Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fire or Water

Student assembly address:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as many of you know, died recently due to a heroin addiction. Hoffman played leading roles in a host of movies ranging from Scent of a Woman, to Almost Famous, to Doubt, to Capote (for which he won an Oscar) to most recently, the Hunger Games.  Just 46 years old, he was widely regarded as among Hollywood's most talented actors, and would almost certainly have gone on making movies for the next twenty years or so had he been able to defeat what (literally) became his fatal flaw. 

That news reminded me of four brothers and sisters who had attended my school a generation before I became principal. I got to know them because all four put their kids in our school--- we had about ten cousins in our school roughly at the same time.  Nine of those kids were ideal students—B’s and A’s, cheerleaders, ball players, student government leaders, the heart and soul of the student body. But one--let's call him Jim-- was an absolute hellion. 

The difference between Jim and his cousins was so striking it begged the question: how did that happen? Were not all the cousins from the same family? Did they not have the same grandparents? Weren’t their parents brothers and sisters?

You can probably guess the reason. It turns out that of the original four parents, three were pretty good students,  stayed out of trouble, did well in college, got decent jobs, married well, and were now good moms and dads.  But the fourth parent had started drinking when he was a freshman,  then became dependent on alcohol, developed a cocaine addiction by the age at nineteen, got arrested and did some jail time, and thereafter went through a twenty year cycle of sobriety and relapse, sobriety and relapse. Somewhere in that cycle he got married, fathered Jim, divorced, and now his son Jim was a freshman at our school.

I got to know Jim pretty well for all the wrong reasons. Early on he did a lot of stupid things—most of which were not malicious. But he, too, developed a drinking problem and as his drinking problem worsened, he hardened, and he started doing a lot of bad things, both at school and away from it. I can’t remember the exact thing he did in his senior year that was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” but I do remember having a meeting with his parents on a Saturday morning for the purpose of expelling Jim. I’ll never forget that meeting. The father broke down in my office in tears. “I’ve been a screw-up all my life. I’ve never kept a job for any length of time, I’ve been a lousy husband, and a bad father.  The worst part is what I’ve done to my son. I look at Jim now at 17 and say, He is who I was at that age, and he is who he is because of me. “

I doubt that when this man started drinking at the age of 15, he ever thought he’d be sitting in his future son’s principal’s office, sobbing with guilt about the man he’d become and the father that he wasn’t as a result. But if you look at his life, that was the decision that led to his life's unraveling. He’d grown up in the same family as his brothers and sisters, with all the same advantages. But his choices shaped him, and the more patterned his choices, the harder it was for him to break away from the person he was becoming.

This Sunday’s Old Testament readings were from Sirach. There’s a very telling verse:

Set before you are fire and water; to whatever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before you are life and death, whichever you choose will be given you. (Sirach 15:16-17)

God did a pretty amazing thing when he created the world (If I were God, knowing all the bone-headed, stupid and even evil things that we humans would do to each other, I might have been tempted to do something different): he gave us free will, the choice to do either good or bad things, to become good or bad people.  Those choices, it turns out, don’t just affect us—they affect everyone around us, but also people we haven’t even met yet, our future spouse, our future children. 

I told you a couple of weeks ago that my daughter was getting married. That happened on February 8. It was a glorious wedding—everything went well.  (My daughter did something kind of special--I asked my daughter if I could share this with you, and she said OK.) On Saturday morning, hours before the wedding, I saw my son in law Grant at the hotel, nearly in tears.  He had just read a journal that my daughter had been keeping for ten years, ever since she was 15. It was a journal of letters to her future husband, with about 50 entries, in which she told him things that were deeply personal: what kind of person she wanted to become, what kind of wife and mother she wanted to be, her struggles in high school, what she hoped for in a husband, her dreams for her future children and how she wanted to raise them. Of course, she had no idea who her husband would be when she began writing in that journal, but that didn’t matter—she knew who she wanted to be for him.  

The choice between "fire and water, life or death" that Scripture speaks about comes down to this: Do we live for ourselves, or do we live for others?   However we answer that question, our choice will shape us and will impact people we haven't even met yet. May we choose now to become good future fathers and mothers, future wives and husbands, future friends and co-workers. 

P.S.  A good news ending: I didn’t expel Jim. I made him do a whole series of punishments instead, including, as I recall, waxing the school bus on Saturday morning in front of my house so I could spend time with my young children. He ended up graduating, then going into the military, and it seems like the military made a real difference in his life. I looked him up, and he's married with one child. It's hard to break away from the way we've been parented, but even if we are raised in difficult circumstances, God still gives us the free will to choose the kind of person we want to become. I am sure Jim still fights his demons, but I am filled with hope for his future. 

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