A Month to Mercy
“Let the little children come to me...”
So I was intrigued when Reverend Hedgis walked into my office—wearing her clerical collar—to share her desire to volunteer. I’d known Sarah tangentially through friends. This was our first official meeting.
After the normal introductory musings, I asked her about her faith journey—and how she decided to become a priest. I was curious.
“We were raised Methodist,” she began.
“That’s odd,” I chuckled. “How did you end up an Episcopalian?”
“We grew up in Georgia and attended a very large church,” she continued. “Generations of my family were members. We even had a pew with a plaque on it.”
One day her father announced that he had taken a job in a little town 5 hours away from the city. Population 400. The local Methodist Church had only 20 members—on a good Sunday. Overnight Sarah went from a community that knew and loved her—a place where she was an insider—to a place where nobody knew her.
“I heard my first sermon when I was nine,” she reminisced. “At our new church there was no youth program, no Sunday school. We just sat through the whole service. I claimed the front pew.”
During the service Sarah took notes on the back of the church bulletin. While most children draw and play tic-tac-toe—as I did during my childhood—Sarah really listened.
“I remember thinking it was so cool to see someone stand in a pulpit, talk about God and have people listen.”
So Sarah jotted notes every week: “Pretty boring sermon today.” “I didn’t know the Bible said that....” “Doesn’t that contradict what Pastor said last week?” “This is really confusing?” “Swallowed by a whale, really?” After service Sarah discarded her comments on the pew.
What Sarah did not realize is the pastor’s wife collected her notes, accumulating a small pile. One day she delivered the pile to her husband.
“Sarah,” beckoned Pastor McNeil Sunday after service. “Can we talk for a moment?”
“Now Pastor McNeil was a towering figure,” recollected Sarah. “He really seemed like a giant. I couldn’t imagine why he’d want to speak to me.”
For the next hour Pastor McNeil flipped through the stack of old bulletins and Sarah’s comments. Intently he listened, even asked more questions and took notes himself.
“Would you be interested in critiquing my sermons after church each Sunday?” he asked as they concluded their initial conversation. "Your feedback is helpful to me.”
And so for the next few years Sarah scribbled notes and shared them with Pastor McNeil. If he missed the point, she told him. If the message really connected, she affirmed him. If she had questions or doubts, she confided.
“There were a lot of voices in my community claiming that women had no place as pastors,” reminisced Sarah. “I could have easily listened to those voices. Had I listened, I would have never studied religion. Never become a priest.”
And so Sarah’s calling and vocation is birthed by an alternative voice: a pastor who took the questions and comments of a nine-year-old girl seriously. In an era of megachurches, social media, and pastors who keep their professional distance from those they lead—time to take the unfiltered truth of a child seriously seems...rare.
In his listening this pastor did what pastors are actually supposed to do: help people identify their God-given passions and gifts. Help people find their voice. By simply listening and validating Sarah’s questions, he awakened a thirst to dig deeper into those questions. It’s made her an amazing preacher and teacher today. It’s helped her become a priest who listens and discerns God’s path for others' lives.
I believe that the meaning of certain words are best understood with the context of human action. We often call those actions stories. A word like “mercy” can be debated, parsed and defined. But when we see merciful behavior displayed by attentiveness to a child’s scribbles and opinions, there’s something to notice.
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy,” writes James.
I think James may have been describing Pastor McNeil.
A Lenten Journey
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice..” Matthew 9:13
“For six weeks after the shootings at Sandy Hook,” reminisced Duane. “I just stood outside the front door of the school and greeted the kids as they came in.”
Duane is our maintenance guy. He’s our go to when there’s a stopped up toilet, salt needed on an icy sidewalk or the mop and bucket guy when a kid pukes on the bathroom floor. Duane is on my speed dial—actually, everyone’s speed dial.
For those having forgotten, Sandy Hook was the horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Two weeks before Christmas in 2012, a young man in his 20’s opened fired at the local elementary school killing 27 people. Twenty were children between the ages of five and seven. It shook the nation. After Sandy Hook, every parent in America thought twice about sending their child to school.
“I guess I just wanted to kids to feel safe,” continued Duane. “I thought that saying hello and greeting kids by name might calm their anxiety.”
I heard this story for the first time last year, eight years after the shooting. This particular night I was honoring employees who had served our ministry for 10 years. Around the dinner table, I asked each employee why they enjoyed working at our organization.
“You know,” Duane continued, “I’ll never forget. Every Wednesday one of the kid’s grandmothers would show up with a cup of coffee for me. It was her way of showing her appreciation.”
