I select the orange box with the familiar logo of the muscular forearm and strong hand gripping a hammer, taking it down from the shelf. A teaspoon of the contents from the box is all it takes. I mix it with three or four ounces of water, and a few swallows later my stomach feels relief from the discomfort of indigestion. Recently, while working on the old blue pickup truck (you remember…my “pig in a poke”), I discover the need to clean up some battery cables which are corroded with the acid which is contained in the battery itself. The corrosion makes it so the electric current necessary to turn over the engine can’t reach the powerful starter. If there’s no current, the motor won’t turn and fire. Into the kitchen I go, reaching for the same familiar orange box. No, the problem hasn’t caused me to have an upset stomach. I have another use in mind for the magic powder. Contents mixed with water again, I carry the concoction out to the blue bomb and pour it over the terminals, plying an old toothbrush to remove the offending acid as the mixture does its work. A few second’s labor, a couple of bolts tightened, and voila! The motor is purring as well as any vehicle with almost three hundred thousand miles on it ever has.
The scene moves to a different kitchen in our little town. The man reaching for the orange box is sick and in pain, just as he has been for more than two years now. The cure for his illness isn’t in the box, but he believes that it is. Taking down the box, he measures out a small amount of the powder, not into water, but into a plain white envelope with an address on the front. Again and again, he measures out the powder, reputed for its curative and beneficial qualities. Envelope after envelope receives its portion, until the job is completed. He knows he will feel better when the task is completed. He won’t.
The envelopes are mailed to their addressees, along with notes which are calculated to cause feelings of fear. However, as the envelopes are delivered, it’s not the notes which cause the most trouble, but that little bit of white powder contained in the same paper pouch. As the letters are opened, the recipients react first with disbelief, then with terror. “What is this powder? Is it poison? Will it make me sick? Am I going to die?” Emergency procedures are followed, the hazardous materials teams swing into action, and offices, or banks, or schools are evacuated. Family members are terrified and work is at a standstill, all because of that white powder. The very same powder I use for an upset stomach. The same powder used to remove the corrosive battery acid and its damaging effects.
“Lunatic!” I said the word myself upon reading the news of the repeated missives sent to individuals. “Creep!” I read that description from a disgusted contributor to an online news source. “Idiot!” The epithet came up in conversations about the situation at my music store. The nameless, faceless criminal who was perpetrating this atrocious act was all of those and more. We waited for the local police and the county sheriff, along with the FBI, to nail the horrible man, sending him to prison for a very, very long time.
They arrested him yesterday. The individual they have accused of the crimes is a man I’ve known for thirty years, who is married to one of the Lovely Lady’s childhood friends. He is a neighbor to my mother-in-law. He’s a real person. I went to church with him, discussed God and our responses to His grace with him, sang in a mixed ensemble with him. As my initial shock fades away, my mind searches for an explanation. I understand the facts…he worked for the same company for twenty-eight years; was laid off two years ago; is bitter because some who kept their jobs had less seniority and may not even have been citizens of the United States. The facts don’t explain the actions, if indeed he is responsible for them.
If you’ll pardon a little rehashing of my last post, I’m pretty sure this man fits into the “broken” category. Whether he is guilty of the crimes or not, his emotional turmoil of the last couple of years has left him a shadow of the person he once was. I remember him as an outgoing, engaged person who held his own in any discussion, a man who was involved in his church and who led his household with vigor and energy. The photo released by the authorities upon his arrest tells a different story, as do other folks who have tried to engage him over the last year or so. The eyes are empty, the once clean shaven and well-groomed visage is covered by a bushy, unkempt beard and mustache. I actually didn’t recognize the man in the photo until reading the accompanying news story.
Does my exhortation for us to care for broken people extend to this “lunatic”, this “creep”? My perspective has been shaken by the news, but my heart tells me that he needs friends even more in this extreme ordeal than ever before. Another friend reminded me this evening that the old Native American saying might apply here. “Don’t judge any man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” It would seem that we are in control of much less than we sometimes believe to be the case, and for us to condemn individuals who have broken under circumstances we have never endured is hypocritical. I’m not sure that I would have made it two months in my friend’s shoes. I really don’t want to find out, either.
I hope we don’t miss the lesson of the baking soda, either. The powder which soothes and repairs also destroys and terrorizes. Even the brand name embodies an image which is both helpful and destructive. The hammer, wielded by a skilled workman, yields amazing structures…structures which a destructive person can decimate in moments with the same hammer. In a person with pure motives, a steadfast focus on the success of a project is admirable. When that single-minded focus is the attribute of a man bent on vengeance, it is lunacy. When we work to right wrongs in a constructive way, we’re acclaimed as visionaries. When tools which have potential for beneficial uses are turned into weapons of fear and stealth to show someone the error of their ways, a formerly law-abiding man becomes a despised criminal. Good things can be used in horrible ways. What once was respectable and upright becomes despicable and evil.
“There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” The words, uttered by the sixteenth century reformer and martyr, remind us still today that our lives are not guided, nor controlled by we ourselves. We stand upright, not because of our achievements, but because of One who sustains and upholds us.
Grace compels grace in its beneficiaries. “As you have received, freely give.”
“It is of the mercies of God that we are not consumed, because His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness!”
(Lamentations 3: 22,23)
“Grace isn’t a little prayer you chant before receiving a meal. It’s a way to live.”
(Jacqueline Winspear~British/American novelist)