Blog: March 2021
They were not words I expected out of the mouth of an ex-nun. That’s why I wrote them down.
This COVID era calls me to reflect on meaningful meals I’ve enjoyed over the years. Moments of good food and great company. (Or sometimes just great company and mediocre food—it’s the company that makes it memorable.)
So January 13, 2016, my friend swung through town and called to see if a last-minute dinner was possible. Since she now lived in Kenya, I only see her about every five years. Since she was in her late 70s, simple math predicted our remaining meals together were limited. So, of course.
Dinner happened at a local Italian restaurant, and she gave me a recap of her life story.
Early adulthood was spent living out her vocation as a nun. But strange things happen. Unexpectedly and serendipitously—in her 50s—she fell in love and married. She had ten beautiful years with her beloved. “That was a special season,” she recalled with a sparkle in her eye.
Yet life is full of cruel ironies. "When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, we knew we only had two years left together. Miraculously we got four. I did hospice care for him in the end.”
Now I always imagined her decades of convent living, silent retreats and rosary beads might temper the tongue. Apparently not. My friend speaks honestly and colorfully. She’s been known to make me blush.
“One day, when he had withered down to less than 100 pounds,” she said, “I had just finished changing his diaper and I noticed he was crying.”
“Why are you crying?”
“You shouldn't have to do this,” he responded quietly. “I just feel bad you have to see me like this.”
And then the words I wrote down.
“So I kissed his bony ass, looked him in the eyes and said, ‘This is how we make love at this stage of our lives.’ ”
My cheeks reddened to match my marinara sauce. But that night her free-speaking truthfulness schooled me on what making love looks like for those who’ve cultivated a merciful heart. It is presence, patience, humility, and compassionate love when all the glitter is stripped away and the only thing remaining is a promise. Making love means changing diapers.
Anne Lamott writes, “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I’m starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”
I think we’re all starving for mercy in a world that accentuates differences, celebrates convenience, and worships celebrity. Despite this opposition God offers a different path forward. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” New hearts. A new spirit. This sounds really hopeful.
The year after her husband’s death was difficult for my friend—lots of tears and days when getting out of bed was near impossible. But as she gazed in the mirror one day, that “new spirit” ignited. She again saw herself as a woman with a heart full of merciful love.
So at the ripe age of 68, she jumped on her first international flight, headed for Nairobi and spent a year loving babies with HIV. New roots were planted in a new place, and I’ve witnessed the writing of one of the most fruitful final chapters of a life. That heart—broken, softened and opened in the crucible of watching the love of your life wither away—is now shared with orphan girls who lapped up mercy like hungry kittens around a saucer of milk.
That’s a story for another day. Today I’m just asking Christ to carry me a little closer to this kind of love.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Matthew 5:7
My friend was angry. He’s a pastor. Not so good. Anger can be an unwelcome house guest for those in the clerical world. Walking the line between prophet and priest is a dangerous dance. Amos or Jeremiah wouldn’t last a month in a local pulpit. Any opinion—about anything—can land a pastor in the ecclesiastical doghouse.
A contentious political climate would be an understatement to describe 2018–with issues dividing the country from LED lights to spotted owls. Another hot button issue, immigration, was making the news cycle. Front page headlines telling stories of families separated at the border. News sources confirming cases of children and families detained in less than humane situations.
But even after a decade of serving his church, Pastor Jacobs understood a sermon on immigration would be politicized and divisive to his congregation. On the theological spectrum, Ryan Jacobs is a little right of center. His command of the ancient languages—Greek and Hebrew—exceed the average pastor. Orthodox, biblically-centered preaching is his staple. He recites the Apostles' Creed with conviction and has memorized a swath of the Book of Common Prayer.
"So for the Old Testament reading I picked a few verses from Deuteronomy,” he confessed. “After all, I think everyone in my congregation believes in the Bible.”
So after the prelude, call to worship and invocation my friend stood: “God enacts justice for orphans and widows, and God loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (10: 18-19)
Pastor Jacobs took his seat behind the pulpit, listening to the choir’s ethereal rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King” reverberate off the vaulted ceilings. Little did he know a few of the oak pews were heating up with each heavenly stanza. Whoever coined the phrase “words are more powerful than a sword”, certainly forewarned what happened next. Two prominent families left the church after the service, never to return. "They tried to convince a third family to leave as well,” shared my friend. If only my sermons had the dramatic mobilizing effect of a few obscure verses from an oft-overlooked Old Testament book, I thought.
But the third family decided not leave the church. When the abdicators cornered him, asking how he could possibly continue to attend with such a left-leaning pastor, he sincerely replied: "I've never met as godly a man as Pastor Jacobs. I may not see eye-to-eye on certain issues, but I respect his faith and how he tries to live it out each day."
So here’s the conundrum. What one man understands as a “merciful” response to a difficult and complex policy, another views as a threat to a nation’s laws and sovereignty. Both call themselves Christian, but they land in different places for different reasons. Is it an insurmountable relational hurdle?
What I find unique about this story—and hopeful—is the response of the third man. In contrast to the two other families, the third man doesn’t pick up his marbles and head home. He chooses to stay in the relationship. He may disagree with my friend, yet his commitment creates the elasticity to absorb the tension of difference and conflict. In the eyes of the third man, his pastor is not a caricature—he’s a man with a heart, a faith, integrity...a human being.
I believe the third man demonstrated mercy as well. Mercy to stay in fellowship. “How do we accompany others in mercy, a quality difficult to define and even more difficult to live authentically,” writes Kerry Weber. “The answer, perhaps, can be found in a wonderfully invented word from Pope Francis: Mercy-ing. In turning the noun into a verb, a sentiment into an action, Francis calls us not only to have mercy or to show mercy, but to embody mercy, as a force that binds us, compels us, and enables us to love one another more fully.”
Mercy-ing is an act that can bind us. Perhaps mercy is the super glue to hold us together, despite our biases, differences, opinions and personalities.
What’s the lesson? “Mercy-ing” is a practice worth attempting. Susan Meissner eloquently writes, “I used to think mercy meant sharing kindness to someone who didn’t deserve it, as if only the recipient defined the act.” She continues, “The girl in between has learned that mercy is defined by its giver. Our flaws are obvious, yet we are loved and able to love, if we choose, because there is that bit of the divine still smoldering in us.”
Keep stoking the embers.
PS. If you’re interested to learn how UrbanPromise is creating hope and possibility for youth in Honduras and Columbia, please click here: https://urbanpromisehonduras.org/