UrbanPromise has seen many employees over the years. Yet I’m always curious of those who go the proverbial extra mile—showing up early and leaving late? Walking through hallways infecting colleagues with goodness and levity? Remembering students’ birthdays with gifts and cards? Nothing in Duane’s job description demands he arrive at 7am to greet children for weeks after a mass school shooting. It’s not the maintenance man’s “job.” So what’s going on?
Duane feels compelled to bring peace and a smile to anxious children because his motivation runs so much deeper than fixing broken doorknobs, shoveling slippery snow covered sidewalks, punching a time clock and picking up his pay check. There’s something about his heart.
The ancient word “mercy” comes to mind. Poet Mary Oliver once commented, “Mercy is when you take people seriously.” I guess that includes anxiety ridden children. Did you know that ‘compassion’ and ‘mercy’ don’t actually mean the same thing? However, in the Latin the word is blended into one: misericordia. Misericordia suggests an attitude transcending one’s own egoism and has its heart not with itself, but rather with others—especially the poor and needy of every kind. Duane’s heart was “with others” after the shooting. Duane’s attentiveness is an “act of mercy.”
This Lenten season let’s focus on this theme of mercy. Mercy’s at the heart of Christian faith and our journey to Easter. God’s merciful love is extended to you and me. In turn we extend mercy to others. It should be a simple cycle. But it’s never easy because mercy calls us beyond a rule-based faith to something far deeper and complicated. Mercy is about our hearts.
Fortunately Jesus understood the challenge. To a religious culture who scored A’s on rule following and sacrifice, Jesus raised the consciousness of followers to “go and learn” a new way—the profound and life altering difference between religion as sacrifice and religion as mercy.
Let’s start learning the difference today....Duane is a good place to start.
A Lenten Journey
“What’s that?” I innocently asked, pointing to the smudge mark on Matthew’s forehead.
Our North Camden team bustled into our weekly staff meeting after sponsoring an early morning pancake breakfast at St Paul’s Episcopalian Church. Pancake breakfasts were a staple in the early days of UrbanPromise. This was 1991. Pancake mix and Maple Syrup had a special line item in our annual budget. And staff needed adept flipping skills to keep pace with the demands for those golden hot cakes.
“Father Martin offered an Ash Wednesday service in the chapel after breakfast,” he replied with a charming English accent. As a recent graduate from Oxford, Matthew spent a missionary year with us. “They’re ashes he placed on our forehead.”
I’d certainly heard about Ash Wednesday. But for a Baptist boy from the west coast, lent was not part of our liturgical calendar. Actually, we didn’t have much of a liturgical calendar. Christmas, Easter, potluck suppers and an occasional “revival” were our holy days. Religiosity of this kind was considered “high church”—always viewed with an eye of suspicion from us “low church” folk.
“Tell me a little about the service,” I inquired, sincerely interested in learning more.”
“He talked about the Lenten journey, modeled after Jesus’ 40 day sojourn in the desert. Father Martin urged us to use the weeks leading up to Easter to prepare ourselves.”
“Prepare for what?”
“Well, you know,” he counseled, “we need to reflect, fast, and repent to prepare ourselves. It creates space for something new to happen in our lives.”
This was beginning to sound interesting. For me, the 24 hours between Good Friday and Easter Sunday always seemed a little rushed for any serious internal reflection. Like preparing for for a final exam the night before. It can work, but more often you’re left with a gnawing feeling more could have been learned. A 40 day runway seemed a more effective path.
“What about the smudge on your forehead,” I continued.
“It’s actually not a smudge,” replied my friend in his proper English. “They’re ashes from last year’s palm fronds. As he placed them on our forehead he recited a verse from Genesis:
“For dust you are and to dust you shall return,”.
Only a kid from Oxford would use the word “frond” in a sentence. But the quote from Genesis seemed a little morbid. Not exactly a verse one might recite on the cusp of a 40 day spiritual pilgrimage, or grease-pencil on your bathroom mirror. Isaiah’s reminder that those who trust in God “...run and don’t grow weary, walk and don’t grow faint” might be a better inspirational selection. Why start the journey to Easter reflecting on human morality?
The challenge got me thinking about one of the more sobering books I read in seminary—The Denial of Death, by the late Jewish American cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker. Becker pulls no punches.
Becker hypothesis’ that people are “...literally split in two: he (she) has an awareness of (their) own splendid uniqueness in that (they) stick out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet (they) go back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.” I warned you he didn’t sugar coat. The problem, argues Becker, is most people spend their lives distracting themselves from this reality.
Humans, he continues, are “....drinking and drugging themselves out of awareness,” and spending their “...time shopping, which is the same thing.” Becker believed that when we repress our mortality we actually fail to live deeply and intentionally.
