The Line Dividing Good and Evil

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

About 25 miles from where I live, early one morning about a year ago, as a 43 year old man slept alone in a camper, a group of 6 teenagers entered and killed him. According to the news article, their motive was burglary. They were going after what they thought would be a large amount of marijuana. Today they are all facing murder charges.

The mugshot of one of the teens is etched in my mind, not because he looked like a hardened criminal, but because he looked like a scared kid and clearly had been crying. I can’t help but wonder how many times his parents had pleaded with him, or tried to steer him in the right direction. I don’t know if he had even been in trouble before, or if anyone saw this coming. I don’t know how long ago he took the first step down the path that ended in a jail cell facing life in prison for such a horrible crime. What I know is, there is no undoing the terrible choice he made that night, regardless of how sorry he is or how many tears he sheds. And although his parents may be willing to give their lives for him, they can’t save him now. Because no amount of sorrow or regret can bring back the life of the 43 year old man who died at their hands. When a person makes a habit of bad choices, it’s only a matter of time before their choices are irreversible.

I’ve read Proverbs 1 several times and admittedly, while I believe it, I’ve felt that it wasn’t really something I needed to hear. I can’t imagine right now being convinced to go along with something like this. But the place that this warning describes can be arrived at through a fast, direct path, or a slow, gradual path, with the result being the same.

“My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them.
If they say, “Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for innocent blood, let’s ambush some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; cast lots with us; we will all share the loot” –
my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths;
for their feet rush into evil, they are swift to shed blood.
How useless to spread a net where every bird can see it!
These men lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush only themselves!
Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain;
it takes away the life of those who get it.” – Proverbs 1:10-19

C. S. Lewis wrote, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one-the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…”

I believe what Solzhenitsyn said – the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And if we ignore all the warnings, and feed the thoughts and behaviors that lead to destruction, it will only be a matter of time until we self-destruct.

Absalom! Absalom!

“The LaDues are frantic. It is 10:30 P.M., and their son is never out past nine on a school night. His mother is trying to track him down … They are calling all the people he has most recently texted, trying to find him. Then the police arrive with the news that their son has threatened to kill his family and blow up Waseca High School—and the LaDues are forced to account for a fact entirely outside their imagining. No, his son has never been diagnosed with mental illness or depression, David LaDue, John’s father, tells the police. He isn’t taking any medication. He’s never expressed a desire to hurt anyone…” – from a New Yorker article called “Thresholds of Violence”

Even before our kids are able to speak, as parents we long to understand them, to know what they need so that we can make life better for them. As they grow, we watch them excel and fail, and we feel their joy as well as their pain, and try to help them, direct them, and teach them, always imagining a bright future for them.

I’m not sure what prompted the thought, but not long ago, it occurred to me that as parents, we always have a need to know that our kids are doing ok – to know that although life isn’t perfect, and problem free, they’re dealing with it, finding their way through the tough times, rather than losing hope, and sinking into a sea of despair.
I think some of the saddest words a parent can say is, “If only I had known…”.

And yet so many times it’s a futile plea because of the many cases where parents DO know, and exhaust themselves trying to guide those they love more than life itself away from the path of destruction. Inherent in all of humanity is the love of freedom. But it may be parents who can see most clearly, freedom is a double edged sword. With freedom comes the reality that although we may encourage, threaten, give convincing analogies, and make eloquent speeches, ultimately our kids have freedom – they have the free will to choose their own way – even if it means destruction for themselves and others.

In the movie, “Braveheart”, William Wallace is attacked by a man in armor. He knocks the man off his horse, and pulls his helmet off about to slit his throat when he recognizes the familiar face of Robert the Bruce. This was not a stranger, but rather, it was his trusted friend who had taken up arms against him. As his mind tries to process this horrible truth, the injured Wallace loses his will to fight, and in a dazed state of shock, gazes into the distance in disbelief, trying to grasp the reality of what he just learned. Then he drops his weapon, gasps for air, and falls back to the ground.

People make choices that we can’t comprehend sometimes, and the closer they are to our own heart, the more devastating it is. Self-destruction and betrayal is the toxic combination that leaves so many people isolated, unable to reach the one they love – to make them see the truth, and choose the right path. Maybe the most difficult thing about love, real love, is… it really is unconditional. You can’t make yourself stop caring no matter how much easier it would be…no matter how horrible the crime. And you’re left with a violent, irreconcilable storm of emotion when someone you love more than life embraces something worse than death.

Then staring at the ceiling in silence, you’re unable to escape the three letter word – why?

