Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Monday, October 13, 2014

To Love Mercy



                                                               Reflections on Micah 6:8, Matthew 10:8


And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
                                                                                    Micah 6:8 (NIV)

                 Freely you received, freely give.
                                                                                                Matthew 10:8


There is a kind of mercy we can’t do in our own strength.

It belongs to God. It is given by God – freely. All we have to do is receive. And when we do, the miraculous happens. God changes us on the inside.

He makes us a people of mercy.

And suddenly, the motion begins. As we receive, we give. It’s how His mercy works. We can’t hold on to it. We can’t horde it, or hide it, or keep it to ourselves. When we’ve got it and we’re changed by it, we give it as freely as we received it.

But there are people…

Jesus warns us about them. There are people who receive but never receive. There’s no miracle. There’s no change. This, Jesus explains in great detail, is the story of a wicked slave. We are not to be like him.

But our Lord doesn’t leave us there. He also tells the story of a son, a lost son, who finds his way home again. This young man knows, in the depths of his soul, he doesn’t deserve the compassion and mercy of his family. But it comes, in full, and willingly, joyfully, he opens his arms and receives it.

This is everything.

It’s the very heart and soul of the good news: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.” 1

And when it comes to us, we are made new.

That change is visible. It reshapes how we think, how we act, how we engage the world around us, and all of it to our very core. This mercy shapes our character. We see it in the royal line of Jesus’ own family. We find it in people we least expect – those we’ve labeled and pushed away.


It’s meant to be in us.

And the only way for that to happen is to let mercy come. He – the Person of Mercy Himself – must do with us what He came to do. And when He does, one taste of it in our soul and Micah 6:8 comes alive. He gives us everything we need to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

And out we go – a people of mercy to live mercy. We are men and women on Matthew 10:8 mission holding in our heart His eternal promise: “His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”  2

New and full of surprise.

For this is our God! And He zealously wants us to hear with His ears and see with His eyes. Just as He did in the simple story of a blind beggar.

A person no one sees.

With a cry no one hears, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” But He sees. He hears. It’s everything to Him. He wants it to be everything to us. So we must start here, outside the town of Jericho, with a man on the side of the road begging.

And let the story of Real Mercy change us forever.

*       *       *

I didn’t understand it at first.

Isn’t mercy something we do?

I see it in my Aunt Barbie and Uncle Paul. Their love for the Lord led them to start two mission centers in Colorado that serve hot meals and provide food, clothing, toys, blankets, counseling, and financial assistance to those in need.

It’s what my sister Kate does every day in her social work. Her big heart of love overflows with compassion for the rural elderly in southwest Ohio. It’s my Dad, every Wednesday night, serving the poor in Stamford, Connecticut.

This I get.

It’s what Christians do: We remember the needs of the poor. 3

I was 34, pastoring a church in Pittsburgh, when the “light bulb” went on. I was simply reading a book by an East African pastor. He urgently tasked all church leaders to do the work of “building the character of God’s mercy in the Christian soul.” He went on to say, “If we’re going to tell people about Jesus, they need to see Jesus in us. If we’ve received His mercy, we must be a people of mercy.”

I liked it – a lot. I wrote it in my journal. I thought I knew what it meant. But, truth be told, I didn’t. Not until I saw it the eyes of one man.

Jared.

We met coincidentally.

In March 1991, Bob Merriman was in the hospital dying of lung cancer. He’d been diagnosed just after Christmas. On his last Sunday in church, he got on his knees next to his wife, Dot, and prayed as Jesus prayed, “Heavenly Father, not my will be done, but Thine.” 4

He was in a coma now. The doctors said it wouldn’t be long.

In the bed next to him sat a twenty-eight year old man by the name of Jared. He sat hunched over, his face down, his legs outstretched, fighting for breath. The cancer had already taken his left arm and collapsed one lung. It was easier for him to breathe bent over. Easier not to talk.

But he was beautiful. His eyes were huge, set to perfection above high cheek bones and a strong, chiseled face with cocoa brown skin stretched tightly over each bone. There was gentleness in his face – even as he struggled for breath.

One afternoon, I heard Jared’s phone ring.

“May I answer it for you?” I asked. He nodded and I soon told him “Your wife wants you to know she loves you. She’ll be in about quarter to seven.” He reached for my hand, squeezed it and whispered, “That was nice of you.”

I blurted out, almost selfishly, “How do you do it, Jared?”

