LIFE LESSON #6: A REAL BARN BURNER
Sometimes standing up for the truth can hurt
When it comes to looking back at our life lessons or mistakes, there are often consistent themes or people that influenced us to either make good decisions or bad ones in our lives. I can safely say that not only was my cousin Mike one of those people that helped me find trouble, he would say that I was also one that did the same for him. Born 2 weeks apart, Mike and I shared one of those rare 'double cousins' relationships where my dad’s sister (Cecile) married my mom’s brother (Bill). I know you probably just wrinkled your face and a banjo strumming the music score from the movie Deliverance is playing in your mind. However, if you think through it carefully, not only will the music end, but I promise you will feel less concerned about the author of this life lesson (not to say that the authors prior life lesson articles do not add credence to such genetic concerns).
Now if being double cousins was not enough, our families also lived within a few miles of each other clear into Mike and I's high school years, so as you can imagine, we shared many life lessons together during our early years. One such lesson was during the summer between of 3rd and 4th grade when my mom asked my Aunt Cecile if she would babysit me during the morning.
"Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away."
No sooner had I been dropped off than Mike got that mischievous gleam in his eyes and told me we were going to ‘kill gophers’ in the back field. I should have recognized that gleam knowing trouble was coming (I’d seen it enough), but instead I just fell in line and followed him to the back field until we arrived at the back side of the hay barn. As we walked, I contemplated how we were going to implement the heroic task of defeating the evil invasion of the gophers (yep, pretty much how a boy’s mind turns work into play).
As we turned the corner and stepped out of view from my aunt in the house (another warning that I ignored), Mike pointed to two cans of gasoline and as if reading my mind, said, “Grab one of the gas cans, were going to burn them out,” and smiled.
Although every boy is a closet pyromaniac (enthralled with matches and campfires), at that point in my life I had never had the opportunity to include gasoline in my boyhood sickness, so my eyes lit up at the possibilities of such an opportunity (no pun intended). A moment of common sense forced out the “are we allowed to use gasoline?” question, which Mike nodded and said, “Sure, Tom and I do it all the time,” he replied, Tom being his older brother.
To hear that my two cousins were already ‘trained experts’, I was grateful that my question did not put an end to this incredible learning opportunity. I grabbed my gopher killing can of gasoline and followed him out to the furthest parts of the back field, an area that also happened to be out of sight of the house.
We spent the next 20 minutes pouring gas down the gopher holes and lighting them with a careful toss of a wooden match, something my cousin had perfected. Unfortunately, a near-death experience brought our aggressive crusade to a close. As I was carefully pouring gas into the gopher hole I was staring down into, Mike was busy trying to launch a match from a safe distance into what turned out to be the other end of the same fuel filled hole. The only thing that spared my life was hearing a growing roar coming from the hole in front of my face. I turned away just in time to see and feel a fireball explode from the ground and into the air where my face had been moments before, tumbling me and my can of gas backwards and out of harm’s way. I’m not sure why the fireball did not ignite the can of gas I was holding, but I’m sure God played an important role in that moment.
"Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice."
As I laid on the ground watching the flaming version of Old Faithful continue to spew forth it’s angry brimstone, the fog of stupidity was suddenly burned away as I realized how close I came to a lot of pain and suffering. That faint warning that had been coming from my inner ‘common-sense’ voice that God gives all of us, the same one we also tend to ignore in such times, was now coming across loud and clear. After exchanging nervous laughs to pretend we were tough and unfazed by the moment, we quietly gathered our gas cans and walked back to the barn in defeat and spent the rest of the morning thinking of something else to do until my mom picked me up.
"Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?"
Now normally you would think that being the recipient or even an observer of a near death experience would have been enough of a life lesson to learn. Unfortunately, it had not had the same impact on my cousin that day, and apparently, God had far more to teach me on the matter also. There are always collateral consequences for sin, sometimes immediate and other times a little later.
Later that night as my family prepared for dinner (okay, mom prepared it and we waited for it to hit the table), the phone rang and my dad answered it. I only vaguely remember some of the words exchanged, but I did hear my father’s voice change to one of concern with him repeating something about 'the boys' and the 'the barn' and then he hung up.
