Watching the 10 o’clock news this past week, WCCO had a special about the four things as a parent of tweens you should try not to do. Tweens are those kids who are at that age before they are teenagers and after they are completely dependent upon their parents for everything. Wait, does that ever change? Aren’t we all tweens does anyone ever become a teenager?
The four don’ts were the following, 1. Support, but don’t rescue. 2. Give kids what they need, but don’t give them everything they want. 3. Don’t do things for your kids they should do for themselves. 4. Don’t develop an allergy to your children’s unhappiness.
If you are anything like me, you might be thinking, “Duh, of course! Those are basic parenting 101 classes, kids these days; they don’t know how to do anything. Back in my day I walked to school, up hill, both ways.” It is interesting to see what TV news shows think is important and helpful. I did find the piece enlightening, but I was more intrigued about the people who have created industries telling us how to raise our toddlers, how to raise our tweens, how to deal with our rebellious teenagers and so on and so forth.
I am close to becoming a parent of tweens, so I did find the story interesting, if not a little simple. The urge to step in and rescue, or to help my kids in different situations is often overwhelming. I want nothing more than to be sure that my children are healthy and happy. I want nothing more than to show off my own abilities to protect and care for my children. Sometimes, the helping, the rescuing is not at all about the children, so much as it is about our own abilities to parent.
We often become overly connected to people we love, particularly those people we love that are in downward spirals, people that refuse our help. The toughest cases, I have found in 12 years of ministry, are those where we have invested our own time, talent and treasure into relationships that have never returned anything remotely to the level we have put in. And though we might think we do it out of the goodness of our hearts, we often desire to see some results from our efforts.
It makes me wonder about the motives of the gardener from todays Gospel reading, it even makes me wonder about the motives of our own God, meeting Moses face to burning bush. Don’t you think readings like this, particularly the parable, are not at all helpful in understanding how to help? Is this Gospel parable even a story about how to help, or how to care? After all, how much power do we really have to help ourselves not to mention anyone else we need to care for?
The collect for today has something to say about that, “we have no power in ourselves, to help ourselves” Thomas Cranmer wrote. No power to help ourselves? No power to fend off the adversities of the day, no power to protect ourselves from evil thoughts that assault the soul? If this is the case, and I think it is helpful for us to imagine once in a while that this truly is the case, how on earth do we think we can ever help anyone else?
Of course, that is the rub, if we can imagine ourselves as powerless, as humble beings who cannot help ourselves, much less the people around us, then we come to understand what mercy is all about. God’s mercy is more important than God’s judgment. God’s mercy is more important than the judgment of others. God’s mercy is more important than the judgment we place upon our own lives.
So, what is mercy? Is having mercy on someone the same as offering help? To me, mercy is the picture of this gardener at the base of the tree, spreading manure around to help it grow, mercy, it seems to me, is providing the resources, the humanity, the love that we have that is in excess of what we need to bring transformation, or even simply to bring a breath of new and fresh air into the life of another being.
In the Missional Church conversation happening throughout the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, mercy is working with people, and helping tends to be working for others. At least this is my interpretation. Having mercy isn’t about having pity on someone, having mercy is walking with someone in their pain. Walking with someone in his or her suffering. Having mercy is recognizing the dire situation someone or some community may be in and exploring how it is God is at work in their midst.
I have a friend who often asks the question, what kind of help is help? It’s a really good question to ask, what kind of help is help? I have a horrible picture on my iPhone of a little cartoon person deep in prayer, and the headline on it says: “Prayer, how to do nothing and still think you’re helping.” See, I told you it was horrible. But I think the question and this cynical perspective on prayer go together.
We pray for, we try to help, often accomplishing very little in our efforts, to change others. Showing mercy is much different, much deeper, it is about being vulnerable, open and willing to match up our own pain and suffering with someone else’s, to walk through the dark valleys of our lives, again and again if necessary, in order to find that we are not alone, and that God is at work in our midst.
As we walk with one another through the valleys and over the mountaintops, we come to understand what Meister Eckhart means when he says that there is no such thing as a spiritual journey. A spiritual journey implies a linear progression, a trip of sorts with a beginning and with an end. Meister Eckhart says if there were a spiritual journey it would be an inch long and miles deep. Being on a spiritual journey means we are walking with people, with others. And when we walk with others, we are required to journey back into places where we have already been, and already experienced, whether they are the dark valleys or the sunlit mountaintops.
I am reminded of one of my favorite stories from West Wing, when Leo, President Bartlett’s Chief of Staff tells Josh the following story. "This guy is walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'" What kind of help, is help?
Our lives are deeply interconnected, our lives do not progress to one single goal, they weave themselves throughout the countryside of our experiences, through one another’s tumultuous lives. Our interconnectedness requires patience and above all, mercy.
The relationships we have with one another and with God require us to get our hands dirty, not just in the clean dirt, but also in the disgusting manure. The interconnectedness we share with one another is about the discovery of the Holy, the divine, as the prophet Micah put so well, our interconnectedness requires only that we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.