January 15, 2013

Issac J. Bailey | Armstrong, pastor both flawed representatives of God

Locally, there’s still talk of what it means that a man of God could steal $2.5 million from members of his flock in a Ponzi scheme.

Locally, there’s still talk of what it means that a man of God could steal $2.5 million from members of his flock in a Ponzi scheme.

Nationally, there is talk about what to make of the disturbing revelations of a man who has been treated like a god.

Is a reliance on faith the reason Archie Larue Evans, former pastor of Tilly Swamp Baptist Church in Conway, could so successfully bilk his parishioners? Were they led astray by the thing that is said to sustain them?

He had promised them between 10 percent and 12 percent quarterly returns on their investments but used some of the money for personal purchases and to pay off others to keep the scheme going.

Evans has since pleaded guilty to a couple of charges that carry a combined maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and a half-million dollars in fines.

Was Lance Armstrong able to lie for so long – and intimidate his associates into silence – because he had been elevated into an unworldly status, a cancer survivor who helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the disease?

Armstrong sat down with Oprah Winfrey on Monday (interview to air Thursday night) to finally come clean about decades of lies about his use of illegal drugs to fuel his seven Tour de France championships and iconic status in athletic and social circles.

He faces a slew of potential legal entanglements and the non-profit he founded has to do damage control.

Two important, positive organizations have been sullied by the choices and actions of the men who led them.

It’s an old story, one that will replay itself a thousandfold in coming years, at least as long as worthwhile endeavors are led by imperfect human beings.

The Evans story is intriguing because of what he represents. When you step into the pulpit and declare yourself a messenger of God, and then live in a way not congruent with what you preach, you do more than just cause people to lose money.

You can shake their faith in God, undermine a belief system that has likely carried them through the toughest of times.

That’s what makes Evans’ actions especially egregious.

Every fall there is a debate about an assault on faith through a phony war on Christmas. But what Evans represents is a real threat.

It cuts to the core.

There’s nothing more sacred than a person of faith’s relationship with God.

Evans used that understanding against those who relied upon him to deepen and strengthen that connection.

Armstrong’s offense feels as awful as that of Evans, because he had been come to represent to the public what Evans represented to his congregation at Tilly Swamp Baptist Church:

A person to be looked up to;

A person to be emulated;

A person to be celebrated;

A person who helped many survive dark moments;

A person, yes, who helped them see God more clearly.

Armstrong’s triumph over cancer is the type of story told in many churches, an instance of what the enemy meant for ill turned into good.

And it represented hope for millions who have to cope with a cancer diagnosis, no matter what their beliefs.

The comfort Armstrong and Evans provided was real and still matters – so does the harm they caused, the damage they inflicted.

That doesn’t make them unique. Each of us represents God in our imperfect ways.

Our goal should be to bring more joy to the world than pain. In that, Armstrong and Evans both failed.

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