The Meaning of Mercy

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A few years ago, when Pope Francis declared the year of mercy, I spent some significant time pondering this on my personal blog. I’ve fallen off the radar here of late because, as we all either know or need to learn, “balance” means sometimes one thing has to give to make room for another, but eventually it will swing back. My writing life is buried right now under fiction work, with a book releasing in the next few weeks, and I simply haven’t had time to come over here.

So I went back to my personal blog to harvest a few more posts to fill in the gap, and the mercy posts really struck a chord. So here you go.


I once attended a workshop on writing liturgical texts in which the presenter challenged us to take out all the church-y words and see if anything of substance remained.

“Mercy” is one of those words. A throwaway word, overused into gibberish. At least, it has been for me. So when I heard about an extraordinary jubilee year of mercy, I went, “Mercy? Why mercy? What does that even mean?”

It was that last question that turned out to be the most important. The problem of this simple, hackneyed word has been gnawing at me until I’ve realized that prising apart its significance for me—both as a recipient and as a giver—is meant to shape the coming year.

I have always viewed mercy as synonymous with forgiveness. The mind, hearing “mercy,” goes straight to sin and unworthiness: I’m a pathetic, undeserving wretch whose sins have been forgiven despite my general loser-li-ness. (I can coin words late at night with the best of them.)

The idea of confronting our own brokenness is really important, especially in these days of “what’s right for you may not be right for me.” Built into our identity as modern men and women is a deeply-held resistance to admitting that we treat ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our world with careless disregard for our/their/its innate dignity. Mercy speaks to the humility of admitting we do crappy things sometimes. It speaks to the recognition that we deserve just consequences for our actions and instead we’re blessed—in fact, showered—no, deluged—with goodness. Goodness we usually fail to recognize, because we’re too busy asking for more, more, more.

But if that’s all there is to the word “mercy,” then what’s up with those “corporal and spiritual works”? How do they fit into all this? What do they have to do with undeserved forgiveness?

I’m not the only person wrestling with this question. I’ve been reading anything I come across on the blogosphere, and this single quote is the one that caught me:

“Mercy is being willing to enter into the chaos of another.”

I thought, Yes! That’s it! I understand that!

Image by Kasun Chamara from Pixabay

It’s far easier to pass judgment on the guy on the street corner begging for money. To say, “He doesn’t really need it, he’s trying to take advantage of people’s gullibility.” But mercy says, “Okay, I will enter into his chaos by contemplating the decades of days and hours and influences I can’t possibly know, the countless steps that brought him to this particular intersection on this particular day, and pry my brain open to admit that I simply cannot know whether he is or is not truly in need, and as such I am compelled, by virtue of his dignity as a human being, to give him the benefit of the doubt…and help him.”

Mercy.

It’s far easier to cling to the distance separating us from the chaos in the Middle East–to say, “We can’t possibly ensure that Those People are not terrorists; therefore it is only prudent to keep Them all out and send our riches Over There so Someone Else can take care of Them.” But surely I’m not the only one whose conscience whispers, If not us, who? Where is there a place of refuge for so many? Mercy responds to worldly prudence with a call to dismantle the geographical wall we’ve been hiding behind for two centuries and enter into the chaos that the rest of the world already knows so well.

Mercy.

I’m finding that mercy, far from being meaningless, is an enormous, life-altering word. Terrifying, too, because it shoves me out of my safe, familiar, comfortable world full of safe, familiar, comfortable platitudes. To live mercy is to enter into the chaos of families shattered by abuse. To enter into the existence of stomach-turning poverty that, if viewed head-on, would force me–even chintzy, never-spend-a-dime-if-you-can-make-do-with-a-penny me–to confront my own excesses and make changes I don’t want to make.

Mercy, I am beginning to realize, is a shortcut to a darned uncomfortable conscience.

The chicken and the egg (or: double standards in Christianity)

“Hey,” my husband whispered to me before Holy Thursday Mass. “I forgot to tell you. Pew research did a new survey and the number of people who go to church is below 50% for the first time ever.”

My first reaction was: And Christianity will blame the secular culture instead of looking in the mirror and examining whether our own failures are the problem.

Actually, it’s probably a chicken-and-egg situation. The culture is definitely getting more hostile to religion. But then again, religion keeps giving more reasons for the hostility.

I know. Them’s fightin’ words, but painful though they might be, I think they’re fair.

