When I had to tell my dad that I mowed down a little tree in our front yard, I learned something about the “forgive us our trespasses” part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. Hear why it’s important to confess when we have wronged someone.
While doing chores as a teenager, I learned a lesson about the “forgive us our trespasses” part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. So let’s talk about confession, forgiveness and mowing the lawn on this episode of Blue Collar Wisdom, down-to-earth thoughts about life and faith through things we experience every day. I’m Joe Iovino.
Maybe it was because he was raised Roman Catholic — “an altar boy and the whole nine yards,” as he once told me — that my dad’s passion for confession is so strong.
When we were growing up, my brother and I were taught that if we confessed our wrongdoings, if we came clean to mom and dad about what we had done before they discovered it or figured it out, the punishment would be lighter.
Confession, in our house, was not only good for the soul.
One day, as a youth, I needed to take my dad up on that promise.
To fully appreciate this story, you should know that I’m an introvert. I didn’t have that understanding or any language to express that as a high school student in the 1980s, but through years of hindsight and self-examination, I have discovered this is who I am and have always been.
My grade school report cards, for example, frequently included teacher comments saying I was “shy,” or that I “didn’t speak up in class enough.” Throughout my academic career, I never received many “classroom participation” points.
When I did something that got me noticed, someone would inevitably say that I was “coming out of my shell.” I always found that an odd turn of phrase because as a child of the Jersey Shore, my mind always went to seashell, not turtle shell. So my predominant image at one point in my life was of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” painting — which doesn’t exactly work for me or my personality.
Despite those negatives of my introversion, there was at least one advantage it brought my family. I enjoyed mowing the lawn. That was a chore for which I actually volunteered
Lawn mowing was this introvert’s dream. The engine noise rising from the gas powered mower creates a bubble of solitude that is difficult for others to interrupt. It better be pretty important to get me to turn it off.
Time spent pushing the mower was a wonderful opportunity to get lost in my inner world. I thought. I sang. I worked through situations, relationships, and problems. I zoned out.
I also got to express a little bit of creativity and made the work fun by creating mowing patterns.
Somewhere along the line, probably from my mom or dad, I had heard that mowing the same way every time was not good for the grass. I took that to heart. .
I would mow horizontally one time and vertically the next. Sometimes I did diagonals and tried a crisscross pattern once — that was much harder than I thought it would be. But the crown jewel of my lawn art was the time I mowed our backyard in concentric circles around the tree in the center of the yard. Each ring was mowed in the opposite direction of the previous. When I finished, our backyard looked like the infield of Shea Stadium where my beloved New York Mets played.
It was pretty awesome, if I do say so myself.
One summer day in our front yard, my job was much simpler. No patterns. No art. One simple thing — Don’t mow down the little tree.
You see, this little sapling that had started growing near the driveway was a little miracle. We had not planted it. It found a good spot all by itself and had taken root naturally.
“Which tree had spawned the little thing?” we wondered together as a family. “Was it the dogwood across the street, the birch in the neighbor’s yard, or one of the many pine trees in my hometown.
It was a pretty cool little scientific observation project for us, waiting for the tree to reveal itself to us. And for some reason, I remember my dad being really into this little tree.
I started the mower that day with one thought, “Don’t mow down the little tree.”
So when I got near the area where it was growing, I stopped, turned off the mower and started to look for the little tree. But, as you have probably already guessed, it was too late. Lost in my inner world, I’d mowed it down a pass or two earlier. How did I not see it?
For someone who prides himself on his intellect, this was incredibly stupid, even for an adolescent.
Standing there in the yard, looking at what was left of the tree, a mild panic began to fill my heart. How was I going to tell my dad?
Not only was he pretty into that little tree, he always struggled with my lapses of concentration. He saw them as carelessness, and like I said, neither of us had the language or understanding to explain it any other way.
He sometimes told me that if he did things like that at his job as a heavy equipment operator — running backhoes and cranes — not only could he do a lot of damage to property, someone could get hurt.
Predicting his reaction, the negative voices in my head were shouting at me. I wanted to find a hole to crawl in. Maybe 15 wasn’t too early to move out of the house. Surely I could support myself on my after-school salary from Burger King.
It was about that time that I remembered my parents’ teachings about confession — coming clean about what I had done before they discovered it. So, I went to my mom and shared what I had done. Her response didn’t exactly fill me with peace and calm about telling my dad.
When I saw my dad that evening, I told him. I’m pretty sure my mom had gotten to him first because he seemed prepared. He was upset — but thanked me for telling him. Clearly, he was disappointed — not only in the loss of the sapling — but also in me. This was one more example of my carelessness. There was little he could say that was worse than that for me.
Confession is good for the soul, but in that moment, it didn’t feel good at all..
Lots of us know from memory a version of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” That’s how I learned it, anyway.
