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.