September 9, 2008


In my opinion, Penn State on a football Saturday is as close to heaven on earth as exists...anywhere! Maybe it’s the 100,000+ blue and white clad fans that crowd the streets of state college and fields outside Beaver Stadium for the pre-game festivities. Or the beautiful Penn State campus. Or the world-class Blue Band with their march into the stadium and game-determining flip of the drum major. Or the Nittany Lion who riles up the enthusiastic fans and keeps them eating out of his paw for the entire game; Or watching one of the best college football teams ever, coached by a living legend—Joe Paterno.

It’s probably a combination of all this and more. Tradition. History. Competition. Pride. Community. Penn State’s got it. No matter how many times I visit Happy Valley I’m choked up by it all.

And I didn’t even attend Penn State! My introduction to all things blue and white occurred when I met my husband who’s a proud PSU grad.

This past weekend my sister and her friend flew up to join us for a football weekend. It was such fun to introduce the newbies to State and visit all the “must-see” sights. My husband reveled in his role as ambassador of his old stomping grounds. He was a font of knowledge, providing an endless stream of interesting details and tidbits. (Although, how he remembers which window belonged to the dorm room he lived in for one semester 25 years ago or how many books are in the library, yet can’t remember which of our kids likes ham sandwiches for lunch and which turkey, is beyond me! But I digress…) And of course our visit was topped off by a spectacular win…Go State!

But the real treat of the weekend was visiting my husband’s favorite watering hole, The Phyrst. Empirically there’s nothing alluring about this small, dark, grungy basement pub. But the Phyrst is a Penn State tradition complete with table wars, PSU cheers and singing—lots of singing! On Saturday nights one can witness another PSU living legend: The Phyrst Phamily Band. This five-piece band plays American/Irish folk music and has been a PSU staple since the early 1970s.

We sat at our table and waited. Soon enough the Physrt Phamily took the stage and we were all swept up in the excitement and revelry. At one point, my husband leaned over and pointed to the graying band member playing some sort of washboard/horn/tambourine thing-y slung over his shoulders.

“That’s Graham Spanier,” he said.

“You mean the man playing the washboard is Penn State’s president?” I asked, amazed.

“Yep. That’s him.”

I couldn’t believe it. The quiet, unassuming guy on stage playing a silly musical contraption in a sweaty, loud bar late on a Saturday night was the President of one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious universities. Didn’t he have an ivy-covered house to retreat to? Shouldn’t he be rubbing elbows with academic muckety-muks or authoring a journal article? Wasn’t he concerned about his distinguished reputation?

And when they introduced the band members he was introduced as simply, “Graham.” Not Dr. Graham Spanier, University President, holder of many degrees, distinguished researcher and scholar, or all-around important and powerful guy. No, he was just Graham. A regular guy who likes to connect with kids, entertain alumni and play music. If my husband hadn’t pointed him out, I would have never known who he was.

And it was there, watching Graham Spanier play in the Phyrst Phamily band, that I thought of Jesus.

Jesus was certainly a “credentialed” man. He was after all God’s son and Savior of all mankind. The Jewish people expected the Messiah to arrive with glory and pomp and circumstance. He'd establish a kingdom on earth. They probably expected he'd live the royal, insulated life of a king or high priest.

But Jesus didn’t wield His power, toss about His credentials or hobnob with the elite. Frankly, He didn’t do much that people expected the Messiah would do.

Instead He befriended commoners like fishermen, tax collectors and widows. And reached out to undesirables like prostitutes, Gentiles, Samaritans and lepers. I imagine if there were colleges at the time, you’d find him on campus with the students.

But Jesus wasn’t just a cool dude who mixed it up with the common folk. He wasn’t just a great teacher or miraculous healer. He was, and is, God incarnate. The Creator of the universe. The One who was there “in the beginning” and will be there in the end.

