For two days, the five dollar bill set on the corner of the dining table.
But then, it was never really about the money.
Is it ever?
Once, it had been the coveted bill, lifted by a hand motivated by temptation, hidden by guilt and betrayed by lies. Now it lay nondescript, like a receipt or a torn envelope, but for a moment that bill was a siren song, a secret, a tether.
The truth about it had contorted the beautiful face into ugly shame. Palms clasped, hiding the eyes that both see and reveal. Tears washed away the lies and hands swiped them away. Grace straightened the spine. That weight of guiltiness, of being caught both in the act and in a weaving cover-up, lifted from her small frame.
I picked up the bill and held it to my nose. It smelled clean, the scent of the lavender fabric softener was all the proof I needed. I recalled our conversation after dinner….
“Where’s that five dollar bill I found in the wash the other day?” I asked. “It’s not where I left it.”
Three pair of brown eyes looked at me wide with innocence. One pair of eyes was deftly holding panic at bay while the mind worked in furious movements like a wound clock, laying a plan for deception.
It wasn’t supposed to work out this way, thought the transgressor, it was supposed to lay, unnoticed in my piggy bank until I had a chance to spend it.
I rephrased my inquiry, “Do any of you have a five dollar bill? Has anyone found a five dollar bill?
“I did, in the street,” came a reply. Too quickly.
“In the street?”
“Go get it.”
Normally five dollar bills get little notice around here. They come and go like flies. But this one I knew well. I had pulled it from the laundry and uncreased it to find its denomination. It was damp and the detail rubbed thin on the right hand side of Abe’s honest face. And it smelled as fresh as our laundered towels.
If her cash smelled of springtime rain and lavender fields, it would be her undoing.
She shook her big, pink pig until the bill she found “in the street” poked its corner out of the round hole.
She handed it to me and I knew.
I looked at my husband and gave an imperceptible nod.
Now we had to switch gears.
Getting her to produce the stolen goods was easy. Leading her to a place of confession and contrition was quite another.
And we knew, my husband and I, that the confession of guilt alone was not the end goal here. We’ve been down this road before with her two siblings before her. We noticed the signs of shame in her body, the gathering of blood in the tiny vessels on the bridge of her nose, the insistence of innocence from a body pulsing with guilt.
The question here was not the stealing or the lying. The question here was not even getting to the truth. The question is was, and always is, how can we restore her?
Restoration is our ultimate goal. As parents we have the power to grind in shame until it stains and stings like road rash. We can say too much or too little. We can be too busy, too distracted, too annoyed, too concerned with what others might think, too flippant, too guilty ourselves. We can be too lenient, too indulgent, too afraid.
We can be too little like Christ and crack too deep a fissure into the forming spirit of our children.
But can we ever be too restorative? Can we ever apply the cleansing of Christ too liberally? Can we ever overdo grace?
Jesus made this look easy. He’d heal a leper or forgive a fallen women and say, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace. Show yourself to the priests. Go live a free, forgiven, wonderful life.”
But did they?
How did the culprits in the stories engage life after the divine appointment with Jesus along a roadside or in a town on the edge of condemnation gave them freedom? He loosed the chains of shame, he offered them full absolution, but did they walk shoulders back, head high into this new existence with confidence that the forgiveness was permanent? Did they wonder the next time they flubbed or stumbled or lied if the well of forgiveness had been sucked dry?
Who welcomed back the adulterous woman after no man could cross the line Jesus had drawn in the sand? When the rocks fell with dull thuds on the desert floor and she stood to look into the eyes of her protector, was she free of all sin, all whispers, all inferences of guilt or hard stares of judgement?
I don’t think so.
But her story rooted deep in the grace of that moment of forgiveness became the new standard for her soul. What does it mean to be “well with my soul”? It means to know the beauty of the moment of restoration. It’s in the moment when you confess, fully braced for punishment but find arms embracing you instead. It’s in the eyes meeting and the wordless confirmation that we looked together at the detritus and the details of the transgression — in all its ugliness — and moved in unison toward hope, toward the light of grace.
That is the real purpose of parenting. That is the work of reconciliation. It is the light touch of grace that allows the Holy Spirit to press into the soul the conviction of sin. It leaves a mark, a tender spot, to be sure. But that then becomes the point where a turning begins.
When my children can talk of their own mistakes, lies, episodes of stealing and deceit and they can tell the story of grace that welled up from their experience, I see them gaining strength in faith. When my friends hold out tattered lives repaired and woven through with grace I breathe thanksgiving.
When I am given the opportunity to scold, to judge, to grace I want to look to Jesus, give an imperceptible nod and pursue the single line with him toward restoration. It is a hard and narrow line, a cord strung between condemnation and freedom. That cord is the redeeming business of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Every moment of our lives can be attached to that cord and redeemed. Every one of us can be freed.
Forgiveness always frees the captive, reverses the condemnation, gives the criminal walking papers into liberty. The hard lesson here, the thing that this story is about, is accepting mercy. The actual walking from condemnation into full forgiveness requires moving our own two feet in faith on the agreement that all that ugly truth can be left in the squalid cell called the past.
Those of us who reconcile choose to walk alongside the newly released and cheer them on, equip them with truth, clothe them in the clean wrappings of mercy. We tell our our stories of sin and forgiveness. We join hands and hearts and walk straightway into grace.
Accepting forgiveness and offering it to others who’ve hurt us… well, it’s hard to do. Really walking in the grace and freedom of forgiveness is difficult as well. It seems that the enemy has conditioned us in shame. We feel unaccustomed to freedom, unsure of its goodness, unworthy. We’re skittish about grace.
Do you have a story of restoration? Has your soul been bruised by sin but healed by mercy? Do you know that you are free? Can you share that with someone and help them walk away from shame, too?
Bless you, dear ones,