He lifted his head, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Jesus is all I’ve got.”

I already knew this about him. His family was a Christian family. His mother told me Jared had given his life to Jesus as a young man. “He did everything right,” she said, and talked about his time in the military, his marriage to a lovely woman, a nurse, and their two children, both under the age of five.

“He wanted to see his children grow,” she said, “and that’s not going to happen. He knows that now. We all do.”

Even so, I didn’t understand it. It scared me to think of myself suffering as Jared was suffering. Would I be able to say what he just said to me?

Night soon came and Bob took a turn for the worse.

By 3:00 in the morning, his breathing started to slow. Dot was the only one with him. She was sitting at his bedside, holding his hand, her chair next to the curtain separating the two men.

She leaned her head on the bed and began to cry.

Then came this familiar sound – the curtain rings sliding on metal.

And then she felt it. This hand – his only hand – gently resting on her shoulder. Softly patting, tenderly rubbing, as a son would comfort his mother. She could feel his warmth. She reached up, covered his hand with hers, and turned to look at him. There was enough light to see those beautiful eyes.

“He’s all we’ve got,” Jared quietly whispered.

It was, for her, like medicine from heaven to her soul.

And by morning’s light, Bob had somehow recovered. He’d come out of his coma and would spend the next six weeks at home before he passed into the arms of the Lord. For Jared, the story was different.

On the very next night, the curtain stayed closed between us. His family never left his side. When morning came again, the curtain was finally pushed back. It was the first time we’d seen Jared lying down -- peacefully. No more struggles. No more gasps of air. No more sleepless nights to come. The watch was over.

But I have never forgotten him.

Or that hand stretched out in the night.

He’s the one who showed me that mercy isn’t first what we do. It’s who we are. It’s who the God of mercy makes us in Christ. Because of Jared, I began praying the prayer the East African pastor taught me to pray: Build the character of Your mercy in me – and in us Your people.

For this is where it all begins.

+ + +
1 Ephesians 2:4-4
2 Lamentations 3:22-23
3 Galatians 2:10
4 Thaddeus Barnum, Where is God in Suffering and Tragedy? (DeBary, FL: Longwood Communications, 1997), 254-257, 266-269.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

‘Tis Mercy All


‘Tis Mercy All                                                    Reflections on Luke 5:25


Immediately he got up before them, and picked up what he had been lying on, and went home glorifying God.
                                                                                                Luke 5:25

                        Then the lame will leap like a deer…
Isaiah 35:6



Did he do it? Did he leap into the air like a deer?

Did he have to resist the urge to fall at Jesus’ feet to worship and thank Him for what He’d done? Did he want – like so many who Jesus healed – to stay and never leave Him, ever?  But no, he knew exactly what to do.

Because Jesus told him: Arise. Take your mat. Walk. Go home.

And he did, quickly. But as he did, was praise already on his lips? From the very second the power of God entered his body, did it begin? Did he start singing, leading everyone in the house to glorify God for “His mercy endures forever”?

            Bless the Lord, O my soul,
            And forget none of His benefits;
            Who pardons all your iniquities,
            Who heals all your diseases;
            Who redeems your life from the pit,
            Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion…
                                                                                    Psalm 103:2-4


He grabs the mat.

Why did Jesus even mention the mat? He didn’t have to. Or, possibly, He could’ve told the man to leave it right where it was and never touch it again. But instead, He orders the man to take it, hold it, and carry it home with him.

A sign and symbol of all he once was.

We don’t know his name. He’s called “the paralytic” five times in Mark’s gospel. He’s the man on the mat. It defines him. He is, and always has been, branded by his sickness. The mat has been his life. It has been his everything.

And now, here it is, in his hands. He’s not on it -- he’s got it! There aren’t four friends on each corner. Or two at both ends. No, look! He’s holding it and he can hold it high – while standing! – showing everybody his days as a “paralytic” are over and a new life has begun by the power and compassion of Jesus Christ.

Out he went. Out the front door. All by himself.

Did his four friends race off the roof to greet him as he came out? Did they embrace him? Did the crowd cheer? Did his friends go with him as he made his way through the masses of people outside? Did they follow him home shouting the praise of Almighty God at the top of their lungs?

And the man -- what was it like for him to run the streets of town, his legs strong, the wind in his face, and the rush of joy filling his heart? All because he can’t wait for everybody at home to see what the Lord had done for him.

He’s an ambassador now. A missionary.

