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.

Adventing God

Eberhard Grossgasteiger

Adventing God,

I’ve heard Gaza called a “graveyard for children.” They say 7,870 children are dead. 7,870. Some say the number’s inflated. But even if we cut it in half, God, then we’re saying only 3,935 children lie in that cold earth. What relief is that? And the children mark only the beginning of all the death.

And God, in Israel, whole families and kibbutzes are obliterated, shattered. Families of 1,210 murdered daughters, fathers, babies, and friends engulfed in the shroud of grief. And so many hostages trapped in terror’s grip. Will they ever come home? What home will they have if they return?

God, when I ask you to advent, to arrive…when I join the prophets and the ancients and ask you to pierce the night with a blinding, potent love, to crush every evil and to somehow remake our horrors into something we can call good — I’m praying about exactly these nightmares.

And I’m praying about all the evil that has touched me. And all the evil that I’ve done. I’m praying about all the evils that we have done to one another, and all the evils that we keep doing.

God, give us a vision for the shalom you promise is coming. But God, would you hurry up and bring it? Truth is, the waiting’s impossible to understand. And since I can already hear you asking me what exactly I’m doing to live your shalom, I’ll also pray for you to start with me. There’s a lot to be undone in me, a lot to be healed. I suspect the healing will hurt, but I need it.

We need the healing, God. Forgive us. And so, I’ll ask once more: Please, Advent. We’re killing, and we’re dying.

Amen.

Advent Ache

Artem Balashevsky, Vitebsk, Belarus

Olga Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s mother-in-law, was disillusioned by the emptiness of the new ideologies and in her latter years returned to her Russian Orthodox Christian faith. Of course, only fools from the old, naive world clung to such fairy tales. Humans had evolved to higher truths. They didn’t need God anymore.

While Stalin and the adults seemed to have ignored her as a simpleton, the grandchildren mocked her. “Tell us, Babushka? Where is your soul? Show us where your soul is.”

Olga answered quietly: “I can’t show you your soul, but you will know it when it aches.”

I can’t exactly explain Advent to you, but you will know it by the ache.

In Advent, we voice the ache. In Advent, we name how the sorrows have piled up, how the wars (despite all our prayers and policies) grind on, how despair closes its icy grip. The marriage is still dead. The child still hurts. We’re enraged. Or disillusioned. Or numb.

And beneath it all, steady burns the ache. Yet if we let this weary throb do its deep work, we may find ourselves praying alongside the prophet. God, rend the Heavens and come down. Rip the sky, God. Rip my heart. Do something in this aching world.

We lift our eyes. We lift our eyes, and we ache.

The Human Side

There’s a constant pull (whether overtly named or seductively inherent in our frothy zeitgeist) to take sides. So, I’ll be plain.

I’m on the human side. I’m for every elder, every child, every human person. I’m for every human of every ethnicity, every history, every political persuasion, every religion. I’m for people I disagree with. I long for their well-being, their safety, for them to experience mercy and goodness.

Because I’m bound to the Jesus story, I long to be the kind of person, God help me, who embraces every human as my brother and sister. I must do so, not as an act of charity but sanity, knowing as I do that every human is created, like me, by God the Father. This being trust, I must be for those I’m supposed to view as enemies as well as those assumed to be friends.

This means I’m opposed to all that degrades dignity, all that kills innocent life. I’m opposed to murder, and I’m opposed to revenge.

These basics don’t by any means answer all our horrific realities or the calculations that must be made (though we must admit that our blinders too often limit our possibilities). But these convictions absolutely rule out a whole range of postures, rhetoric, and ideologies.

I don’t live this ethic out consistently, not by a long shot. But it’s my hope. Christ have mercy.

A Prayer to the Christ Who Walks Amid the Suffering

Icon of Christ Pantocrator, from Egypt mid 6th century

Living Christ, you say you are always with those who suffer, with those who are crushed and terrified, with all who are drowned by sorrow and rage. And since I take you at your word, this means that you walk this very moment in Israel and Gaza, among the millions who are tear-stained and grief-stricken. You walk among the corpses in desolate kibbutzes and cratered City streets. You bend your ear toward the thunderous wails of lament.

Suffering Christ, you once shed tears on this same soil. You wept. Surely you weep again. As you make your way among the shattered children who now have no parent to sing away the fear — sing a song over them. As you walk these rubbled neighborhoods, remind us that in our terror and in our retribution, we kill our brothers and our sisters.

