God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world.
– John 3:17-21
Glancing back, I saw my father slowly slide his belt from his trousers. He folded it in half. His face was ashen; I turned away. I tried in vain to relax my buttocks – rumored among friends to make it not hurt so bad.
I wouldn’t know. I’d never gotten the belt before, though our family was among a subculture that fostered what bordered on enthusiasm for corporal punishment of children. My Baptist school principal had no religious imagery on his office wall that I recall, but he resolutely displayed one magnificent implement none of us could miss – a bolt-reinforced wooden paddle. Both symbolic and functional, it hung heavily from a strap. I often heard smacks and groans from down the hall.
As my dad raised the belt, I flinched for the smack and readied my groan. Down came Dad’s arm. Against my skin I felt the belt, and gasped. It was simply a brush – a caress!
I turned and stared. Dad’s eyes slowly overflowed. We both trembled. He held me for a long time. I can’t remember what was said, if anything. Of course I didn’t know the moment was a pivot, a hinge in a life story, a door to a way.
What I’d done was hardly trivial. I almost burned down our house on purpose, nearly killed my sister by accident, and lied for a day as if incredulous to be the innocent victim of a diabolical setup. The first was exciting, the second terrifying, and the third utterly exhausting. Isolated by my denials and the crushing shame that fueled them, I saw no way out whatsoever.
Over the course of life I came to know my father as a man of uncommonly good judgment and vision. He could size a thing up. “This is the judgment, that the light has come” (John 3:19). Light!
Suffocating in shame and fear that dark day, I imagined only condemnation and retribution. Nothing whatever in my father created that notion. Where did it come from? In eight short years I’d picked it up – the world just works that way, right? Play with fire and a whuppin’ might be the least of it. Just ask the principal or the playground guys. I was condemned already – dead dude walking.
This was my dad’s good judgment, his marvelous sight: I wasn’t condemned at all! He did not simply withhold retribution – it was never in his character or posture toward me to harbor such a thing.
Nothing changed about my dad that day. Everything changed inside of me. Everything.
Caveats are in order:
1. Dad’s a gentle but firm man; plenty of discipline would come over the next decade. But he so loved me to life, that my trust only grew.
2. I’m surrounded by loved ones with no such dad; to you treasured friends I don’t know how to speak of this in a way that won’t hurt somehow.
3. To Dad I’ll say… whatever I’ve managed in a few paragraphs here, all these years later I’ve still got no words for the gift of that day.