“It wasn’t my fault, my brother made me do it, I was having a bad day, I couldn’t help it, I didn’t have time to think, I’m only a baby, and besides, nobody’s perfect.”
(…continued) Whether or not rules are made to be broken, we do break them; so then what? Well, then oftentimes come the excuses, and some excuses are better than others. Sometimes employees do not make it to work on time because of the weather. That is a good excuse. But if you get to work late because you stayed up half the night playing cards and drinking beer and you were too tired to get up, that would not be a good excuse, and your boss would not be pleased. And if your excuse is a lie to cover for your bad behavior, that is even worse. Ben Franklin once said, “The one who is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else.”
Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt (1930-2009) wrote Teacher Man about his 30 years of teaching English in New York city high schools. He had tough kids in his schools, kids who were not interested in learning how to diagram sentences or about the poetry of Walt Whitman or about the finer points of English composition. Frank McCourt understood that, because he remembered well that as a child, he hated school. But he kept trying to find creative ways to interest his students in what they were supposed to be doing in English class.
If he told the class to write an essay, he would have an hour of frustration ahead of him. The kids would complain, they would ask for passes to the lavatory, they would try to change the subject, they would do anything but write the essay. If by chance any of them did do any writing, it would be a mess; handwriting that could barely be read, words spelled wrong, incomplete sentences, and displaying a complete lack of imagination. As soon as the bell rang, they would all be flying out the door.
But then Frank McCourt began to notice something interesting. These same kids, who could do nothing right on a writing assignment, could become extremely eloquent on a forged excuse note supposedly written by their mother. McCourt could always tell the real excuse notes from the forgeries. The real notes were brief and to the point: “Antonio was late today because the alarm clock didn’t go off.” Period. Mothers don’t have time to write long excuse notes. But the forgeries were masterpieces of creativity:
Dear Mr. McCourt, I am so very sorry that my son Antonio was late for your class today. His grandmother, my mother, who lives with us and has been driving us all crazy, tripped over the dog and fell down the steps at our apartment. We took her to the doctor, and other than the broken leg and seventeen stitches she is going to be okay. But I had to go to work and Antonio, who is her favorite, had to stay home and take care of her, because did I tell you she is blind too? Yes she is blind, and how would she ever find her crutches and get to the bathroom if it wasn’t for Antonio? So please excuse Antonio, he’s a good boy and we don’t know what we would ever do if he flunked English and would flunk out of school and not get a good job and support us when we get old…
On and on it would go. He knew those notes were fakes, but he thought to himself, “How can these kids be so creative and write so well on an excuse notes, and be so ignorant and messy on their regular homework?” So he got an idea. His next assignment was for each person in the class to write an excuse note for an absence from school. “The bigger the lie, the better,” he told them, adding, “I know you can do it.” The response was amazing. The papers came out, the pencils got busy, the class was silent, and even when the bell rang, nobody moved. He had to tell them to get out, and the writing that was turned in that day was the best of the year.
So McCourt kept going with the idea. The next day he told them to write an excuse note to their parents on why they got home late; then, to write an excuse for their boss on why they missed work and forgot even to call him to tell him they wouldn’t be there; and then, “Write an excuse note to your boyfriend and girlfriend on why you went out with someone else even though you promised you were going steady.” The students kept quiet and worked hard and the pencils kept going, because now they were doing something practical. Everyone needs excuses; it’s a part of daily life. And the writing kept improving.
Then Mr. McCourt did something a little different. “Your next assignment,” he said, “is to write an excuse for your best friend who just started dating your boyfriend (or girlfriend), you know, the one you thought you were going steady with… Then write an excuse for the kid who went to the cops and blamed you for something that you did not do and got you arrested… Then write an excuse for the father who drinks too much and comes home and beats you up,” etc. And the kids kept writing, although these assignments required some deeper thought. There were even some objections to having to do something so stupid. They wondered why they should have to write an excuse for someone else.
From there on, McCourt goes on to make a different point than I want to make. His goal was to get those kids to write. But along with learning how to write, those kids were learning something about morality; about breaking rules and keeping rules. Kids are kids, and they want to challenge authority and get away with what they can. So they enjoyed being able to write excuses for their own bad behavior. But they learned it was not as easy to excuse the bad behavior of others that had hurt them.
The requirement to write excuses for others would do two things for those students. First of all, it would give them at least a bit of an understanding of the reasons for the rules. When rules are broken, people get hurt. When you are the one getting hurt, you understand that. Secondly, it would force them to try and understand the reasons why someone else would do something that would hurt them. And to try and be understanding is what Jesus would want us to do. (continued…)
Proverbs 26:13 — A sluggard says, “There’s a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!” (Excuses, excuses…)
Luke 14:16-18a — Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ “But they all alike began to make excuses…”
Romans 1:20 — Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Lord, I stand before you, having done wrong in so many ways, and without excuse.
Have mercy on me, a poor sinner.