It started off like a typical pastor’s day – meetings, study and evening choir practice. Typical that is, until Stuart, a high school junior and choir regular, showed up late for practice.
He’d had some trouble at home that night and he pulled me aside to tell me about it. It seems that his parents had accused him of stealing five dollars and they had locked him out of the house. They were refusing to take him back until he admitted his guilt and apologized for his swearing.
Recently trained in conflict resolution, I persuaded Stuart to go with me while I talked to his parents. Stuart made it clear that he had no apologetic intent. “I’m not apologizing for something I didn’t do!”
Ten years of pastoring taught me things were never one-sided, and I was determined to hear the parents’ side. How could this thing possibly be about five dollars? I wondered.
“Stuart,” his stepmother said as she welcomed us into their home, “we’ve been worried sick. Your dad is out searching for you now.”
“Jenny,” I began softly, “tell me what’s going on.”
“I’m so embarrassed,” she fretted. “We’ll never be able to go back to church. Stuart’s probably told you hideous things!”
“Well, no, not really. He?”
She interrupted with a litany of complaints. “Stuart doesn’t come home on time. He won’t live by house rules. He’s disrespectful. He eats too much. He lies and he mistreats his brother.”
It was all typical teenage stuff – nothing serious here – no trouble with school, police, drugs, alcohol, or girls. I’m telling myself, “Just listen, reflect, lay out the options, pray and Amen. Group hug and I’ll be home for Leno.”
Then, returning from his search, Dad came through the door. Retired military, Dad stood over the room as if he expected the furniture to come to attention. I obliged and offered a handshake, but he had already locked his gaze on Stuart.
“Have you come to apologize?” Stuart mumbled his denial and Dad quietly stated his terms. “Apologize or find another place to live.” Hoping this might be only his initial offer I let him talk, but over the next few hours he kept echoing his wife’s complaints and restating the same terms.
Frustrated with no movement in the discussion, Stuart finally volunteered to go live with his mother 500 miles away. Not exactly the win-win for which I was hoping, but arrangements were made for an early morning pick-up.
Unable to negotiate one last night in his bed, Stuart was forced to make sleeping arrangements in the home of a friend. But it wasn’t until Stuart started to pack his belongings that I realized the extent of the carnage.
“He’s not taking any clothes,” Dad said.
“But he has to have clothes,” I protested, “my impartiality having just left the room and slammed the door.”
“We own everything in his room. He’s not taking anything from that room that we’ve bought. I’d sooner see his clothes sold at a garage sale before I’d see them on his back.”
I just felt the sharp spear of reality go through my naive little heart. No way would a dad say what I just heard.
“Sir, this is wrong!” I said, daring to outrank him. “Clothing is a basic human need!” Back and forth we battled, until his stepmother presented Stuart with a garbage bag of full of ill fitting castoffs — more fit for burning than a garage sale.
Stuart and I departed in silence, but his tears were deafening. I dropped him at his friend’s home where his mother would pick him up early the next morning.
I returned to my home where I collapsed into the arms of my wife. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I remembered that Jesus told his disciples that all they need do is “ask and it will be given… For what father among you, when his son asks for bread, would give him a stone?”
My sobs grew louder – gulping air between sobs – as I tried to comprehend how hard this dad’s hard heart would have to be to give his son a bag full of stones. Eventually, my wife dried my tears and we went to sleep – and in much the same way, wiped the tears again this evening, after I wrote this column.