The sermon title comes from William Blake’s poem, written in 1810, which opens:
Deceiver, dissembler / Your trousers are alight / From what ole or gallows / Shall they dangle in the night?
As you know, Lance Armstrong cheated.
First of all, he cheated death. At age 26 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. He did everything he needed to do to survive and lo and behold — with the help of drugs and surgery, fourteen months later he was declared cancer free! He succeeded in cheating death.
He was a good student, having successfully learned how to cheat death he went on to cheat to win the Tour de France seven times in a row, taking so-called performance-enhancing drugs — like Popeye, when he ate the spinach, Lance was unbeatable.
When he was accused about taking illegal drugs, he lied, over and over and over again. You could say that he was using his fifth-amendment rights — the right not to testify against yourself. But he didn’t clam up, as the bill of rights allows; he slandered those who testified that they knew for a fact that he had been taking illegal drugs regularly.
Recently, for some reason, he confessed on national television — to Oprah. But, of course, he wasn’t under oath, so he could lie to Oprah, or claim, later, that his televised confession was a lie.
Round and round it goes, and where it stops nobody knows.
Truth be told, Lance’s lying isn’t unusual. Lying is as common as mud.
Read the paper, listen to the news; most news stories involve lying on some level or in some way: Bernie Madoff lied, big time. Richard Nixon lied — to cover up his crimes. James Frey wrote a best-selling book that he claimed was autobiographical — a fictional story, as it turned out, about a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser and how he copes with rehabilitation. He called it A Million Little Pieces — interestingly it was Oprah who fell for his story hook, line and sinker and made it a best seller.
I want to talk about Lance Armstrong from a religious point of view, speaking as an existentialist. Existentialism, as I understand it, begins with the individual — not only the thinking individual, but the acting, feeling person struggling to find meaning, purpose and direction in his or her life. It’s about feeling disconnected or alienated and looking for ways to connect, to feel at home in oneself and at home in the world — the world does not provide the meaning, each person must find it by living it — the Quakers say ‘let your life speak.’
I want to talk about lying, which destroys connections, not only with others, but with oneself.
Lying comes in all sizes, shapes, colors and smells, especially smells, which is where the saying comes from: ‘I smell a rat,’ or ‘I smell something fishy.’
It comes in the form of deceit, disinformation and distortion; it comes as evasion and hyperbole, and it’s always about intentional misrepresentation and misquoting, or quoting out of context.
Every lie has its place on the wide spectrum, with little white lies on one end — with the red-suited Santa in the North Pole, the lies we tell to make someone else happy without any hurt to them — and on the other end of the spectrum there are big double whoppers.
Why did Lance Armstrong lie? I guess he lied because he took the illegal drugs and then had to cover it up. But that feels too obvious, too simplistic. But maybe that’s just it — he wanted to win the bike race like he won the life race ‘the race for his life’ against cancer.
Lying has a corrupting influence on interpersonal relationships and on a culture — it has a corrupting influence on oneself.
My simple definition of religion is: ‘the life-long process of re-connecting.’ I include the need to re-connect with ourselves after ‘going out of acquaintance’ with ourselves as Emerson put it — or, in traditional religious terms, after sinning — which is why Jews invented Yom Kippur and Christians created confession.
Lying is as old as language itself.
In the book of Genesis, the mythological stories about what it means to be human, God lies to Adam, in a failed attempt to prevent him from eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
God said, ‘on the day you eat of it you shall die.’ Adam ate, and he didn’t die that day, just as the serpent had assured him. The serpent said, ‘When you eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will not die, but you will become like the gods.’
Language enhances communication — without it communication is very limited. But as soon as we learn to speak and to write, lying gets re-invented invented.
Another Biblical reference to lying is in the Ten Commandments — the ninth commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.’ It doesn’t actually say ‘thou shalt not tell a lie.’ Are we to assume that it’s okay to ‘bear false witness’ against those who are not neighbors, not ‘one of us,’ but strangers?
Under what circumstances is it okay to lie?
There are lies of commission, like Lance’s lies, and there are lies of omission, which is why the oath says that you swear to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — so help you God.’
Another famous Biblical example of lying is when Jacob lied to his dying father, telling him that he was, in fact, Esau, the elder brother –that lie successfully tricked his father into giving the blessing to the wrong son.
One more of the many Biblical references to lying is the story of David and Bathsheba. The story says that David was walking on the roof of his palace and saw Bathsheba bathing. Bathsheba was then the wife of Uriah, who was on duty in the army. David lusted after her, resulting in an unplanned pregnancy.
In an effort to conceal his sin, David summoned Uriah to come home on military leave so that Uriah would think that the child was his. Uriah was unwilling to violate the ancient kingdom rule applying to warriors in active service not to sleep with their wives. Rather than go home to his own bed, he preferred to remain with the palace troops.
After repeated efforts to convince Uriah to have sex with Bathsheba, the king gave the order to his general, Joab, that Uriah should be placed in the front lines of the battle, where it was the most dangerous, and left to the hands of the enemy (where he was more likely to die). To add to the story, David had Uriah himself carry the message to the general that ordered his death. After Uriah was dead, David made the now widowed Bathsheba his wife, but the house of David was cursed.
David’s lie was a whopper, which brings us back to Lance Armstrong, who cheated death, cheated to win the Tour de France seven times, and is now trying to have his life-time prohibition against competing in any sport reduced. That’s called audacity! (Remember, he survived testicular cancer!)
