Reflection: Learning Mercy

A Lenten Journey

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice..” Matthew 9:13

“For six weeks after the shootings at Sandy Hook,” reminisced Duane. “I just stood outside the front door of the school and greeted the kids as they came in.”

Duane is our maintenance guy. He’s our go to  when there’s a stopped up toilet, salt needed on an icy sidewalk or the mop and bucket guy when a kid pukes on the bathroom floor. Duane is on my speed dial—actually, everyone’s speed dial.

For those having forgotten, Sandy Hook was the horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Two weeks before Christmas in 2012, a young man in his 20’s opened fired at the local elementary school killing 27 people. Twenty were children between the ages of five and seven. It shook the nation. After Sandy Hook, every parent in America thought twice about sending their child to school.

“I guess I just wanted to kids to feel safe,” continued Duane. “I thought that saying hello and greeting kids by name might calm their anxiety.”

I heard this story for the first time last year, eight years after the shooting. This particular night I was honoring employees who had served our ministry for 10 years.  Around the dinner table, I asked each employee why they enjoyed working at our organization.

“You know,” Duane continued, “I’ll never forget. Every Wednesday one of the kid’s grandmothers would show up with a cup of coffee for me. It was her way of showing her appreciation.”

UrbanPromise has seen many employees over the years. Yet I’m always curious of those who go the proverbial extra mile—showing up early and leaving late? Walking through hallways infecting colleagues with goodness and levity? Remembering students’ birthdays with gifts and cards? Nothing in Duane’s job description demands he arrive at 7am to greet children for weeks after a mass school shooting. It’s not the maintenance man’s “job.”  So what’s going on?

Duane feels compelled to bring peace and a smile to anxious children because his motivation runs so much deeper than fixing broken doorknobs, shoveling slippery snow covered sidewalks, punching a time clock and picking up his pay check. There’s something about his heart.

The ancient word “mercy” comes to mind. Poet Mary Oliver once commented, “Mercy is when you take people seriously.”  I guess that includes anxiety ridden children. Did you know that ‘compassion’ and ‘mercy’ don’t actually mean the same thing? However, in the Latin the word is blended into one: misericordia. Misericordia suggests an attitude transcending one’s own egoism and has its heart not with itself, but rather with others—especially the poor and needy of every kind. Duane’s heart was “with others” after the shooting. Duane’s attentiveness is an “act of mercy.”

This Lenten season let’s focus on this theme of mercy. Mercy’s at the heart of Christian faith and our journey to Easter. God’s merciful love is extended to you and me. In turn we extend mercy to others. It should be a simple cycle. But it’s never easy because mercy calls us beyond a rule-based faith to something far deeper and complicated. Mercy is about our hearts. 

Fortunately Jesus understood the challenge. To a religious culture who scored A’s on rule following and sacrifice, Jesus raised the consciousness of followers to “go and learn” a new way—the profound and life altering difference between religion as sacrifice and religion as mercy.

Let’s start learning the difference today....Duane is a good place to start.