The trouble is that the Gospel tells us we’re SUPPOSED to expect hostility from the world. But somehow, we’ve translated that into a persecution complex. We never stop to examine our own attitudes, words, and behaviors for how well they reflect the Gospel. We just assume that any pushback we encounter must, by definition, be the culture’s problem rather than ours. It couldn’t possibly be that we are misrepresenting our faith.

Meanwhile, Christianity fails to recognize how incredibly uneven we are in HOW we choose to stand at odds with the world. There are these huge double standards.

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, EXCEPT when it requires taxpayer money to support people most at risk of feeling the “need” for abortion (because of generational poverty and inequality of opportunity, etc., etc).

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, except when it infringes on “personal freedoms” (cough-cough-masking).

Like: Government should stay out of my business, except when it’s about homosexual relationships or abortion, and then of course it’s the government’s business, absolutely.

Or: Sexual assault and harassment are sinful, but how dare we ruin the life of the accused? (Never mind the life of the victim. Whatever. We’ve been sacrificing them for millennia.)

Or: Honesty and integrity are fundamental to Christian belief—they’re in the Ten Commandments—but how many people have wholeheartedly, even rabidly, embraced a lie about stolen elections that has zero basis in fact?

I’ve been trying not to write these kinds of posts lately. Nobody needs me haranguing them; it’s not particularly effective at anything except making people mad. So I’ve been trying to focus my posts here on working out my own spiritual journey instead of lambasting everything that’s wrong with the world. I have spent this Lent praying for “enemies,” and more importantly, for the heart to do so authentically while remaining in union with God’s will. So much is happening in my heart this year—I am journaling it, bit by bit, but I’m deep in the weeds and I can’t synthesize it yet.

But there are times when my frustration comes out. And this is one of them. And maybe, after all, Good Friday is not a bad time to have our collective conscience stung.

A Post For All Who Call Themselves Pro-Life

Today, as we march toward World Down Syndrome Awareness Day this Sunday, I’m harvesting another post I wrote long ago on my personal blog–one that marks a big step on the journey I’ve often referenced here, the journey from a black-and-white world view to the recognition that all issues have to be weighed together, because they all exert influence on each other.

I wrote this in 2011, and I’m going to leave the text exactly as it stood then.


My chromosomally-gifted girly-girl at age four, which would have been around the time this post was written.

A year and a half ago, I was working on legislation to ensure that children with disabilities weren’t denied therapies because of their disability. Our sponsor (my mom) was approaching her term limit, and we needed a new one. We knew we had to find a Republican, because the legislature is Republican-controlled. We also knew that putting mandates on insurers could be a tough sell. Still, we felt sure people on both sides of the aisle would recognize that this issue was bigger than political philosophy.

I contacted a former Republican state senator who was well-connected and reportedly supportive on disability issues. I told him what we were hoping to accomplish, and asked him to suggest people to approach as sponsors.

His reply raised my blood pressure for weeks afterward. (Eventually, its presence in my inbox became such an open sore that I had to just delete it. Just thinking about it still gets me going.) However he intended it, it came across as condescending: a man clearly much wiser than this do-gooder little girl, and determined to teach me the error of my ways. His philosophy went something like this:

Insurance is not meant for ordinary care. It’s meant for emergencies, for extraordinary circumstances, cataclysmic events you can’t anticipate. Therapy is normal, ongoing care for kids with special needs; thus, insurers shouldn’t have to pay for it unless they want to. And the government certainly shouldn’t be putting a mandate on them. It’s the responsibility of the families to provide for their children what they think is important. He understood how tough this was for families to accept, but nonetheless that was the way it was.

I’m sure you can appreciate why I hit the roof when I read this email. Never mind that raising a child with special needs is extraordinary circumstances and something you often can’t anticipate. I had the good sense not to respond at all, because there wasn’t one polite thing I could have said. But believe me, I’ve composed many, many responses in my mind. And the more time passes, the more convinced I am of the grave flaw in his argument.

Because this man calls himself prolife—by which he means that he believes abortion is wrong. But respect for life is so much bigger than abortion. It’s an attitude that should permeate all of life, in all its forms and manifestations. Prolife politicians are very good at being outraged by the systematic termination of “imperfect” children. But if you’re going to ask people to shoulder the responsibility of caring for children with disabilities, you can’t abandon them once the child is born.

Missouri has a great program called First Steps, which provides these services. But in rural areas, it’s hard to find providers to come to the home. And First Steps ends at age three, after which kids enter the school system. We’re lucky—we have a great early childhood program where I live. But we’re in an urban area. What about families in small towns without the resources to provide for kids through the schools?

