SHOWTIME! I bounded up on stage like I had just won the lottery on a game show. 3500 pairs of eyes looking at me, but not 5'2" me----a blown-up 25 foot me, my every cowlick now magnified X 100. What could I do but cheat?
Three days later, in the Dayton airport, I watched Beyonce belt out an impressive version of our national anthem. I marveled at her voice and her impassioned virtuoso performance transformed me, for those moments, into a chest-swelling patriot. ("The rockets' red glare, and the flag was still there . .... The next day we find out she was not really singing. At the last minute, a pre-recorded version was played instead. Why did she cheat?
A few days earlier we watched a wolf-faced Lance Armstrong admit to Oprah that his stunning Tour de France performances, and all his vituperative protestations against the numerous doping charges were all “one big lie.” He confessed that he did it out of "ruthless desire to win."
"[I was] the guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and control every outcome," he said, with a touch of defiance still in his voice and body. (Should we forgive him? Not yet.)
I've had two weeks of Showtime! by now--which is why you haven't heard from me. I’ve been shuttling from Kodiak to California to Ohio to Victoria B.C. speaking along the way in living rooms, classrooms and a gorgeous university chapel nearly as big as a stadium. I cheated too. I had notes. Eight pages of them. (Unlike some speakers with supernatural memory and confidence!) And I had backup too---I had called in the Invisible Special Forces: the Holy Spirit. And had asked others to pray for me. Though I have spoken to many large audiences, I knew I needed help.
“A gift of any kind is a considerable responsibility," wrote Flannery O'Connor. All of us reading this-----carry both. All of us here have been given gifts and abilities. O'Connor calls this endowment "a mystery." And something else: we don't deserve them. They come to us as something "gratuitous and wholly undeserved," O'Connor writes. And those gifts carry a weight of responsibility.
I don't really care that Beyonce lip-synced at the inaugeration, It may not even have been her decision. It was her voice, and her gift and she reminded us all why we love our country.
I care enormously that Armstrong cheated. I care enormously that he stole the Tour de France seven times. He mistook his gift. His gift was not winning---his gift was cycling. But he didn't know the difference.
Nor does he know that the gifts we are given are mostly for others---not for ourselves. That's what makes them "gifts." In the New Testament, Peter speaks directly to this, "God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another."
I "cheated" gladly that day and all the days I stand before audiences huge and tiny with notes inked on my hand, on my sleeve, anything I can get away with. I have to do it. I trust God but I don't trust myself. I want to say something true. I want to help others ask hard questions. I want to help others find faith and cling to it, as I am trying to do.
It's risky business, all of this, using our gifts. Once, I stood in a spotlight in a blackened auditorium in front of 1500 people and suddenly fell apart, melting into helpless sobs. (Speaking about a hard place in my life.) I almost did it again last week, reading an essay about a friend who had taken her own life. I don't like to melt into snot and tears while on stage----but I'll take it. It's part of the risk of using our gifts.
We don't have to win. We just have to try. And we have to ask for help. It's not cheating to ask for help-----it's not for us, after all.
This is how we carry our gifts. They are heavy sometimes, a responsibility that feels too much for us, but in giving them away, we are lightened with joy,
and we bring light and joy to others.