What is mercy?

My star gift this year is “mercy.”  What comes to mind when you hear that word?  My initial thought was that “mercy” is given to a prisoner by a captor. That goes along with the dictionary definition: Mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” After reading that I felt slightly guilty since it made me wonder what I had done that deserved punishment or harm. How bad was I that I required mercy?

On further reflection, I realized that every month I drive to the Mercy Center in Madison CT, a beautiful retreat center on the Long Island Sound that is run by the Sisters of Mercy. They are renowned for offering hospitality and welcome. The Mercy Center is a place of rest and renewal. That definition of “mercy” appeals to me. Who doesn’t need a safe, comforting spot where one will be loved and accepted? It sounds like healing and new life.

In order to learn about mercy, I’ve started a collection of quotes. Maybe you’ll be able to add to them – I have, after all, a whole year to immerse myself in the study of mercy. Here are some quotes that speak to my heart about mercy:

  • “Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer.”
  • “It is mercy not justice or courage or even heroism that alone can defeat evil.”
  • “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Matthew 9:13).

I’ve also been listening to songs with the word “mercy” in them.  This one is my favorite so far – it’s called “God of mercy (Prayer song)” by Lou Fellingham. Do you know any songs about mercy?  I would be glad if you could add to my collection. 

There is something both powerful and humbling about realizing that God gives to us what we need, not what we deserve. God offers forgiveness, love, new beginnings, and – mercy. We don’t have to earn those gifts. They are provided because without them we would be bereft. What if we could be so generous with others? What if we were that generous with ourselves?

If you have a star gift, I hope you are enjoying it. (And if you would like me to mail you one, you can message me your address).  I would be interested to hear what you have learned so far, what questions you still have, and where you are being led to explore. I will continue to immerse myself in learning about mercy and I will share what I learn with you.

In the meantime, be merciful with yourself and others.

The Caring Corner

What do we do about problems with no easy solutions? Every city and town confronts challenges and it is often unclear how to make a difference. During a recent visit to the small city of Newark Ohio (population: 48,000), I was impressed with a group of volunteers concerned about homelessness and addiction. What impressed me the most was their ability to identify not simply a problem to be solved but also recognize people who need help.  

If you go to Newark on a Saturday morning all year long, you’ll see a white pop-up tent on a corner vacant lot across the street from the county jail and the sheriff’s office. Rickety folding tables hold cases of water bottles, sandwiches in plastic bags, and a few grocery items. An assortment of colorful plastic coolers surrounds the table. A few feet away a metal clothes rack displays shirts, sweaters, and jackets gently swaying in the breeze.

Volunteers greet people as they wander by. Some cluster in the shade, eager to get out of the blazing sunlight. Others straddle their bikes, rocking back and forth as they chat and stock up on supplies. Some sprawl out on the grass, grateful for a cold drink of water on a hot day.

This is the Caring Corner, a place where anyone can come to receive food or drink. My friend delivers a blue plastic cooler filled with frozen plastic water bottles. The arrival of this bounty causes some excitement among those gathered around the tables. They are anticipating just how good that cold bottle will feel pressed against their foreheads or necks. One of the challenges of living outside is the searing, oppressive heat. The ice will provide a brief respite and then offer cool water to these thirsty souls.

One of the offerings at the Caring Corner is fentanyl testing strips.  This was so far outside of my experience or knowledge base that it had to be explained to me.  Many (perhaps most) of the visitors to Caring Corner are heroin addicts. Street heroin is often mixed with the much stronger drug fentanyl. The testing strip allows the user to gauge how much they can inject to reduce the risk of an overdose.

My immediate reaction was – can’t we cure them? Help them conquer their addiction? The Caring Corner meets these mostly young men and women where they are and addresses their immediate needs. They are addicted, hungry, and thirsty. While I might wish to solve all of their challenges, they just want to stay alive today.

Sometimes we are able to provide a solution. Sometimes we are just helpers along someone’s path. I believe God calls us to meet people wherever they are on their journey and offer whatever help and support we can.

Lights for Liberty

I had planned to go to a lovely outdoor concert last Friday. I was looking forward to sitting with friends, enjoying a precious summer evening, relaxing under the trees as we listened to toe-tapping music.

But then I heard about the Lights for Liberty vigil.

 Gatherings were being held across the country on July 12th to raise awareness of the horrible conditions endured by refugees in detention camps in our country. Inspired by the light held by the Statue of Liberty, we are called into action by the poem inscribed on the monument’s base.  “The New Colossus” by  Emma Lazarus issues a moving invitation.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

            I felt compelled to give up my concert plans so I could heed the call of these inspiring words. I wanted to stand in solidarity with hundreds of families who are waiting at our border to apply for asylum. It is not illegal to ask for help. They are simply waiting to be heard. Parents and children are trying to escape violence, terror, and hunger. They are drawn by Lady Liberty’s light of freedom and the promise of this country founded by immigrants. Yet these tired, poor homeless masses are being treated like criminals.

