Oprah Winfrey brought her 2014 tour to DC last weekend: The Life You Want! “The only courage you need in your life is the courage to live your dreams!” she shouted to a room of adoring fans. Then she told them how to use a circular diagram to draw a life map. Conferees learned how to turn down the negative inner voices inside their heads, and choose a more positive language to describe their feelings.
Ideas like those must surely sound energizing in an arena full of cheering middle-class women. But when those ladies get back into the grind of life this week, many of them will discover they need a lot more than a happier vocabulary and the courage to live their dreams. The poet Robert Burns described it this way: “The best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry.” When life goes off the rails, people commonly find that the positive plan is absolutely worthless without the personal power. And life can leave you feeling very powerless.
That’s the starting point for classic Twelve Step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol. Our lives had become unmanageable. But how can a powerless person do anything constructive? Step Two answers the question: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. People like that need to turn their lives and their will over to the care of God.
We human beings are skilled at self-deception. We really believe the right attitude can help us seize the day and claim the life we want! We have come to accept the bizarre idea that you can do anything you set your mind to. Yeah, except Rudy Ruettiger (God bless him!) only played the final kick-off against Georgia Tech and never saw action for the Fighting Irish again; and most young people who aspire to compete in the Olympics fall short long before reaching the games. A positive attitude and passionate determination are great assets, but until you come up with some power you’re just spinning your wheels.
The prophet Isaiah knew what it felt like to be stuck, trapped, powerless. But he was able to write Isaiah 40:31 because God had showed him what it was like to be empowered from on high. “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
I get to talk with broken, powerless people all the time. I have good news for them: when the wind of God fills the sails, you don’t have to keep rowing anymore. Smart sailors know how to use the wind.
Lift up the Cross!
I don’t understand the public outcry surrounding Lance Armstrong’s recent confessions. Granted, TV talk shows always need juicy scandals to boost sagging ratings, and Evangelical Christians care about moral behavior. But why is everyone else so shocked and horrified? In 2013, if you are not concerned with TV ratings or some kind of moral code, nothing has really changed in this celebrated American success story!
Lance’s reputation was built on athleticism after he won the Tour de France seven consecutive times. The only thing that has changed is that we don’t know for sure if he would have won them all without performance enhancing drugs. Either way, he still competed with the elite of the elite and made a great showing year after year. Then he faced a serious bout with cancer and won, inspiring thousands of other people along the way and eventually raising money for cancer research. That hasn’t changed. He still beat cancer, inspired thousands, and raised research dollars.
The only thing that has changed lately is that he has now admitted that he violated the doping ban during competition for just about fifteen years, and that he has unashamedly lied about that on every occasion for many years since. So what? Most Americans have agreed for at least twenty years that ethical behavior doesn’t matter as long as someone is a leader! We got the Big Idea from politics and, over the last two decades, we’ve spread it around to business, education, and most other venues of life. Nobody’s perfect. Judge not that ye be not judged. Everybody lies about something. So the man lied? Big Deal!
Maybe the rest of the country is beginning to realize why integrity matters after all: because we share a crowded world, and most of those other people are strangers. But we have to raise our families alongside many of those strangers. We have to do business with them and use their banks and investment firms and stores. We hire some of them to teach our children or lead our government. We have to compete with them for jobs and college admissions; in baseball championships and cycling events. And the only way a society of strangers is able to function like that is if we all assume we can trust most other people. We have to believe that most people are playing by the same rules. We need to be able to trust that most people are operating out of some kind of shared moral code.
That’s why integrity matters more than cycling or cancer, more than fame or riches. That’s why a society needs to aggressively teach ethics and integrity to its children even before they ever start talking about sports or grades. That’s why our entertainment industry should affirm a clear sense of right and wrong, rather than constantly blurring the lines. And that’s why Oprah Winfrey probably won’t be able to rescue Lance Armstrong from the ethical cliff his bike just hurtled over. Because no matter how popular the new morality seems on TV, we all know that the old morality still makes friendship and community possible in a world of strangers. When people lack basic integrity, their nation can never build enough prisons, raise enough money, or devise enough drug tests.
Lift up the Cross!