Not that Kind of Baptist

The Mercy Rule

main image

          One time, Jesus was having dinner with tax collectors and sinners, and some Pharisees raised a commotion with Jesus’ disciples.  They asked, “Why is he eating with those guys?”  That’s my own rough translation.  Jesus heard about it soon enough and remarked “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13).

            I think he’s speaking to us, don’t you?  Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  We can do sacrifice just fine, but mercy?  Forget about it.  The righteous are always in favor of the system of sacrifice because that can be mastered, domesticated, and controlled.  The righteous can codify their rituals, prescribe orthodox forms and techniques, and control who approaches the altar and under what conditions.  But mercy…oh mercy, that’s hard to do.  And mercy, Jesus says, that’s for sinners. 

            I remember watching a high school Texas football game where the score was 50-0 by the second quarter.  The team called it quits at half time.  Why?  The school division had something called the mercy rule.  That’s where the game automatically ends when one team reaches a certain score threshold.  This may explain why Georgia only beat Tennessee by 41 points this year.

          The book of James tells us that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  That’s good news, because if judgment carries the day, we’re all in a pile of trouble.  But the logic of our culture is that of no mercy. It’s like that scene in Gladiator when the emperor lowers his thumb, signaling the violent destruction of the contestant.  Our national culture is kind of like one big Gladiator game, and we tune in to see who is being devoured by the lions today.  In our politics and social media, shame and humiliation are the order of the day, not mercy. 

            So this explains the Pharisees’ horror at seeing a rabbi eat with sinners.  It had never occurred to them to show mercy to sinners.  Their paradigm admitted of only one rule: exclusion of the impure.  Eating with sinners violated their system of sacrificial purity.  The righteous cannot be contaminated by sinners.  There’s not much room for mercy when you spend most of your time deciding who is in and who is out.  But Jesus just had to act like…well…Jesus.  And Jesus came to call sinners.  And sinners apparently need mercy.  I know I do.  Do you? 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: mercy
in Prayer

Where do Prayers Go?

A friend gave me a book recently: Mary Oliver’s volume of poetry A Thousand Mornings.  I love Mary Oliver’s poetry.  I find her honesty and vulnerability so beautiful.  She writes in a poem called “I Happened to Be Standing” some honest words about prayer.   “I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do.”  She must have been reading my mind. Does that sound true to you?  When we pray, we are not pulling a lever which activates a God machine.  What prayers do is something other than human manipulation of the divine. So where do prayers go, and what do they do?  

I think Oliver is evoking the mystery of prayer.  We cannot sketch out a cause and effect line between where our prayers begin and where God answers them.  When we are in pain and suffering, we pray for God to make the pain stop.  When we receive a dreadful diagnosis, the family gathers around praying for a miracle.  When natural disaster strikes, we pray for God’s presence, we pray for relief, and we pray that the winds will cease, the earthquake stops its tremors, and the fires cease their raging.  Where do all those prayers go, and what do they do?

The Jewish theologian Joshua Abraham Heschel writes of prayer in his book I Asked for Wonder that “to pray is to dream in league with God, to envision His holy visions.”  Heschel conjures up the notion of dreams because he saw that prayer was more than the assertion of human desire and need.  It is that, to be sure.  But more fundamentally, prayer is an opening up of our very selves to God’s presence.  We begin with our human frailties, our narrow concerns, but we end up somewhere else.  Broader, imaginative, limitless.  To dream is to open our souls to the possibility that the tired narrative of "it will always be this way" must be set aside. The opposite of dreaming is our attempt to control and domesticate God.      

After a grueling day, we might begin a prayer by saying “God, I’m tired and I’m angry.  I just want peace.”  We just told God what was on our mind and heart.  That’s prayer.  But then, we might begin to stretch our imagination and enter the realm of dreams in our prayer.  God, I can’t see a way out of this pain I’m in, and I don’t have any hope.  But you are a God who breathes life into dry bones.  You are forever doing something new.  You are restless in your capacity to love and to renew and to care for this broken world.  Show me the way towards renewal for me.  Show me the way out of my pain.  Help me to see your vision for my life.  And the God who inspired the poetry of Isaiah might just say, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

Where do prayers go, and what do they do?  Well, I don’t know exactly.  But, I do know this.  I can’t imagine what life would be like if I couldn’t pray.  And so I abandon the desire to have a perfect theory of prayer.  I get rid of the conceit that I can explain exactly how it works to you, and to you, and to you.  And I find that in the middle of talking to a friend, I am in the middle of a prayer.  I find that at the close of a conversation, I have been praying the whole time. I discover that when I say what is on my heart, and I get out all the truth I have to offer, then I am ready for newness. And that too, is prayer.

Of Poetry and Lament

It was T.S. Eliot who wrote that "April is the cruelest month." But what a cruel day October 2nd was. On Monday morning we awoke to the horrifying news that another mass shooting had occurred, the worst ever in American history. 59 dead. The unleashing of a nightmare on concert-goers in Las Vegas. Over 500 injured.

At the level of human meaning, loss, and trauma...we struggle to process what has happened. As I struggled to process the news on Monday, a piece of a poem popped into my head: "things fall apart; the center cannot hold." Who wrote that, I wondered? It was William Butler Yeats' The Second Coming.  Yeats, writing in the aftermath of the First World War, gave poetic voice to the madness of violence:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,   

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;   

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

It is a terrifying poem, one born out of the maelstrom of trench warfare and senseless violence. That is what it felt like for so many on Monday: "things fall apart; the center cannot hold." Out of the experience of trauma comes the language of lament. And for lament, we need not look far to find potent expression. The poetry of the Bible's hymnal, the Psalms is suffused with the language of lament.

How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? (Ps. 89:46). Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion? (Ps. 77: 7-9). Brutal, honest questions. That's the language of lament.

On the cross, Jesus cried out in the language of Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The Psalm doesn't end in lament, however. It ends with praise to God. The poetry of the Psalm echoes the poetry of our human emotions. We cannot enter into the language of resurrection until we give honest voice to the language of lament. May God heal the wounds of the many brokenhearted throughout our land.

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with


div id='cloud'