Lots of people right now are looking for ways to serve. Here’s a great one: blankets for refugees! But it comes with an expiration date: they must have the blankets in Virginia by Nov. 30. We all have been given lots of baby blankets, right? And most of them saw very little use and are still in very good shape, lying on the shelf gathering dust? Launder them, box them up and let them be your love letter to the world.
As the Year of Mercy winds down, I thought I’d bring things down to a practical level. As parents, we have primary responsibility for forming our kids’ view of and approach to the world. Providing a good example alone isn’t enough—we do have to teach—but it’s a darned good start. Here are ten simple ways to model mercy in the mist of your everyday life.
1. Take a deep breath and say a prayer before reacting to whining, breakage, spillage, or fighting. It doesn’t have to be fancy or particularly eloquent. I think the most fervent prayer I ever pray is: “Lord, help!” (I use that one a lot. Ahem.)
2. Measure your words when discussing political candidates, work associates, and others who upset you. For many of us, speech is where mercy disappears first.
3. Lead the way in mending hurts. You may have to send your kid to his room when he’s behaving badly, but go in and offer love—cuddles for little ones, gentle words for older ones—as soon as you’ve calmed down.
4. Banish “It’s okay” from conflict resolution—because if there truly was an offense, then it isn’t okay. Instead, take a deep breath and embrace the difficult words “I forgive you.”
5. Instead of trying to resell your kids’ outgrown clothes (or yours, for that matter), donate them. School nurses always need clothes. So do shelters for abused kids and battered women. There’s also Goodwill, and USAgain bins (for usable clothing) and PlanetAid (for holey socks and threadbare shirts).
6. Keep protein bars, water bottles, or jars of peanut butter and sleeves of crackers in the car so you have something nonperishable to give to the homeless who beg at major intersections.
7. Make a family charity jar. Give your kids the chance to do small chores, and afterward let them put $.25-.50 in the jar. When it’s full, choose a charity as a family.
8. Donate blood. (You don’t even have to take your kids along. Because you know if they see the tape around your arm they’ll ask about it!)
9. Help with funerals in your local community.
10. Offer child care, kid transportation, adult transportation, grocery shopping services, or lawn care to an individual or family facing illness.
Practicing mercy doesn’t have to be dramatic or time-consuming. Small, simple, and realistic beats grand gestures every time.
How do you model mercy in your home?
I know I’m not saying anything revolutionary here, but the world is really screwed up.
I’m also aware that this is nothing unique to this particular era, this particular election cycle. The world has always been a screwed up place.
Maybe this is maturity—spiritual or otherwise—finally allowing me to reserve a piece of my mental and emotional energy for the suffering of someone besides myself. (We can hope, anyway.) One way or the other, I’m finally beginning to understand where the term “bleeding heart” came from, and although it’s been a term of derision my entire life (almost always followed by the dreaded “L” word—”liberal”), I finally recognize it and embrace it, because I see it in the mirror.
As I laid awake tonight, tossing and turning, all too aware of the headache and the sting in my scratched eye, a song kept going round and round my head. It’s a song I heard a concert at a pastoral music conference a number of years ago. It goes, “Please break my heart, O God, with what breaks your heart, O God.”
This is the top of the list of things breaking my heart these days.
My good friend Kelley is doing something amazing in a couple of weeks. She’s going to Greece with an organization called Carry the Future. They provide “baby boxes” that help refugee mothers take care of their children. Mosquito nets, diapers, clothing, blankets, baby carrier, cleaning supplies for Mom, to help her stay healthy so she can safely carry her piece of the future.
And then there’s this telling line on the “baby boxes” page:
Just imagine trying to raise your children in those circumstances. It puts all our fears about kidnappings and head injuries into perspective, doesn’t it?
I’m envious of Kelley for the opportunity to put the works of mercy into action—and I stand in awe of her family’s willingness to shoulder the logistical difficulties associated with the extended absence of its primary caregiver.
My family and I are not that bold, but I can support her efforts, and I can urge those who read this page to donate to Carry The Future, as I am doing today. It should be obvious by now that holing up on our side of the Atlantic cannot protect us from the violence taking place elsewhere. For better and for worse (and it really is both), we are an interconnected world now, and we need to recognize that and start participating in finding solutions. War probably isn’t the answer. Diplomacy might not work, either. But mercy? Mercy just might put a dent in the carnage.
The world is screwed up; our $10 or $20 isn’t going to change that. But as St. Mother Teresa put it: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”
**Note: if you do decide to donate, will you comment here, so we can see if a little blog post from one of the least influential bloggers out there can make a difference?
Every superhero movie these days involves a mind-blowing escalation of the final battle. You know. The Avengers are fighting creepy mechanical creatures that fly around knocking New York City to pieces. You think it can’t get any worse, and then it does: there’s a lull in the action, a low-pitched roar, and my kids start singing, “The FISH thing! The FISH thing! The GIant GIant FISH thing!”
Sometimes life feels just like that.
Every two or three years, in the early fall we have an epic, extended Battle of the Ick. (In case you haven’t intuited it? We’re in one.) This year it got an early start with a dry, hacking cough around the 20th of August. I remember that because I saw my 90+ year old grandmother on the 26th and I was afraid to kiss her because I thought I was probably incubating the boys’ bug.
A month later, we’re all still coughing. And before anyone invokes the almighty doctor, we’ve been to urgent care twice and the regular doctor once, each for a different person. So far in the month of September, we have spent $200 on copays.
