Summary: The Reverend struggles explaining the thin white line.
Category: The Clayton Chronicles
Word Count: 1741
Jimmie Tolsen sat in the dust beneath the old oak tree, his knees up to his chin and his arms wrapped tight around them. His expression was such a humorous mingling of dejection and disgust that Dave had to bite back the chuckle that rose to his lips as he approached him.
Jimmie threw an angry glare his way as Dave crouched down next to him. “I ain’t got nothin’ ta say to you, Pastor,” he announced.
Dave swallowed another smile. “I noticed you were looking a little put out with me during service.”
Another glare was Jimmie’s only response. Dave waited quietly. Behind him, he could hear the happy voices and laughter of his congregation as they set out the tables and food for a picnic lunch. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the fresh air and warm spring breezes after the long winter. Everyone but the small boy in front of him. It was why Dave had sought him out as he sat so angry and still beneath the oak.
Jimmie stared fixedly out into the horizon, his small face set sternly, his lips tight shut.
“We’ve been friends for quite awhile, Jimmie. Sure you don’t want to tell me what’s bothering you?” Dave asked quietly.
Jimmie’s face flushed and his eyes snapped as he turned to Dave. “You said I should never tell a lie, that it was a sin, that I should always tell the absolute truth and I’d always be glad of it, ‘cause then I’d never have to remember what I said. That a man’s word was the only thing he had to rely on, and if another man couldn’t trust yer word, then you weren’t anything.”
“Yes, Jimmie, I did. Because it’s true. Why?”
“’Cause it’s not true! All it brung me was a bunch of trouble!”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Jimmie.” Dave was genuinely confused; he remembered the conversation he and Jimmie had had. He had taken Jimmie fishing and Jimmie had told him about some trouble he’d gotten into at home when he’d lied to his mother about taking some cookies. Jimmie hadn’t seen the harm in it and Dave had taken the opportunity to explain about honesty and how important it was. He thought Jimmie had understood but now…
“I did what you said. I was absolutely honest and I never lied, even little lies, just like we talked about, and all it got me was inta trouble!”
“Maybe you better tell me what happened.”
“I’m grounded that’s what happened! Fer two weeks fer bein’ impolite to Mrs. Kettle!”
“Ah.” Dave found himself struggling to keep a straight face; he had a feeling he knew what had happened. “How were you impolite to Mrs. Kettle?”
“You know Ma was feeling poorly on account of the new baby and Mrs. Kettle brung us over some of that meatloaf she’s so proud of. Pastor, I can’t stand that stuff!” Jimmie wailed. “But Ma was gushing all over the place about it and then she up and turns to me and asks me if I ain’t so glad Mrs. Kettle brought us some supper.”
Jimmie’s earnest blue eyes turned to Dave. “Well, what could I say? You told me ta always tell the truth and I been trying real hard to do that, ‘cause I want to be a real man whose word means something. I didn’t mean ta be rude, Pastor, honest I didn’t. And all I said was ‘no, ma’am’; I didn’t tell her the meatloaf was the nastiest stuff I ever tasted. But Ma got all red and sent me to my room, and later she told me she’d never been so ashamed and she didn’t give me a chance ta explain. She just grounded me and said iffen I ever embarrassed her like that again, she’d tan me good.”
Jimmie sunk his head back onto his knees and he sighed deeply. “I just don’t understand it, Pastor, I just told the truth. I wasn’t glad. ‘Cause I knew I’d have to eat the stuff. But the other thing I don’t understand is Ma being so happy about it, ‘cause I know Ma doesn’t really care for it either. So didn’t she lie? But Ma’s always tellin’ me the same thing you did. That I shouldn’t never tell a lie, even little ones. I just don’t get it!”
Dave sat back on his heels and sent a quick prayer heavenward. If he ever needed the wisdom of Solomon, it was now with Jimmie’s eyes fixed so intently on his face, his confusion and hurt so evident that Dave’s heart broke for the boy. He understood how painful it could be to do what was right and then be punished for it.