It’s tempting to dismiss the whole thing as just another instance of bold-faced lying, but I have a sense there’s more to it, which is why I find his story to be intriguing.
Like most everyone, I admired him for overcoming the cancer and winning the extremely demanding Tour de France seven times.
The number seven has a Biblical ring to it. The number seven — seven days in the first week with the seventh a holy day, Sabbath; later, the seven deadly sins, the seven wonders of the world — lucky seven.
I was captivated by Lance’s interview with Oprah — his failed attempt at winning back the right to compete — his failed confession and the apparent shamelessness the Oprah appearance suggests.
His confession failed — so he didn’t get absolution.
I had the feeling that he was unconsciously setting himself up for the punishment he apparently deserved, which includes losing his ill-gotten fortune, including financial gain from law suits he fought against his accusers — he won considerable settlements.
I was reminded of Emerson’s comment that ‘we are not punished for our sins, we are punished by them.’
While he didn’t acknowledge shame, guilt or regret, you could see him wrestling with those demons in his conversations with Oprah. (Or was I reading into it?)
While he didn’t acknowledge that his actions hurt lots of other people, I had the feeling that he desperately wanted to purge himself of the guilt, shame and regret hidden beneath what appears his arrogance – that there’s a vulnerable, hurting little boy in there who has lost his innocence and wants it back. (But that’s the minister speaking!)
The stories in Genesis are all about the loss of innocence, and, later, about the struggle to re-gain lost innocence. Once we have the knowledge of our own capacity for evil, we’re evicted from paradise. Once we have the knowledge of our own capacity for good, we’re evicted from the paradise of denying responsibility for our actions, for our lives.
Allow me, then, what might appear to be a big digression — a commentary on the second amendment:
The knowledge of good and evil turns the protestations about the right to bear arms in the second amendment into a lie — it’s a bold-faced lie to use that amendment as justification to own automatic and semi-automatic weapons that can allow a deranged boy to walk into a school and murder 20 little children and six educators in a few minutes, using a ammunition clips that hold a hundred bullets.
I’m reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes — those special clothes that are invisible to those unfit for their positions, or just stupid or incompetent. Then, when the naked Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, a child cries out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”
Written in 1791, the second amendment says, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
A militia refers to an army or fighting force that is composed of non-professional fighters who are citizens of a state and who can be called upon to protect the state by entering into combat against an invading force — a militia is necessary for the ‘security of a free state.’
Those who wrote it had a clear frame of reference — the Minutemen, who were, indeed, called upon to do battle against what they called ‘an invading army.’
Those who advocate having no restrictions on guns of any kind completely and intentionally leave out the first part of the second amendment: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…”
Advocates for appropriate regulation, or ‘gun control laws’ are simply calling for that part of the second amendment: to ‘regulate’ guns — to regulate what kinds of guns citizens can own, and which citizens are to be allowed to own the guns that are allowed, etc.
Gun control is ‘regulation,’ as called for in the second amendment.
The Constitution has a kind of religious or sacred sound to it, and using the second amendment to justify owning weapons of massive destruction is, then, idolatry, to bow down to a man-made god. To dare to deny the right to own those outrageous weapons suggests a kind of blasphemy against the sacred Constitution.
Those religious feelings that get aroused around the second amendment make it almost impossible to have a reasoned or reasonable discussion about gun control.
I believe the second amendment will ultimately have to be repealed, unless the NRA is willing to allow only the weapons available in 1791 — but I’m a ridiculous man, I know.
I also know that we’re not going to put the jinni back in the bottle; guns are here to stay, but, as the introduction to the second amendment says, they, and we, need to be well-regulated. Right now guns are way, way out of control. We need to begin to regulate the way guns are bought and sold, and to whom they are sold. They need to be registered so they can be identified like the license plate on a car or truck — and so forth.
This is some of what I was thinking when I was watching Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah.
Lance Armstrong lost trust, and where there is no trust there is no relationship. Lying destroys civility.
(I’m not talking about white lies. I’m talking about deceit — the intentional misrepresentation of important truths.)
”It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” Noel Coward
Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah failed because there was no shame shown, no regret expressed, no acknowledgment of the injuries to so many people, including cyclists who didn’t do the drugs and including millions of admirers who were injured in a different way.
But Lance Armstrong’s conversation with Oprah was quite revealing, not only about the man but about an aspect of our human nature that we say we want to understand ourselves and one another — when we say in our affirmation every Sunday that we intend ‘to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.’
Lance Armstrong went on Oprah’s show with a devious, self-serving motive, having to do with money and fame — his wish to be involved in the sporting world. But my intuition tells me something different — my intuition nags at me, showing me something perhaps too deep for me to put into words — but I have a sense that while he was talking with Oprah, Lance discovered the reason he went on Oprah to begin with, and he was as taken by surprise.
I could be wrong about that, of course. It’s not that I claim to know the truth in the larger scheme of things — it’s just that I think the deepest meaning available to us in this life has to do with ‘seeking the truth in love;’ and in ‘letting your life speak.’
When Robert Frost spoke at his 80th birthday party he said that he hoped to leave behind a few poems that will be hard to get rid of. I hope to keep his hope alive by repeating some of those poems so they will be ‘hard to get rid of.’ One of those is called Revelation – it’s about hiding ‘behind light words that tease and flout,’ and the need to ’reveal’ one’s true self:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated hear
Till someone really find us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hid-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.