Just three months ago, on the day of Epiphany, I received my Star Word. It was just a little piece of paper, lovingly cut into the shape of a star. There were more than a hundred of them laying facedown on a small table at the front of the sanctuary. Each of them had word written on them; words like “hope”, “peace”, “joy”, and “courage”. And on the day of remembering the light of the star that led the magi to Bethlehem, each of us in the would church take turns coming forward to receive our Star Word.
This is a word you can pray with all year, I told the congregation. It’s meant to help you grow in faith, so you don’t get to choose your word. Just pick one off the table, and if you don’t like it, well… You’re in luck! This year will be an opportunity for real spiritual growth!
The congregation politely chuckled. They’re always so kind in humoring me. And so I was emboldened to pick up my Star Word first to demonstrate how to receive it properly.
See? I said, taking a star without flipping it over. Now, all year, I’ll just keep this word –
I read the word silently, and I must have grimaced, because the congregation laughed for real.
Mercy. My Star Word was mercy. Mercy is similar to compassion, but mercy requires one party to have sway over another. Kings can have mercy on their subjects. Judges can have mercy on accused criminals. I didn’t like “mercy” as my Star Word, because I don’t like to remember the power I have over others. And I certainly don’t like to think that others have power over my own fate.
I resented mercy when I first received it, because I did not know how much mercy I would soon need.
I have suffered from nerve pain off-and-on for more than four years. It was initially diagnosed as chronic shingles. But this past January, the pain became both constant and debilitating, and the previous diagnosis was overturned. Specialist after specialist ruled out every deficiency or ailment in the scope of their respective practice. And finally, during a phone appointment near the end of January, a doctor said the words: Nerve death? Muscular sclerosis?
She said that she would order an MRI. I thanked her, and hung up the phone. This year will be a year of spiritual growth. I heard my own words coming back at me. And after a moment of bitterness, I prayed, really prayed, with my Star Word for the first time.
Kyrie elision. Christe elision. Kyrie elision. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
I told almost no one of the worst possible results from the MRI. Instead, I turned inward. I kept more silence in my daily life. Mercy was my prayer first thing in the morning, and last thing before I fell asleep. I prayed mercy every time the pain became unbearable. And I prayed mercy almost constantly during the ten days I waited for the MRI. The procedure will be 90 minutes long, the technician told me. You’re not clostrophoic are you?
No, I lied, as I’d learned that going into the tube was my only real option. I reached into my pocket to find the little paper star. By this point, mercy was with me all the time.
On the night of the MRI, I went walking at sunset. I spotted a few egrets gliding through the pastel sky. And in that moment, I surrendered. I could not hold power over what was or was not taking place in my body. Either a disease had already begun its insidious work, or it had not. And all I could do was follow the doctor’s order. And all I could do was ask for mercy. And all I could do was receive the mercy offered. The immensity of creation. The presence of a friend who drove all the way from San Francisco to take me to the procedure. And later that evening, the kindness of the strangers at the imaging department. The smile of the technician who wore flowers in her hair.
In the days the follow, I continued to receive mercy, but I also had the opportunity to give mercy as well. When I was unfocused and inattentive in my work, I offered it to myself. Have mercy, I said, it is natural that you are distracted right now.
I offered it to others when they were impatient with me. I had only shared the source of my anxiety with a few people. Have mercy, I prayed. They don’t know what you are going through.
And, moreover, I became newly aware that I never know what others are going through. Waiting for my MRI results gave new appreciation for those whose health hangs in the balance. If I could receive mercy during a time like this, could I not offer mercy to others?
Now, course, February seems like so long ago. My MRI revealed nothing: No nerve death. No muscular sclerosis. I still rejoice at the news, even as the nerve pain continues. I now have medication that numbs the pain, but the pursuit of further treatment will have to wait. I am content with that for now: The intensity of my plight has dimmed in comparison to our present global crisis.
But the light of mercy has not.
Because mercy acknowledges the power that every one of us has at this moment. Mercy guides us to listen to health care professionals, to stay at home, and to keep our distance, even when it is most difficult. Mercy gives us the courage to ask others to do the same. And mercy emboldens us hold our leaders accountable when they are dishonest or disingenuous, because mercy reminds us that with power comes responsibility. And mercy reminds us to speak or words of truth with humble and persistent conviction, rather than with self-righteous judgment. Because Mercy reminds us that the truth is more easily received when it spoken in love, and that, now more than ever, we need everyone to hear the truth.
Mercy is the prayer that we offer for those who are working on our behalf. And mercy is the prayer that we offer for those who sick. For those who are waiting for treatment. For those who are grieving. Mercy reminds us that there is one who is beyond and above this illness; the one who created us and remains with us still. Mercy acknowledges how both how precious and fragile we are.
And mercy is the prayer that we can receive ourselves. Mercy says that it is okay if you are scared. It is okay if you are not productive. It is okay if today you are not quite able to get out of bed. It is okay that you do what you must to get through this time, provided that you are not a danger to yourself or others. Mercy is for you as much as anyone else, because mercy acknowledges that each of us holds the power of judgment over ourselves. And that in this most tenuous time, we ought to offer ourselves compassion and grace.
May the Lord have mercy. May Christ have mercy. May we all have mercy, not only on others, but also on ourselves. And may mercy be the light that leads us through these many days ahead.