Photo Credit: Stephanie Strauss Hall
There’s a lot of talk about mercy in the church right now, and in all generations, but especially this year, thanks to Pope Francis. I have been given several opportunities to speak about it. But everywhere I go, there is at least one person who says something like, “Of course. Mercy. In all its abundance. But mercy cannot contradict the truth. It isn’t merciful if we do not state the truth of things.”
I understand the sentiment of this question, the concern that all our emphasis on mercy is a reckless abandonment of all the cautions and convictions that might have prevented, in the first place, the tragedy that requires a merciful approach. And yet, each time the question arises, it keeps pushing on a door in my heart that is holding back a wellspring of tears. It rubs me in a place that is still raw. The question triggers a wave of emotion in me that I need several paragraphs and a story to explain.
First, I need to return to a biology lab in my highschool, over fifteen years ago, where a teacher and trusted mentor of mine helped me face an embarrassing and public mistake I made as a student leader. This man held my tears and my anger, my regret and my embarrassment. He prepared me to face the consequences of my action with confidence. He stood with me when it would have been much easier to distance himself from me. He did not tell me what I had done wrong; he didn’t need to because I already knew. He taught me about mercy using expletives and laughter, sitting face to face with me on lab stools over the remnants of dissection.
Mercy is always a simple willingness to love one other precisely within our brokenness. And, mercy is a wave we are washed by, rather than a stone or a stick we can hold. Waves have three stages, a trough, an equilibrium and a crest, and each of these stages can teach us something about how we approach one another with mercy.
First, the trough. In my experience, we need mercy because we have fallen. Sometimes we can see our brokenness and sometimes we cannot, but either way, there is a pain, hurt or wrong. This puts the person receiving mercy in a particularly vulnerable position, and the person extending mercy into a position of power. Waves can be beautiful, but they are also powerful, and they can plough us over as easily as lift us up.
Next, the equilibrium. In the middle of the wave, the water rests at exactly the same point as it rested before the energy of the wave pushed it down and the same point it will return to after it is lifted. It feels good to offer mercy to someone in need, but it is not mercy if what we offer is a patronizing, “I told you so…” or a conditional, “I will let you off the hook this time…”. This is why we find it so difficult to receive mercy, too. We do not see ourselves as worthy of mercy, but deserving of punishment and rejection. Too often, we have been indebted to those who offered relief at a price. Mercy, by contrast, is offering love to the broken by the broken.
Finally, the crest rises out of that compassion. Both the giver and receiver of mercy are lifted, for a time, by the energy of reaching toward one another. The lessons come after the wave of mercy, in hindsight, as we look back and realize more fully the grace and joy of being human, of being given the freedom to fail and to try again.
While praying over my belly while pregnant with my son, I heard a message from him that only had meaning in the months and years that followed. He said to me, by some miracle of grace, “Let me wash you, Mom.” And the image that accompanied the words were waves washing up around my body on a beach. For the next two years, I would be trying to crawl out of depression, a low that threatened to pull me under, and gradually raised me up.
Carrying him, inside of me and outside, learning how to love from weakness instead of strength, learning how to ask for help and receive it: all of these experiences were waves of mercy. I do not go there very willingly, because the waves are cold and my genetic predisposition for terrible timing make me a very bad surfer.
Waves, like life, are governed by the truth and laws of the universe, authored by the God of all creation. Reiterating the truth or emphasizing the broken law serves only to strip mercy of its power to make us feel worthy of trying again. After we are washed from the fall and rising again, we can begin again, learning from the grace of mercy.
When we find ourselves sputtering, choking under an unexpected wave, may we find a hand to steady us. May we be willing to let go into the trough that we might be lifted to the crest. May we step gently and carefully into the water to ride the waves alongside those who are drowning. And may we all be washed by the mercy that we never deserved but have been freely offered by the God who became flesh to ride the waves with us.
If you want to hear more from me on mercy, check out the events calendar for events in Saskatoon and the surrounding area on March 6, 14, and 17, 2016.