When I was serving on the Children’s Therapy Act committee, we heard stories of people who had to sell their homes to pay for their kids’ treatment, people who deliberately stayed in low-paying jobs so that they would qualify for Medicaid, which does cover these therapies.

How dare politicians stand on a soapbox, claiming that all life is precious, that children with disabilities have a right to live, and then turn their backs on families who actually have them? Do they not realize that, unlike insurance companies, parents can’t negotiate reduced rates? Do they not realize how crippling the expense of therapy becomes? Or do they just not care?

Political philosophy is all well and good, but it cannot be so rigid that it leaves behind those it purports to serve. I happen to think that minimizing regulations is a sound principle—within reason. But the reality is that power companies aren’t going to implement environmental reform if it’s going to cost them money. CEOs aren’t going to give up their huge bonuses just because the economy’s rough on the little guy. Some things MUST be mandated, or they won’t happen at all.

Doesn’t it make more sense to get these kids the treatment they need to become productive, (tax-paying) members of society? And if we don’t, if we shove the disabled population into a corner, behind a wall where their lack of function doesn’t make everyone else uncomfortable—if we don’t show them the respect they are due as human beings by providing them the tools necessary to integrate into society—then how can we be horrified and outraged by the eugenics of aborting the “imperfect”?

I share this example today in the hope that it will open people’s eyes to the many ways besides abortion in which life is disrespected. We’re accustomed to hearing about certain issues: death penalty, abstinence education, end-of-life issues—but respect for life is everywhere, all the time, in every single issue we face as voters. As we head into an election cycle, I beg you: challenge your candidates to man up and be consistent. If you’re going to respect life, you have to respect life in all its forms.

“Demanding and even tiring”

I’ve been swamped lately with other professional obligations, and Intentional Catholic has had to take a back seat. When I came downstairs this morning, I knew I needed to dig back into Fratelli Tutti, but I was not prepared for the section I was reading to speak so powerfully to the event coming up next Sunday.

March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day, chosen because Down syndrome, or Trisomy 21, is THREE copies of the TWENTY-FIRST chromosome.

For fourteen years now, Down syndrome advocacy has been a driving force in my life. I was not prepared to be a special needs mom. Having grown up in the pro-life movement, the moment when I had to confront my own distinctly un-pro-life reaction to the news was a pretty bruising collision with the mirror.

The point Pope Francis makes in this excerpt really hit home after a decade and a half of mighty struggles on behalf of our daughter. “A demanding and even tiring process,” he calls it, and let me tell you—you have no idea just HOW demanding and tiring.

But he’s right: this demanding and tiring process DOES contribute to the formation of a conscience capable of acknowledging each individual as unique and unrepeatable. I would not be where I am today, in my growth as a Christian, had God not placed this precious gift in my womb, forcing me to look in the mirror and recognize a host of inconsistencies between what I claimed to believe and how those beliefs conflicted with other deeply-held convictions about how the world was “supposed” to work.

I will never be done grappling with my profound failures around these issues, but I am grateful for the gift of my child, who to this day stretches me beyond what I think I am capable of.

For the next week, leading up to World Down Syndrome Day, I will share here some of the reflections I’ve written or presented over the years as I wrestled with all this.

The Word in the World

This seems like a throwaway, but so much of recent history has revolved around the need for Christians to recognize how our faith interacts with the real world–what does it mean to live Christian faith in a world where misinformation is so rampant? Where social media rules, and encourages us to be our worst selves? What does it mean to live the Gospel when we face problems of lack of respect for human dignity–from abortion through inequality of education and opportunity leading to poverty, homelessness? How does the Gospel call interact with questions of tax code and societal responsibility? With policies around immigration and race?

It’s easy to get complacent about one’s faith if that faith is totally disconnected from the real world–or if one issue overshadows all others. But Romero, in the part that lives in those ellipses, says when the Gospel is taken out of the context of the real world, it ceases to become the word of God at all.

These are the questions I wrestle–knowing always that when I get self-righteous, I’m part of the same problem.

Judgment and Justice

This morning’s reading presents a real challenge. “Stop judging and you will not be judged.” (Luke 6:37). I know very well that judginess is a great fault of mine (and a great many others in these polarized times, across the spectrum of disagreements). It twinges my conscience.

I was roundly scolded a few weeks ago for being judgy about people who wouldn’t wear masks (one of whom threw around the word “communism” to justify it).

But at that time, COVID cases were still quite high, and people refusing to wear masks were willfully putting others at risk. There’s an injustice being perpetrated there, and while we’re not supposed to judge others, God is also all about justice. Where does discipleship lie in that situation?