As for Jimmie’s absolute honesty, he could understand why Mrs. Tolsen had been upset about it, even as he understood Jimmie’s confusion. It was a difficult dilemma and one he’d struggled with himself. It was hard to know where the line between politeness and honesty should be drawn, when to tell the whole truth and when to reserve some of it in order to spare the feelings of others. He knew there were those who felt these “little white lies” were acceptable for politeness’ sake and he knew he’d been caught in them himself, more often than he cared to admit, but he never felt easy about it and had spent many a long night on his knees asking for forgiveness and help in that area. So how was he supposed to explain it to an eight year old?
“Jimmie, I know it’s hard to understand. It’s hard for me to, as well. But we do know the Bible tells us not to lie, remember we talked about that?”
Jimmie nodded. “The Ten Commandments.”
“Yes, it’s one of the Ten Commandments. It’s also a matter of trust, as I told you. If a person can’t trust you to tell him the truth, even in the little things, then he really can’t trust you at all, can he?”
Jimmie shook his head solemnly. “But Ma…”
“I’m getting to that. Now, we also know it’s not right to hurt people’s feelings unnecessarily, right?”
It took Jimmie a little longer to think that one over, but he finally nodded in agreement.
“So it seems we have a dilemma. In your case, you had what you saw as only two choices. You could either tell a lie and make your ma and Mrs. Kettle happy or you could tell the truth and hurt Mrs. Kettle’s feelings. Now, I’m proud of you that you chose to tell the truth, because that is always the right thing to do, no matter if it means you’ll get in trouble. Doing right is never wrong, regardless of the consequences, because it keeps your conscience clear between you and God. Does that make sense?”
“I… I guess so. But Ma seemed to think I did wrong.”
“Well, she probably just didn’t understand in the heat of the moment. To her, you were merely being rude to Mrs. Kettle. So let’s think about it. Was there a way you could have told the truth and still made Mrs. Kettle happy?”
“Well, Ma asked me and I told her the truth.”
“True, but let’s take a look at your ma. Now, I’ve never known a more truthful woman than your ma. What exactly did she say to Mrs. Kettle?”
“She said how nice it was for Mrs. Kettle ta bring us some supper and what a kind neighbor she was and…” Suddenly Jimmie’s eyes widened as if a light had been lit in them. “But she never did say she liked the meatloaf.”
Dave couldn’t help himself; he let out a chuckle. “That’s kind of what I thought. You see she found a way to thank Mrs. Kettle for being so kind as to think of her, and it was very kind of Mrs. Kettle. She never lied about that; she just refrained from telling Mrs. Kettle that she didn’t care for meatloaf. Your mother kept her integrity and Mrs. Kettle went home pleased.”
“So we can make people think we like something when we don’t?”
“Nooo…” Dave sighed; this was getting stickier by the minute. “No, we should never let somebody believe a lie, even if we don’t outright say it.”
“Then I don’t understand. Didn’t Ma let Mrs. Kettle believe she liked the meatloaf?”
“Well, I suppose she might have. I really couldn’t say, Jimmie. I wasn’t there. It’s a fine line and I’m not going to tell you I know the answer to this one, because it isn’t easy to walk. This area of “white lies” as they’re called is one of the hardest questions there is out there, I think, because they seem so harmless and yet we know we are commanded not to lie. And God doesn’t see the difference between a white lie and a black one. And it’s hard to know if a man who will lie in the small things might not also lie in the big ones.” There was furrow between Jimmie’s brow and Dave could tell he was losing him, not surprising since he was losing himself; it was time to beat a retreat before he sunk himself deeper.
“Tell you what; I’ll talk to your ma about this and explain about our conversation and why you answered Mrs. Kettle as you did. I think she’ll understand and then she can help you learn the difference between being polite and polite untruths. It’s something that takes practice.” Dave smiled wryly, thinking of the times he’d tried and failed at walking that narrow line.
“Would you really?” Jimmie asked excitedly a wide smile spreading over his face. “I know iffen you’d talk to her she’d understand.”
“Yes, really.” Dave reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair. He glanced around at the food laden tables behind them. “But it looks like dinner is about ready. How ‘bout we get us some fried chicken?” he asked as he stood and brushed down his trousers.
“Okay.” Jimmie bounced to his feet. “But no meatloaf!” he said emphatically.
Dave laughed and laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“I promise, no meatloaf.” Dave grinned down at Jimmie who grinned up at him as together the two sauntered away.