Risen Christ, your resurrection story seems ludicrous, naive, especially when war burns hot. How do we live your resurrection amid a conflict so ancient and entrenched, so extreme in its inhumanity, so lopsided in its disbursement of power? Teach us to seek justice in just ways. Teach us that “they” — all of us — are your beloved.

Living Christ, you teach us to pray, “on earth as in heaven.” You teach us to live “on earth as in heaven.” This death and destruction, we know, is not heaven. None of it. Give us life. Stop our killing. Protect the innocent. Give us justice. Give us mercy.

Merciful Christ, save us from ourselves.

The Truest Story is Grace

Gazing out my window on a recent late-night flight, I was struck by how many stories there are out there, so many broken dreams and shattered promises. So many ways we hurt each other, wound creation, self-destruct.

Not one of us, even the best among us, can say with a straight face that we’ve no regrets. We hope that in the end our lives have done more good than harm, but we’ve succumbed to selfishness, we’ve nurtured greed, we’ve not loved our neighbor as ourselves.

And here we encounter that old, sturdy, often overused-but-rarely-embraced word: grace. Grace is dangerous, risky. We fear it’s too good to be true. Grace unravels all the shame we hide, all the failures we keep at bay, all the ways we’ve screwed up. And screwed up again.

Grace is the father watching out the window after we’ve run off with the Chevy and the family stash. Grace is the smile waiting behind the door that is always, always open. Grace is delighted laughter when we feared rejection, a warm embrace when we feared distance or reprisal.

So each night when we put our head on the pillow (or try to catch a wink on the red-eye), we rest in the good news that God (not our worst mistakes) tells our story.

And the story is grace.

The Maestro’s Handshake

Trinity Episcopal Church, Apalachicola, FL, 1884

Over the past twenty-six years, our family has made numerous summer treks to St. George Island, a barrier island three miles off Florida’s Forgotten Coast. Apalachicola, the seat of Franklin County, is seven miles of bridge away, and where you go for supplies.

Apalach is Old Florida. Spanish moss and air sticky-thick, like toasted honey. Weathered captains with rickety skiffs. Queen Anne homes with wraparound porches. A cemetery with gnarled trees, washed-out tombstones, and ghost walks. Apalachicola has one flashing yellow light. One biscuit shop. One soda fountain counter. One very small Piggly Wiggly.

Numerous summers, I’ve made my way to Apalachicola’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Erected in 1838, carpenters constructed the white Greek Revival in White Plains, New York, then sailed the pieces around the tip of Florida and all the way back up to the panhandle where they jigsawed everything back together. Trinity is the state’s second oldest active church. Worshipers have been sitting on and kneeling at these same creaky, gorgeous pews for two centuries.

After service every Sunday, there’s a social hour with sweets and coffee. At the passing of the peace, they do it like they mean it. Folks linger and chat. A few look around to catch the eyes of a friend across the room, offering a neighborly nod or the peace symbol. Announcements cover the upcoming bingo night (no charge) with great prizes (art from a parishioner’s daughter and gift certificates to the local grill) and the fabulous response to the school backpack drive (“we’re small but mighty”). If you wanted to feel like an outsider here, you’d have to go after it on purpose.

On my recent visit, two elderly ushers welcomed everyone at the front door, passing out bulletins and a few hugs. One of the ushers with grey thin-cropped hair was the maestro. He had something to say to almost everyone, usually prompting laughter and a slap on the shoulder. If his hearing aids didn’t do their job, he leaned in closer. His way, like his jean shirt and khakis, was easy.

After a simple sermon from a preacher who believed Jesus was actually in the building, it was communion time, and the two ushers carried the offering and elements to the altar. On their way back toward the pews, I watched the maestro stop at the bottom of the platform steps, turn back facing the altar, and wait.

He stood there until the line of people who’d received the Eucharist began to file back past him, toward their seats. As each person stepped off the final step, he grabbed their hand, looked them in the eye, and gave a sturdy handshake. You received the body and blood of Christ, and then you received the warm hand and warmer smile of the maestro. I watched, eyes moist. I couldn’t wait for my turn.

It didn’t take long, the crowd was small. Up from the kneeler at the altar, wine and bread consumed, then only a few steps. He grabbed my hand. His vigorous clutch insisted that this grace I’d just tasted was as real as his grip, and it wouldn’t ever let me go.

I sat down, filled in every way.

