For the past couple of weeks, I have been home helping our daughter with her two boys while James, our “Fun-in-law”, is away for job training. Heather is an outstanding mom and Lisa and I could not be more proud of her and James for the way they are raising Conner Jack and Thomas Lea. Raising two little boys is not for the faint of heart.
This past week has been especially challenging for Heather as Conner Jack, who is three years old, has developed a bit of an attitude and, it would seem, is experiencing those “terrible twos” a little late. He is still a wonderful little boy and we know the strong will he is displaying will, one day, work to make him a strong young man.
He has struggled to adjust to his new preschool classroom which requires a more structured environment. Conner would much rather play all day with absolute freedom and to be told to do something is just hard for him to accept. When Heather was told that Conner had received a number of stars for good behavior, she was ecstatic. One would have thought he had been named Valedictorian. We were so proud. We told everybody about his stars and were convinced the crisis of his bad attitude was over. The next day – he spit on his teacher. OK! This is not going to be easy.
After another long talk with Conner, reminding him what we expected of him, he told me he was a “good boy” and was going “to stay on green” (which is the preschool color coding for being good). I hugged him and told him we all knew he was a good boy and that we loved him very much. It is important to tell children those things – often, even when they may disappoint us. Children need to know what is expected of them and they must also know they are loved and always forgiven. It is a lesson in life that I did not get until I was an adult.
When I was growing up, my parents insisted that I attend both Sunday School and church every week. The only exception to that rule would be an occasional Sunday family outing to the only place we ever went when I was growing up, Sturgis, Kentucky, to visit my grandparents. Sunday School and church was important in my life and it gave shape to my spiritual identity and taught me the basic principles of my Christian faith. It was a great time in my life. But, there was a problem.
Each week as I sat with my friends in Sunday School, the teacher would ask each of us some basic questions before starting our lesson. It was part of the Southern Baptist protocol to keep extensive records. I never really knew what became of all those records but I imagine they are stored in a Ft. Knox-like vault somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee.
On a little white pad of paper (I can still see it in my mind) was a list of six or seven items that would give each of us a grade for the week. Things like: Did you read your bible everyday?; Did you read your Sunday School lesson?; Are you attending worship service?; Did you bring your bible?; and other questions like that. After we answered those questions, our teacher would say (out loud) what our grade was. I could never seem to get 100% and I felt terrible about that. God was not pleased with me. I was a bad person. I should be ashamed.
It would go something like this. After the “opening assembly” the boys and girls would separate into small classrooms where our “lesson” would be taught. After a few minutes of giggling and jokes, our teacher would get our attention and pick up that little white pad of paper.
“OK, boys! Let’s go through our questions. Alright, Bobby Proctor – did you bring your bible?” “Yes”, Bobby would exclaim proudly. “How about your lesson”, the teacher would ask – “Did you read it?” “Why, yes I did” Bobby proudly declared. I slunk deeper into my metal chair knowing my time was coming. The teacher continued with the questions to Bobby and then announced, “Bobby is perfect today. Congratulations Bobby!” The next boy in line would then be asked the same questions. “Terry Chapman is 90%. Way to go Terry!” Then he questioned Gary, Billy and Mark. Outstanding scores everyone.
Finally, it was little Stevie McFarland’s turn. “Ok, Stevie! How about you?” And the questions would begin. I had not read my Bible that week. I had not read my lesson. I forgot my bible as I ran out the door. I only could say “Yes” to one question. I was going to attend worship service. My teacher added up my score. I sunk even deeper into my chair – wanting to fall through the linoleum floor. There was a long silence. My teacher was calculating. The other boys in the class waited, silently. The verdict was almost in. I thought the teacher may need a slide rule to get an accurate score. I swallowed hard and waited. Finally – “Stevie, you are 20% today.” And then he said something even worse. “You can do better than that.”
I was going to hell. No doubt about it. This was it. God may send me there before I can even get to the worship service. I could have lied about those things, but, if I lied inside the church I was fairly certain that I would instantly be engulfed in flames. God loved Terry and Bobby and Gary and Billy and Mark. But, God hated little Stevie McFarland who, on this particular Sunday morning, was only twenty per cent.
Sure, I could run home after Sunday School to our house just a block away and skip worship service. But, that would be lying to that little white piece of paper and, probably, an unforgivable sin. Besides, one day the President of the Sunday School board may arrive at our front door and say they had been conducting an investigation of my Sunday School records and had found that on June 3, 1969, little Stevie McFarland said he was going to attend worship service, but that their records indicated that he did not. I could imagine my mother trying to explain and the man, probably in a black suit and a red tie asking her, “What do you have to say for yourself, Mrs. McFarland?” They would then enter my house, ask for church records and then, ceremonially, tear up my baptismal certificate. I would be doomed. My 20% was unworthy of God’s love.
I felt that way all because no one told me that God still loved me. Maybe they assumed I knew that. I did not. For years I convinced myself that for God to love me, I would need to be 100%. I remember singing the words, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way – to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.” Yet, I was just 20%. I was failing in trusting, failing in obeying and certainly failing at being happy in Jesus. Mainly, because I was convinced that Jesus was not happy with me. How could he be? I was just 20%
And now the real shocker. I have been 20% all my life. I never did get it right – I never did and I never will. While I witnessed what looked like people with their lives all together, their careers perfect, their conduct without question, scoring 90% or better at everything they did, I found myself to be a mess – an unforgiven, cussing, angry, teenage mess. It would take me years to overcome the thought that I was unworthy to be called a child of God. But it happened.
Something of a miracle took place in my life in my twenties. Someone explained to me about God’s grace. God’s grace, they said, was more than just the prayer we recite before a big family meal. Grace was much, much more. In fact, God’s grace is everything. It is the part of God that loves me for my 20% and forgives me for the 80% I can never achieve. They told me that not only am I a mess before God – so is everyone else. I could not believe it. There are others who are 20%, some even ten. I had a friend, one time, who, I am certain was in the negative numbers. God even loved him. It was as if I had been on a deserted island all my life, thinking I was all alone, only to find out that all of humanity was with me the whole time. I was not going to hell after all. God actually loves me and my 20%. It changed my life.
When I heard my grandson, Conner Jack, trying to convince me that he was a “good boy”, I immediately hugged him and told him, “Yes! You are a good boy!”, and that I loved him very much. In fact, we all do. Without God’s grace, I’m not sure how parents can survive the terrible twos or threes or thirties that their children will put them through. Parents must teach, discipline, love and always forgive – daily. Conner will have good days and bad. There will be times in his life that he is 90% and other times that he will barely hit ten.
But, in God’s eyes – Conner Jack will always be in the “green”.
Little 20% Stevie Mac