So those ashes walking into my staff meeting in 1991 were visual reminders that our lives are brief....temporary...and therefore so, so precious. Ashes on the forehead are the ultimate rebuke of a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry that sells a myth of immortality. So embracing this honest Lenten message can lead you and me to a life-giving sense of humility, gratitude and urgency. For dust we are....to dust we will return. The Bible doesn’t lie.
This past year has taught me that nothing can be taken for granted. I’m sure you stand in a similar place. Watching friends and friends of friends lose family members to this hideous pandemic acutely reminds me that our time to dance and sing on this planet is brief....and everyday a sacred gift. Mortality is part of the human package. Without it’s nagging, uncomfortable reminder we may wake up one day and say, “Where did my time go?”
So Jesus takes a detour to the desert for 40 days—40 days to confront the temptations that come to all us mortals who struggle to accept the truth that we’ll return to ash, that we’re ultimately all equal in the eyes of God and that abundant life arrives the day we no longer need to be the center of the universe. Sounds like a journey worthy of our attention. Let’s begin.
PS. If you want to write Bruce with a comment or question during this Lenten series, feel free to email him email@example.com
The EMT’s quickly wheeled Devante Taylor into the Emergency Room at Toronto’s Sunnybrooke University Hospital—his odds of survival minimal.
The bullet lodged in his neck, by a random act of gang violence, needed to be delicately and skillfully managed by the trauma team on duty that evening. Over the next 48 hours, the team channeled their energy and expertise to save the young man’s life.
That evening, the trauma team happened to be led by Dr Steven Ma, a capable and experienced trauma surgeon and also a man deeply motivated by his Christian faith—and he’s a huge fan of UrbanPromise Toronto.
Actually, Dr Ma is such an admirer of UrbanPromise that wears UrbanPromise t-shirts while on duty—hoping to inspire his staff with a Bible verse or make a connection with a family member experiencing trauma. When there’s a connection, Dr Ma calls the UP Toronto team for prayer and possible ministry to a family in crisis.
And that’s what happened that fateful night in 2017. Devante grew up at UrbanPromise. “He started with our camps at the age of 8,” shared UP Toronto executive director, Shawn James. “He’d also been a StreetLeader and was a semester away from graduating business college.” Driving his 3 year old cousin home one Sunday afternoon, Devante’s car was ambushed and riddled with bullets. His cousin unharmed, but Devante’s life changed forever. He survived because of the adept medical treatment he received, but was left paralyzed from the neck down.
This is why Dr Ma continues in this work. Besides his numerous medical accomplishments( he even holds a Master’s Degree in Theology from Tyndale College) he chooses to be on call 6 nights a month as the attending staff trauma surgeon so he can deploy his extraordinary gifts for God’s purposes. “I exchange money for time,” he shared to a reporter in a University of Toronto interview for aspiring medical students. Time to serve his community—time to use his vacations to perform volunteer surgeries at a missions hospital West Africa so missionary doctors can take a vacation. Faith defines the way Ma spends his time.
Dr Ma’s desire to integrate faith into all aspects of his life reminds me of a quote by pastor and writer Brian McLaren. “I often say that one of my favorite parts of being a pastor for 24 years was pronouncing the benediction each week,” he muses. “It wasn’t that I was glad for our gatherings to be over; rather, I was thrilled to be deploying people into the world to live out their faith between Sundays.”
It’s “faith between Sundays” that is needed in our world right now. Not a showy, dogmatic, I need-to-win-my-argument kind of faith. But the kind of faith the biblical writer James talks about—faith that becomes real in our world through acts of healing, justice and compassion. Faith that creatively infuses every aspect of our lives—even if it means wearing a t-shirt sending subtle signals of hope to an overly anxious medical team or creating God-conversations with families in the throes of an existential crisis.
This past week, Dr Ma popped into my mind. A couple of years have passed since we last communicated. I wondered about his UrbanPromise t-shirt supply. Serendipitously I pinged him an email—minutes later:
“My wife was teasing me about my dwindling supply of UrbanPromise t-shirts,” his enthusiastic email began. “I have been worried because I’m down to 2 shirts. The rule in our home is that whenever a hole appears anywhere in the T-Shirt, daddy has to throw it out or allow the girls to turn them into PJ’s.”
He continued, “I wear UrbanPromise t-shirts everyday at the hospital. The messages on the back encourages many nurses and other staff. They’ve opened doors for many conversations and prayers with patients and their families.”
“Here’s another way to put it,” says Jesus, in a popular colloquial version of Matthew 5:16, “You’re here to be light, bring God-colors into the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this.” Sounds like faith “between Sundays” to me.
I’m off to the Post Office with a box of t-shirts—special delivery to Canada.
PS. Please watch this inspiring video of Devante who was recently featured in a micro-soft commercial. This young man continues to be a light and inspiration to others.