The article in the New Yorker continues… “David LaDue is desperate to come up with something—anything—to make sense of what he has just been told. “David told me that after his son had stayed with his brother for a couple of months at the beginning of last summer, he had returned proclaiming to be an atheist, stating that he no longer believed in religion,” the police report says.”

There has been a change in our culture in the last few years, an increasing focus on “self” and an exchange has been made. That which is holy has been traded for unconstrained self-gratification. Truth, and justice is now defined on an individual level. No matter how vile, there is no desire of the heart that cannot find validation somewhere. And as our culture starts to reject the idea that there exists a standard higher than ourselves, we are left with only the constraints of the group we choose to embrace.

On a sidewalk outside of a courthouse in Minnesota, a father struggles to cast his son, who the rest of the world sees as a monster, in a good light…the New Yorker article continues, “After the hearing, David LaDue … answered questions. He is shorter and stockier than his son, forceful and direct. He said that in order to meet with John the previous evening—and discuss the plea deal—he had to work two sixteen-hour shifts in succession. He was exhausted. He was there, he said, “because I love him, I can’t let go and walk away and forget about it and put it out of my mind.” He wanted to remind the world that his son was human. “He had love,” LaDue said. “He liked affection like anybody else. I saw the expression on his face when he talked to his sister. I saw things in him that he would, certainly at that time, would have denied.” He talked about how difficult it was for men—and for teen-age boys in particular—to admit to vulnerability. “You know, he graduated at the top from Prairie Lake,” he continued, proudly, referring to the juvenile-detention facility where his son had finished his final year of high school. “He got an A in calculus. We were mailed his diploma. . . . There’s no way I could have done that.”

No matter how strong our belief in God, it is not passed down through the blood line. We are all free to choose our own beliefs, but an inescapable truth is – actions flow from our beliefs. And it’s in the crucible of pain that we realize what we truly believe.

The bible contains no sadder words than those of another father – King David – at the end of a war. His son Absalom had turned against him and brought an army intending to kill him. Even so, before going into battle King David told his men, “…for my sake, be gentle with my son, Absalom.” But against his request, his son was killed by his army, and upon hearing the news, in horrible anguish, David’s words expressed love as only a father can, “Oh Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would to God I had died in your place.”

As a father, I can tell you, I would rather die trying to protect my son than be left alive to bury him. But real life doesn’t usually play out that way, and in the real world, this exchange is only a cry of desperation. In his book, a Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis was agonizing over the death of his wife and said, “And then one babbles—‘If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her.’ But one can’t tell how serious that bid is, for nothing is staked on it. If it suddenly became a real possibility, then, for the first time, we should discover how seriously we had meant it. But is it ever allowed?”

And then from the depths of grief, Lewis saw a Father’s love for what it is, the only hope for a dying world when he concluded, “It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done. [Jesus] replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’”

Cinderella Man

“The struggle that you’re in today is developing the strength that you’ll need for tomorrow.” – Robert Tew

 

A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary about James Braddock, the man whose life inspired the movie “Cinderella Man”.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it.  Braddock was a boxer from New Jersey, who turned pro at 21, and after 3 years, his record was an impressive 42-2-2, with 21 knockouts.  In 1929, he fought for the light heavyweight championship of the world, but tragically lost to Tommy Loughlin, breaking his hand in several places in the process.  Injured and depressed, Braddock’s boxing career suffered, as he won only 11 of his next 33 fights. So with his career failing and his family slipping into poverty with the onset of the Great Depression, he had to quit boxing and work as a longshoreman, doing hard manual labor for $5/day – quite a contrast to the $20,000 per fight he had received at the height of his boxing career.  Because his right hand was injured, the very survival of his family depended upon him learning to use his left hand so he could do all the lifting and manual labor required of a longshoreman. But after a while this grueling labor physically changed him.  His left hand became stronger than his right.

In 1934, Braddock was given an opportunity to fight what was expected to be a one and done deal…a stepping stone for a rising star named John “Corn” Griffin.  But in a huge upset, Braddock knocked Corn Griffin out in the third round. He continued to beat top ranked fighters and was given a fight for the Heavyweight Championship against Max Baer, a formidable opponent who had killed a man in the ring.  But on June 13, 1935, James J. Braddock, the “Bulldog of Bergen”, a 10 – 1 underdog fought 15 rounds at Madison Square Gardens, and delivered one of the most incredible upsets in boxing history.

Before having to put a hold on his boxing career, one of the criticisms was that he “had no left hand”.  It was said that his time as an injured longshoreman was the best thing that could have happened to him as a boxer because it did two things – it gave him a left hand to fight with, and it gave him a reason to fight. Before fighting Max Baer, Braddock said this, “When you’ve been through what I’ve had to face in the last two years, a Max Baer or a Bengal tiger looks like a house pet. He might come at me with a cannon and a blackjack and he would still be a picnic compared to what I’ve had to face.”