As a kid, unless you’re mentally slow or your dad never got upset with you for your stupid mistakes, you gradually learn the difference between the ‘you’re in trouble’ look and the ‘you’re in BIG trouble’ look. Dad walked back into the kitchen and gave me a whole new ‘you’re in REALLY BIG TROUBLE’ classification look.
“Your uncle Bill just called to tell me the fire department was at their house because you and your cousins set his barn on fire!” I could see in his eyes and hear it in his voice that there was not a question hidden in his statement or even any wiggle room for doubt in his eyes. I had been found guilty without a trial and the only thing left to determine was what my punishment would be.
You hear reports from people who had a near death experience say that all the good things they did in life flashed before your eyes. However, when your dad gives you that look, all I could do was freeze in place, let my jaw drop open and replay the last 8 hours in my head as fast as I could.
My mind raced to the images of the gas cans, the gopher crusade, and the flaming geyser of death. However, I also knew the only place we had been that day was out in the field, so how could the barn have burned down? Had the field caught fire and burned all the way to the barn? Did the fire from one of the gopher holes follow it underground until it reached the barn? It seemed impossible. I slowly shook my head.
“How did it happen?” My mother suddenly asked my dad and without breaking eye contact with me he said, “Bill said the boys were playing with matches inside the barn and caught the hay on fire.”
My brain was racing and my heart was pounding as I tried to sort through my dad’s accusation. Mike and I had never even entered the barn that day. Knowing I was innocent, I saw a glimmer of hope that I might survive the sentencing.
“No I wasn’t” my terrified little voice replied nervously as I shook my head. The response only angered my father further.
“Don’t lie to me!” My father’s voice increased in volume as he stepped closer to me.
“I’m not lying, I was not playing with matches in the barn,” I replied with a little more confidence as I held onto the semantics of the accusation in my head. Yes, I had played with matches in the field (okay, plus a gallon or two of gasoline), but not in the barn or anywhere near the hay.
“Lying to me will only make your punishment worse!” He said, somehow taking the intensity of his voice to another level.
"Man cannot be made secure by wickedness, but the root of the righteous is immovable."
I share the above scripture not because my actions were righteous on that day (far from it), but because of the most powerful character trait that my father had always taught me. To always stand for the truth. Growing up (okay, as an adult too), his example instilled in me a strong sense of ‘right and wrong’ and what was ‘fair or not fair’, so when it came to being unfairly accused or bullied (no matter how big or influential the opponent I faced might be) I would become stubborn and indignant to a fault. Where my sister and mother were more apt to let a harsh word or untrue comment pass without responding to avoid a conflict, I could not seem to activate the 'keep your mouth closed' gene. Often in their ongoing attempts to keep my dad and I from arguing over stupid matters that even I knew I would never win, they would take turns kicking me under the dinner table and begging me with their eyes to not respond when dad gave one of those 'because I said so' responses. Right or wrong, I’m sure I ruined many family dinners.
So here I was facing my most feared, yet trusted hero, my dad. I wrestled with the idea of accepting guilt for something I was sure I did not do, thereby calming the situation and possibly reducing the level of punishment (deserved or not) that I knew was awaiting me. Or, even though I knew I was already convicted, I could take a stand for what was true and suffer the painful consequences of such an approach. Imitating him, I took the road less traveled and dug deep inside and found the courage to respond.
"So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter."
2 Thessalonians 2:15
“I’m not lying,” I replied, more as a plea than a rebuttal. I don’t remember all the words and warnings my father proceeded to use to try to get me to ‘tell the truth’ that he was convinced of and wanted to hear to keep this from escalating further, but I did not break in the kitchen. The ‘battle’ was then moved to my bedroom, where after my first spankings ‘for lying’ and after many tears, my dad left the room directing me to think carefully about whether I was going to finally tell the truth when he returned. In that stubborn pursuit of truth, I proceeded to lose my dinner privileges for the night, then I was grounded from something that seemed very important to me at the time but I cannot remember what it was now, then another set of spankings. As each new punishment unfolded, I was not sure what hurt more, the undeserved spankings, or the fact that my dad refused to believe me.
