When I was a kid I was a glib liar. I wouldn’t lie to get other people in trouble; but I’d lie to get myself out of trouble. A typical example: it’s winter and I’m not supposed to play in the creek. So after school my friends and I ride bikes out into the woods. We roll up our sleeves and pants, take shoes off, and make a dam in the creek. I come home a bit wet. “Don’t you sneak past me! Are you wet? I don’t know…maybe a little. Didn’t I tell you to stay out of the creek? Yes’m. Well? But we were just by the creek- throwing rocks. Uh-huh…well, you better stay out of the creek and if you can’t stay dry you better not be by the creek either. Yes’m [scoot].” See, nobody’s hurt by that. Just a little victimless lie to smooth out my life. Of course sometimes I’d get caught, and endure some punishment; but it was all kind of pro-forma to me.
So one day in early Spring I take off after school to go play basketball at Paul Grant’s house. Momma knows I hate wearing shoes if it’s not freezing cold. “Don’t you leave this house without putting your tennis shoes on! Yes’m. And you better not take ’em off once you get out of sight. Yes’m [scoot].”
I bike over to Paul’s. “Hey let’s go play at EHS (Episcopal High School, about a mile away). OK!” Once there, it’s not, you know, freezing. I take my tennies off and tie them to my bike’s handlebars. We head over to the courts and play until it’s time to go home.
I bike home. I walk in, Momma gives me the Death Stare. Uh-oh. “Your daddy wants to talk to you when he gets home. Uh…ok.” Daddy gets home. “I understand your momma told you straight to your face today not to take your shoes off because it’s so cold. Uh…yessir. Did you take your shoes off anyway? Uh…no! So you kept your shoes on? Yes! (What am I supposed to say? All I can do is bull through at this point.) OK- I’m gonna ask you One Last Time: did you disobey your momma and take your shoes off today? No! Well, whose tennis shoes did Mrs. Grant see hanging on your bike over at EHS this afternoon? [What? What!?] Uhhh…mine. Now this is when I get my punishment. It’ll be way big, but life as we know it will continue. But Daddy didn’t say a thing; he just looked at me with the saddest, most pained expression I’d ever seen on an adult’s face. And at that instant I understood that I had hurt, badly hurt my parents by disobeying and lying. It had never occurred to me that hurting parents was even possible; and that it was possible because they loved me, but I wasn’t sure why that was so.
It turned out that Momma had called Mrs. Grant earlier to have her send me home. Knowing we had gone to EHS, she drove over, but didn’t see us in the back playing ball. Returning home, she called my mom: “I went over to EHS but couldn’t find the boys. But Christian was there, I saw his bike and his tennis shoes tied to the handlebars.” Can you believe it!?
Oh, my punishment: there wasn’t one. My father just got up off the sofa and went to hang out in the kitchen with my momma. They were cool to me for a long time. I never did say I was sorry, although for the first time, I was. I was so undone to realize how hurtful it was to lie that I was terrified of bringing it up. I was afraid they wouldn’t believe I was sorry (having cried wolf so often), and wouldn’t forgive me. But I learned a lifetime’s lesson about lying and love that afternoon.
I was lucky to commit a Big-Enough Sin when I was kid instead of waiting ’til I was 20. Or 50. Or never. It would seem odd to recall so old a sin, but I’ve thanked God for the Tennis Shoe Lie almost every week for more than 40 years. On the other hand, my parents have forgotten about it; but that would be in the nature of forgiveness.
We cover the Prodigal Son every year in Catechism class. I like to pay special attention to the older son: he is jealous of the newfound love between his forgiving father and his repentant younger brother. He could have it as well; but unlike his brother, he hasn’t committed a Big-Enough Sin to shock him into realizing he too should seek forgiveness. He figures he has nothing to repent for, and doesn’t. And misses out on the deeper love that springs from repenting and forgiving.
Time permitting, I introduce the Prodigal Son parable with the story of the Tennis Shoe Lie. It pumps some personal and contemporary meaning into an evergreen tale the kids have already heard a thousand times.
*Converse All-Stars by Wahyu Affandi