Vox Ecclesia

When we hear the expression, “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” we naturally conceive three separate categories. Good things happen in life. Bad things happen in life. And while the bad and the ugly categories may bleed together at times, ugly things—uniquely bad, life-altering things—unfortunately occur with sufficient frequency as to require a distinct category.

But can the categories ever merge? More pointedly: Can the bad and the ugly become the soil from which good sprouts? When we suffer life-altering ugliness, our souls naturally scream: “Never!” Nothing good can ever come of this!” The mere suggestion causes us to recoil. But I’d like to suggest that this natural response is more a matter of choice than necessity. Choosing to seek the good that may spring from the soil of ugly life experiences is an invaluable life-skill and the source of remarkable joys.

Make no mistake, ugly happens and ugly is ugly, not good. On January 25, 1972, I was a 9-year-old Philadelphia kid in love with basketball. A schoolmate approached me with a somber face. He was a thoughtful friend who knew I had roots in Minnesota and he broke the news to me with all the bearing of one reporting the death of a mutual friend.

The Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team had instigated an on-court brawl at the end of their game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. OSU center, Luke Witte, had been beaten to the ground and his head kicked and stomped on as he lay helpless on the hardwood. With blood streaking a face that would require 29 stitches, a semi-conscious, concussed Witte was hauled off the floor in a stretcher as Minnesota fans booed and threw objects at him.

This event, which Sports Illustrated covered under the title “An Ugly Affair in Minneapolis,” proved ugly in a life-altering way. Three OSU players were hospitalized. Witte spent the first 24 hours of his stay in ICU. The effects of his injuries were life-long and arguably career-shortening. To this day, his vicious beating identifies him wherever he goes.

It also marked Marvin “Corky” Taylor wherever he went. Taylor was the Gophers’ player who delivered the initial blows that sent Witte to the floor and ignited the infamous brawl. Until the day of his death in 2012, Taylor could never escape the linkage of his reputation with that vicious assault.

But out of that ugly soil, both Witte and Taylor made the choice to seek good. Following a brief NBA career, Witte became a Christian pastor and chaplain who determined neither to dismiss, nor to be embittered by, what he had suffered that inhospitable night in 1972. At some point, Witte and Taylor began to exchange letters and emails. Then, in their early 50’s, Taylor invited Witte to fly to the Twin Cities and spend a couple of days together at Taylor’s Plymouth home.

Let that sink in. The victim became a guest in the home of the perpetrator. The man who once harmed, now extended a hand of welcome hospitality. The man once harmed, chose to graciously grasp that hand.

Joined by Clyde Turner, a teammate of Taylor’s who participated in the 1972 debacle, the three men viewed the troubling videos of the incident in Taylor’s basement. That is to say, they chose to face the ugliness head on. Ugly was ugly and no one pretended otherwise.

They then discussed their differing views of that game and the brawl. They bemoaned the bitterness that had consumed others. Most importantly, they chose to forgive and reconcile. As Witte’s visit drew to a close, he hugged Taylor and Turner. On the occasion of Taylor’s death in 2012, Luke Witte expressed his deep sorrow and the privilege that was his, as he put it, “to call Clyde and Corky my friend.”

The reconciliation process was not easy, nor was it quickly accomplished. But Witte’s response to Taylor’s death proved that remarkable beauty had emerged from the ugliness. Witte made a choice concerning how he would respond to the wrong he suffered. And to this day he rejoices to discuss his ordeal when asked about it. On such occasions he does not spew bitterness but speaks of the wonder of forgiveness. Citing Genesis 50:20, he rejoices that God took an incident intended for evil and turned it into good. Out of very ugly soil came forgiveness, reconciliation, friendship, and peace.

Seeking the good in the ugly is not a natural skill. Nor is it ever an evasion of the realities of one’s suffering. It is, however, a choice that can ultimately be made as one stands on the foundation of a sovereign God big enough to marshal evil, and so magnificently good as to infuse beauty into everything he touches (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28-29). It is a choice that mirrors God’s own reconciling work as he extends an inviting hand to lawbreakers and offers them forgiveness and friendship (Romans 6:23).