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Mercy

Lord have mercy. I used to hear this a lot when I was growing up. It was an expression of shock, or outrage, or frustration. It was a phrase reserved for intense, extreme and usually negative emotions. It made me think of people as wayward children about to be dealt with by a displeased parent. It summed up the nature of our relationship to God; creatures in need of mercy, like the ant caught crawling across my sandwich in the park, unable to do anything to defend itself against me, at my mercy. Will I let it go on its way, or will I crush it?

Not an attractive view of God, this one. Don’t see anyone lining up at the doors of the church to meet the all-powerful one to whom we may be so many ants crawling across lunch. It may be as popular as the proverbial pork chop in the synagogue, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I kid myself when I forget that my life could be snuffed out at any second by my creator. I remember then each day is a gift, not a given.

Mercy is a quaint word. Not part of everyday conversation. It means help, but the kind of help that the strong gives to the weak, the powerful to the powerless. We can talk about mercy missions or perhaps mercy killings. But mercy is a thing that’s only meaningful if we need it. And in the age that we live in its easy to feel that we don’t need it, or anything else much because we are all able to deal with just about anything that comes our way. So we don’t need help, or rescue, because we don’t have any sense of crisis. Christianity, with its weird message about sin and salvation can seem to be offering a cure for an illness the world neither recognises or acknowledges.

It sometimes goes unrecognised or acknowledged by Christians like me too, despite all that old-time religion I grew up with. Sinners were those terrible people out there, the killers, the rapists, the violent, the extreme. The supposedly inescapable fact of my malaise, my tendency to do my own thing rather than what God wants, ie sin, managed to escape me until a family crisis in my teens showed me I had reached the end of my own resources. My own cleverness, ability to organise myself, not to mention the great array of domestic skills my mother equipped me with as a young girl while my peers were learning to smoke and drink with boys (I did that later) couldn’t equip me for the moment of realisation that the kind of help I needed could not be found in any human source, least of all myself.

That’s not the same as seeing myself as sinful, of course. That came as I turned, albeit in some desperation, towards the one entity I had been taught offered some kind of help. Turning in God’s direction made me aware of my own sinfulness, as I became aware of His purity. And my vulnerability. And when I finally capitulated He did not give me any greater sense of my smallness, but of His extraordinary acceptance and love.

When I remember his mercy it’s not in a way that makes me crawl across my life like the ant I mentioned at the start. (Okay, sometimes, but only when I’ve run out of chocolate). In the great scheme of things I am of course little more than a tiny moving speck in the universe, but I am one on whom God has had mercy. And in Psalm 8 I am reminded that though I may see myself as small, God does not. For every bad thing that I have experienced in my life, there are dozens, scores, of good ones, that largely go unnoticed and unappreciated. God is indeed merciful and I am grateful.

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