April 23, 2014
A few years ago, my partner John and I were driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and were having no luck finding anything good on the radio. We knew it was going to be a long trip and so we were desperate for good driving music. We stopped at every gas station and rest stop we came across until we’d found a CD of Appalachian folk music to play along the way. The entire CD was wonderful but one song, in particular, captured my imagination. It’s an old gospel song sung by Rhonda Vincent. Here are some of the lyrics and refrain:
There are many people
who will say they’re Christians
and they live like Christians on the Sabbath day
But come Monday morning, til the coming Sunday
They will fight their neighbor all along the way…
While it’s not what many people might think of as great driving music, I found myself humming the tune and reflecting on the words long after the drive ended. It’s a song about the way that mercy and everyday human kindness distinguishes those who ‘walk the talk’ from those who only act like Christians on the Sabbath day. And quite frankly, it’s a song I needed to hear both then and now. The refrain goes as follows:
Oh you don’t love God, if you don’t love your neighbor
if you gossip about him, if you never have mercy
if he gets into trouble, and you don’t try to help him
then you don’t love your neighbor, and you don’t love God.
One of the things I love about this song is that the word ‘mercy’ is embedded right in the heart of the refrain. Mercy is an old fashioned word that seems to have fallen out of use in many places. I don’t remember it ever being mentioned while in seminary – though other words related to it like forgiveness, truth and reconciliation, and compassion were – and I’ve rarely heard it used in sermons since. Furthermore, when I think about some of the most frustrating and difficult conversations I’ve been part of over the past ten or so years, I’ve realized that they were frequently high on righteousness and profoundly lacking in mercy. Or stated differently, they were merciless.
To me, mercy is about having enough space within one’s self to hear another person – friend or otherwise – with a spirit of generosity. It’s about giving people the benefit of the doubt and a willingness to forgive people lightly though directly. Taking a cue from the lyrics of this song, mercy also has a community dimension to it. It means not seeing other people’s troubles as just them getting their due. More basically, it’s about helping others out. In this way, having mercy is an act, a personality trait, and an orientation to the wider community.
And in keeping with the point of this blog, I happen to think that mercy is also pretty fabulous. If this season of Easter is about God’s generous act of reconciling love toward us all, my hope is that God’s act would open up in us a newfound tendency to show mercy to one another. How can this season of celebrating God’s love help us hold one another with a greater spirit of graciousness and mercy than before? And what role does mercy play when it comes to those fierce conversations that we need to have?
I hope you’ll find a bit of time to listen to the song below. It’s everything a good folk song should be – catchy, simple, yet profound. At times I’ve found myself convicted (to use another old word) by its critique of Sunday morning Christians and I’ve wondered how I might live the Gospel out more fully from Monday through Saturday as well. Most of all, however, my hope would be that in this season of Easter we consider the word ‘mercy’ and where it’s gone to. I think it’s a word that merits dusting off and trying on again for size. What song captures your experience of Easter? Share it in the comments or tweet with #Eastersong.