I recently read of an address to seminary graduates in which the speaker felt inspired to urge them to let mercy go first in their ministry. He put it this way: “Let mercy speak the first word.” People are used to words of judgment; often we can reinforce people’s worst perceptions of themselves with careless condemnation.
Over the Labor Day weekend, I read Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, his autobiography of spending 30 years teaching high school English in the public school system of New York City. Coming from blue collar families who worked in the garment district or on the docks, his students shouldered weary parents’ expectations to be able to carry their own weight after high school.
The harshness of their lives translated into caustic experiences in the classroom, McCourt observed. As their reluctant teacher, he decided he would be on their side, no matter what. They had enough judgment, already. He would tell their parents that they were special and capable. He would tell his principal and superintendent they were worthy of good education. He would open his life to their scrutiny as one who came from a brutal experience of schooling as a poor Irish boy who made his way to America.
Because he decided to let mercy triumph over judgment, McCourt made a difference in the lives of the thousands of students he taught over the years. He learned that everything must begin with mercy and be sustained by mercy. He also realized that his many failures to salvage an individual student must be forgiven by mercy.
“Usually God’s call comes to those who know their weakness, who have received God’s mercy and desire to share it with others.”
The Epistle of James accents mercy, and we demonstrate our faith by the work of mercy. We hear an echo of the Lord’s Prayer when James writes: “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy.” It sounds like: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Following the example of Jesus, James instructs disciples to speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty – the same merciful measure we are to use.
Mercy is not something we wield from a place of superiority. Indeed, mercy must speak the first word to us. Few go into ministry because they believe they manage life better than others. Few believe God called them because of their superior intellect or moral discernment. Usually God’s call comes to those who know their weakness, who have received God’s mercy and desire to share it with others.
The pressures of ministry are great, and many will extend judgment rather than mercy. It is not possible to preach about everything that needs to be preached about. It is not possible to write compelling and timely messages all the while. We will not be present in ways people expect or perhaps need. Huge helpings of mercy are the only thing that can keep us on course.
This perhaps is the most confounding thing about God: why God chooses mercy over judgment. We want God to punish the bad – now – and put the world to rights. We want a clear signal that God is at least as moral as we are. Yet, God keeps giving people time to change, so that mercy may triumph. And God spares us from the full consequence of our sinning. Mercy is the expression of grace that would always rather forgive than blame, always make someone welcome rather than exclude.
Once upon a time, I extended mercy as a theology professor. There had been a snow day in Louisville on the same day a theology exam was scheduled. Students knew that I had high expectations of them, and many called throughout the day asking if I were giving the exam even though school was officially closed. It made me think of Matthew 25:24, “mistress, I knew what a hard woman you are,” slightly re-translated.
I decided on a course of mercy. As students came into the classroom not sure if the test was on or not, I said we would do it a different way this time. I would give a class oral. I worked the room of 78 until every person had contributed to the answers. It was a beautiful thing as students helped one another think more deeply about what they would have crafted as individual essays.
At the end of the hour, I decided I would give one grade that all would share equally. I gave an A-. To the C students it was a miracle; to those who measure themselves by doing better than everyone else, it was a lesson in humility. To all, it meant mercy – especially to that graduate student who would have had to grade all those papers.
Our enduring prayer remains: “Christ have mercy.”