Published November 15, 2011

Paul's Epistle...
"Fragile Reputations"

Life can be a like a "house of cards." It can all come toppling down very quickly.

For almost as many years as I have been alive, Joe Paterno was on the coaching staff at Penn State University. He became the winningest coach in college football. He alone, in all likelihood, was responsible for more students going to Penn State than any other individual. "JoePa" could do no wrong. Or could he?

You've undoubtedly seen and heard the news reports of the major scandal at Penn State involving an assistant football coach who has criminal charges against him involving abuse of young boys. Two other college officials are charged with perjury before a grand jury, allegedly in an attempt to cover up the crimes.

Joe Paterno was not charged in any of this. The state attorney general's office says he did what the law requires. When he heard an eyewitness account of the abuse, he reported it to his superior.

Legally, that was enough. But many are now saying that he should have done more — he should have taken what he knew directly to the local authorities. That, they say, was his moral, if not legal, obligation. Of course, we don't know what his athletic director, to whom he reported the matter, told him to do or not to do. He could have been ordered to keep quiet. We don't know what soul-searching Paterno may have gone through at that point. But apparently he did nothing more.

Hours after Paterno announced last Wednesday that he would be retiring at the end of this season, the university trustees summarily fired him. He was sacked for staying on the sidelines instead of taking the field to deal more fully with someone else's personal foul.

Frankly, I'm not much of a sports fan. But on a personal level, this is a sad story. It really is. Paterno invested more than six decades of his life — he's now 84 — to developing generations of young football players and, in fact, inspiring them to scholastic excellence as well. But now his legacy of greatness has been irreparably tarnished by circumstances others initially created.

Paterno calls all of this "a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." Indeed.

What should we take from this? Paterno's tragic experience — which is surely not unique — serves as a reminder that we must be on our guard at all times to do what is right, and even to go the extra mile. It takes only one misstep — even one that seems small at the time — to tarnish the hard-won reputation you may have earned over the course of a lifetime. Then the "benefit of hindsight" will be of no help. Reputations — at least in the minds of others in this life — can be very fragile.

The "house of cards" that is our personal reputation stands or falls on the basis of its foundation. It reminds me of Jesus' parable in Luke 6: "Whoever comes to Me, and hears My sayings and does them ... is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock" (Luke 6:47-48).

If your life is built on the firm foundation of Christ, you can weather such storms. First, you will know what is the right thing to do — and He will give you the power, through the Holy Spirit, to do it. (See 1 Cor. 10:13.) Second, you will be able personally to withstand false accusations that may come against you (of which there are many in the media these days, and which will surely increase as the political season rolls on).

By contrast, in words that seem eerily appropriate in the Paterno case, Jesus said, "But he who heard and did nothing is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream beat vehemently; and immediately it fell. And the ruin of that house was great" (v 49). To be sure.

The great thing is that God knows the difference. While men look on the surface, God looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7; Luke 16:15.) What an ultimate comfort that is!

Joe Paterno's son was seen on TV the other night pleading with reporters outside the Paterno home to give them some space, to give them some privacy. "Please pray for our family," he pleaded. That would be an excellent idea.

- Paul

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