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Mercy: Thought for 19th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 23)

Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22.1-15; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31

I discussed on the intercessions page for today my reasons for thinking about this set of readings, which are about anguish,  as linked by a common plea – if unspoken – for the mercy of God. We have known since the beginning that God will have mercy:

Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.Genesis 9.16
But are we equally good at showing mercy to those who need it from us?

O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter our enemies
And make them fall.
Confound their politics;
Frustrate their knavish tricks;
On thee our hopes we fix;
God save us all!

So goes the second verse of the UK national anthem, the one that is so politically incorrect that we are rarely allowed to sing it these days. But the sentiments are surely exactly those of our compatriots during two world wars in the last century, and it is human nature, when attacked, to concentrate on foiling one’s enemy’s (dastardly) aims rather than focusing on the need to show mercy.
‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’, saith the Lord. Romans 12:19

Judge not, that you be not judged, for with what measure you mete it shall be measured unto you again – pressed down and running over. Matthew 7:1-2

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Micah 6:8
Justice and mercy are often competing goals, and Shakespeare based ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ on this moral dilemma. Portia’s speech is probably the best-known utterance on mercy except for the Bible:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronéd monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: Exactly. Or, as St Matthew put our Lord’s words: Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Matthew 5:7
Alexander Pope was inspired by this to write his ‘Universal Prayer’:

Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.


Sir Thomas Browne elaborates:
By compassion we make others’ misery our own, and so, by relieving them, we relieve ourselves also. 

Jeremy Taylor used the metaphor of the rainbow:
Mercy is like the rainbow, which God hath set in the clouds; it never shines after it is night. If we refuse mercy here, we shall have justice in eternity. 
Let’s give C S Lewis the last word on justice and mercy:

A busload of ghosts is making an excursion from hell up to heaven with a view to remaining there permanently. They meet the citizens of heaven and one very big ghost from hell is astonished to find there a man who, on earth, had been tried and executed for murder. ‘What I would like to know,’ he explodes, ‘is what are you doing here, you a murderer, while I, a pillar of society, a self-respecting decent citizen am forced to walk the streets down there in smoke and fumes and must live in a place like a pigsty.’ His friend from heaven tries to explain that he has been forgiven, that both he and the man he had murdered have been reunited before the judgment seat of Christ. But the big ghost from hell replies, ‘I just can’t accept that!. What about my rights!’ he keeps shouting, ‘I have got my rights, just like you!’ ‘Oh no!’ his friend from heaven keeps reassuring him, ‘It’s not as bad as all that! You don’t want your rights! Why, if I had got my rights, I would never be here. You won’t get your rights, you’ll get something far better. You will get the mercy of God.‘The Great Divorce’

When Adam in ‘Paradise Lost’ asks Michael the meaning of the “coloured streaks in Heaven,” his angelic teacher instructs him that they have been placed there to remind the sons of Adam that:

Such grace shall one just Man find in his sight,
That He relents, not to blot out mankind,
And makes a covenant never to destroy
The earth again by flood, nor rain to drown the world
With man therein or beast; but where He brings
Over the earth a cloud, with therein set
His triple-coloured bow, whereon to look
And call to mind His Covenant.

Isaiah reassures us that the Covenant is everlasting:
For the mountains shall depart, the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall my covenant of peace be removed’, says the Lord, who has mercy on you. Isaiah 54:10
O Lord our God, whose power is unimaginable and whose glory is inconceivable, whose mercy is immeasurable and whose love for mankind is beyond all words, in your compassion, Lord, look down on us… and grant us… the riches of your mercy and compassion. For to you are due all glory, honour and worship…now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen From the Greek liturgy

The illustration is by Firewings via Shutterstock


Courage: Thought for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

We already considered intercessions for today, based largely on the epistle:

Ephesians 6.10-20

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil… Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…

But what does putting on the whole armour of God actually mean? Splendid metaphor and all that, but it is not as easy as it sounds. I think we are really talking about courage, and God’s help in being brave in facing whatever may come. After all,
The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? Psalm 27

We are told that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of fear, as Gerard Manley Hopkins so vividly described:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No lingering!
Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep

It’s no accident that fear and courage are among the main themes of the stories we read as children. Dealing with fear – and some of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were pretty terrifying – is one of the most important lessons of childhood.

But, as John Bunyan knew, fear can be ever-present:
Timorous answered, that they…had got up that difficult place: but, said he, the further we go, the more danger we meet with; wherefore we turned, and are going back again. ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’

Timorous needed an introduction to ‘The Little Engine That Could‘:
A long train needed to be pulled over a high mountain. Various larger engines, treated anthropomorphically, are asked to pull the train; for various reasons they in turn refuse. Finally, a small and insignificant engine offers to have a go; the other engines mock it for trying. But by chugging on with its motto I think I can, I think I can, the engine succeeds where the others had failed and sails down the other side singing I thought I could, I thought I could.

Some try Dutch courage, attempting to keep their spirits up by pouring spirits down, but this kind of courage is liable to wear off at three o’clock in the morning in a dark night of the soul, when one needs it most.

A better stiffener of the sinews than alcohol is reading Tennyson aloud, as I hope this short extract illustrates:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly…
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!…
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods…
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Or, if ‘Ulysses’ doesn’t do the trick, what about W E Henley’s  Invictus‘?

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul…
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

This is a sort of whistling in the dark, recommended by many poets, like Emily Brontë who proclaimed:
No coward soul is mine, no trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine, and faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

Pascal talked about the nobility of a reed, destroyed by the wind, and Marcus Aurelius thought you could out-tough the elements:

Be like a cliff at whose foot the waves break and break again; but it stands firm and by and by the seething waters about it sink to rest.