Out of an act of love too great for us to fathom, He was born a helpless baby and died as a criminal nailed to a cross. In between he lived among His people. He chose to love up close instead of rule from afar. To relinquish power instead of claim it. To serve instead of be served. To teach instead of dominate. To redeem instead of condemn.

If we lived in Jesus’ day and saw a crowd by the lake, one of us might lean over to the other and say, “See the man over there? That’s Jesus.”

And we'd respond amazed, “You mean the one with the dirty sandals and tattered tunic? The one with the fisherman, talking to Gentiles? He’s the One who’s been prophesied—the Messiah?”

“Yep. That’s Him.”

Sometimes all it takes is someone to point Him out.

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Veblen said...

You fell for Graham's schtick. His everyman persona is designed to distract from his policies at Penn State which have led to the highest tuition of all public universities in the country.

Rather than a gentle Jesus like figure, he is an authoritarian who frequently punishes students who take stands against him.

I could go on but you get the idea. Don't make your judgments on superficial criteria.

Kelly said...

Hi Kelli --

I don't know the man...but point well made. Fantastic writing, once again!

Your Southern Writing Friend,


Cheryl Barker said...

"Someone to point Him out"... That's what I want to do -- just help point the way. Wonderful thought, Kelli.

Justin said...

Hey, Kelli!

I assert that Chapel Hill, NC, is the most beautiful place on earth on a college football Saturday... or on any night the basketball team plays... or any day of the year, really.

But your insight is totally beautiful. In fact, I think I'll probably include this in the sermon that I preach this Christmas Eve! And of course I'll cite you as the source of my inspiration! ;-)

Romans 15:13,


Runner Mom said...

Wow! Great post!

And we'd respond amazed, “You mean the one with the dirty sandals and tattered tunic? The one with the fisherman, talking to Gentiles? He’s the One who’s been prophesied—the Messiah?”

“Yep. That’s Him.”

How often do we not see Jesus in the everyday? I love this part! in Columbia, SC at Williams-Brice Stadium is the most beautiful place to be!! Heehee! We all have our favorite colleges and memeories. So glad that your husband had fun sharing his.

Love ya,

Dan said...

Clearly Kelli has unleashed a firestorm here. So, let's get this straight - EVERY college town is the best place in the world to be on a football Saturday. I truly believe that. It's just that State College is the most betterest of them all.

Good, now that we have that settled...great observations, Kelli, and well-phrased as always. While nobody is directly comparing Dr. Graham Spanier to Jesus Christ, the story does illustrate one of the central mysteries and beauties of this man we follow - He mixed it up with us common folk, sins and all. For that, there were plenty of people quick to deride him. "A Messiah who hangs out with sinners, breaks bread with cheats and recruits his followers from among the stinky fishermen on the local docks? Your kidding, right? He can't be The One - no Messiah would do that. It's an act."

It was an act alright. An act of unsurpassed love and human empathy. Keep the blogs coming, Kelli.

Peggy said...

I love how you put tell your stories, and remind us of how God just wants us to know He is not just totally awsome, but also totally ordinary. He wants us to talk, praise, read His Word and know that His power, love, grace, wisdom and of course His Spirit are with us each and everyday.
Thanks for showing us that we sometimes forget to acknowledge He is always with us ordinary folks.
Great blog.....
Blessings and Love, Peggy

Sue J said...

This post reminds me of the Casting Crowns' song "Everyman." (Is there hope for everyman?...Jesus is hope for every man!)

Jesus is everyman and yet He is fully God. He can identify with us like no one else; put Himself in whatever situation we find ourselves; speaks to us in ways only He can reach us.

Pointing Him out in the band may be what those who have been given ears have been waiting to see. For some, though, it takes a lifetime of listening....

Stonefox (otherwise known as Heidi) said...

Wow, this is great! I love the picture of Jesus, with His dirty sandals on, the ordinary in the crowd...yet the Son of God. And isn't that how His presence is in our lives? We are ordinary and weak, and all that. But He is all THAT, living in us.

I really enjoyed reading your profile. He is an awesome God! I can totally relate to what you are saying!