Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why We Need To Forgive Mark Shea

A good friend forwarded me a blog post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, In Defense of Mark Shea. I haven't kept up with Mark Shea's writings because frankly, I was one of many who were turned off by his tone. I remembered thinking to myself, "Here we go, again. I wonder who Mark has taken potshots at this time which requires someone to defend him..."

My own mea culpa

Well, I was wrong. Turns out Shea was delivering a huge mea culpa to everyone for his behavior, which he admitted had been bitter. The post is surprisingly detailed as Shea opened up his heart and not only confessed that he knew he had acted bitter with people, but why he did. He revealed a tender spot in his relationship with God (emphasis mine):

One of the things that lives under the rocks in my heart has been a deep and abiding fear, a kind of heart conviction about the universe that long predates any conscious relationship with God I formed as an adult (recall that I was not raised Christian). I’m not saying it’s a truth about the universe. I’m saying it’s something more like a broken bone in my soul that never knit right. And what it comes down to is a pattern of assuming that I am, at best, a tool of God, not a son of God and certainly not somebody God loves.  And with that has been a fear that, at the end of the day, once my utility to God is spent I would be tossed away like a candy bar wrapper.

Shea has admitted a weakness that is true for many of us, namely, that we have to work for God's love and earn it by faithfully demonstrating a mastery of the gifts He gave us. We think the more we do this, the more we are valued by Him. In essence, it's a performance issue and one that has many, many facets. Too many to go into here and actually not my business because this has to do with Shea's own spiritual formation, not mine.

The dark night of the soul, but we are not alone

But I can fully vouch for such a wrestling of the mind and spirit because for anyone who wants to be told, "Well done, my good and faithful servant...," they need to understand that God's great love and mercy for us is not dependent on our "deliverables" (if you will pardon my using a term from my business vocabulary), but is an expression of His perfect grace. (Romans 5)

As tempting as it is to delve into that aspect (perhaps, for another post), I want to focus on Shea's contrition. I do not agree with Fr. Longenecker's assessment that it was not necessary. I believe it was absolutely vital that Mark Shea apologize to those he had wronged after recognizing his error precisely because it was in obedience to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Who else can convict our hard-headed and hard-hearted ways? Certainly not the most persuasive spiritual director or admired mentor. Without the Holy Spirit, we are doomed to make the same mistakes over, and over again. The Holy Spirit speaks truth many times, often gently as we kneel in silence after communion or when we contemplate Scripture. Suddenly, BAM! That soft, insistent, and terrible truth comes forth from the Counselor: You have sinned in this area and I am calling you to repent.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.(St. John 16:7-11, RSV)

I don't need no stinkin' apology...

When someone publicly admits they have been in the wrong, there is a tendency in us to want our own pound of flesh. "Yeah, you say you're sorry... but what about this instance? And when you said that? Plus, I don't believe you. You'll likely go back to doing the same thing again!"

Not only is this unfair but it is un-Christlike. I'll speak for myself, here, only because I have said the above and more when it came to someone making a public act of repentance.

It is not my job to evaluate how sincere someone is when they repent, or if they'll be successful in avoiding the same sin again. My job as a Christian is simple. I accept the act of repentance with joy and bless my brother and sister for the faith, humility, and strength it took to make it.

St. Peter wishing Jesus would finally lower the boom...

Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"

I remember the first time I read these words by St. Peter. I thought, Hmm. I wonder who ticked him off?

I suspect he was looking for Jesus to respond by saying, "Seven times is more than enough, Peter. Look, you gave the person seven opportunities to make things right and if they're STILL screwing it up, then by golly you're justified in kicking them to the curb! That's it! They're outta here!"

But of course Jesus said no such thing. (Thank you, Lord!)  Here is what he said:

Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.  (St. Matthew 18:21-22, RSV)

For those keeping score (and boy, how we love to do that), that's 490 times. That would be a notebook's worth of forgiveness-keeping, which even the most dutiful and detail-oriented person would probably tire of after the 50th entry.

Jesus then went on to share The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. (St. Matthew 18:23-35) In a nutshell, a servant was shown mercy by a king. The servant owed the king ten thousand talents but was unable to pay it. When the king said the servant, his family, and all his possessions would need to be sold to settle his account, the servant begged for mercy. The king was moved and forgave the servant his debt.

Then the servant went along his merry way and did something that wasn't so smart. He found another servant who owed him a hundred denarii and demanded repayment.

Just to give you an idea of the difference between a talent and a denarius: A denarius was a Roman silver coin weighing about 4 grams, a day''s wages for a common laborer or soldier. A talent, a unit of weight for gold or silver, typically weighed about 33kg (75 lb) varying from 20 to 40 kg.

How many denariis would it take to make 10,000 talents? 

88,831,168.83 (Source)

So this servant, who owed the king much, much more than what his fellow servant owed him, didn't seem to appreciate the irony. He threw his fellow servant in prison until he repaid his debt.

This didn't sit too well with the other servants. They high-tailed it back to the king and and spilled the beans. Their master was none too pleased.

His response?

Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?'

Jesus wrapped up the parable by saying this:

So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." (St. Matthew 18:32-35, RSV)

We are reminded of the requirement to forgive every time we pray The Lord's Prayer:

"... and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors..." (St. Matthew 6:12, RSV)

Gratitude for a new attitude

This is why I need to forgive Mark Shea. As much as I found his online behavior repellant and divisive, he has repented and asked for forgiveness. Even if he hadn't asked for forgiveness, I was still required to forgive him if offended.

But now that he has taken the bold step in being transparent with his soul, I am especially called to forgive him, no holds barred and with no fine print attached.

I don't involve myself with online arguments because to be honest, I don't see much spiritual fruit borne from it. I don't consider this intellectual cowardice but a desire to shift the focus away from my intellect and instead, toward God. What more could I add to the conversation when we're speaking of the divine act of our heavenly Father bestowing an unfathomable act of mercy upon me, allowing His perfect and holy Son, Jesus Christ to die for my sins?

Yes, I love to think. Yes, I love to ask the deep questions. But when it comes to my behavior toward my brothers and sisters in Christ, I'd rather find the common ground than the uncommon. This is the Year of Faith. For me, I know my time is better spent living a life of faith rather than telling someone else how to live theirs. This isn't easy, I know. I've already done quite a bit of the latter with this very post.

But the bottom line is this: when a fellow brother or sister in Christ asks for forgiveness, we give it -- fully, abundantly, and with great gladness of the heart.

It's much better than throwing someone in prison.