The chief problem with giving in to fear, though, is how then to recover:
The descent to Hell is easy. All day and all night the portal of Dis is open: but to retrace your steps and escape to the air above, this is the problem and this the task
Virgil, ‘Aeneid
One way to cheat fear is to refuse to take it seriously:

Perhaps I know why it is man alone who laughs: He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

And as Charles Schulz, the author of the ‘Peanuts’ cartoon points out:

Don’t worry about the world coming to an end. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.

Of course, there’s courage, and there’s pointless foolhardiness, as Don Quixote refused to acknowledge when he set off to tilt at windmills:

‘I tell thee they are giants, and therefore, if thou art afraid, go aside and say thy prayers for I am resolved to engage in a dreadful unequal combat against them’. This said, he clapped spurs to his horse Rozinante, without giving ear to his squire Sancho, who bawled out to him, and assured him that they were windmills, and not giants. But he did not so much as hear his squire’s outcry, nor was he sensible of what they were, although he was already very near them. ‘Stand, cowards’, cried he as loud as he could, ‘stand your ground, ignoble creatures, and fly not basely from a single knight, who dares encounter you all’  Miguel de Cervantes

In the end, though, as Victor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning, it is the meaning we give to life which gets us through it:

A man who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how. 

Cowards die many times before their deaths
, said Shakespeare,

and C S Lewis adds:

one is given strength to bear what happens to one, but not the hundred and one things that might happen.


Sometimes we just need to take a deep breath and hope for the best, said Patrick Overton :

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.


Give to the winds thy fears; hope, and be undismayed;
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears;
God shall lift up thy head.
Through waves and clouds and storms
He gently clears the way.
Wait thou His time,
so shall the night soon end in joyous day.

But we can’t all be brave all the time. It may help to remember that:

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof Matthew 6:34

or, as Scarlett O’Hara comforted herself at the end of ‘Gone With the Wind‘:

Try two mantras:
Jack Kerouac: All is well, practice kindness, heaven is nigh

and St Paul: I can do everything through Him who gives me strengthPhilippians 4:13

Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest: to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do thy holy will. Amen.
St Ignatius of Loyola


The illustration is from the Royal Military College of Canada memorial window to Ian Sutherland Brown ( Sir Lancelot whole armour of God) via wikimedia under licence.

But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three…

…and the greatest of these is love.Corinthians 13.13

Although there are plenty of loving relationships between men and women described in the Bible, you could also say the first ‘battles of the sexes’ are vividly portrayed in the Old Testament. When King David danced in the street before the Lord,  the only reaction of Michal (or ‘Michelle’ as I like to think of her) was to “despise him in her heart” ( 2 Samuel 6). Delilah was very unkind to Samson and, when Herodias was offered anything she liked by Herod, ‘even unto half my kingdom’, she chose the head of John the Baptist on a platter. What lesson are we meant to draw from this? – well, perhaps that when relations between the sexes turn sour, they can turn very sour indeed, with women being notoriously vindictive.

But, while bearing that in mind, Valentine’s Day may be a moment to concentrate instead on when these relationships go well. Without human love, great art is scarcely imaginable: with it, our souls reach the greatest imaginable heights, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in Sonnets from the Portuguese:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…


Of course, reaching these heights depends on having a soul in the first place as A E Housman described:

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.
Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free,
The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
With flint in the bosom and guts in the head!

Or, as Walter De La Mare put it:

Most wounds can Time repair;
But some are mortal — these:
For a broken heart there is no balm
No cure for a heart at ease –
At ease, but cold as stone
Though the intellect spin on
And the feat and practised face may show
Naught of the life that is gone;
But smiles, as by habit taught;
And sighs, as by custom led.
And the soul within in safe from damnation
Since it is dead.

Unrequited love is no fun for the sufferer but, as W H Auden said:

Let the more loving one be me

Possibly the nation’s favourite definition of true love is Shakespeare’s sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

So, what is love?

Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. We can only learn to love by loving.

Iris Murdoch


Love comes surging from the power of God,
Its source, its mountain spring, the human heart.

William Langland, ‘Piers Plowman
Poets down the ages, but particularly in England, have explored the parallels between love of men and women for each other, and their love for God – John Donne and Christina Rossetti to great effect, for example.


And here is George Herbert :

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here’;
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.


A medieval poet makes the comparison explicit:

All other love is like the moon
That waxeth or waneth as flower in plain;
As flower that blooms and fadeth soon,
As day that showereth and ends in rain.
All other love begins with bliss,
In weeping and woe makes its ending;
No love there is that’s our whole bliss
But that which rests on heaven’s king.
His love is fresh and ever green
And ever full without waning;
His love makes sweet and gives no pain,
His love is endless, enduring.
[Anon], c. 1350

Almost all the above examples are in verse, but here is a modern one in prose:

Brian thought of the day when they had gone walking in Winchelsea marshes. The hawthorn was in bloom…overhead, the sky was alive with white clouds gliding in the wind. Unspeakably beautiful! And suddenly it seemed to him that they were walking through the image of their love. The world was their love, and their love was the world; and the world was significant, charged with depth beyond depth of mysterious meaning. The proof of God’s goodness floated in those clouds, crept in those grazing sheep, shone from every bush of incandescent blossom – and, in himself and Joan, walked hand in hand across the grass and was manifest in their happiness. His love, it seemed to him, in that apocalyptic moment, was more than merely his; it was in some mysterious way the equivalent of the wind and sunshine…His feeling for Joan was somehow implicit in the world, had a divine and universal significance. He loved her infinitely, and for that reason was able to love everything in the world as much as he loved her.

Aldous Huxley‘Eyeless in Gaza’

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