I have become increasingly convinced that one aspect of God's great mercy is how "prodigal" it is. Although we are used to thinking of that term as something negative (as in The Prodigal Son), its actual definition has to do with being lavish or recklessly extravagant.
God's mercy is just that. The mercy we are given is often so "over the top" (to use today's language) that it is hard for us to believe in it. Ours is a culture in which we are supposed to work for what we get and get what we deserve. God's mercy flies in the face of that value. We get far more than what we could ever deserve - and we get it for free.
This may seem to contradict what I wrote of a couple of days ago about God's mercy being "severe". Can both be true?
I believe both can be true because God knows precisely what we need and precisely when we need it. He knows when we need the utterly undeserved gift as well as when we need to be instructed (or re-formed) in a suffering that reshapes us.
In His great mercy, He doesn't withhold tender compassion when we most need it, but neither does he withhold correction when we need that.
I know this from personal experience.
In December, 2011, I was participating in an online retreat for Advent that encouraged artistic and creative expression. Each day we were given some reflections and ideas to stimulate our spiritual and creative growth, allowing us to pursue them in the ways most suited to us as individuals.
While I enjoyed the retreat immensely, I found that I struggled with some aspects of it. I wasn't used to posting my creative output and have it commented on or "liked" (in the FaceBook sense). The retreat leaders and participants were very generous in their positive remarks, not just to me but to everyone. And I struggled with that as well.
Part of me wanted to be noticed, admired, "liked". Not only that, but part of me (a rather large part, I'm afraid) wanted to be noticed, admired and liked more than everyone else. I struggled with this because I knew that this was the ugly side of pride - not the healthy pride one takes in doing a good job, but the kind of pride that seeks to be god rather than praise Him.
It was hard for me to not keep checking back for comments after I posted something and to not feel more than a little dismayed if someone else's creative work drew more positive attention. I felt like a young child again wanting the special-ness of being my mother's first child rather than the second child that I was.
However, that was not my only tripping point. I discovered that I didn't like be led or taught very much. I'd rather be the teacher than the student. Hence, quite involuntarily, I would find myself resisting some of the suggestions for creative expression as though they were beneath me. Of course, this all went on within the unspoken silence of my own head - but inside my head it was not silent.
I will never forget one of the suggestions. Among other options, one idea offered was to write our own obituary. This was not the first time I had ever heard this idea put forth as a trigger for reflection and I was in the processing of dismissing it when...
What happened next I believe was the extravagant mercy of God. I wasn't seeking it at that moment because I was too caught up in self (what has been called "false self", to distinguish it from the healthy psychological need we have for a cohesive identity).
But before I could even complete the thought of arrogant dismissal, a poem began to form in my head. I think I can say quite honestly that I was not even considering writing a poem at that moment. It simply came. Its title, of course, was "obituary". And here it is:
i have been so many things
and now, in the end, i know
just who i am
i am nothing
i lost myself somewhere
in sunshine on rippling water
in piles of brown and amber leaves
fertile mush in my back yard
i lost myself just a few weeks ago
amidst quacking ducks on a river
their orange feet paddling with joy.
i lost myself in all of the color
in the gospel beats
when i just couldn't stop dancing
over and over i lost myself
in so many sorrows
and so many joys
in every heart opened before me
aching to find You
and finding only me
ah – there is mercy
mercy o endless mercy
lost at last in You…
I must admit that I love this poem and that I re-read it rather regularly. In an irony that perhaps only God could achieve, its timing came as a correction to my arrogance, yet its content speaks of a complete and total loss of self in God. Hence, there was a severity pushing me onto the path of His self-emptying Way, but also a tender love beckoning me forward into oneness with Him...
As this Week of Mercy draws to a close, let us be mindful that His mercy is without end. Wherever we are in life and whatever we struggle with, our God knows exactly what we need and is giving it to us in an abundance beyond our knowledge and understanding. Many blessings...
(Once again, I will be taking a brief break but look forward to beginning the Week of Love. Your comments and contributions are most welcome and may be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)