Using Simple Words
"Yes." "Yes." "Yes." "Yes."
—Lance Armstrong, in an interview aired on January 17, 2013, when asked, in succession, whether he ever took banned substances, whether he doped through blood transfusions, whether he used other banned substances such as testosterone, and whether he took banned substances during all seven of his Tour de France victories.
"I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer."
—Manti Te'o, in a pre-Heisman ceremony interview on December 8, 2012, two days after he now says he learned the girlfriend had never existed
We’ve recently been treated to two national shows of deception, thanks to Lance Armstrong’s confession to years of deception and denial, and the discovery that Manti Te’o’s late girlfriend never actually existed. And we still don’t know whether or not Te’o is a colossally deceptive young man or a colossally gullible young man.
These two cases seem to just beg to be treated as “morality plays,” with a neat little conclusion tagged on the end, some moral for us to all emulate.
The problem with that is that we could all walk away feeling really good about ourselves – after all, I’ve never used PEDs during a big sermon series and I have actually seen most of the people I have close relationships with at least once.
That’s too easy.
There are, in fact, valuable lessons illustrated for us in these events. But they might not be so easy for us to hear and feel good about.
First, in the case of Lance Armstrong’s blatant, bullying lying for years about his use of PEDs…
Listening to his interview with Oprah, he offered the most tread worn, lame excuse of them all: “Everyone else was doing it.”
The reason I know it’s a tread worn, lame excuse is that I’ve used it myself as a rationale for words or behaviors before.
To his credit, if I understood him correctly, what caused him to “come clean” and reverse years of angry denials was when it hit him that his teenage son was one of his staunchest defenders. His son completely believed the lies and denials.
Apparently, it was not the publication of overwhelming evidence, the sworn testimony of former friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators that was the tipping point for Armstrong, but an epiphany that he was crafting a legacy for his son that would include deceiving his own flesh and blood. Finally, that was too much. Finally, he realized that his real legacy was not in victories at the Tour de France or even in using his celebrity to do charitable good (which he has certainly done). His real legacy was in his son.
I’m not sure that’s a bad reason to come clean.
And it calls me to ask, what will be the “true” legacy my sons inherit from me? Will it be substantive or will it be merely an image? Which legacy do I want them to have?
For the sake of others, especially those closest to me, am I willing to be a person who tells the truth and who lives the truth?
Second, in the case of Manti Te’o’s situation, whether he in the final analysis he is deceiver or deceived…
Let’s say we accept Te’o’s current iteration of events, that he only lied about the relationship at the end. It all smells to me then like a bad prank that spun out of control. It was supposed to be a private humiliation, but it went “viral” and now what do you do? Have to keep spinning the tale, can’t back off now. Lies begetting lies.
Or, let’s say we assume Te’o is involved from the get go, and that it’s all about creating Heisman buzz. Then it all smells to me like…well, let’s just say it completely stinks if that’s the case. You’ve got a case of words creating an alternative reality, a world (complete with loving, understanding, globe-trotting, leukemia-fighting girlfriend) that otherwise does not exist. But because of mere words, many were led to act as if it did.
Either way, what a parable about the power of words!
And it’s precisely because of that legacy-shaping, world-creating power of words that Jesus calls us to be careful with words. To be people whose words (and lives) have integrity:
…you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5.33-37).
Simply tell the truth, Jesus says. And just tell it simply.
That’s where we get into trouble. We forget that little statement there at the end: anything more than this comes from the evil one. Just keep your words true. Simply true.
We could feel some sense of moral superiority if we ended this by asking: Are you listening Lance Armstrong? Are you listening Manti Te’o?
But that’s too easy, and besides, we can’t control other people, only ourselves. So we need to end this way:
Are you listening to Jesus Southeastern Church? Are our words simply true?