Monday, June 20, 2011

An Inconvenient Honesty

I love the new scanning guns at my local supermarket.  I tap my club card number onto the screen, wait for the flashing beep, and pull the gun from its hard plastic holster.  From there, I can shop and scan my all my items, my tomatoes and Cheetos and scrapple, etc.   And when I’m ready to check out, I aim the gun, press the trigger, scan a barcode, and all my groceries are listed on the screen before me.  All I have to do is swipe my debit card, and then I’m out the door.  Convenience!

However, from time to time I am inconvenienced by my bad aim.  Unwittingly, I miss the barcode on an item and walk out of the store without paying for it.  But that’s not the inconvenient part.   What’s inconvenient is when I realize my mistake and I have to drive back to the store, with kids in tow.  Now I know there are those few people out there who, when looking at their receipts and realizing that their juice pouches had been missed, would be tempted to say, “You know what, they won’t miss that $1.95.  As a matter of fact, with all the money I pour into that place, they owe me $1.95!”  This would justify just enough to forget the whole thing.  That’s exactly what I think every time—at first. 

But then a memory springs into my head, as though I had just stepped on the upended head of a rake.

A twelve year old, I walk into the kitchen one evening to find my dad sitting at the end of the table, hunched over and writing.   He is diligently filling in graphed compartments of a ledger splayed before him.  And beyond that are small stacks of checks and twenties and tens and fives and one dollar bills.   At the time, my father was a music teacher, teaching guitar and piano in people’s homes.  He was usually paid in cash for each lesson.   And when I ask him what he is doing, he tells me that he is recording his business transactions of the day.
“Why?” I pursue. 
“So I can keep track of how much I make so I know how much taxes I owe,” he
answered, still recording numbers.
“Do you put every dollar in there?”
“Of course.”
“But if you didn’t,” I reasoned, “no one would know.”

My dad laid his pen on the table and finally looked up at me.  “I’ll know,” he said, and then he picked his pen up and continued to log his data.

I’ll know.  It took a bit for the meaning of those words to register.   What I did know was that they meant being truthful because, by definition, every word out of his mouth was the truth.  But what he was trying to get me to see in those two words was that it was not about what others may think; it was about he would think of himself.  It was about living with his own conscience, which was forged from a moral code, set for him by his own mother, and rooted in his deep, unwavering faith in God.      

In Luke Jesus says, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” 
After my father passed, the one most common comment made about him from family, friends, and even some strangers was that Dad was “honest.”   

But his honesty wasn’t something he exhibited exclusively for the world, which maybe when it is the easiest to do so; it was when he was sitting there alone at the kitchen table with no one around to examine him where is honesty was tested most, where all of our honesty is tested most, over something “very little,” as Jesus describes, like not registering a dollar or two here or there.  My father could be trusted with “very little,” and, therefore, could be trusted with “much.”

As the years pass, my older sister enjoys recounting the story, with more and more affection, about her “senior hook day,” a day just before graduation when high school seniors take it upon themselves to all take the same day off.  During which, they meet at friends’ houses and barbecue and lounge by pools and revel in how they, at least for one day, stick it to “the man,” skipping school while teachers have to open their classrooms and sit there all day before empty desks.

However, my sister tells how all those desks were not empty. 

In my sister’s graduating class, there were 500 seniors.  On senior hook day, 497 seniors were absent.  Pulling off such a coordinated effort required a great deal of parental cooperation.  Notes must be written explaining the sudden rash of stomach aches and fevers and near deaths in the families.  In plain language, parents had to lie for their kids so they could enjoy senior hook day with the rest and not suffer the consequences.

For my sister, it is in this need for parental prevarication that lay the rub.  There was absolutely no way that my father would write a letter to the school, asking the administration to excuse his daughter because of some made-up malady. 

My sister fumed, “You mean you can’t write one note so I’m not the only person sitting there all day alone?”
“That’s right,” my fathered answered.
“All the other parents are.”
“Then aren’t you lucky to have me as a dad, because I’m not.  One day, I hope you’ll see why.”

In Corinthians, Paul explains that “we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.”

In raising my sister and me, my father, like all parents, made a commitment to take the pains to try to do what is right at all times in order for us to learn what is right, not just sometimes, or when it is convenient, but all times, and not just, for God to see, but, as Paul explains, for all to see.  And that meant the school administration, and that especially meant my sister, who at the time was mortified to be excluded on such a technicality.  

Yet, on her senior hook day in 1982, my sister and two other seniors, whose parents were as honest as my dad, sat alone in class on one of the longest days of her high school career.

As my father hoped, it is a moment like this that is what my sister loves most about him, because it is his honesty, his truth that my sister and I reflect on with a sense of gratitude to have even been able to witness and always rely upon, not just as examples to follow, but more.  I am building a family on that bedrock of honesty.  When my daughter and son pile back in the car with me to head back to the supermarket to pay for pilfered juice pouches, yes, they can see that I think it’s a pain; but, hopefully, they’ll see that it’s the right thing to do.  And in 11 years when my daughter wants me to write her a note to school so she can skip for senior hook day, I hope I’ll have the fortitude to not write it, and I hope one day she’ll understand why.

In May of 1986, most of my fellow classmates enjoyed a beautiful Spring “senior hook day.”  I endured a long day at school, enjoying some one-on-one time with my disgruntled teachers.  The night before, when all my friends were sweet-talking their parents into writing excuses for them, I didn’t waste my breath.   

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