It was a very long, very quiet drive. I inched around each corner and dodged every pothole. No one spoke. Levi held the little Tupperware container that held his first pet…a little fish named Squishy. My careful driving could not prevent Squishy from sloshing right into the side of his container, but I hoped it would keep him from smacking so hard into it that he died before we reached our destination…his new home.
You see, we were giving Squishy away. Just the day before, Levi had confessed that he hadn’t fed the little guy in a month. An entire month. I had noticed that the tank had been unusually clean since his last water change. Squishy had also been far less active than he typically was, preferring hiding in a corner to swimming about.
And Levi had lied to me every day for an entire month.
“Did you feed Squishy?”, the question posed every morning between breakfast and brushing hair and teeth.
“Yup – I fed him 8, he ate 7”.
“Yup – I fed him 5, he ate 4”.
“Yup – I fed him 11, he ate 10”.
These were really his responses…Squishy was shockingly consistent in the way he always ate one less pellet than what he was fed.
So of course, I knew he was lying.
“Levi, did you really feed him? It’s very strange that he always eats one less than what you feed him.”
Straight-faced, eyes locked on mine, no hesitation: “I did! I did feed him.”
And I guess I wanted to believe him. I didn’t want to face the idea that this boy would let his pet.. the one he’d begged for and triumphantly received for his birthday… to die…just so he wouldn’t have to spend the time feeding him.
And I didn’t want to believe he would lie to me, after all the morning Bible studies and prayers and talks and songs and Sunday school lessons and VBSs.
So most mornings, I’d just let it go.
But the truth finally came out. He couldn’t deny it anymore. There was definitely something wrong with Squishy, and Levi knew he was the cause of it.
Levi had grown to resent Squishy for depending on him. After Squishy had been in Levi’s care for about 3 months, he started getting impatient with Squishy. After all, having to feed him cut into precious playtime. Levi would get impatient and yell at Squishy. “Oh come ON! Just EAT!” If he’d forget to feed him, he’d complain and cry over having to stop what he was doing to go take care of him.
“Listen”, I’d warn, “If you won’t take care of your pet like you said you would, we’ll have to give him to someone who will take care of him.” I think that actually sounded pretty good to him.
So now, now that it was painfully obvious that Levi had not cared for Squishy, I had to follow through on my threat. I posted Squishy on Facebook. I thought Levi would be devastated.
He wasn’t. Not in the least.
“Why did you do this, Levi? Why would you starve this creature who’s depending on you…and lie to your Mama…for an entire month?” My voice displayed my mystified reaction.
“Well….I just like playing and feeding him is kind of…hard.”
I went upstairs. I actually couldn’t believe the lack of conscience in this kid. He would rather have a creature die at his neglectful hands and lie to his mother than miss five minutes of playtime.
I’ve honestly never felt so helpless as a parent. Yeah – you can sure punish your kids to show them that actions have consequences…and I have. Over and over. He knows. But you cannot force them to have a heart that cares about anything besides themselves.
And though you can scare them with consequences of making wrong choices, you cannot infuse them with the power to make the right ones.
I prayed over what to do, because I just didn’t know. Clearly, having to take his fish and place him in the care of another would be the natural consequences of what he’d done. Clearly, I would have to exact the nuclear punishment….the removal of his stuffed animals from his room…for an extended period of time. But I knew that while these things might slightly deter him from lying to me for awhile, they couldn’t even come close to addressing the real problem…his heart.
I went downstairs and we read some scripture together. I had hoped this would be a turning point for Levi; hoped that he would see his great need for Jesus as he pondered his choice to be so selfish and deceitful. I don’t think he did, though. We talked of confession and forgiveness and the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ perfect life lived for us and death in our place.
And I just don’t think he gets it.
One of my friends whose son attends school with Levi offered to take Squishy. We arranged to bring him up to her house today.
“Well”, he said this morning at breakfast, “the good thing is that I don’t have to feed a fish anymore”.
No brokenness. No regret. Nothing.
We packed up Squishy and his things, took him gingerly all the way to my friend’s house, and said good-bye. Andy cried on the way. Ajay cried on the way. Levi asked questions about car accidents, totally dry-eyed.
We dropped him off at his new home, where my friend and her son were just so happy to have him. They were prepared to nurse him back to health and re-train him to eat. It seems silly…it’s just a fish, after all. But for over a year, he’s been our responsibility to care for. He’s depended on us for food and health. He was, in a way, part of our family.
We thanked my friend and left. As we drove, we had a great view of the ski area on Sandia Peak. Levi asked if that was where my husband had fallen years ago and broken his leg.
“No,” I replied, “but that is where Grandpa fell and broke his arm.”
And in my mind, suddenly, I was transported back to that day when my dad broke his arm up there. I was 15. My dad had taken my brother and I up there to learn to snowboard. On our very first dismount off the ski lift, Dad had landed on his back, with his arm twisted under him.
Do you know something? I don’t remember him crying out in pain. I don’t remember him even saying he was in pain. Maybe he was incredibly tough about it. I think I missed it completely, due to my talent of tuning out all things that weren’t about me. You see, we’d seen some friends from school there…some boys, to be specific. All I remember caring about was whether they thought I looked cute in my snow gear.
Somehow, my dad made it down to ski patrol all on his own as my brother and I tried to figure out snowboarding up on the hill. Ski patrol came up and got me at some point, and took me down to the room where my dad, pale as I’d ever seen him, was hooked up to oxygen. He’d broken his right arm in 6 places, we’d find out later. Dad told me quietly hat he had convinced the medics that I could drive him down to the ER, so he wouldn’t have to ride in an ambulance all the way down there…but he was just going to drive himself down there. He asked if my brother and I could catch a ride with my friends. I was only too happy to agree to that.
I wish I’d said, “No way, Dad. I’m coming with you. How are you going to shift with your left arm? It’s a very long drive down the mountain and you don’t look good at all. You need help, and Chris and I are here for you.”
I didn’t say that, and I don’t remember thinking about what that drive was going to be like for him. He called me later to say that he’d made it, and I do remember feeling a slight twinge of guilt as he relayed what a harrowing drive it had been. But overall, I had a fantastically fun day with no parents and no rules and nothing to worry about but me, me, me.
In that moment, though, driving past the ski area with that sad memory so vivid, I realized that God was bringing me hope. Though I still display shocking amounts of selfishness at times, I see the work of the Holy Spirit in me…convicting me, moving me to repentance, assuring me of the forgiveness that’s mine in Christ, restoring, and transforming me. Though I can’t go back and re-do all of the times that I’ve hurt others with my neglect or cruelty, I know that God has used even those things to draw me and them closer to Him. That He would love and pursue a rotten, self-absorbed sinner like me is very much to His glory. Who else is that good? That forgiving? That patient? That merciful?
Levi’s actions hurt Squishy and his brothers and me. But the memory from the ski area reminds me that this is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. God is after Levi, just like He was after me. And I pray that someday, Levi will look back as I did on our drive and think, “I can’t believe He actually loves me!” And his heart will swell big, and he’ll whisper a prayer of thanks to His Father who relentlessly pursued him and won him with His unfailing love.
This Easter, consider not whether you deserve to be loved like this…loved enough that the Prince of Heaven would die a criminal’s death in your place. Consider instead the fact that you are…you are loved that much… because of who He is. You cannot earn a love like this. And the wonderful thing is that once you accept it? You can never lose it.
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8