shame and mercy

"Maybe I'm ashamed of the way I need you."

-Paul McCartney, "Maybe I'm Amazed"

The title of this post may seem a bit obscure and there really is no way I can explain it without writing a book. In fact I've already written that book and am trying to get it published, but I'm not going to post the whole thing here. Suffice it to say that one chapter deals explicitly with the relationship between shame and mercy. I think there is a very close kinship between the two, and it is can be positive and not instead of negative.

I'm thinking about this because of what I wrote last night in "reading is expensive." In that post I somewhat selfishly and unashamedly mentioned my desire (lust) for two books as well as the presence of a link to my amazon wishlist on this page. I'm the master of subtlety as you well know.

I wrote that post because 1.) I really did want those two books. 2.) My mom and my wife both read this blog. 3.) I didn't think anybody else would even consider getting any of the items on my wishlist for me.

So guess what? Another blogger purchased the two books I mentioned and had them sent to me.

I am grateful, extremely so. I'm also somewhat ashamed. My benefactor probably had no intention whatsoever of shaming me. I think he is simply a very kind and compassionate person and brother in Christ who wanted to give away a blessing. What he did is something we all should do lots more of: give ourselves away.

Why did I feel a twinge of shame? I'm not exactly sure. Maybe because I don't really enjoy feeling indebted to other people while at the same time I recognize that we each incur a debt to others simply by occupying space in the world. Think about it for a minute before you say that's not so. Just about anything you do in a given day takes something from the world that could be used by someone else. The world is a big place so most of these subtractions are miniscule and barely worth mentioning, but they do exist. Over the course of a lifetime, all of us make an uncountable number of withdrawals.

Or maybe I'm ashamed simply because I wrote that post and put it out there for the entire world to see when I could just as easily have reminded my wife, my mom and dad, my sister and brother that I have an amazon wishlist and they should use it before they run out of pre-Christmas shopping days.

Or maybe I'm ashamed because an almost complete stranger did something nice for me.

I know, you're thinking, "He's over-analyzing this. It was a gift!" You're probably right.

But you see... there is a relationship between shame and mercy. There is a certain type of shame that is brought about by just the right act of mercy (the Hebrew word is hesed: kindness or loving-kindness); a shame that highlights our unworthiness but doesn't prevent us from receiving a blessing; maybe it even accentuates the blessing when it comes. It is a shame that motivates us to extend the same kind of mercy we've received. We'll get the chance sooner or later. Let's call this holy shame; or if you don't like theological language, positive shame. It's not a shame we can or should inflict on someone else. All we can do is stand ready to extend mercy, hesed, loving-kindness, and then let it do its work.

To the giver: Thank you. Your kindness yielded a harvest that was disproportionate to what was sown. You can be sure that I will pass it on.

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