That gets me thinking about other big disagreements. To me, it seems patently obvious that some attitudes and behaviors NEED to be judged and called out by faithful Christians, because they are violations of Godly justice. For instance: the refusal to acknowledge that racism still impacts the world in institutional ways.

Where is the line between calling out injustice and, well, judgment?

All this illustrates that the seemingly straightforward sound bytes of the Gospel are a whole lot more complicated to apply in the real world. Maybe that’s why we so often give up and go for the over-simplistic view. (Hence, the Chesterton quote.)

I don’t pretend to have the answer to the conundrum. I only wrestle with it with as much integrity as I can.

Praying for “enemies”

I woke up early this morning with this Scripture in my mind. I sort of wince at the words “enemies” and “persecute.” They seem like really extreme words. I’d like to think I don’t have any enemies. Opponents, yes, but not enemies. And persecute? There’s such a glut of persecution complex these days, where people see themselves as harassed and mistreated and use that as an excuse not to examine their own behavior and beliefs for places where they’re out of line. I feel a tremendous antipathy toward applying this Scripture to myself.

Still, this Lent I knew I needed to connect my spiritual practice to the examination of conscience I was already going through, and while I may quibble with the extremity of the labeling, the concept Jesus lays out here is exactly what I most need to do right now.

But it’s hard, and not just from the perspective of humility. HOW does one pray for one’s enemies? I mean, if you pray for them to be converted and changed, you’re assuming you are 100% right and they are 100% wrong, and we all know how Jesus felt about such self-righteousness. I can’t pray for them to find success in their endeavors, though, because the reason I feel such angst toward them is because I see their endeavors as deeply contrary to God’s will. And praying for God to bless them seems like a cop-out.

So this is my Lenten discipline: seeking to find the words that can be prayed authentically, for people I disagree with profoundly, while remaining humble enough not to think I have all the answers.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was a glorious and humbling moment this summer when I first encountered “Lift Every Heart And Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem. Glorious, because as a pastoral musician, it moved me for its universality and the challenge contained within. Humbling, because how did I make it to the age of forty-six as a pastoral musician and never hear it?

So I want to share this video today in honor of today’s commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a very simple version and they give you the background of the hymn before they sing it. I’ll paste the text below.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Putting a face on the reason masking is our Christian call

We had two altercations with people over masks last weekend.

First of all, let me say that I try very hard not to go out at high traffic times. But when one’s husband works full time and you have things you need to do together, sometimes there are only high traffic times.

I’ll just describe one of our interactions. I asked one man who had his gaiter hanging around his neck to please put on his mask. He responded by rolling his eyes. Let me tell you, it’s quite something, seeing a 60-something white man roll his eyes like a teenager. He muttered something about not living in a communist country, or something equally (pardon my bluntness) idiotic and totally at odds with both Christianity and reality.

It’s mind boggling, how wearing a mask to protect the health of others got twisted into a political wedge. A few months ago a fellow Catholic on Facebook posted that it really bothered her that the Church had “bought into” the narrative that brotherly love required us to mask and distance.

I was dumbfounded.

So I’m here today to put a face on “brotherly love.”

This is my daughter. She is charming. She loves to sing. She loves to dance. She loves babies and ice cream and pasta. Since she was a toddler, she has had an uncanny ability to enter a room and instantly zero in on the one person who most needs the love of God. She goes to them and loves them.

Wherever she goes, she brings joy and love. She brings God, in other words, without ever speaking a word about it.

She also has Down syndrome.

When she was six weeks old, she contracted RSV. She had floppy airways and a heart defect that caused her blood to spin instead of properly oxygenating. She spent more than a week on a ventilator. For children that age, 93% oxygen saturation is the threshold for hospitalization. Hers dipped to the 40s every time she had a coughing fit. The doctors told my husband to “prepare himself.”

At 6.5 months, she had heart surgery to repair her heart. They stopped her heart. Put her on a heart-lung bypass. And she was on a ventilator again.

We thought that would be the end of respiratory issues, but it wasn’t. At 2.25 years, she developed pneumonia and was in the ICU, on a ventilator, yet again.

Since then, she’s been very healthy. My rational mind tells me she’d probably be fine if she got COVID, but the fact is that her airways are naturally floppy, and now they’re scarred from multiple trips down ventilator lane.

My daughter puts a face on the reason for masking. We make this sacrifice in order to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Nobody likes masking. Nobody likes being forced to hold loved ones at a physical distance. Nobody likes any of this. But if that’s what it takes to protect the life and health of others, then that is the Christian call.