Just Between the Two of Us

Go and show him his fault, between thee and him alone.

–Matthew 18:15–

            I shall never forget the first time I met Cindy Gibson way back in our Moravian College days.  She very discretely told me that I had something green on my front tooth!  I liked her then and there, because I knew I could trust her.  We became fast friends.

            Upon reflection, it seems the people whom I love and respect most in life are the very people who have been the most critical of me, but in a very private way.  Today, especially with social media, we are fond of criticizing one another for all the world to see and hear.  As I said, however, I most respect those who have criticized me privately.

            There was Dr. Dennis Glew, who gave me a C- on a history paper and wrote some very constructive comments thereon.  Up until that time, I had always suspected that my teachers gave me good grades in school because they felt sorry for a legally blind student.  I am sure that one or two of them actually did.  Yet here was a C- staring me in the face and a professor who was not shy about giving me the grades I really deserved.  What was my reaction?  I determined to work my tail off in Dr. Glew’s course until I got an A.  That is exactly what I did, and the good professor is still one of my favorite teachers.

            Then there was the Scripture professor who gave me an F on a term paper for plagiarism.  Oh yes, I footnoted everything scrupulously with some sixty-eight citations, but I did not change the words of my various sources enough to justify my not using quotation marks.  I was, in point of fact, more lazy and stupid than dishonest!  Yet looking back, I would much rather have gotten an F from Professor Howard Cox at Moravian Theological Seminary than from any of my subsequent profs at Harvard Divinity School.  They would not have been as sympathetic.  Professor Cox had done me an inestimable kindness.

           As an aside, having been a teacher for twenty-four years, I really respect those parents who do not make unwarranted excuses for their children’s poor grades.  Unfortunately, there are “helicopter parents” and “bulldozer parents” who will defend their children tooth and nail against teachers who refuse to lavish As on students who do not perform.  These parents will behave in this way even when the irrefutable evidence for cheating or plagiarism is right before their eyes.  Such parents are doing their sons and daughters no favors but are simply postponing and intensifying the inevitable storm of reckoning.  With parents like that, who needs enemies? 

            On my list of most respected people, I must include Father Thomas Baddick who, when I was fairly newly ordained, pulled me aside and critiqued the way I celebrated Mass.  In my youthful arrogance, I had not been sticking to the rubrics but was doing my own thing.   Father Tom was acting in my own best interest, and I shall always be grateful to him for that. 

            One more instance, though the list could go on and on.  Believe it or not, someone who is now my very close friend (and who shall here remain nameless) once told me, “Father, you have not yet given your heart to Jesus.”  My friend was right.  (I hope I have since rectified this.)

            Now don’t get me wrong.  All these experiences were anything but pleasant.  Only with hindsight have I come to realize that the individuals who dropped these bombshells of criticism were really acting out of love, trying to make me a better person, a better scholar, a better priest.  How can I not love and respect people like that?

            Jesus taught us the value of fraternal correction.  If I see my brother or sister in Christ doing something wrong, I need to confront that person gently.  Either the person will respect or perhaps even grow to love me (“Reprove a wise man, and he will love you,” says Proverbs 9:8), or the person will want nothing at all to do with me.  In the former instance, I gain a friend, or at least someone who respects me.  In the latter scenario, I offend someone who wants nothing to do with the truth.  In either case, I lose nothing.  Thus we can be courageous when engaging in needed fraternal correction.

            But wait a minute.  Before we begin attempting to reform everyone we know, we need to remember another teaching of Jesus.  I cannot take the speck out of my brother’s eye without first removing the plank from my own (Matthew 7:5).  That’s where true friends come in, and we’ve come full circle.