As a father of a son and daughter of my own, I realize the importance of your children being truthful in all situations and the unwillingness to ever let your children get away with a lie. Yet without divine qualities, sometimes we can be wrong as parents, or husbands, or friends, or leaders and we can hurt the ones we love most with our blind determination and self-righteous confidence. Something that is not always based on truth, but rumor or hearsay. After his initial anger had passed (imagine thinking your son had helped burned down someone’s barn), I could see in his eyes that having to discipline me so severely was hurting him as much or more than it was hurting my backside.
"I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint."
Although I did not know God as a child, I did cry out for relief and stretched out my hands to find comfort (it was mostly to protect my backside), but like David in the above Psalms, my spirit was growing faint. After receiving my third set of spankings and now endless tears, I began to realize that this ‘battle for truth’ was now something that neither my father or I could win. Looking back on it now, had he lead with questions instead of false assumptions, the truth that we both wanted revealed could have been discovered. Something we should all do in whatever discussion or disagreement we find ourselves in.
Unfortunately, it had now gone too far and the only way the endless hurt and pain would end was with one surrendering so the other could relent. As he came back into my room for the next round of punishments, I surrendered my partial truth so that he could have his victory.
“I burned down the barn,” I said between tears and before he could speak. I then expected to get one last ‘super spanking’ for finally telling the truth that he had wanted to hear. Instead he patted me on the back and said he was happy and proud of me for finally being truthful. Although relieved that the punishment was over, my heart felt confused and broken for being rewarded for now telling the only lie of the night.
I’m not sure why, but it seems that our nature is to always give up, moments before God’s rescue plan arrives. Saul did it (1 Samuel 13:8-14), Moses did it (Numbers 20:10-12), Peter did it (John 18), and looking back on life today, my giving up would become the first of many such near misses in my life. Moments after I had surrendered, the phone rang and I heard my mother call down the hall to my father, “It’s Bill” and he headed back to the kitchen, leaving my bedroom door open.
I listened fearfully, thinking that after now being accused of burning down his barn, something worse had happened and the false accusations and punishment would start all over again. I heard my father say “Glad to hear the fire is out and I punished Richie for his part in it”. Then there was an awkward pause, followed by a question. “I thought when you said ‘the boys burned down the barn’ you meant Mike and Richie?” then another delay followed by an “oh, well thanks for calling and telling me,” my father said as he hung up the phone. “Bill said that Tom and Mike were in the barn playing with matches and caught the hay on fire, Richie had nothing to do with it.” He said quietly to my mother.
I would like to tell you that the ending of this unfortunate ‘life lesson’ was filled with heartfelt apologies, long hugs and memorable and healing discussions, but it was not. I’m sure there was a great deal of regret, guilt and embarrassment that my father felt for dealing out the undeserved punishment, but we never spoke of it. A simple “Sorry, I thought you were involved in it,” was all that he said. Exhausted, confused, and hurt I just stayed in bed and fell asleep after my mom brought me something to eat.
Although I remember this life lesson clearly, I do not have any ill feelings toward my father. In fact, we often laugh about it today knowing that I deserved far more spankings for things I did that I did not confess to. What I did learn is that like my father, I can often jump to conclusions about someone not because I know they are guilty, but because their past track record is not the cleanest (as a child, trouble seemed to find me even when I was not looking for it). Although we might be innocent, our past sins can develop a reputation that can be difficult to overcome and damage our credibility.
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
Looking back on it today, I learned a great deal from my Barn Burning Life Lesson:
That you will often feel the consequences of sin even after the initial lesson has been learned
Guilt by association can be painful, so be careful who you associate with
That I need to pay more attention to the voices of warning whispering in your head
That even telling the truth can be painful
It is better to lead with questions, not assumptions
If you decide to follow an assumption, assume the best in the person first
The truth is still the truth, so never quit standing up for it, even when it hurts
"In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
I'd like to thank my father for the discipline (out of love, not anger) I received growing up and for the discipline and incredible mercy I've received from God throughout my life! I hope you find the same peace and understanding as you go through life's challenges.
All the best to you.