Reflection: Mercy: a Verb


“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.


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