When Forgiveness Comes

Being a teenager and being a knucklehead is one and the same thing. When you get older, the temptation is to get your nose all bent out of shape over teenage foolishness. Like, when you’re the parent of a teenager. We older guys say we remember what it was like to be 16, but that usually means that we remember the good stuff. We deny the dumb stuff.

I was headed over to Lake Talmadge to hang out with my friends on a Saturday afternoon. My sister, Marian, was home for the weekend. She said I could borrow her car. A 1970 Toyota Celica fastback. It beat the heck out of driving Dad’s old truck.

I was 16 and cocky behind the wheel. That car felt good in the curves. The radio was tuned to 96 Rock. When I pulled up to the stop sign across from the old Depot, I may have possibly, conceivably, perhaps rolled through that stop sign faster than I should have. I looked both ways. It was clear. I didn’t rush out in front of anyone. I just didn’t see the police car parked to my right toward town.

I hung a left and then a right at Mobley’s Store. Crossed the railroad tracks and hooked left out Woolsey Road. That’s when I saw the blue lights in my rearview mirror.

The driveways and mailboxes along that stretch don’t leave a guy much room to pull off the side of the road. It took me a little while to find a spot with enough room. I ended up in front of Cam Daniel’s house.

By the time I got stopped, there was a second police car that came along and pulled in front of me. The officer asked for my license. We did the typical song and dance. Him asking me if I knew why he had stopped me. Me pleading that I had no idea. Which I really didn’t have a clue.

He asked me to get out of the car. “Mr. Chappell, can you tell me why you are driving a car registered in Fulton County?” My license told him I lived at Route 1 Locust Grove, GA. At that time, Marian was living in a little apartment off Cleveland Avenue on the south side of Atlanta.

“This is my sister’s car. She’s home for a visit and said I could drive it.” I wasn’t sure where this was going. A third car with flashing lights pulled up and joined us. One of the officers was peering through the glass into the back seat. He walked around and did the same on the passenger side.

I was feeling really perturbed at the whole scene. He said I ran through that stop sign back at the Depot. I knew he followed me for a ways before he hit his lights. Probably looking at that Fulton County tag, wondering what some city kid was doing in Hampton. I didn’t like it one bit.

Gheez! I’m getting all worked up just telling this story.

The whole thing didn’t last but 10 or 15 minutes. I got a ticket for running a stop sign. Overall, now thinking back, the police officers were firm but polite. I wasn’t handcuffed or bullied. I was just a dumb, ticked off teenager.

When I got home I had to face my Dad and tell my story. I felt like I was a victim wrongly accused. So, I painted the story to make my persecution seem more shocking. I created a few extra details. What happened was this. I bald-faced lied to my Dad.

In my version of the story, the police patted me down, opened the car door to look through it and opened the trunk to search it. They were certainly checking out the car from all sides, but they never actually went inside the car. I got the idea they thought some kid from Atlanta was down here selling drugs. I figured a few small, exaggerated facts couldn’t hurt my case.

What I didn’t count on was my Dad following up on my story. I thought he would just lecture me about a lessoned learned. But my version of how things unfolded got him all worked up. He made some phone calls. Teenagers should never forget that Dad’s know people. With one phone call an entire network of information got down to the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I can’t remember all the details of how things went from here, but I can see this one scene in my head as clear as if it was yesterday. Dad and me sitting on the side of my bed. Him telling me what he had found out. My stomach churning in knots. His hands clasped, fingers interlocked, held between his knees.

He looked at the floor. “So, you lied to me about the whole thing?”

I wanted to say, “Not about everything. Most of it was true. I didn’t run that stop sign. There were three police cars. They did question me about everything.”

But all I could get out was, “Yes sir.”

What killed me was that he said nothing. No lecture. No hickory stick to my backside. No words of wisdom. He just sighed like a ten-ton rock had been placed on his shoulders, pushed up from his knees with his hands, and left the room.

We never spoke of that day again for as long as he lived.

Offering forgiveness is, at the same time, both the hardest and most necessary thing that a man will ever do. I was never more disappointed in myself as I was on that day that Dad got up and walked out of my bedroom. And I never worked harder at anything in my life than to try and win back his trust.

He never said the words, but I could tell that he forgave me. And it was quick, almost like nothing had ever happened. It took longer for me to forgive myself than it did for him to get past my stupid lie.

Over the years I have had ample need to be forgiven and plenty of opportunity to offer it to others. Every time my kids came to me broken about something they did, I thought about that day sitting on my bed with my Dad. How I should handle it. What I should say. What I must do. Not forgiving them never entered my mind because I was so aware of having been forgiven so much.

Many years ago, I wronged a friend of mine. I had to force myself to deal with it. Sometimes it is harder to ask for forgiveness than it is to give it away. Both sides of the equation require something of us that does not come naturally. We have to lean against our own stubbornness if forgiveness is to have any chance of doing its work.

But when we use it, forgiveness is the most liberating power on earth. Marriages depend on it. Family peace demands it. Friendships cannot survive without it. Long overdue reunions require it. No heart is complete without it.

This all came to me when I rolled through a stop sign yesterday. Forgive me.

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