After church, I had to say something. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Sir,” grabbing his hand again, “my favorite part of the service was your handshake.” He put his other hand on the back of my neck, like he would a grandson, and squeezed. There was a glint of wonder, a bare knowing, in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said. And he squeezed again.

The human touch. Kind, wise eyes. Another person just standing there, waiting for me. There’s lots of talk these days about the Church’s demise, hand-wringing over what we must do to regain relevance — most of it makes me want to shove a fire poker in my eyeball. Being the church is not easy, to be sure, but the basics are fairly simple.

Hope Is a Dangerous Thing

Trapped inside the caged walls of the Shawshank State Penitentiary, Red tells Andy words that might save him. “Hope is a dangerous thing,” Red says. “It can kill a man.”

Hope rattles us, terrifies even, especially if we’ve lived with our eyes and our heart wide open, especially if we’ve told ourselves the truth about the ache and the lament. One thing’s certain: if we love full throttle and don’t hold our cards close to the chest, we will absolutely face that brutal pain we’re so desperate to avoid: disappointment. Hope is a dangerous thing.

But anything that’s truly good always carries danger with it. If we’re playing it safe, no one’s having kids, no one’s getting married, no one’s going to write a book or a poem or dream of a new tomorrow or follow a carpenter who acts like he’s God. Love and hope and danger—another trinity.

“Hope is a dangerous thing, my friend, it can kill a man,” says Red. “[But] hope is a good thing, maybe even the best of things. And good things never die.”

Hope intrude everywhere. Dangerous hope. Consider these tulips by our mailbox. Every Spring, they insist on this same story. They’re “hopemongers,” as my friend John likes to say. Keep loving. Keep believing. Keep hoping. Good things never die.

Strange Saturday

Something strange is happening today. Beneath the cold, lifeless earth, a flame kindles. The spark we cannot see under the silent, moonless night — the warmth we cannot feel amid all the suffering, the pain, the sorrows, the death — this spark will soon erupt into a roaring, radiating flame of love and life and joy.

We misunderstand if we think of Jesus as merely some metaphysical ideal or the herald of a moral code or the fanciful projection of some poor schmucks just trying to cling to a little hope. Jesus is the healing fire. The fire that burns even in the middle of death’s forgotten country.

Something strange is happening today. Evil and sorrow are having to strain now to hold their grip. Death senses an uneasy rumbling — that ol’ snaggletooth enemy’s getting spooked. As St. Epiphanius said, “God has died in the flesh and Hades trembles with fear.”

It is a strange, strange day. Hold on.

+ + + +

Something strange is happening: There is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hades trembles with fear. {St. Epiphanius of Cyprus}

Tears, Evil, and the Very Near God

Twice yesterday, tears came unbidden. Once when I was listening to my friend Kenneth Tanner proclaim, with clear and stunning conviction, how God is always and in every way the enemy of death, evil, and injustice. It’s remarkable how our theologizing and sermons, our bumbled attempts at comfort, our belabored equivocations in the face of dehumanizing evil, coax us into a gloomy stupor and blunt our unfiltered rage against every violent horror. Our many words (so many) mute the shadow-shattering pronouncement: Jesus is a friend to every human and every creature, but Jesus is a dread enemy to death and evil. I couldn’t stop the tears.

And then last night in the kitchen with Miska, as the yellow curry chicken simmered on the stove, we reflected on a story of devastating tragedy, the sort that would wreck any parent. The conversation opened inside me a larger reckoning with the agonizing pain so many of us carry, that terror and disillusionment that always lurks, just at the edge, ready to pour out its crushing weight. But into this abyss, the good news arrives. God is never far from our suffering, never distant from our despair. If the Cross tells us anything, it’s that amid great suffering — this is where Jesus’ love glimmers most radiant. In Jesus, God descends into the very center of every human horror. My eyes turned moist. God would rather die than leave us alone.

Buechner told us we should pay attention to our tears, especially our unexpected tears, because “more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

My tears tell me that I’ve come from God and that my end is in God. And my tears tell me, I believe, that this is true for you too, true for all of us. Among the many questions that haunt us, I believe this one cuts closest to the bone: Is God truly, deeply, profoundly good and love — and will God be this goodness and love for us always?

Yes. No matter the anguish that crushes you. No matter the tsunamis that overwhelm you. No matter the loneliness that presses upon you. No matter how far you run. In Jesus, God stands with you, inside your dismay, closer than your breath, opposing all that is evil without us and within us, whispering to us the truth of God’s powerful, undying love. Always. To the end of the age. Amen.

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