God with us, full of grace, full of truth, you are who I long for! I yearn to be like you at long last. You’re changing me, curing me of sin and selfishness. You taught me service, then sent me to my sister’s side, to simply be there, waiting to serve her any way she needed as she died. Now I’m finding compassion is still a tough lesson. Building on the service that had flowed so gladly for that one so dear, you call me on to love some sisters I don’t yet know: needy, elderly, hopeless in a careless world that passes by, unseeing. Face to face with my own habit of looking the other way, fearing that their hands might curl into a beggar’s cup and ask for more, I am ashamed. I see you watching me and longing to mold me. Please turn my fear to mercy, my reluctance to compassion! I know practice will make perfect. Perfect me please!
My Master had some key spiritual formation to accomplish in me, and it was not what I expected.
My sister, Kayleen, passed away in 2006 after two years of combating leukemia. She underwent months of treatments at Mayo Clinic, but in the end her time on earth was over. She had longed for someone to be at her side while hospitalized, and my family had graciously sent me to be her companion, sitting beside her as many hours as possible. She was nine years younger than I: adored, one of my best friends. I found it a great privilege to show her this loving compassion.
Soon after she died we returned to Ferkessédougou, Côte d’Ivoire, having spent three years in the U.S. while waiting for civil unrest to quiet down over there. The country was still divided when we returned, rebels ruling the northern half where we lived, but It was wonderful to be back, working again in Bible translation and catching up with Nyarafolo friends. As time went on I found myself being confronted with more needs of older women in the community than ever before. The years of distress had increased poverty all around us, and many widows were among those deeply sensing their need for Jesus and for supportive community.
A growing group of Nyarafolos was meeting Sunday afternoons in our back yard to worship together in their language, praying and creating songs in their traditional musical style. Those gatherings were one of my favorite activities. After the meeting a woman or two would stay to talk. And throughout the week, certain ones would come by to see if we could help with needs for food, medical treatment, or obtaining products to sell in the market.
I began to feel that this was a lot to bear. Then the Lord convicted me of my narrow vision and self-centeredness. What if I were in their “shoes” (most of them just wore old sandals!) — where was the heart of mercy that I thought I had? It had been easy to give my all to my sister Kayleen. In these new situations I needed the God of all mercies to put his heart in mine.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor. 1:3-4 ESV)
I knew that, to be like my Father, to be like Jesus, I needed to be merciful. I did not feel that it was a spiritual gift of mine. I had seen that gifting in Glenn, a natural bent to help the needy in wise ways. My parents, Dwight and Barbara Slater, had shown that gift of mercy in their medical work and hospitality all throughout my growing-up years as an mk. Now I was finding it hard to keep showing mercy with kindness, day after day.
The Lord did grow my heart through practice. As I got to know these women more deeply I recognized the reality of their need. My life was a comfy paradise compared to theirs. And as we found ways for the widows to form a group and work together to grow a garden in our yard, and to make soap to sell, I began to see hope for them. I realized that much of my distress was just seeing the misery all around me and feeling helpless. But God was showing me that reaching out to help was actually increasing my own sense of wellbeing and inner peace. He knew my lack and was meeting my need.
I was experiencing growth, and his mercy, in what Jesus taught in the fifth beatitude:
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Mat 5:7 ESV)
Mercy (ἔλεος). The word emphasizes the misery with which grace deals; hence, particularly the acknowledgement of human wretchedness coupled with the impulse to relieve it, which issues in gracious ministry. Bengel remarks, “Grace takes away the fault, mercy the misery.”
Understanding “mercy” as gracious ministry that reaches out to relieve the misery of someone who is suffering was not new. It just needed to be lived out more graciously in my life.
When we admit to our own brokenness, we are taking that first step toward becoming “meek,” acknowledging our imperfection and leaning on the Lord for appropriate reactions to others. When we are merciful, there may be some situations in which we are recognizing the imperfection of another person and reaching out to help them anyway, or to forgive them. That, after all, is what our Savior has done for us. And we know that when we meet him he will be showing us mercy all over again, welcoming us with loving arms when we do not deserve it.
The importance of showing mercy was underlined in the Old Testament as well. This beatitude is a strong echo of Prov 14:21b, which says ἐλεῶν δὲ πτωχοὺς μακαριστός, “blessed is the one who has mercy on the poor.”
But most of the time it was God’s mercy to us, to humans, that was prayed for in desperation:
Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me. (Ps. 27:7 NIV)
Many other English versions translate that same Hebrew word as “gracious” rather than “merciful”, probably because grace is favor we don’t deserve. When God responds to our cry for his help, we depend on his lovingkindness to reach out to us even though it would be an honor of which we are unworthy.
Following his example means showing kind mercy that meets a need, even to people we barely know but who are suffering. Maybe they haven’t earned our respect; maybe they truly are undeserving. maybe we just don’t know all that has brought them to this moment. Nevertheless, to be like our Master, we are to help them in whatever way we can, just to show mercy. This is a tall order, one that does indeed require discernment so that we don’t participate in lies.
One time a man came to our door in Ferke asking for help to get back to his homeland, Liberia. He said he was a refugee and had found some kids who also needed to get home. He showed Glenn a photo of several kids, saying that they were waiting for him in town. Transportation funds were desperately needed, he said. Glenn gave him money to buy everyone some lunch, then wisely asked to meet the kids before giving him the requested transportation funds. The man returned after several hours with a bunch of little boys. To see if they really were Liberian, Glenn greeted them in English, which is the national language there. No response. He then tried French. No response. So he tried the local language, Nyarafolo, and they all responded! Glenn asked the boys where their fathers were. Hmmm – their fathers were right there in Ferke! When the man realized his scam had been revealed, he had an attack of asthma. Glenn gave him an inhaler, but told him that was all he would do for him. That was mercy, with discernment.
May our Lord show us all how to be merciful, and wise. When we are confronted with needs, let’s rely on him for direction, and be ready to show the kindness that he would show.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Lk. 6:36 NIV)