Archive for mercy

Wonderfully kind

I know you don’t usually click on the videos you see posted on the internet. That’s why someone got the bright idea to make them play automatically–overcoming our haste and limited curiosity; figuring humans might stay for a moment if the show were already in progress. Tempted. Persuaded.

I won’t take on the role of tempter today, nor salesman, nor even evangelist. I can only offer myself and this space as a conduit. But I will ask you to take a few minutes to listen–if only in the background of your busy life–so that the depth and breadth of God’s kindness and compassion might wash over you and bring you peace.


There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment given.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

Words: Frederick William Faber, 1862
Tune: St. Helena

The Kiss

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, detail Image: Musée Rodin

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, c.1882, detail
Image: Musée Rodin


I will listen to what the Lord God is saying,
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.

Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Mercy and truth have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

The Lord will indeed grant prosperity,
and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness shall go before him,
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

Psalm 85: 8-13

Simultaneous contrast with withered plants

Simultaneous Contrast Image by Demi-Plum on DeviantArt

Simultaneous Contrast
Image by Demi-Plum on DeviantArt


When two colors appear side by side, it changes our perception of them. Graphic designers and artists use this effect called simultaneous contrast. Sometimes when I think about passages of scripture they seem to exhibit simultaneous contrast as well. Different aspects of the story will leap out at me depending on which stories I hold in my mind in close proximity. I’ll show you what I mean.

It started when I read Mark 11: 12-25, where Jesus is driving the money-changers and vendors out the temple. Wrapped around the cleansing of the temple is the cursing of the fig tree in two parts:  first the seemingly unjustified cursing, then, the following day, Jesus explanation of the withered tree.  Here’s how it goes:


On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple.  And he taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”  And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”


I know I’ve heard this passage a hundred times, and I’ve always heard it as a story about the power of prayer (Have faith and cast that mountain into the sea!), but I’d never realized that the money-changers were inside a fig tree sandwich, so to speak. I wondered why Mark would write it that way. Then I noticed that the two incidents both involve Jesus teaching about prayer.

“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”


“…Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

That phrase “whenever you stand praying” reminded me of the Amidah–the central prayer in a Jewish service, recited in services three times daily during the week, and also at Sabbath and holiday services. Amidah is Hebrew for “standing,” and this prayer is recited while standing with feet firmly together so as to imitate the angels, “whose legs were straight” in Ezekiel 1: 7.

But here is the bit that stood out for me, the Amidah is said during services–which would be held in the temple or in a synagogue–in a house of prayer. And the Amidah, which is also called the Shmoneh Esreh–the Eighteen Blessings–includes praise, petitions, and thanksgiving. The worshiper asks for God’s forgiveness, compassion, and justice, but the prayer says nothing about the worshiper forgiving anyone else. To say “whenever you stand praying, forgive” represents a change, I suspect, and that, of course, reminded me of these familiar words from Matthew 6:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors

So maybe these incidents are linked because they are about prayer. Because we need to know how to pray and to be mindful about how we treat a house of prayer, and, yes, to believe in the power of prayer.

But why did Jesus have to kill the fig tree? Was it just to make a point? It wasn’t even fig season. Wasn’t he expecting a bit too much? Is this an illustration of his anger before he even reached the temple? It seems almost petulant.

And thinking about petulance and withered plants put me in mind of another story–this time from Jonah (Jonah 3:10; 4: 1-11)


When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “I pray thee, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”  Then Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.

And the Lord God appointed a plant, and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm which attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a sultry east wind, and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah so that he was faint; and he asked that he might die, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”  And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night.  And should not I pity Nin′eveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”


“You pity the plant…”  I do pity the plant. Sometimes it’s easier to pity the plant than the people making money off of other people’s piety. It’s so painful when a tree is cut down. Do I feel that much compassion for the TV evangelist who encourages the faithful to call in their pledges?  Would it offend my sense of justice if God ended up pitying folks who, given what God has already said, clearly deserve a bit of wrath? Would that make me angry enough to die?

So what’s the point? I’m not sure. All I know is that an interesting thing happens when you put these stories side by side. God seems to be using plants to comment on situations where we might be tempted to point the finger and get angry about other people’s sins–where we might get a little rigid in our thinking about justice.

Whenever you stand praying, forgive. That’s all I know for sure. I don’t think it’s wrong to pity the plants. I think I know my right hand from my left. I hope I’m not one of the cattle.


Mercy without justice is not mercy

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I learned something about God the other day because of Vladimir Putin. Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center was talking about Putin’s promise to grant amnesty to about 2,000 people arrested for anti-government protest, including some very high profile political prisoners. Pretty much everyone in the world realizes that this was a cynical, calculating, theatrical gesture, but Lipman pointed out that the problem with Putin’s magnanimity goes much deeper than feigned emotion. The problem is that what looks like mercy on the surface is really something else entirely.

Lipman said, “Mercy is maybe complementary to justice, but mercy cannot replace justice, and this only emphasizes the fact that in Russia if you fall victim to injustice and unfair treatment, it can only be the will from above that can rescue you.”

Mercy cannot replace justice.

Why not?

Most Christians I know struggle a bit with the idea of sin and obedience.  We are much more comfortable with verses like “all things are lawful” and “God is Love” than something like “the wages of sin is death.”  We acknowledge human sinfulness, we confess plenty of sins ourselves, but in our heart of hearts, a lot of us have trouble coming to a comfortable place with the idea of God punishing people.

Why can’t we just have God is Love? Why can’t we go straight to Forgiveness without wandering around for years in the wilderness of Justice?

I think it’s because mercy without justice is arbitrary. It’s whim. It restores nothing. It’s an exercise of power. And how can you have a loving relationship with someone whose actions are always only about power?

I suspect that justice–which is a smaller thing than God–is another one of those instances of God’s restraint: a pathway to understanding, in a small way, something about God that would overwhelm us if revealed in its entirety. Justice is a cleft of the rock where we are put for our protection while God’s glory passes by. Justice is about boundaries, while Love has no end.

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. Maybe, if we can get our heads around earthly justice, then we can tackle mercy, and perhaps someday move on to divine justice and mercy, and maybe even Love.


Travel Mercies

Lots of folks are traveling this time of year, myself included, and so we are mindful of our need for travel mercies: protecting grace, sustaining grace, guiding grace, in the in-between places.

I do not know what you need. I doubt I know what I need myself.  Whatever your journey, literal or metaphorical, God bless you on your way.


“It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”

–Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.


God be with thee in every pass,
Jesus be with thee on every hill,
Spirit be with thee on every stream,
Headland and ridge and lawn;

Each sea and land, each moor and meadow,
Each lying down, each rising up,
In the trough of the waves, on the crest of the billows,
Each step of the journey thou goest.


Carmina Gadelica III, 195
From Esther de Waal, editor, The Celtic Vision (Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 1988, 2001).

Thanks to Dan Clandenin at Journey with Jesus.


The torn cloak

“An Elder was asked by a certain soldier if God would forgive a sinner. And he said to him: Tell me, beloved, if your cloak is torn, will you throw it away? The soldier replied and said: No. I will mend it and put it back on. The elder said to him: If you take care of your cloak, will God not be merciful to His own image?”


CXXXIX from The Wisdom of the Desert: Saying from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, translated by Thomas Merton, Shambhala, 2004.

Forgiving love

“Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who…know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in [God’s] sight.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
from An Interpretation of Christian Ethics