Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Severe Mercy

This week my roll as manager collided with my roll as friend. It’s not the first time, but it may be the most pronounced. Details are unnecessary.  The silhouette is this- I uncovered a pattern of which I had to alert loss prevention.  Their investigation led to the termination of an employee whom I consider a friend. What she did was wrong, but I would not consider it grievous - probably more a reflection of foolishness than impiety.  Still, there are consequences for decisions made.

This is a young woman with a full plate. Large helpings of family conflict, relational turmoil, and health concerns leave little room for this heaping spoonful of unemployment and its accompanying side dish of financial struggle. I’d like to be far removed from this buffet.  Instead, my prints are on the serving spoon.

My head and my heart are at odds.  Even knowing I did the right thing, I still find guilt lurking around the edges of my disappointment – guilt for hurting a friend.  To conceal what I knew would have made me an accomplice, jeopardizing my job as well as hers.  So I tipped the first domino and watched the rest tumble.  I knew where it would end.

As whistleblower, I feel somewhat responsible.  Now I want some assurance that what I did was not only right, but good. To think that I have hurt a friend is unsettling.  I know it was just, but what of mercy? If mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13), have I plunged into the wrong side of the pool? 

Or maybe these aren’t really at odds at all.  This may be a severe mercy.
                  Severe – adj. strict, painful or distressing, hard to endure.
                 Mercy – n. show of pity or leniency, divine blessing
An odd pair, these two.  Severe is jagged, rough, extreme, gritty, Mercy is smooth, gentle, subtle, tender. Severe sounds rock hard; mercy sounds pillow soft.  There is a tension pulling them apart.  But this is tension like magnetism – a tension that can be harnessed. 

Electric motors are built on the principle of the repulsion between like magnetic charges.  Two positive terminals in proximity repel each other.  This repulsion creates motion that is harnessed in a spinning axel.  Inertia is overcome. 

Severe mercy carries this same tension that, when harnessed, overcomes inertia in ways that nothing else can.  Painful or distressing circumstances can move me from complacency.  There are times when gentle mercy is not forceful enough to rouse me from my slumber, only severe mercy will do. 

I borrow this phrase - “a severe mercy” - from a book by the same title by Sheldon Vanauken. In it, he recounts his struggle to come to terms with the death of his beloved wife - a death that certainly qualifies as “severe.”  In the end he comes to realize that her death, painful as it was, was to his benefit.  He grew through grief in ways he never could have otherwise.  Foresight could not have predicted it and would not have chosen it.  But having lived it, Vanauken can see that the benefit outweighed the cost.   And so he discovered the meaning of,  “a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.”

The writer of Hebrews says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful, Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11).  He is speaking of spiritual discipline.  It is a severe mercy - painful at the planting, but bountiful in the harvesting.

I trust the same can be said of my role as whistleblower.  This is the wound of a friend - a friend who cares enough to risk the friendship in the hopes of growth.  In the long run I hope she matures through this.  May this seed sown produce a bountiful harvest - one that would not be possible without first breaking up the fallow ground (Hosea 10:12).  Time will flesh that out. 

In the aftermath, she asked me not to be mad at her.  Mad?  I’m not mad.  I’ve made mistakes bigger than this in my life. But I’ve had twice as much time for those seeds to grow.  It’s easy to see the harvest and lose sight of the planting.  But any fruit was preceded by deep furrows.  Failure has moved me forward.  In my journey, mercy has been truly severe at times – more than I ever would have fathomed.  Severe and truly merciful.  

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  1. Thanks for this very timely reminder, Phil. Many years ago I cried my way through "A Severe Mercy," and although I have thought about re-reading it, I haven't done so. Maybe I will. :)

  2. HOW I GOT MY LOVER BACKDecember 14, 2012 at 4:55 PM

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