In that prayer are words of confession: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Depending on the Bible you read or the church you grew up in, you may remember it differently: “Forgive us our debts” some say, or “Forgive us our sins.”
The Common English Bible says it pretty plainly, “Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you” (Matthew 6:12).
In my mowing down of the tree incident, however, trespasses seems appropriate. The mower and I had gone where we were not welcome. I’d gone where I did not belong and done harm. I’d taken something from someone — a debt — and I’d disappointed someone by not being a good steward of what mattered to him — a sin.
In his prayer, Jesus models confession — coming clean about what we have done, and asking for forgiveness. Forgive me of my trespasses.
Standing before my dad, that’s what I did.
I honestly don’t remember the consequences. I may have had to mow the lawn all summer, more of a reward for my brother than a punishment for me. Or maybe some other chore was added for the summer. I don’t remember.
What I do remember is the forgiveness. My dad never brought up the incident of the little tree again.
But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I prayed for the tree. Maybe the little sapling that was strong enough to find a place to start growing all by itself, had the strength to regenerate.
Plus, my magical Jesus-thinking back in those days, convinced me that God would heal the little tree, because I had done the right thing by confessing and praying, God would certainly save the tree and make everything alright.
But that didn’t happen… It never came back… I’d killed it.
The funny thing about confession is that while it leads to forgiveness, it doesn’t wipe away the consequences of the mistake. So here I am some 40 years later thinking about that little tree, my trespass, and a day I disappointed my dad.
But there are some important things this memory has taught me.
The confession in Jesus’ prayer doesn’t end with asking for forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses/debts/sins/wrongdoings,” Jesus prays. Then he continues, “as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
It’s interesting what Jesus is doing in this prayer. He connects the forgiveness we receive with our ability to forgive others. And this isn’t the only place he does that.
Forgiving a debt
In one of the stories Jesus tells, debt is used as a metaphor of sin and forgiveness. Let me see if I can modernize it for you.
There’s this guy who owes more money than he will probably ever see in his lifetime — think millions. When his creditor calls the loan, he begs for more time. “I don’t have the money,” he says, “but I will do everything I can to pay this loan.”
The creditor, feeling merciful and generous, doesn’t just give the guy more time, he forgives the loan. Imagine the relief of the man. What would it do for you to have your mortgage, car loans and student loans forgiven? To never have to pay those bills again?
Later that day, probably feeling pretty good about the whole thing — like we would if that happened ot us — this same guy finds a friend who owes him for… let’s say a cup of coffee. Anyone hearing this story for the first time expects the man say to his friend as we say in New Jersey, “fuggetabodit,” and share the story of his good fortune and newfound financial freedom.
He has an opportunity to emulate the one who was so good to him by forgiving much, and he only has to forgive a little. To forgive in the same way he has been forgiven.
Instead, he goes full Mr. Burns on the friend. “Today is the day you need to pay me back for that cup of coffee,” he says. “If not, I’m reporting it and ruining your credit.” Ok, that sounds ridiculous, but Jesus talks about sending him to debtors prison (also a ridiculous consequence,and messing with your credit report or dealing with collectors was the best equivalent I could come up with.
The point is, after being relieved of all of his financial stress, the best this guy can do is stress someone else out about their finances? What a jerk!
Jesus then introduces a 3rd character into the story, who tells the original creditor how the guy whose loan he’s forgiven is treating someone who owes him, and he can’t believe it. He calls the guy in and un-forgives the loan, “If you cannot forgive the pittance someone owes you,” he tells the man, “then you will not be forgiven what you owe” — which is significantly more.
Seems like a good lesson for us today.
Forgive us our trespasses/debts/sins, as we forgive others.
As Christians, we remember that our debts, our sins, our tresspasses have been forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not because of something we have done, but simply because of the grace of God.
May we also remember that Jesus taught that we who are forgiven much are to be forgiving — not at a minimum, but extravagantly.
As I look back on the incident of the mowed-down tree, that’s the lesson I take from that nearly 40-year-old memory.
First, as usual, my dad was right. Confession is important, because it is only through confession that we have the opportunity to be forgiven by God and the one whom we have harmed.
Standing before my dad that day, telling him what I’d done, knowing full well it was going to disappoint him was incredibly difficult. But it was confession that made forgiveness possible. Had I tried to hide it, or get away with it, I would not have received forgiveness for my trespass with the mower.
And it is that forgiveness that I most remember today.
My dad never held that tree incident against me, but he did actually bring it up many years later as a funny story about how “Joe used to be as a teenager.” (yeah, used to be)
When I’m at my best, I think I’m a more forgiving person because of the forgiveness I have received — from my dad 40 years ago, and from God every single day.
May I forgive others the way God has forgiven me.
And may I be careful not to trespass on others – including little trees.
Learn more about Blue Collar Wisdom at joeiovino.com/bluecollarwisdom. There you can subscribe to the podcast, follow me on Twitter, and email me your thoughts. Thanks for listening. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.