On August 17 I posted a blog about two people who faced deeply personal trials that were life threatening. (One of the things I hoped to accomplish in that blog was to urge each of us to realize that we face death every single day!) In that blog I referred to the passing of Carol Bugh on August 11. Carol battled cancer for about a year and left behind a wonderful husband, children and an active ministry. Carol was the beloved wife of my friend Dr. Rob Bugh, the senior pastor of Wheaton Bible Church. I wrote of Carol’s intense desire to live but noted her readiness to depart to be with Christ. This story was correct. But I made a big mistake with the rest of the story that day.
In seeking to draw a sharp contrast between Carol Bugh’s hope of life after death I also referred to a man named Ralph Russo. I compared Mr. Russo’s expressions about dealing with ALS with Carol’s comments about her own future beyond the grave. In so doing I made a huge mistake that I now deeply regret. Let me explain this more fully since I owe an open apology to Ralph, his family, and to thousands of readers who read this blog.
My first mistake in writing this story was quite simple. I accepted the story as reported in the suburban newspaper at face value. I could have contacted Mr. Russo personally but did not. My second mistake was to take the few quotations that appeared in the newspaper as a complete reflection of Ralph Russo’s views about life and death. I concluded that he was a “happy Stoic” and that he faced his trials nobly but without the hope that Carol Bugh expressed. My third mistake was that I harmed Ralph Russo personally by putting my incorrect conclusions together on a blog that anyone could then read. I was soon to learn how wrong I had been in these comments.
Several weeks ago Ralph Russo wrote me a strong, but very fair, personal letter. A family member had found my blog while doing some “Google” research about Ralph and their family. This led Ralph to read my blog and then to write me. I was mortified by Ralph’s very insightful corrections of my errors. He referred to my “lack of editorial professionalism” and my “passing judgment about his faith, life,” etc. He also asked how I—a writer, professor and minister of the gospel—could publish such an unfair piece about him without bothering to get his views? I read this letter several times, prayed a good bit about it and then wrote Ralph a complete apology that asked his forgiveness. I then prayed for Ralph that he would see my heart in the matter and that he would accept my apology in good faith. His response was so incredibly gracious that I can’t begin to explain how kind he really was to me. In fact, we have had several contacts through emails. I plan to meet Ralph face-to-face soon.
The bottom line is that I have absolutely no doubt that Ralph Russo has forgiven me. In fact, I have to say that he has shown more grace than I could have imagined through genuine expressions of real kindness. I am quite sure that Ralph has a whole lot to teach me about life, hope and love. I am also sure that he is not a “happy Stoic.” He is a man of good will, faith and deep love.
I have learned several things through this experience. First, be very careful what you say or write publicly. Once you say something publicly anyone can read it and many will. The Scripture is very clear about this and warns us repeatedly to be careful. Second, do not believe everything that you read in the newspapers. In fact, question just about everything that quotes a source and makes conclusions from those sources. If Christian love “believes the best” about others then all of us who follow Christ should make such love our true aim. I did not do that with a man I did not know, assuming the paper accurately represented his views. It never dawned on me that Ralph Russo might find my blog and challenge me about how wrong I was. Third, when you are wrong just admit it. I’ve found that some people will not forgive you. I have had Christians, who should know better, tell me point blank, “I will not forgive you.” This kind of response frightens me in the light of the clear teaching of Jesus. Ralph Russo not only forgave me but he reached out to me as a friend and then treated me as if this had never happened. (By the way, that is what forgiveness is and does. If we ask God to forgive us he promises, for the sake of Christ’s sacrifice, to treat us as if we had not sinned!)
I hope to be a better writer and a better Christian because of Ralph Russo’s correction of my egregious errors. I know that I will read, and hopefully write, much more carefully in the future. I wanted to make a good point about Carol Bugh’s faith. I think I accomplished that. In the process I also made a bad point about Ralph Russo. That was wrong and is unacceptable. I am grateful that God directed Ralph to find this blog and then to correct me as a man. I am hopeful that out of my mistake God will bring much good. One obvious good that has come form my mistake is that I can now tell readers of this blog to be careful about what you say and write. Blogs can become a coward’s mountaintop upon which you can tell the world whatever you desire to say without personal accountability. I failed in this instance. I pray I have learned from that failure. I know how to write responsibly thus I am even more committed to that process than ever. I am sure that I will not get my facts right at times thus I will continue to need correction and criticism. I also need men like Ralph Russo who have the courage to challenge me in the right way. Thanks Ralph. I give thanks to God for you.
(I composed these comments on Thanksgiving Day and submitted them to Ralph to read before publishing them. He told me not to beat myself up unduly but to move on, which I deeply appreciate.)