seem uncomfortable.  If you can do that, you might actually accomplish some good.

The other day I was chatting with a guy who has started to give away some of the things he has made over the years.  I complimented him on his handiwork and on his generosity.  His response was humble and dismissive, like I expected, but also a little bit dark.  He said, “I would much rather give these gifts away with a warm hand than a cold one.”  My first instinct was to discourage this kind of thinking, but not only is this where he is at, there is some profound wisdom in what he said.  A wonderful conversation about the need to downsize and our desire to leave a legacy followed.

Another senior told me about a few recent hallucinations where the deceased spouse was observed in the house.  That might have been a problem for other people.  A clinical diagnosis would have been unhelpful at this time.  My expressions of my own personal comfort level with these sightings would probably have brought the conversation to a premature end.  What followed was an admission that these “visits” were welcomed and a happy reminder of the emotional and spiritual connection they formed during their life.

I also visited an older couple with a similar penchant for uncomfortable honesty.  They welcomed me in and offered me a cup of coffee, which I accepted.  Shortly after sitting down in their kitchen, I asked, “How are you doing?”  They had both received significant medical attention recently and I knew that their children were worried about the state of their health.  They knew that I was asking in response to their health but they were quick to dismiss my concerns.

“Well,” she said, “we’re still buying green bananas.” It really didn’t seem all that optimistic to me that they expected to outlive the produce in their house. Then, as though she saw that I wasn’t convinced, she giggled and showed me the 1 kg tub of peanut butter she had purchased the week before. People my age don’t talk so freely about their own death, but they also don’t need to estimate their lifespan when they’re buying groceries. If I just stuck with people my own age, I wouldn’t have been able to hear about what it means to live fully in the moment with a very real sense of your own mortality.

Not everyone will respond to illness and aging with a sense of humour, but facing death and loss will bring people to a different way of looking at things than the rest of us will be prepared for.

This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com to see all the other posts in this series.

Give up the rim (for Lent) to win

This was printed last year in the local newspaper, and I’ve modified it to fit Lent this year.  Every year it boggles my mind that Roll up the Rim coincides with Lent.

Old fashioned church stuff is dying.  Various media outlets love to repeat this news.  Some people within the church don’t believe this news or they do and they’re fighting to change it.  But even in the church there are those who celebrate the demise of long celebrated Christian religious rituals.  But did you know that one of these old, almost forgotten rituals is keeping one of the largest companies in Canada on its knees?

Every year around this time, you might hear about people giving something up for Lent, but usually they would have trouble explaining what exactly exactly is behind the practice.  Lent is a 40-day stretch of time running from Ash Wednesday (more commonly known as the day after Mardi Gras) to Easter Morning, February 22nd April 8th this year.  The idea behind the modern Lenten fast is that people give up something they like and when they feel the urge to have that thing, they are supposed to think about God and their reliance on/relationship with God.  It’s usually most effective if the thing they give up is something they’ve sorta convinced themselves that they need or are semi-addicted to.  The problem of course is that it requires a person to admit that they are half addicted to something.

I usually don’t participate in the Lenten fast in any way. This year, instead of giving something up, I am taking something up.  I will be blogging in one way or another on each of the 40 days of Lent. I believe that writing is a spiritual exercise. I also believe that writing is one of many things that one gets better at with practice, so I’m writing in different way and about different subjects than I normally do so that I get better at it.

Historically the church asked people to give up meat for Lent.  So then the last day before Lent people would want to have a feast and use up a lot of the grease they had been saving from cooking meat.  They couldn’t think of a better way to use this all up than to have a meal of pancakes (neither can I really).  That explains the pancake suppers at Christian churches; I won’t even try to explain the Mardi Gras hoopla in New Orleans.

I don’t feel particularly convicted about this lapse in Lenten conviction.  I come from a proud tradition of Lent non-observers.  A long time ago, a group of people in Zurich, publicly and intentionally broke the Lenten fast and ate sausages together.  I consider myself to be part of that school of thought.  If I ever started a Christian basketball team, I’d like to call them the “Fast Breakers.”  Many Christians believe though that if there is something you can give up in your life to bring you closer to God, you should give it up no matter what time of year it is and not start up using it again 40 days later.

There are a few things that are given up more often than french fries to.  In high school I knew many girls who had a penchant for chocolate and gave it up for Lent, which worked out nicely so that they could binge on the stuff as soon as Easter rolled around.  But there is perhaps no greater quasi-addiction in our society than coffee.

Coffee is exactly the kind of thing that people should give up for Lent, it’s not particularly sinful on its own, and the cravings one might get for it would be a great reminder of one’s relationship with God.  Historically there has been a dip in coffee sales at this time of year.  Could it be because of Lent?  But besides the addiction most people refuse to admit they have, there is something that interferes with people’s willingness to give up coffee at this time of year.

To combat this dip, Tim Hortons launched a promotional campaign 25 years ago.  It was so successful that it has been running every year since then.  It does make me wonder if it is worth the cost to Tim Hortons.  The cost of extra advertising and all the prizes and fraud prevention stuff can’t really generate that much extra sales can it?  Especially since coffee and their brand of coffee in particular are so deeply engrained into the Canadian psyche.

Religious institutions are continually losing their grip on societal influence in this country, particularly the ones that would advocate a ritual Lenten observance.  Still, Lent has a transcendent power, even among people outside of Christian institutional religion.  If Tim Hortons gave up their Roll up the Rim campaign, more people would consider giving up coffee for Lent.  Since the company and its shareholders can’t afford interruptions in the profits, they can’t stop the promotion because people might use Lent or any other reason to stop drinking their coffee.  Is this an example of businesses interfering with Christian practice or a story of spirituality working under the surface?  I like to think it’s the latter.