“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7
Mercy makes us look in the mirror. That’s been April Blaine’s discovery as she has wrestled with these words about the merciful receiving mercy.
“Mercy goes two ways,” says April. “There is something about showing mercy to others that makes you realize you need God’s mercy.”
April exudes competence and confidence. Words come quickly and easily to her, as she talks her way through a theological conundrum or a personal challenge. A full-time lay youth pastor and fourth-year seminary student, April is a sharp-witted problem solver, someone who knows how to get things done, and get them done well. She also knows that not everyone is like her.
She’s learned this from her friend Laura: “I met Laura when she called the church asking for help getting milk and bread.”
The day that Laura called April’s church, April was eager to do the right thing, to show compassion to the stranger, to give the loaf of bread to the hungry, to love the neighbor. But she didn’t know that Laura was her actual neighbor.
“Laura is always just barely getting by,” says April. “She’s poor, she doesn’t have all of her teeth, she doesn’t dress so well. And I see how people look at her, how they treat her: she doesn’t get mercy, she gets judgment. They don’t treat her as a person. She gets no mercy, no second chance from anybody. She never has.”
Laura keeps trying to make a life for herself and her children, to establish a foothold. It’s not the probability of a mission accomplished or a problem well solved that keeps April connected to Laura. April stays with Laura because she has come to know her as her neighbor.
“I hang in with Laura because I know her. I know her story. I know how much she loves her kids. Something happens when you know someone’s heart and story, and you can’t turn away.
“Every day she wonders if she’ll be able to pay her bills and feed her kids. She frustrates me; she lives life by the seat of her pants. I want her to be more like me, to plan ahead. But I can’t walk away. Sometimes I want to. I know that a lot of things she’s done are her own fault. She’s made plenty of mistakes. But the only way I can help her is to love her and give her space and acknowledge that she is a human being made by God.
Laura’s mistakes have made April aware of her own, as Laura’s struggles have made her aware of her own advantages.
“I had a merciful childhood: I was loved, accepted, given the benefit of the doubt, allowed to make mistakes, and over and over again people treated me with mercy. I had very loving parents, family, teachers. I had multiple instances of people giving me grace. And then I look at Laura. Her story is just the opposite, she had none of the grace I’ve had, and she’s suffered because of it.”
Despite their differences, when April looks at Laura, she sees herself reflected back.
“The reality is: I’m Laura. I need mercy. I know that my tendency is to judge people, to judge someone in the first instance, to separate myself from people who aren’t like me, who don’t share my values or my view,” said April, “and I judge them by the world’s standards.
“The world defines us by what we do, how we behave, how we look, what we own. But God loves us just because God made us. The mercy and love that God shows us are not based on what we do but on who we are. It’s the way a mom loves her kid; I love you because you are mine. Someone like Laura understands that. It’s love not based on our actions or our ability to understand it. It’s just there.”
The fifth beatitude seems simple enough: do mercy, get mercy. But it’s tricky, as April Blaine discovered, because this beatitude causes us to look in the mirror. It can change our way of seeing. First, when we offer mercy to another, something happens that can give us a kind of rear-view vision: we begin to see the mercy that is piled up behind us already, the acts of care and kindness and forgiveness that have been given to us through the years. We might offer mercy to one in need and see that looking right back at us is our own need for mercy. Or, a call to us for mercy can hold up a mirror that makes us want to look away, because we see reflected there our unwillingness or our inability to offer compassion. Mercy is complicated.
Even Jesus struggled with mercy, at least once. Matthew tells the story of Jesus traveling to where a Canaanite woman of that region approaches him and cries out: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon” (15:22 RSV).
She begs for help: “But [Jesus] did not answer her a word.” His disciples also urge him to ignore this foreign woman, and he assures them he will not bother with her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:23–24 RSV).
This woman is a “triple outsider” to Jesus: she is foreign, she is a Gentile, and she is female. Three strikes against her. And even worse, women, foreign women no less, were never to address men in public. But her daughter is sick, and no convention is going to stop her. She comes and kneels before him and says, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (15:25–26 RSV).
