Carried by Mercy

Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh

One afternoon, needing a break from preparing a lecture, Charles Dickens took an afternoon stroll in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard. In his journal, he described how one gravestone’s etchings caught his attention: “Ebenezer Lennon Scroogie—A Mean Man.” Dickens mulled the stark description, concocting a story of a miserly man so harsh and joyless to deserve such an epitaph. A Christmas Carol was born.

However, Dickens had misread. The inscription said meal man, not mean man. The real Scroogie was a corn merchant (known as a “meal man”). He was gregarious and beloved and apparently a merry-maker at all the parties. A mistake (merely replacing an n with an l), led to one of our most beloved stories.

Dickens spent decades honing his craft, diligent and disciplined. With characters and sentences, he was a literary savant. Still, without that one stroll in an old graveyard, without one odd encounter where he misread a single word, he’d never have written this monumental tale. Dickens’ masterpiece wasn’t something he controlled, but a whim of grace. The word for this is mercy.

mercy (noun) compassionate or kindly forbearance offered to one in need or to one who does not possess the power to remedy their situation

Today is the eighth day of Christmas, and it also happens to be the day when we turn the calendar to a new year. Maybe we’re revving for a fresh start, fresh beginnings, new possibilities. But maybe we’re numbed by regret or loneliness or grief.

Whatever our story, sooner or later we’ll all be in need of compassion and forbearance. Eventually, all of us need help. Each of us need a generous God to bend toward us. We may work hard to pretend otherwise, but none of us have final control over our lives or our future. We’re responsible to do the best we can, but then we have to relent. We have to trust grace to be tender and kind.

All of us are carried by mercy. All of us.

Words: Yours. And Mine.

For the first time, I’ve boarded the word for the year train. These sorts of things have to show up at your door unannounced, and for whatever reason, my bell never rang.

For a while, Miska’s had these annual encounters where a word arrives, vivid and undeniable. Given that I’ve married a mystic, I’ve found myself imagining what these moments are like for her. I’m sure she appreciates that. I imagine my mystic wife walking over the knoll of one of Ireland’s green hills (where else would such a fantasy be?). The grey mist knits a silky silhouette of her lovely shape. There’s always music, haunting Irish music. Then the word appears. The word may be aflame or carved into a rock. My favorite is when the word arrives from the voice of a man who has (of course) a strong Irish lilt, a man who is (of course) St. Patrick.

This year, I love Miska’s word. A future year, I could imagine it being mine. But it’s not – and that’s the crucial revelation. You can’t snag another person’s word. You can’t even snag another person’s conviction that you need to have a word. You can’t steal another’s word and you can’t steal another’s life and you can’t steal another’s voice or opportunity or physique. You have to find your own — find your own way, find your own self.

You’ll never meet your surprise guest so long as you’re waiting at everyone else’s front door.

Surprise Yourself

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.  
{Neil Gaiman}

Toward the New

And we begin again.

When the calendar turns, we do not erase what was; but, gathering the wisdom from the scuffs as well as the shining moments, we move beyond, forward. We learn from our mistakes. We remember and adjust. We take joy in all the laughter and love we have known in past days. We gather ourselves for the good we hope will come. And it will. Good will come.

Of course, everything we experience won’t be good – and some things that we’re certain aren’t good actually will be. Funny how that happens. But good awaits you. In some form. In some surprising place. Even now, good is waiting for you.

If your year past has been filled with failure or pain, do not despise it. There are years yet for the God of kindness to craft something of it. If your year past has been a coup of joy, savor it. Don’t hold it too tightly – it isn’t yours to possess. But savor it for the gift it is.

Either way, the new begins again. Not a negation of the past – no, even better: a creative remaking. A beginning. Again.


If you don’t know the writer Robert Benson, you should. He offered a gift of words for the New Year. I hope you’ll have the joy of receiving them.