In Praise of Quiet Mercies

Posted on April 13, 2014

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“the quality of mercy is not strained” William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

We tend to remember the spectacular in history. Alexander the Great conquered a large part of the world before he was thirty and shot through ancient history like a meteor. Charles Darwin turned the world on its head with his book in 1859, On the Origin of Species. Henry Ford started making his cars on an assembly line and the world hasn’t stopped moving since then.

The list goes on and on. You can add to it easily.

But what about a Mother Teresa, without the publicity she eventually received? Or perhaps a missionary in Africa, tending to persecuted and impoverished children in a refugee camp? A volunteer helping rebuild a town devastated by a natural disaster, like a tornado for example?

On April 27, we commemorate the third anniversary of that twister than changed Tuscaloosa forever. Those of us who lived through it will never forget it. Nor will I ever forget friends and strangers showing up on our front lawn, littered with fallen trees, cars crushed, with their chain saws ready to work and restore us from the wounds of those terrible howling winds and swirling black and green clouds.

The world is marked by small and largely unrecognized and unknown mercies, but not quickly forgotten by those on the receiving end. How do we measure these? Surely we don’t by the yardstick of success in this country, and elsewhere for that matter. Success means some notable recognition, in the printed media, on television, among the talking heads, perhaps a congressman or senator, speaking in a stentorian and somber voice about the future of the country, and how she will rectify the wrongs in our culture and make it all right. Or a television or movie personality arriving at the gala award celebration, in Hollywood or Nashville, dressed in a fashion—especially the women—in a way sure to catch the eye of the tabloids, lots of leg and cleavage to oogle the rubes.

William Shakespeare, in his play The Merchant of Venice, left us the thought expressed as only his genius with language could, “the quality of mercy is not strained.” One of his characters was addressing a Jew, Shylock, who wanted his debt paid according to the law.

According to the law, Shylock was right, but Shakespeare went beyond the law, into the realm of mercy. In a Christian context, mercy and compassion and ultimately forgiveness and the road to salvation, come from beyond the law. They issue from the mercy and grace of God.

We know the world of law, and the “laws” or measures of success, in our society today.

We know the celebrated, the famous, the pompous, the proud, and, even occasionally, among that mob of publicity and fame seekers, among the rich and powerful, an occasional celebrity, like Pope Francis for example these days, who takes his fame and power with humility, and understands totally the source of his strength.

Leaving the Pope aside, what about the unknowns, the ones who care for the sick, the poor, the disenfranchised, the street people, the prisoners, the hurting without calling attention to themselves, quietly being good friends, good listeners, a balm with sympathy and generosity. And I include intra family caretakers as well. All, in fact, who, spontaneously or with careful thought, give of themselves to others, with no expectation of anything in return other than knowing they are doing the right thing, or, in a larger context, being in God’s will.

Thursday mornings, bright and early, a group of Christian men, led by our leader John Belcher, meet at the Chick Fil A in Northport for a Bible study. But it is more than that, since John always prepares a good lesson and we range over many topics. One Thursday not too long ago, one of our members, Brooks Mouchette, led us in a study of God’s will since John was recovering from a surgical procedure.

What is God’s will? And, more important, how do we recognize it, and get in line with it?
We talked about a lot of things, from the finding God’s will to living our lives in his will. It was a lesson in humility that morning, each of us recognizing that God’s will for us was not wrapped up in self, but in turning over your life to God. That’s both liberating and scary.

We laughed as one of us pondered, “what if God wants to send me to Uganda as a missionary?”
Uganda?! Our mental images worked overtime, and, personally, while never having been to equatorial Africa, I knew from mission trips into Latin America what it was like to live in pretty primitive conditions. Uganda?

We agreed, finally, that if God wants to send us to Sudan or Ecuador or the down-and-out Indian reservation in South Dakota or India itself, then he will put it in our hearts.

I don’t know that we settled anything definitely that morning. We did enjoy each other’s company, as we always do. And we learned from each other’s reflections and experiences.

I took some notes over the past few weeks while composing this piece, largely clippings from the newspaper about people I admired for expressing their mercy, and compassion, and love for others.
There was a beautifully written editorial about Bernice Washington, a lady who devoted her life “during a lifetime of helping others in their struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.”

And in Syria, a 75 year old Dutch Jesuit priest, who devoted much of his life to a home he founded for children and adults with mental disabilities, was abducted, beaten and executed in front of his monastery, the victim of the raging civil war in Syria.

I didn’t know Father Francis Van Der Lugt, or Bernice Washington, but I do know their type, working their mercy within God’s will. If the quality of mercy is not strained as Shakespeare wrote, then we all are capable of those qualities of mercy and compassion.

I was the recipient of many of those random acts of good will and love by so many in the wake of that tornado three years ago, uplifting testimony to the innate goodness of men and women.

This article posted in my column The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News as Take Time to Praise Life’s Quiet Mercies April 27, 2014