I adore cats. I don't currently belong to one, and I suspect I'd get annoyed with the hair in the house if I did. But as a kid, I had several.
My most memorable? Frederica, the calico. Freddy, for short. She was beautiful, a good mouser, and a prolific mother--much to my parents' annoyance. Each batch Frederica delivered would invariably contain the same combination of three kittens: a calico like herself, which we'd name Harriet; an orange and white one we would name Elmer; and a solid orangey/brown one named John. We borrowed the names from the three Wiebe brothers—local single fellows who frequented our home. Since calico cats are always females, Harry became Harriet.
It was a dark day when the elderly Mrs. Dumanski from across the street came over asking in her thick German accent whether the dead cat in the middle of the road was ours. I asked her to repeat the question, but by that time my mother had come to my rescue. I waited in my room while Mom hurried out to check.
It was Freddy. A car had hit her while she carried home a mouse for her babies. A family friend took Freddy’s body to the beach where he gave her a respectful burial.
I mourned for weeks, fearing that God was punishing me. You see, just days earlier I’d been playing at my cousin’s house and our aunt caught us smoking homemade cigarettes on the back steps. I had rolled the “cigarettes” from torn newspaper and stuffed them with recently mowed grass. It’s a miracle we didn’t set fire to the whole place!
Here’s the thing. Why did I assume God was punishing me? Had I been taught this, or did I put it together myself? Had the children’s song, “Oh be careful little hands what you do…” given me a skewed picture of a Father up above, looking down in love, arranging for a car to drive over my beloved cat because I had led my younger cousin astray? The guilt made my sorrow still deeper and I felt miserable.
Years later, I would learn the difference between “punishment” and “discipline.”
A wise parent knows the best kind of discipline matches the crime. After repeated warnings about slamming a bedroom door, Dad removes a child’s door from its hinges for a week. Dishonoring curfew results in grounding. An abused computer gets taken away. Logical, appropriate consequences bring about the growth and improvement of the one disciplined.
Punishment, on the other hand, simply makes the criminal pay with little concern over whether rehabilitation is even possible.
God disciplines his children in love. But our punishment was paid by someone other than us -- also in love.
Now, when I look back at that brokenhearted little girl weeping over her lost pet and taking the blame, I know that what I needed then was the same outrageous grace I would need every day of my life. I can easily picture Jesus pulling her into his lap, holding her tight, and comforting her.
“It’s okay to be sad,” he tells her. “I know you loved Freddy, but you did not do this. This is just life in a broken world. Your sin is covered already. You will never pay for it. You can never pay for it. I already have.”
And that is the story of Easter.