We were on our way home from church, Certain Man and I. I looked down at the ashes on the back of my left hand, and I took a tissue and wiped them all away. My heart felt sick and sad and I just didn’t feel like remembering. The smell of the oil of lavender that I had mixed with them persisted faintly. I resisted the tears that had been threatening all morning, and wondered again at severe mercies and best laid plans going awry.
The previous Sunday, there were seven faces around the table in my Sunday School class. It was an unusual situation with us practicing for the Christmas program, but it was still a good time together. I was hopeful that the kids would come back. I knew that there wasn’t going to be oranges and candy bars and possibly gifts to lure them in, but I was still hopeful. Saturday night I was especially glad for the promise that four of them would be there.
Then one had somewhere else to go, but that still left three.
Our lesson on this morning was on mercy. It was the second half of the story of Jonah, and our book did a great job of bringing things together for teens in our world today and situations that they find themselves in. My life had been so hectic at the end of this Christmas week with some heartaches that have been peculiarly my own, and I found myself needing to do last minute Sunday School prep at the expense of spending time with my family. And I felt like I really needed to do that stuff for the Sunday School Class. Plus, I had made a promise to one of the kids about editing an original creation of hers and printing it out so that she could hand it out this morning at church to anyone who might be interested. I remembered it late Saturday night and managed to squeeze it in on Sunday morning, editing, formatting and printing it, then stapled things together on the way to church.
One of the things that I really like about our current Sunday School curriculum is that it often has something special for the teacher to prepare that will give a visual reminder to the students about the lesson. For this lesson, I was to take ashes and mix them with oil and take them to class in a small container. Just before closing, there was a thoughtful question about a time when we were in need of mercy and it was granted to us. As a way of acknowledging that we have been recipients of mercy, we were to brush the mixture on the back of our hand to symbolize the sincerity of our repentance (as in “sackcloth and ashes”) and the consequential mercy we received. So I got some fine ashes, mixed them with some Lavender and olive oils, put the mixture into a small container and put it into my teacher’s bag. I felt as prepared as I could be under the circumstances, and was eagerly looking forward to the class time together with the three gals that were going to be there..
All around me, throughout the whole morning in the household of Certain Man and Certain Man’s Wife, the activity went on. The Ohio Heart Throb was quite ill. The three little villains were cuter than bugs, but testing the limits. Eldest Son was very tired. He had been out late with Youngest Son to Beloved Son in Law’s house. Youngest Son and Girl with a Beautiful Heart were trying to pack to go back to Virginia. There was lunch to make, showers to give, oven to set and relationships to nurture. There were three hungry little boys, and this is never good. I toyed with the thought that this might be a good morning to call my substitute and ask her to fill in. But Certain Man and I were scheduled Greeters and there was also the promise made to my young friend to bring her the copies she wanted.
And so, I decided that I would go and be greeter with Certain Man, teach my class, give the stack of edited papers to my friend, listen to nephew Josh’s sermon (that I hate to miss) and come home as quickly as possible. The “coming home as quickly as possible” was because an early lunch had been requested by the Offspringin’s.
A group of warm and friendly people gathered at our country church on Sunday morning. And being greeter is always a joy. For a church as small as ours, you would think the opportunity would present itself pretty often, but actually, It seems like it doesn’t come around often enough. As the smiling faces passed through and the minutes ticked by and time for opening rolled around, my heart got heavier and heavier. It looked like there would be but one pupil in my class.
As quickly as I thought it, I was reminded that one student is ONE PERSON, and I happen to like this gal rather muchly, so I figured that God had a special reason for our time together, and that He intended for me to throw myself as much into the lesson as if the entire class was present. I believed that God had a reason for my careful preparation and that He would use this lesson for good in Emily’s life as well as my own. And so we gathered at the end of one table, close together. I prayed for Emily, for the lesson, that our time together would be profitable and that we would both learn more about mercy.
I did the things that I had planned to do. We discussed different situations in their degrees of “fairness” and discussed what should be the punishment for certain infractions. We went over the story of Jonah and his desire for the Ninevites to be punished for their extreme cruelty. We wondered what it was that moved the Ninevites to repentance and we talked about a God who desires to have mercy on us, but also desires us to have mercy. Emily read a moving story in the student book of a Jewish woman who, at great cost to herself, had physically protected an Arab man who was in danger of being murdered by an angry crowd after he had slashed two Jewish teenagers. I refused to think about the fact that there were some other kids who desperately needed to hear this lesson. When it was time for the final question, I brought out the small container of ashes and oil. We talked about times when we have been in need of mercy, and I shared several instances from my life and brushed the dirty mixture across my left hand. The lavender and the ashes stained the back of my hand. Emily was wary, unconvinced. It just looked too dirty to her. Besides, she could think of anything to share. In the end, there was only one of us who climbed the steps back to the assembly with ashes on our hands. It may have been on my left hand, but the Holy Spirit seemed to be witnessing to my spirit that it was truly on the right hand.
I kept catching a glimpse of the smudge during the service. Josh preached on the fifth Sunday of Advent with his topic being JOY. There was much to think about as I felt the curling of sadness around the edges of my soul. There have been many shadows that have fallen on brightest hours in these December days. I kept thinking about how mercy is a compelling reason for Joy. That the mercy extended to me should bring a wellspring of joy that cannot not be silenced. That the pain, and darkness and even sin that threaten my joy are nothing in comparison to the gift that I’ve been given — not just once, but over and over and over again, in an ongoing stream, deeper and wider and longer than I can begin to comprehend.
“O depth of mercy! Can it be? That Gate was left ajar for me?”
When I allow impatience to bring out ugliness towards the ones I love best?
When my judgmental heart reserves the right to think I know best?
When my way of life and my way of doing things and my way of family builds walls instead of bridges?
When I expect others to extend grace for my imperfections but I expect them to do live in a way that doesn’t require grace from me?
When my disappointment in others makes me want to withdraw from their lives, to withhold that which I could give?
. . . I should have left the smudge on for another day, another week, another month, another year.
I need to be reminded again and again. Severe mercies are mercies none the less. And they can be the well spring of joy if only I let the mercy river run deep and wide and long.
For me. Yes, for me. Grace enough and mercy granted for me.
It only becomes joy when it intentionally slips through my hands to others.
“Oh, Lord Jesus! Of all the gifts you’ve given me, may I be the least selfish with mercy.”