Oct 01 2012
When I was growing up, I frequently heard people from the South exclaim, “Mercy!” in response to anything overwhelming or extravagant. “Mercy!” could mean that a neighbor’s child had landed in trouble, or that the washing machine had just overflowed. Maybe the temperature had soared above 100 degrees for too many days in a row, or maybe the first bite of a fresh strawberry had been devastatingly delicious. “Mercy!” was the all-purpose equal-opportunity expression of a heart wide open to life’s extremes. The number of exclamation marks signaled just how full that heart was in the moment.
On the other hand, when these same people heard about a neighbor, a friend, even a stranger who had suddenly experienced unexpected relief for a persistent problem, the response was not an exclamation but a sympathetic murmur: “Well, now, isn’t that a mercy?” Maybe the relief had come in the form of a tiny act of kindness that had lightened somebody’s load, or maybe it had descended like a lightning bolt of divine intervention. Either way, the speaker’s response—“isn’t that a mercy”—had a sweetness to it.
Unless, of course, it was dripping with piety. Then it reeked of jealousy and condescension.
But in the best cases, “isn’t that a mercy” conveyed the speaker’s compassion and humility, gratitude and wonder for life’s moments of grace.
Maybe these colloquial uses of the word “mercy” explain why that line from Psalm 23—“surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”—became so evocative for me. To have those unusual, noteworthy gifts—goodness and mercy—infusing your life every day … Well, that would be amazing, maybe even unimaginable! The person who wrote that psalm must have been living in a pipedream.
Yet the evening before I started my first classes at divinity school, those lines from the Twenty-third Psalm suddenly started scrolling through my mind. I was still pretty allergic to the Bible in those days—I hadn’t yet studied it with some jamming liberal professors—but I couldn’t get this poem out of my head. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” Psalm 23 begins. That night, feeling guided and held by something—I wouldn’t have used the word “God” then—I suddenly understood in my bones what the psalmist meant. I was on my path, turned in the direction of the Good, and it was both an extravagant moment of heart-wide-open “Mercy!!!” and a hushed moment of sweet humility and thanks: “Isn’t this a mercy?”
Five years later, I was on an airplane on the eve of my young nephew’s funeral, and I felt drawn again to read the Twenty-third Psalm. But now the words of the poem rang hollow. What comfort could we possibly find in the face of tragic loss? For some reason, I wondered what was the “moment before” the psalmist’s great shout of consolation, so I turned back to Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that psalm begins, before the lament goes on. The writer of the Twenty-second Psalm feels desperately ill and alone, physically, emotionally, spiritually, just as my family did in that moment. Nothing made sense. We were in the “valley of the shadows,” for sure, without “a rod or a staff” to comfort us.
With time, these two very different encounters with the psalms have become linked in my mind and spirit. Life teaches us that the path to the assurance and comfort, the companionship and goodness of the Twenty-third Psalm lies directly through the pain of the Twenty-second. It’s only if we can bring to our experiences of overwhelm a heart open to life’s extremes—“Mercy!!”—that we can awaken to the tiny acts of kindness or the cataclysmic forces of change that will help relieve us of our troubles. “Isn’t that a mercy?” we then murmur as, alongside our life’s companions, we make it once more through the storm.
It’s quite a journey, isn’t it? One of you has said that the process of forgiveness, too, feels like a “hero’s journey.” This makes me wonder: That old-fashioned word “mercy” is now often translated as “kindness” or “love” in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. What happens if we focus mindfully on the moments of in-breaking kindness and love in our lives—those times of “mercy”? Well, our hearts grow with compassion for our suffering and for others’. Once that occurs, couldn’t we then sidle up to the difficult task of forgiveness? With our hearts softened, we would be ready to take the path toward comfort and assurance, kindness and companionship–the path toward the Good.
And wouldn’t that be a mercy?
Come, step onto the path with us as you read the reflections offered here and then join us for worship and fellowship this month. Mercy!! How good it will be to be together!
With my love,
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