 So I joined dozens of others in a park in Manchester CT to listen to first-hand accounts of recently-arrived immigrants expressing their gratitude for a fresh start. I heard a speaker compare World War II era Japanese internment camps to the refugee holding areas on our border. I joined in the song “This Land is My Land” that celebrates our country that was “made for you and me.”  

And we lit candles. As dusk fell, people of all ages, faces glowing in the flickering light, promised to carry the beacons of hope and determination into our towns, states, and country. I went to the vigil because I believe that is where Jesus would stand – with the outcast, with the suffering, with those on the margins.

There will be another pleasant outdoor concert to enjoy. But the refugees need us now. I was glad to be surrounded by the compassion and strength of those who gathered to celebrate Lights for Liberty. Now I will continue to do what I can to spread the message of justice and liberty for all.

Worrying about the children

I can’t get the children out of my mind. Refugee children in detention centers without soap or toothbrushes and sometimes without beds. Children who have been separated from their parents and who barely have enough to eat. Children forbidden to go outside to exercise or play.

            We didn’t invite them here. These children did not ask to be caught up in this violent and dangerous situation. Many do not want them here (I would urge the wealthiest country in the world to consider its obligation to help those less fortunate but that is an argument for another day). The fact remains – the children are here.  They are in our country. What will we do? The way we respond to the weak and desperate defines who we are as a nation. The world is watching. How will we react?

            When I think about the children in the migration centers, I think of my own children at that young age. I remember vividly how vulnerable they were when they were frightened or lonely or sick. When I think of these migrant children who are alone, cold, and afraid, I imagine them crying without comfort or care being provided.  It breaks my heart and makes me furious in equal measure.

            The argument has turned petty. Withholding toothbrushes? Refusing to allow them to shower or bathe? Rationing soap and confiscating blankets? Some would argue that harsh treatment will discourage additional refugees from entering our country. The idea that people are risking their lives in order to be treated inhumanely in detention centers defies logic. No one is crossing the border to get a clean toothbrush. Desperate parents are trying to save their lives and protect their children. They are risking everything in search of safety, security, and a chance for a new life.   

            Responding to thousands of refugees fleeing from countries filled with violence and danger is a huge challenge. Fear is driving them to our border. Our country needs to take action in this very human crisis. We don’t have to agree on immigration policy before we recognize our obligation to provide basic care for these homeless, hurting children.

Our country was founded by immigrants. We are known as a generous, caring country who rushes to the aid of people across the globe. Now those people are on our doorstep. We may not be able to find homes for all of them, but we can treat them with the dignity that all human beings deserve. If Congress cannot find a way to provide toiletries for children, the government should turn to faith communities and other non-profits. Provide 2000 toothbrushes?  We can do that in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, if you, like me, are looking for a concrete way to respond, you may choose to donate to agencies that are aiding refugees. Here are some:

The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project  

KIND: Kids in Need of Defense  

UCC Refugee Relief 

            I will pray that we will learn how to put “love your neighbor” into action.

What CAN you do?

A recent foot injury has led to some frustrating restrictions to my mobility. Standing for more than a few minutes is painful. Some of my favorite pastimes have been temporarily eliminated. My morning walks, which feed my spirit and brighten my mood, have been abandoned. Taking care of my flower gardens and communing with the birds as I feed them are put on hold for now.

            As the list of activities that I can’t do seemed to grow longer and longer, I was becoming annoyed and feeling slightly sorry for myself.

            I was lamenting my inability to exercise and enjoy the improving weather when my wise daughter observed, “Well, you could at least lift weights.” And bingo – a new perspective was introduced.  Instead of focusing on the impossible, I was invited to imagine something new.  Given my limitations, what could I do? It was an opportunity to be creative.  I discovered several activities that worked – not only weight-lifting, but also yoga, swimming, biking, kayaking, and stretching. I didn’t need to curl up on the couch in pathetic defeat; I needed to shift my thinking and recognize what I could do.

            Now I’m starting to expand that thinking to other dilemmas and problems. Often when a situation seems overwhelming, I find it easy or tempting to think, “Well, there’s nothing I can do.”  Prejudice against the LGBT community?  Can’t solve that. Systemic racism?  Where would I even start? Global warming? Oceans polluted by plastic? Children being separated by their parents on the border? There are any number of issues, from personal to global that feel unsolvable. It’s tempting to sink into inaction.