Ouch. These aren’t words we like to hear. He refuses to heal the woman’s daughter; indeed, he calls her people “dogs.” This is not a portrait of the inclusive, compassionate friend of the outcasts, the one who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus is the one we expect to break social taboos, but instead we hear him uphold all the codes about shunning the one who is different. Jesus says he is not about to throw the children’s food to the dogs. After all, he can hardly keep up with all the requests to heal the Jews, much less the Gentiles. There are limits to mercy, to compassion.
But she is undeterred. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
“O woman,” Jesus says. All of a sudden, it’s as if he remembers who he is and who God is always calling him to be. The Canaanite woman has held up a mirror to Jesus. He sees that the barriers between Israel and Canaan, between Jew and Gentile, between male and female are barriers that need to come down. He sees that she is in need, and at last he says, “Yes.” “And her daughter [is] healed instantly” (15:27–28 RSV).
In a world marked by fear, suspicion, and war, April wants to see the church teach the world about love. “Our agenda, our program, our practice, should be love—healing, transformative love. Crossing cultural, racial, economic, and national boundaries is daunting,” April admits. “We don’t want to mess with others who are different. That’s hard work. It takes a lot to hear somebody else’s story. We don’t want to do the hard work. We don’t want our lives to change.
“But imagine if we became known as the people who are able to greet the other and say, ‘Namaste, the God in me greets the God in you.’ Imagine if we could see ourselves in the other. We could change the world.”
Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation by Anne Sutherland Howard, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Claiming the Beatitudes:
Nine Stories from a New Generation
by Anne Sutherland Howard
In Claiming the Beatitudes, Anne Sutherland Howard asks the questions, “What would the beatitudes look like today?” and “Is it possible to live a beatitudes life in today’s world?” Through nine remarkable stories of ordinary people, we are introduced to a world where the beatitudes are not an unreachable moral standard, but a simple set of guidelines by which we should live our lives.
Gifts of an Uncommon Life:
The Practice of Contemplative Activism
by Howard E. Friend, Jr.
This book of ten essays is a breath of fresh air, a source of inspiration, a wake-up call, and a bold challenge for pastors, congregational leaders, and church members—both active and lapsed—who long for a new perspective, even a touch of creative irreverence. Howard Friend offers forthright, at times disarming, candor as he shares his personal pilgrimage of activism rooted in contemplation. Drawing on a range of stories from the Bible and his own lived experiences, Friend invites us to meet real people—pastors, leaders, everyday folks—who dare to dream a new dream, journey toward a far horizon, walk with tireless determination, and press on with awesome hope.
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by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims tells the stories of a dozen congregations that have been on a pilgrimage to vitality—retrieving and reworking Christian practice, tradition, and narrative. The book reads as a series of first-hand dispatches from pastors of congregations on the road to an emerging style of congregational vitality, one centered on the creative and intentional reappropriation of traditional Christian practices.
Learning the Way:
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Earliest Christian Communities
by Cassandra D. Carkuff Williams
In Learning the Way, Williams explores early Christian communities and their practices in order to identify principles for discipleship formation. She then offers expert advice on how to approach modern-day issues of Christian education and discipleship formation based on the examples set forth by our earliest forebears in the faith. This book provides an overview of the past in order that we might take the proven example of early Christians and apply it toward our present and our future.
Clergy nearing retirement can find themselves living the paradox of possessing a rich reservoir of accumulated wisdom and yet feeling constrained by a depleted spirit. Now is the time to claim the personal and spiritual resources needed to remain vital and creative, while both communicating a legacy and attending to your soul’s needs during this crucial phase of life and ministry. You owe it to yourself and to your congregation to approach retirement in a deliberately thoughtful and meaningful way. Take advantage of this opportunity to envision the “third age” of your personal and professional growth as you approach retirement.
Faithful and effective leadership is a product of both who we are and what we know. This seminar will explore key practices of leadership in the congregation—for both clergy and laity. It will look at some of the best insights from both the secular and religious realms and help participants consider ways in which they can enhance their leadership.
Reading: Heart, Mind and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership by Jeffrey D. Jones
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