The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart,
And saves such as have a contrite spirit.
– Psalms 34:18
Parable: The Holes are Still There
Years ago, a farmer and his wife were sitting down to dinner with their teenage son. The son (behaving as teenagers have a tendency to do), was upset with his parents over what he perceived to be unfair rules, which they had put in place for his protection.
Unable to see their rules as a sign of love and caring, the son lashed out lashed out and said, “You are the worst parents in the world. I can’t believe the way you treat me. I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!!!”
The farmer, boiling with anger, said nothing. Instead he stood up, pointed to the son’s room, and waited until his son received the all-too-clear message. Being stubborn, but not stupid, the son quietly got up from the table, walked quietly to his room, and shut the door. For the rest of the evening, not a word was spoken by anyone in the house.
The First Day
In the morning, the start of a beautiful summer day, the farmer went out early to put up some new fencing. The son, having nothing else to do and feeling remorse over his behavior, went out to where his father was working, picked up a hammer and some nails, and began to help.
All day long, not a word was spoken. The family sat down to lunch, ate in silence, and then the father and son returned to quietly work on the fence. Dinner that night, was the same routine, until the son could stand it no longer.
“Dad, I…” he began.
“Shh!” was the immediate reply from the father.
He was a man of few words, but the brevity and intensity of his response shocked even the son. Along with the father’s harsh reply came a look that obviously meant business. The son, unable now to verbalize his apology, finished his dinner, nodded an unspoken “thank you” to his parents, and then went to his room. He waited, wondering if the father would knock on the door.
The knock never came.
The Second Day
The following morning, the father and son returned to work on the fence in silence, and not a word was spoken in the house or between the son and his father the entire day. The son worked as hard as he could.
The father looked at his son, nodded with his head toward the house, and then headed in that direction. The son, unsure of what this meant for the clearly unfinished business of the fence, followed several steps behind.
When the father stopped, he was at one of the corner posts of the gate, right next to the house. He turned to the son, and handed him three large nails and the hammer. The son took them, but had no idea what it meant, or what he was supposed to do.
“Hammer ’em into the post” the father commanded. It was not a request.
The son did as he was told, taking care to drive the nails carefully, though his father gave him no indication exactly where the nails should go, or how deep they were to be driven. After the third nail was deep within the wood, the father reached out and took the hammer, and returned to the place in the fence where they had worked before.
The Third Day
On day three, the routine repeated itself, and the father and son were sweating as they worked on the new fence. Noting that his father was holding several large nails between his lips as he swung the hammer, the son took advantage of his father’s inability to respond verbally.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” he blurted out as quickly as he could.
The father stopped his work without looking to his son, looked at the tools in his hands, and slowly returned to positioning the fencing, taking a nail from between his lips, lining it up, and hammering it with even greater intensity than he had been using before. The son stood, helpless. He knew his father heard him, but the lack of any direct response crushed him.
Taking the cue from the farmer, the son picked up a handful of nails, and returned to work on his portion of the fence. As he worked, he struggled to see clearly, due to the combination of sweat and tears that were clouding his eyes. After several misplaced blows from the hammer that instead glanced off and struck flesh, the son noticed that his father had stopped working, and was watching him intently.
Without a word, the farmer turned and walked back toward the corner post they had visited the day before. Once there, he stood and looked at the nails intently. The son had followed, hammer in-hand, and waited to be handed more nails, to be driven for some as-yet-unknown reason.
After several minutes, the father looked at him and said, “Pull ’em nails out.”
Confused but obedient, the son took his hammer and quickly pulled the nails out, one-by-one. He had driven them in deeply, so it took a bit of effort, but after a few minutes, the nails were out, and he held them out for the father to take.
Instead, the father said nothing, instead going into the barn, and returning a minute later with a bucket of white paint and a brush. As the son watched, the father began to dab paint into the holes, slowly filling them up. After several rounds of this work, the fence appeared unscathed, as good as new. By now, the son’s confusion was palpable.
His father looked at him and said, “I forgive you.”
The farmer closed up the paint can, quietly put it back in the barn, and then returned to the place where he had been working on the fence. The son watched, and eventually joined him, working in agonizing silence.
As lunchtime arrived, the father and son set down their tools, and headed toward the house. As they passed the corner post, the father stopped and examined his repair. The son was impressed by how difficult it was to spot the holes now, given the rough texture of the wood, and the skill of his father at fixing them. Still, he was confused and unsure what to say or do.
“Hateful words are nails. Sayin’ you’re sorry pulls ’em out, and forgivin’ fills ’em in…” the father began.
After a moment, he continued, “…but no matter how ya fix it, the holes are still there.”
The father never elaborated on the lesson, but allowed its truth to simply sink in, and sink in it did. Every day as the son left the house, he saw the corner post. Every day, he thought about the nails he’d driven into it, matching his “I hate you” outbursts that night at the dinner table.
Likewise, every day, he thought about pulling them out, and how the process mirrored his sincere but feeble “I’m sorry” response. Sometimes, he would stand close to the post, searching for the repair, and the holes. Over time, the weathering of the wood and subsequent coats of paint made finding the holes he’d made impossible.
Years after his father had passed away, he found the post a powerful reminder, and stopped there often, even though doing so brought back the sting of his words, and how hollow his apology must have sounded. Apologies are necessary, are healthy, and are a part of life when mistakes are made. As he grew, the son learned to apologize early and often.
Forgiveness, he also had learned, led to healing. Forgiveness was necessary, was healthy, and part of life when mistakes have been made. The son learned deeply the value of forgiveness, both given and received. He learned to forgive carefully and completely.
As the son grew, he learned to apologize and forgive. More importantly, he learned to stop himself before words ever left his mouth. He learned to appreciate the value of weighing words carefully before speaking, the way his father had. Through his life, he never forgot the lesson of the fence post. After all, even now, a generation later, next to a quiet, lovely farmhouse you’ll find a barn, some fencing, and a corner fence post.
The Holes are Still there.
Words do hurt. Many times, our words do create wounds that never heal. In the polarized society in which we find ourselves, it is easy to become desensitized to the damage that we inflict upon one another. Unfortunately, those we love most are often the ones we hurt most. I pray, God, that you will heal our wounds, heal our families, and heal our nation.