I preached a sermon lauding Lance Armstrong. It was a few years ago. He was flying high. Now what do I do?
It turns out he was flying high. In more ways than one! Do I apologize to the congregation? Is that sermon to be regarded as a hoax just as Lance himself turns out to be?
Myself, being one of those who got suckered, I don't feel so badly because of this week's latest news. I join impressive company. Shoulder to shoulder with Manti Te'o. The star linebacker for Notre Dame revealed this week that he, too, fell for a whopper. He had been commun- icating online, offering support to a woman who told him she had leukemia. Turns out she didn't.
What do we do when we discover that what we believed in -- and took encouragement from -- turns out not to be true?
Cancer patients believed in Lance. I wasn't one of them at the time that I saw him rushing past in his yellow jersey. He was riding through Paris en route to his second straight win in the Tour de France. I was there on that occasion in 2000. I belonged to a large cycling group that had ridden from Berlin. We numbered around 165: Germans, Swiss, Polish, Czechs, Russians and one American -- me.
How proud I was, listening to the other cyclists talking about my fabulous countryman.
A few years later, I found myself with additional reason for taking pride in Lance: I was diagnosed with cancer. Colon cancer. Lying in a hospital bed after surgery, I was greeted by a friend who plopped three gifts in front of me: a Livestrong yellow bracelet and two of Lance's books of inspiration.
I survived that episode of cancer -- but it has returned. And this time around, I learn that what I believed in and took energy from the first time ... turns out it wasn't true!
Actually, this is a common occurrence in matters of belief. We believe in something that truly seems to help, we feel energized by what we believe in, only to discover that it didn't happen the way we had believed.
There are other examples. Many of us used to believe the Bible word for word. Then we dared to dig more deeply. We learned that the story of the flood was just that -- a story. Not a real, factual, historical event.
We learned that much of what is written in the early chapters of Genesis can be found in other ancient writings all over the world: The creator makes a human out of clay, there's a garden, a special tree ... It is not a revelation unique to the Bible. And, of course, the findings of science over the past 200 years have shattered any kind of factuality in the two stories of creation in Genesis.
Such discoveries can be unsettling. What we leaned our faith upon, we discover, isn't true!
We learn to do something that one needs to do often in a journey of faith: We adjust.
When we discover that the stories are not factual, we think about them more deeply. We find that they never were meant to be taken factually. Their purpose is not to be an historical record. Rather, they are unforgettable, creative ways of expressing truth.
Attributes of God are presented in the Genesis stories: God as supreme (like a creator), God as faithful (keeping a promise). If we ever fear abandonment by the divine, we are assured in the story of Noah -- God keeps a promise.
The facts may not be what we once thought. But facing a new reality is a sign of growth. We adjust. Indeed, after the initial setback, we find ourselves feeling all the more confident. Because faith no longer leans upon facts. Faith leans upon truth. And we recognize a truth about truth itself: It is bigger than fact.
Lance lied. He wasn't for real. But the type of truth that he stood for is real.
If not he himself, there are individuals who are sources of encouragement. Many aren't headliners. I see them sitting next to me in the clinic with needles in their arms and chests, hooked up to tubes that dribble the drugs into us that we hope will kill the cancer cells. The made-up woman did what many college running backs could not do -- faked out the great Notre Dame linebacker -- but there are many women with leukemia who are inspirations.
There is a saying in mental health circles: Facts are always friendly. Accepting them is a sign of maturity and growth. And one of the things we discover is: Facts aren't all there is to truth. We may lean on them a little too heavily at times. But this is something we adjust to in our journey in faith. Truth, we learn, is more than just facts.
Rev. John Zingaro is a Presbyterian minister who recently returned to Pittsburgh -- primarily for treatment at Hillman Cancer Center -- after serving churches in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Illinois for 18 years. He lives in Highland Park.