None of us want the hard times, the injuries, or the weeks, months or years in the dark valley.  But sometimes those valleys prepare us for what lies ahead. Sometimes, they’re a necessary part of our own Cinderella story.  “…let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” – Galatians 6:9

Bookmarks to my Childhood

We got out of our cars and just like hundreds of times before, saw that old leaning chimney that had been the same way for more than 30 years. As we made our way to the porch, I remembered all the Sundays standing right there in that very spot, Mommaw and Poppaw greeting us when we arrived and telling us goodbye when we left.  Poppaw always wore bib overalls, and long sleeves even in the summer.  He was my grandfather and I loved him, but I remember those kisses goodbye were a little bit painful because he had a tough beard and kissing his cheek was like kissing rough sandpaper. It’s funny remembering the things that went through my mind as a kid.  We walked up on the porch and my cousins and sisters talked a little bit and laughed about some of the things we remembered. I remembered the porch swing which wasn’t there now, and how funny, but kinda scary it was when Daddy would pull the chains of the swing together so it tilted all the way back.  We never flipped completely over, but it sure felt like we would a few times.

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We walked back in the door and as the screen door slammed behind us, it was like we traveled back in time. The house seemed the same. Even the smell was the same, and I remembered the many times through the years I had been there, the week long visits every summer, using a dipper to drink water from the pan just inside the back door before they got indoor plumbing, and all of those Sundays sitting at that table, eating Mommaw’s biscuits, and vegetables from the garden.  One of my favorites was her tomato soup, and I would crumble up those biscuits like only she could make into the soup for a delicious meal.  We talked about all those days on the front porch, with purple thumbs from shelling peas. I guess that’s why they’re called purple hulls.  I remembered the summer nights sleeping with the windows up, and how peaceful and relaxing the rain on their tin roof sounded.  I remembered all the winter days of quail hunting with my dad, and uncle and cousin and how incredible the warmth of the heat from the wood burning heater felt on my feet once I pulled them out of my frozen rubber boots.

Twenty-nine years ago, on a plot of land down a country road that seemed to lead to nowhere, we said a sad goodbye to Poppaw.  Today, Mommaw joined him, and to me, even at 50 years old, it seemed like it was more than a goodbye to her, it was also goodbye to my childhood.

We hung around a while, and I wasn’t expecting it when Daddy told us to look around and see if there was anything we wanted as a keepsake.  I couldn’t think of anything, because the keepsakes were all in my head.  Still, I half-heartedly walked around looking through the house, and it wasn’t until I got to the back corner room that I found the answer.  There was an old brace and bit, and a relic from my childhood more than 40 years ago – a tack hammer that had been the perfect size for me when my world consisted of warm summer days playing in Poppaw’s back yard.  The two things I remember loving as a kid was exploring new places, and building things.  Poppaw had two wooden sawhorses in the back yard and he always kept old lumber, nails, and when I was too small to use a regular sized hammer, he had that tack hammer for me to drive nails into boards “building” all sorts of things in my mind.

I remember Poppaw always saying that he could never complain about not having much because with that house and property he had more than he’d ever had in his life. Mommaw lost both parents before she was 12 years old, and as a 6th grader, Poppaw lost his Dad and had to quit school.  So, before he was even a teenager, he had to step into the shoes of a man and help make a living because that was the only way his family would survive. They grew up during the Great Depression, and I think living through that gave them a unique appreciation for what they had.  Both of their childhoods ended very young, and maybe that’s part of the reason they helped make all of us grandkids get so much joy out of ours.

I wish my mind was sharper and I could remember more of the adventures we had as children.  But even without all the details, that tack hammer and brace and bit are symbols that make my heart remember even when my mind can’t.  It’s funny how it works that way.  It’s like an illustration in a book that I’m living, from a chapter that was finished a long time ago.

Saying goodbye to those you love is always tough, but we know that we only see part of reality from our perspective today.  In his book, “The Last Battle”, C. S. Lewis described the ending of the adventures in a fictional land called “Narnia” which I believe also describes what happens when we say goodbye to our loved ones in real life.

“And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures … had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

How awesome to think there are better chapters than the ones we shared together. Until then, we’ll miss Mommaw and Poppaw, but these simple tools, like bookmarks for some of the favorite chapters of my past will always remind me to be thankful for the awesome childhood I had and how deep the roots of family run.
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