The Forgotten Work of Mercy

Two weeks ago Jana and I were deeply blessed to share breakfast with Danny and Abby Cortez. Many readers will need no introduction to Danny. Danny is the pastor of New Heart Community Church which made news last year when they announced that they would become a Third Way church regarding the acceptance of LGBT persons. The church experienced expulsion from the Southern Baptist Convention as a result.

But this wasn't simply a church drama. For years Danny had been on a theological journey, a journey he described in a sermon for his church viewed by many online. The very week Danny had, in his own heart and mind, reached an affirming position his son came out to him. It was as if God had been preparing Danny for that very moment.

So we talked a lot with Danny and Abby about the journey the Cortez family and the New Heart Community Church had been on. As you might expect, it has been a difficult journey at times but one filled with grace, love and beauty.

What really struck me during our conversation, and what I wanted to share with you, is something Danny described regarding where he gained (and still gains) spiritual strength during all the SBC fallout. Specifically, Danny had gotten involved in hospice care, working as a chaplain to visit the dying.

As a part of this ministry, Danny requests to be called when there is a homeless person in hospice care, a person alone in the world facing their final moments. These experiences are holy, sacred moments and they formed and sustained Danny while the controversies swirled around his church.

As I listened to Danny share stories of his hospice work I was deeply moved. And listening it struck me how visiting the sick is the forgotten work of mercy.

As justice warriors we love the works of mercy described in Matthew 25 where we feed the hungry, cloth the naked, shelter the homeless and visit the prisoner. We like to thunder and rage about mass incarceration, homelessness, hunger and poverty. Around these issues the activism and hashtags proliferate.

But no one seems to talk about visiting the sick and the dying.

Visiting the sick is the forgotten work of mercy.

As I shared with Danny, I've come to believe that we are called to practice all the works of mercy, that the works of mercy, practiced collectively, nurture a spirituality that cannot be cultivated if we practice the works of mercy selectively and piecemeal.

For example, crusades for justice are accompanied by a suite of temptations. Many of us get involved with justice work to cover up or compensate for deeply felt personal inadequacies. Fighting for justice helps us run from our own inner demons. Justice makes us feel important and like we matter. Justice allows us to become the hero of the story. We feel powerful and vital.

But visiting the sick and dying chastens the hero-complex. Visiting the sick and dying reminds you of your impotence and helplessness. Visiting the sick and dying reminds you that your heroic quest for justice is often just a way to repress your own fears of failure, loss and death.

When you visit the sick and dying there is nothing there that can be fixed. And for many justice warriors that is a deeply destabilizing realization. There is nothing here that you can fix. 

The only thing you can offer is your presence.

So you can see, perhaps, why I think it might be important to practice all the works of mercy, and not just the ones we associate with justice. If we selectively practice the works of mercy we might become spiritually malformed, caught up in temptations that would have been ameliorated if we had practiced all the works consistently.

We might have learned, for instance, that many things in the world cannot be fixed. That we are not a savior or a hero.

And as I see Danny holding the hands of the homeless facing death, I am reminded that in the final analysis what we really fear is being alone and that the simple sacraments of presence, touch, silence and prayer are the greatest gifts of all.

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6 thoughts on “The Forgotten Work of Mercy”

  1. Amen. So very much of the heat and light of human - and especially religious - drama is sourced from our refusal to embrace and accept our finitude and creaturely nature - our liminal status. Our need to judge and "call into account" others for their "sins" comes frequently from our need to create and sustain an illusion of control and security. Confronting our radical trajectory toward individual meaninglessness is a difficult path; finding our meaning only in the context of loving and serving others is our only hope.

  2. I love the conclusion of this post, but I disagree with one of the premises. From my experience (and from others', by the sound of your earlier Schindler's List post), I never feel like less of a hero than when I'm on a justice campaign. I can feel a lot of anxiety and helplessness when I ask things like, "Is this the best use of my abilities?" "Is there a group that needs this more?" "If I gave up _____, could I do _____?"

  3. A singing group met one Thursday evening for a hospice visit at a Baptist medical center. The leaders, a Church of Christ elder and his wife, picked some of the "old songs" familiar to southern evangicals. But one patient wasn't Protestant. She was Roman Catholic as were the family members there with her. Then , spontaneously, one of our group began singing the "Our Father." The elder's wife moved closer to the bed, bent over beside the dying woman and gently spoke to her as a Catholic Sister, using words and phrases immediately recognizable. A calm came over her face. Suddenly a warm glow filled the room. As we left, the family rose as one thanking us for our visit. I had just witnessed an act of pure love to strangers and the dying. And I was moved to tears.

  4. Thanks, Richard! I met Danny and his wife last month at the Gay Christian Network Conference. What a servant! Thank you for the way too uncomfortable explanation of why we sometimes want to be noble. It's, for me, easier to love tenderly and seek justice than it is to walk humbly!

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