Sent by the Lord Jesus Christ to “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.”  1

Now he can do what his four friends did for him. He can grab the mats of others just like him. He can be on the team that runs the streets, climbs roofs, and breaks right through them -- so he, too, can bring them to Jesus.

And let the mercy of God come.

*       *       *

Time passes way too quickly. A few months after the funeral, Erilynne and I moved to pastor another church in a different state. Walt and I stayed in touch for a while, then not so much.

Hard to believe ten years have gone by.

A few days ago, I got home from work and found a handwritten letter from him. I opened it and saw a newspaper clipping of his mom’s obituary with a photo taken years ago. Before reading it, I turned to his letter.

Dear Thad and Erilynne,

I hope you are well, my dear friends.

Carol and I wanted you to see this. Mom died peacefully about a week ago in the same hospital where Dad died. Her last years were good years.

Soon after you left, Mom moved in with us. All I can say is she surprised us. She never took off her wedding band. When she talked about Dad, she pictured him as the man she first loved and married. The same man she got to see the last week of his life. The years in between, she somehow quietly forgot.

I’ve tried to make sense of it. The best I can do is say: In Dad’s crippling, we were all crippled. In his healing, we, too, were healed.

I know it’s true of me.

I have confidence now. I’m the same old Walt. I’ve never lost my passion for seniors. Micah 6:8 is still my favorite Bible verse. I choose “to love mercy.”

Every day.

I’m convinced the Lord requires us to meet the needs of those around us. No matter who they are, or what they’ve done, or whether they respond to us or not. We never stop. We never forget the practical, hands-on care for all who suffer in this life – especially those who are poor, weak, lonely, sick, and afraid.

But, I’m telling you, Dad’s story changed me.

There’s a joy inside -- an uncontainable joy. I want to see people come to faith in Christ just like Dad. I want the mercy that comes from heaven to touch their souls too. So, at the nursing homes, it just came out of me. I’d find myself telling people my dad’s story and how he came to faith in Jesus the last week of his life. “And if it could happen for a man like that,” I’d say. “It can happen for you!”

I took risks I never dreamed.

Risks that God honored. I got to see His mercy come again and again. Just like with Dad. I got to start Bible studies at the nursing homes. Pastors asked me to come to their churches and teach Christians the basic principles of how to bring people to faith in Jesus. And every time I do, that old hymn wells up in my soul:

            ‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
            For, O my God, it found out me.
            Amazing love, how can it be
            That Thou, my God, should die for me! 2

I can’t stop singing it! We’re seeing more and more Christians choosing “to love mercy.” Churches are rising up like a mighty army with all kinds of innovative ways to care for the practical needs of our community. And with it has come a new confidence to share the love of Jesus Christ with people.

Stories! We’re hearing stories everywhere of people giving their lives to Christ. Every time, it reminds me of Dad and fills my heart with thanksgiving and song.

 ‘Tis mercy all!

And in that mercy, Carol and I send you both our love,

Walt


As a postscript, he gave a phone number and said, “Call me sometime?”

Erilynne and I decided to call after dinner. Before we did, we went on the internet and found Walt. Articles, pictures, and a few social media pages. We clicked here, clicked there, and one picture in particular caught my eye.

I could still see it. That frown deeply sculpted in his face.

“A gift from my father,” he used to say.

“So your dad has it too?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s mine. Years of heartache with him, that’s all.”

It’s how I remember Walt. For me, that frown was the picture of the pain he bore because of his dad. And now, I could see, time had not been kind to him. That frown had deepened into an almost angry scowl.

Thankfully, they were home to answer our call.

One sound of his voice and we could hear the difference. There was joy in him like we’d never heard before. The sound – almost what I imagine the man on the mat sounded like when he tore out of the house and onto the streets.

Once crippled – then crippled no more.

And like him, Walt was a man on mission – free, healed, and wanting nothing more than to run the streets telling everybody what Jesus has done for him.

“So, Walt, I have a question,” I said that night.

“Ask away,” he replied.

“I’m looking at your picture on the internet. Why’d you decide to keep that frown on your face?”

He laughed and said, “Because I need it. All by itself, it tells the story of Dad and me and what our life was like together before mercy came. Before mercy surprised us both.” And with that, he started singing loud, singing full.
'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.





1 Mark 5:19
2 From Charles Wesley’s hymn, “And Can It Be”, public domain, 1738.

John 15:1-11, the Vine and the branches. "Is He everything to you?