I did not enjoy going to church last Sunday.
I took my three kids to the service by myself because my wife wasn’t feeling well. The journey started out well enough — we were in the car and only running 12 minutes behind when we pulled out of the driveway. But it was all downhill from there.
Our church meets in a highly trafficked area of D.C. and parking can be difficult. Last Sunday it was impossible.
I drove around in circles for 15 minutes, getting more and more frustrated as the clock kept ticking with no parking space in sight. So much for 12 minutes late — now we were looking at 30 minutes.
“I don’t even know why I’m doing this,” I kept saying. “I shouldn’t have even tried to come.”
But I was already there and my commitment had escalated past the point of no return. So with my blood pressure rising, I finally gave up and parked in a garage, which meant that I had to haul my two girls, a baby, and a big diaper bag about a quarter of a mile through a shopping center and down what felt like an endless sidewalk.
Ugly, Angry Dad
My attitude was totally shot by the time we arrived at the service. When we reached the sign-in table for the kids, I felt like throwing the diaper bag past the young lady at the table and yelling, “Just take them!” Instead, when she said hello, I looked at her and said, with mild exasperation, “We’re half an hour late. Why am I even here?”
As I signed in the kids, I could hear that our pastor was already well into his sermon, which made everything more irritating, but there was an opportunity for redemption.
A second-time guest was signing in at the table and her daughter was clinging to her because the girl was scared to go into Sunday school. Since my youngest daughter is friendly to a fault, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to jump in and help. My daughter, however, did not.
“Say hello to her,” I whispered.
“I don’t want to,” she said, looking down.
My daughter just needs a little encouragement, I thought. I was not, however, in the right state of mind to offer encouragement to anyone.
“The little girl is scared of going to Sunday school — I want you to help her. Just say hello and ask what her name is. Do it.”
“I don’t want to, Daddy,” she said, slinking away, looking just as terrified as the other girl.
“You are going to say hello to that little girl, or you. will. come. and sit in the service with me.”
I instantly regretted saying it — I didn’t want to take Sunday school away from her. But I was determined to win the battle, so I kept ordering her to do it until she finally complied with tears in her eyes.
“Oh, look,” said the woman to her daughter, “this little girl is scared to go into Sunday school too.”‘
She was scared all right.
Through Her Eyes
I went into the service, slumped down in my seat, and shortly thereafter realized the baby needed his bottle and I hadn’t told his nursery worker. Annoyed, I got up, walked past the greeter, and again said, “Why am I here?” before heading back to the nursery.
As I walked past my daughter’s classroom, I looked in the doorway and noticed her sitting in a little chair watching a Bible story video. I could only see her profile and nothing about her looked out of the ordinary.
As I watched her though, I began seeing the morning through her five-year-old eyes. How humiliating it must have been to have her dad fire off angry words at her through whispers, provoke her to tears, and then send her off to class with a stranger to suck it up and have a good time.
I felt so ashamed of myself and knew I had to do something about it right then — not just for her, but for me too.
Back to Sunday School
I walked through the door quietly, got down on my knee, and whispered in her ear: “How did it make you feel when I forced you to talk to that little girl?”
“Sad,” she said, and then her lip started quivering.
I picked her up and carried her out into the hallway, where she pulled close and put her head on my shoulder.
“Did you feel embarrassed when I did that?”
She nodded and then started crying.
Tears welled up in my eyes as well.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “Will you forgive me?”
She pulled back from my shoulder, looked into my teary eyes, and nodded.
“I’m going to pray and ask God to forgive me too,” I said.
As I prayed, I said, “Father, please forgive me for being a bad father this morning.”
“You’re not a bad father,” my daughter said in my ear.
“I appreciate you saying that,” I said, wiping tears away. And after I apologized again, I gave her a tight hug and sent her back to Sunday school. She was smiling.
It was a hard moment — not so much the apology though. I’ve been doing that with my kids ever since they were old enough to understand what I was saying. That’s something I saw modeled really well by my friends Renee and Steve Blair when they were doing an imperfect job raising their own kids. Unfortunately though, I think parents like Renee and Steve are rare.
Refusing to Apologize — Really Apologize
So many of my friends have parents who never apologized to them for anything. And even if their parents did apologize, they often equivocated, offering one of those belated, “I’m sorry if ever did anything to hurt you” apologies. That’s not even an apology — it’s a thin recognition of imperfection, but a refusal to take responsibility for specific offenses that inflicted specific wounds.
As an adult, however, I’ve had the privilege of watching a grown man sincerely apologize to his 32-year-old son, bringing about a great deal of healing. The man who offered that apology was my dad, and the one to whom he apologized was me.
For years, I stewed over his callousness to the ways his failures crippled me as a young man. But the night he laid down his pride, unequivocally apologized, and offered no defense for his behavior, it took the pleasure out of my feelings of resentment. I had no reason to fight him anymore — he had surrendered. He even invited me to let him know if I remembered any other offenses and told me he would be happy to talk through that as well.
After that, he was no longer just my father. He became my friend. I could trust him.
A Gift for Two
Sincere apologies are hard for all of us, regardless of the person to whom they’re being offered, but it’s especially hard if our children need it. No failure provokes guilt and shame like realizing we might have damaged our kids in ways we never imagined when we held them as newborns.
It’s a doorway to healing though, and the younger they are, the more quickly it can work its way through their systems. Children’s defenses are down, they’re still unconditionally receptive to our love, they don’t feel ashamed of how much they need our approval. But even if they’re older, it’s never too late — even if they don’t accept the apology. We don’t confess sin to get a certain result. We confess sin because that’s what God has called us to do.
As the Word says, “People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy” (Proverbs 28:12). And while the confessor may never receive mercy from the person they hurt, at least they will be in a better position to recognize their need for mercy from God, who sacrificed His Child and wiped away all of our failures.