            And yet – my new thinking reminds me that I don’t have to come up with a complete answer. I don’t have to produce the entire solution.  I just need to do what I can do. Maybe I can’t change society’s thinking about the LGBT community, but I can march in a Pride Parade or invite conversation with a bumper sticker. I doubt I will overcome centuries of racism and discrimination single-handedly, but I can accept the challenge to educate myself about the experiences of people of color and pledge to recognize moments of racism in myself and others.

            What can I do?  Pick up trash on the side of the road? Greet surly clerks with compassion? Send a card or email to a long-lost friend? What small action might be part of a larger answer?

There may not be a neat solution for every problem. But that isn’t an invitation to inaction. It’s a call (to quote John Wesley) to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

     

It’s hard to wait

Waiting is hard. When I look at our snow-covered yard, I yearn for spring. The daffodils I planted last fall are nowhere in sight. Dirty piles of old snow, mud, and messy puddles seem determined to stay and my desire for spring is not making it arrive any quicker.  We are in that in-between time that only maple syrup producers can love. It’s not quite winter, but it is not yet spring. It is hard to wait.

            So much of life is like that. We want answers, results, clarity. The chemo patient wants to know now if treatments are working. The expectant mother wants assurance that her baby will be healthy and strong. Awkward adolescents want to fast forward to a time when they will fit in. The addict wants proof that rehab will bring health and wholeness.

            Life, unfortunately, looks more like my yard these days – messy and unfinished – rather than a tidy, neatly defined happy ending.

Life is what happens while we’re waiting for results and yearning for completion. The “highlights” of life – graduation, awards, achievement – are just a fraction of our experience. Most of life is lived in the “in-between” times. It’s in the struggle, the waiting, and the effort. While every athlete dreams of crossing the finish line with arms upraised in victory, most of their time is spent in training. Every gardener rejoices in healthy vegetables and blooming flowers, but a lot of weeding and fertilizing came before that glorious result.

While God is certainly present in crowning achievements, I think God lives in the uncertainty of our lives. God is in the waiting room, in the dreary loneliness of grief, in the struggle for another hour of sobriety, in the grinding worry for a loved one, and in the endless tasks of a caregiver.

It’s hard to wait.  We want to get “there.” If we think we will only discover God when we reach the Promised Land of completion, we will miss the God of the journey. We will overlook the one who travels with us not just to green pastures but also through all the dark valleys along the way.

It’s hard to wait.  But we worship a patient God and God will wait with us.

Puerto Rico – my experience

My first impression as we approached San Juan for a week-long mission trip with its brightly-lit skyline and bustling airport was, “Maybe they don’t need us after all.” But, as is often the case, the first impression didn’t tell the whole story. Beneath the glittering exterior, signs of damage and lingering pain were everywhere. Once our group started looking even slightly under the surface, we witnessed the devastating impact of Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that enveloped the island in 2017.

We saw the lovely sandy beach dotted with cabanas in tatters. The lighthouse overlooking the bay welcomed visitors but barred entry to the roof and second floor because of extensive rain and wind damage. The homes we visited were occupied but covered with thick layers of mud and mold. The long driveway leading to the church camp where we stayed was lined with electrical wires and fallen trees; the camp itself was still powered by generator. The enormous welcome sign at the camp’s entry was standing but was illegible because so many letters had been blown off by high winds. The impact of the storm was everywhere.

When we visited the beautiful national forest, we enjoyed panoramic views of the lush rain forest. Eighteen months after the storm, the visitor center remains closed and the majority of walking trails are impassible. It made me hope that this national treasure is on some government “to-do” list somewhere.

Our first work day was spent power washing the flat roofs of homes. The volunteer coordinators in northeastern Puerto Rico are valiantly working through a list that still contains over 200 people who are patiently waiting for much-needed help. Our plans to coat the roofs with sealer and paint were foiled by near-constant rain, so we turned our attention instead to the church camp.

Fortunately many members of our 15-person group had more abundant carpentry and construction skills than I do. We divided into smaller teams to address the needs of the camp – a foot bridge that had been swept away by the rains, a pavilion roof crushed by a fallen coconut tree, and an outdoor chapel with an unsafe walkway and railings. I discovered that every good work crew can use a willing “go-fer” and someone who can fetch tools, jot down measurements, provide a bit of muscle, and offer much-needed water in the steamy climate.

We worked hard in our short time there and accomplished a lot. And yet… there is so much left to do.  We were reminded that we were just one small piece in a much larger effort.  We carried on work that was started before us; after us another group will push it forward.

It seems to me that so much of faith is like this – we may not see the end result of our efforts, but we trust that God is at work in ways that we cannot always understand. Let us lift up prayers for the people of Puerto Rico and for people across the globe who struggle against odds larger than themselves. Let us follow John Wesley’s encouragement to “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”