When Virtues Collide

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When Virtues Collide

As Maryland blizzards go, it turned out to be one of the biggest of the decade. I was in Junior High so it was a while before some of you were born. It doesn’t matter. It happened. We got out of school for four days. It was one of those glorious events that seemed so wonderful at the time, but came back to haunt us in June when we had to stay in school longer to make up for the days lost. The hard snow started before dark—fat, thick, heavy flakes that accumulated fast. The fierce wind came in the depths of the night. By dawn we had a foot of snow with drifting at places up to several feet. When my brothers and I woke up and looked out our windows, we weren’t thinking about the school we’d miss. In our minds we were viewing a vast white mother lode of money. By mid-afternoon we knew our back, neck, and arms would be aching from shoveling the stuff, but our pockets would be bulging with cash. We also knew from experience, however, that before we could hit the paying customers, we’d have to dig out the list of senior citizens our mother had written down. Usually there were only three or four houses depending on who was in town. They seldom took much time since they really only wanted a path dug to their mailbox and occasionally to the steps that went down to their cellars. That’s where they kept their stash of preserved food. Many of them could hold up in their houses for weeks without needing anything from the outside. We weren’t allowed to take money from them, but we usually got some great stuff to eat. We also knew they were early risers. We figured we’d have them dug out and on our way to the greenbacks within forty-five minutes. Our first stop was always Mrs. Martin. She’d been a widow ever since I’d known her. She was a waif of a woman, maybe 95 pounds after Thanksgiving dinner and barely five feet of skin over skeleton. On this particular morning, as we approached her front steps, there was something odd about her house that we couldn’t figure out at first. When she answered the door, we thought maybe someone was staying with her because the person who answered seemed twice her size. But the voice that spoke from under the layers of scarf’s and deep within the neck of her coat had the unmistakable rasp of Mrs. Martin. We also knew that the constant shake of her body wasn’t from age, but rather from the cold. Only after she opened the door wide enough to see in her house did we realize why everything seemed so strange as we had stepped up on her porch. Her house was absolutely silent. No radio, no television, no sounds of breakfast cooking, and no background hum of a furnace. It was the dead silence you get when your electricity has been shut off. When we inquired, she simply said that for some reason, the power company had turned off her electricity. The “some reason” turned out to be the confusion and absent-mindedness of an elderly woman. She was so confused on certain days that she might well have put the payment for the electric company in the birdhouse rather than the mailbox. Regardless of the reason, it was obvious that Mrs. Martin was in the process of freezing to death. After a quick huddle, my brother and I decided that he’d start shoveling off the stairs to her porch while I hoofed it home to inform my parents. Dad was sitting at the table eating his breakfast when I told him what was going on with Mrs. Martin. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t weigh the ethics. He didn’t call the pastor to see what he should do next. He barked the orders like a drill sergeant. “Go down to the basement and bring me my wire cutters, and my pliers with the thick insulated handles.” By the time I came up with the tools he had on his coat and boots and we were out the door. He didn’t stop to check on her or to inquire how she found herself in this predicament. He simply went straight to her electric meter, cut the warning tag (the one that promised criminal prosecution by the Electric Company for anyone who dared to trifle with the meter until the electric bill was paid), pulled off the head of the meter, took his insulated pliers and removed the cardboard that had been inserted in the plug, shoved the meter back on, and flipped the main breaker. Her house lit up immediately. Next he went down in her basement and got her furnace going. It took him all of five minutes to do an end run around the electric company. It took him all of five minutes to go against everything he’d taught me about respect for the law and submission to authority. And in that time he taught me a huge lesson about life. He showed me that in life, sometimes virtues collide with each other. He taught me that sometimes you get a grand total of a split second to decide between doing the honorable thing or doing the right thing, between doing what’s good and doing what’s best. Raising kids often puts us in a conflict between justice and mercy, between holding the line or lightening up, between running interference or letting them face the music. My observation is that the parents who know how to choose properly in those situations are the ones who have God’s Word fresh in their mind everyday, and have built up a good set of calluses on their knees. Dad took some grief for thumbing his nose at the system. But Mrs. Martin didn’t freeze to death, and I know one man who’s had to lean on his example many times since.  

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. –James 4:17


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