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Character Matters

August 10th, 2007

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely,
but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.
Whoever winks maliciously causes grief,
and a chattering fool comes to ruin. (Proverbs 10:9-10)

The answer is just over 51 1/2 miles. See if you can figure out the question.
This past Tuesday, sometime around 10:30 p.m. central time, San Francisco Giants’ outfielder Barry Bonds hit a 3-2 pitch from the Washington Nationals’ Mike Bacsik over the right-centerfield wall at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Most nights, it would have been just another home run -- something that Bonds has hit literally hundreds of times. But that’s exactly why, on Tuesday night, it wasn’t just another home run. It marked the 756th time that Bonds has hit a little white leather ball into the seats at a Major League ballpark -- the magic number that means Bonds has hit more home runs than any player in baseball history.

Realize that the previous record holder, Hank Aaron, held it for 33 years, and that HIS predecessor, Babe Ruth, held the record for 39 years, and you see that this is a big one. On Tuesday Bonds broke, arguably, the best-known record in professional sports. The active players closest to Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey, Jr., are better than 150 homers behind Bonds -- and they’re 38 and 37. (That’s old for baseball players. It’s young for preachers...) Alex Rodriguez, at 31 the active player with the best chance to reach Bonds’ record, has 500.

But that’s not the only reason people are talking about Bonds’ record, is it? Even if you don’t follow baseball that closely, you’ve probably heard some of the controversy, right? Whispers, and more than whispers, that Bonds has used “performance-enhancing substances” -- steroids. In a federal probe of steroid use in baseball triggered by the indictment of Bonds’ trainer, Bonds’ name has come up as user. Some say Bonds’ total should have an asterisk after it; some even suggest that if steroid use is confirmed he should be stripped of the home run record. It doesn’t help that Bonds can be irritable and difficult with the media and comes across to many fans, as, well, a jerk. Aaron played the game right and was charming and eloquent. Bonds does not fare well in comparison.

I’m not sure how to feel, to tell you the truth. I flipped on the game the other night, just in case. I was watching when Bonds hit one high and deep and stood at the plate for a minute, fists raised, admiring it as it came down in the seats and touched off a celebration. I admit, as a sports fan I was excited. Even though I’m a Braves fan and a Hank Aaron fan, it was cool to see such a hallowed record broken. Even though I’m not a Bonds fan, I had to appreciate the enormity of what he’s achieved.


But Bonds’ character does color the debate, doesn’t it? You can’t say his integrity doesn’t matter, because of course it does. It matters because, however good a player he is, however significant the record, its mention will almost always be accompanied by a “Yeah, but....” There may not actually be an asterisk beside his name, but there will always be one in all the ways that really matter. "This record is not tainted at all. At all. Period," Bonds said in the press conference that followed the game. I wish I could agree, but I can’t. It is tainted, tinged with shadows. The voices of those cheering him can’t drown out the whispers about how he got there.

Character matters. We can say it doesn’t, and do sometimes, but the fact is that it matters. It was a presidential scandal in the news a few years ago, and some of the President’s defenders said that his private life was irrelevant to his ability to do the job entrusted to him. But of course it wasn’t, for the same reasons that Bonds’ character matters in the home run chase. We can’t separate the things we do from the way we do them, can we?

That’s good to remember, I think, even for those of us who will never hit a baseball out of a stadium full of people.

We’re judged by results, most of us. Accomplishing goals, getting things done, meeting quotas, checking off to-do lists, completing projects. Sometimes, when all the emphasis is on what we get done, how we do it can get lost. We start to think all that matter are the results. That’s a dangerous place to be, because in that frame of mind it’s easy to take shortcuts, enhance our performance in whatever ways are available – even if they’re questionable. Students cheat. Business people cut ethical corners. We take credit for a co-worker’s idea. We tell a client what we think she wants to hear. We only tell the most convenient truths and leave out the inconvenient ones. As long as no one knows, we reason, what does it really matter? The people whose opinions of us matter the most see that we’ve accomplished what we’re supposed to accomplish. If they don’t ask how, why should anyone else care?

The writer of the Proverb reminds us of why it matters, and why we should care. “Ruin,” he says. “Grief.” A lack of integrity and poor character brings about painful consequences, both for ourselves and for those we take in by our duplicity. Even if they never find out, damage is done when we compromise our integrity.

And the writer of the Proverb reminds us that deficiencies of character will usually be found out. You can’t hide it forever; someone will find out about the liberties you’re taking. And then everything you’ve accomplished can be tainted, and often in the eyes of those who love you most.

Character matters. How’s yours? If you’ve “artificially enhanced” your performance – at work, at school, at church, or wherever – let today be the day you make it right. Let today be the day you recover your character. If you’ve taken what you shouldn’t have, make restitution. If you’ve cheated, own up to it. If you’ve lied, tell the truth. Your Lord will forgive you, and often the people you’ve hurt will surprise you with mercy, too. Regardless, you will have come back to the way of those who sleep peacefully, live knowing they have nothing to hide, and look at themselves in the mirror without shame.

Oh, and 51½ miles is the distance Barry Bonds has trotted around basepaths after home runs.

If only the path had been a little less crooked.


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