It’s not a bad illness, but it wears on you after a while. Nicholas is dramatic by nature, but when he gets sick, he’s even dramatic in his sleep. His coughing can keep the entire house awake, because he sounds like he’s choking. Mama Kate hasn’t been sleeping much the last month, and most of the time it’s not because of a full brain. It’s because I’m getting up and rolling over sixty-pound kids, smearing them with Vix, re-dosing them with Triaminic or Dimetapp, and the like.
In the past three days, I finally feel like we finally started getting a handle on it.
But now we’re staring down the barrel of one of Those Weeks: upcoming deadlines; catching up from a weekend trip to Illinois that set me back by five days; the need to grocery shop on a Monday because a bunch of the weekly staples are flat out gone; the lawn that is threatening to turn into a set for the Jungle Book (see: out of town over the weekend); an NFP class to teach; a massage for which I’ve been waiting for over a month, to fix the burning tendons in my feet; a flute lesson; a DS group plotting session…
And that’s just Monday!
And on the eve of That Week, we came upstairs at bedtime to discover…well, I’ll spare you the details.
So here’s the thing: there’s this little set of instructions for Christian living called the works of mercy. And one of them is “visit the sick.”
But in the past eleven years I’ve had ample opportunity to beat my head against the fact that nobody wants to visit the sick, because nobody wants to GET sick. In fact, as a mother I’ve often felt that the time I most need support is the time the support completely evaporates.
It got me to thinking that we take these works of mercy too literally. The thing is, when you have a sick kid, the rest of your life doesn’t stop. The deadlines are still there, the family still needs to eat, the lawn still has to be cut, and the other kids still have to do their homework. Some things can be rescheduled. Many can’t.
I realized this weekend that we need to rethink the meaning of “visit the sick”. There are ways to help a family overwhelmed by illness—even the petty kind that lasts a month and doesn’t threaten anyone’s life–without exposing yourself to the same illness. Mow their lawn. Rake their leaves. Bring the un-sick family members a meal, or just pick up a handful of groceries and drop them off. Help transport the un-sick kids. Supervise them outside, where carriers will be less likely to share their germs, so they don’t have to tag along while parents drive the sick kid all over creation to see doctors who have oh-so-thoughtfully decided to move their practice to the OPPOSITE END OF TOWN.
Do the things the parents can’t do, because they’re too darned busy taking care of the stuff that can’t be put off.
And when it’s all over at last, help them catch up with everything they had to let slide in the interim.
We’ve got to stop putting mercy in a box. Mercy wants out. Mercy means finding a way.
Note: this is not a thinly-disguised plea for help. God willing by the time this posts, I’ll have the lawn mostly mowed. I’m just realizing we’ve got to quit thinking two-dimensionally and give mercy a place in real life.
At the sound of a crash on wood, Christian and I both turned around, gearing up for a Parental Scowl at the offending child. By the time we saw the toy tractor, which had been dropped into our pew by the non-Basi boy in the row behind, I realized it was far too sharp a sound to be a hymnal, which was the only thing our kids had access to. The mother mouthed, Sorry! and I leaned back and chuckle-whispered some insufficient comment about how it wasn’t our kids so we weren’t worried about it. And then realized that did not at all communicate the sentiment I was trying to convey. So at the sign of peace I made the effort to clarify.
What I was trying to say, and never quite got out of my mouth right, was this:
I’ve been a parent for eleven and (almost) a half years, which is more intense than it seems, because during that time I’ve been steadily adding to the number of kids under my care. As a parent, my first rule has been “make sure my children know they are loved.” But close behind it has been “Make sure they don’t bother other people, especially at church and concerts.”
And because I have four kids, three of whom are boys and the fourth of whom has no sense of boundaries, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been the mom mouthing “sorry” to people, who always and inevitably said, “Oh, it’s fine, your kids are so well behaved!”
I know other people have been browbeaten for their kids’ behavior, but it’s never happened to me. (Yet, anyway. I mean, until a month ago nobody had ever threatened to call DFS on me, either.)
Smiling at that woman in church yesterday morning, I realized my first reaction had been to scold my children for something that, now that it wasn’t my kid, I didn’t find the least bit problematic. Why would either of us feel compelled to scold our kids, when the kids clearly were hurting no one and nothing?
It was a rather jarring moment of clarity. We all know, deep down, that as parents we are way, way harder on ourselves than other people are on us—and often, though not always, harder than we are on other parents. But that doesn’t stop us. We set up impossible standards and then run ourselves down for not meeting them. And when a critique is leveled, we recoil inwardly and then set out to Fix It, even when there’s no way to fix it. Like, I swear my family must think we are sick all.the.time, because we have the worst luck with family gatherings. It seems like any time there’s a holiday or get-together, I’m going to have at least one family member who’s sick, and usually more. And the last couple of years it seems like we get the long-incubating, slow-moving, not-that-severe-but-man-they-just-won’t-go-away bugs that crawl through the family over the course of a month.
I’ve always taken a sort of c’est la vie attitude toward illness. I mean, reasonable precautions. If we have a playdate and someone in the house we’re supposed to go to has strep or lice, we stay home. But we have four kids in three schools. Three separate sets of germs to catch, and four candidates to do the catching. The odds (of catching) are ever in our favor.
And yet when the back side of an illness coincides with a family gathering, you can’t imagine the guilt I have about it. And when a kid comes down with a sore throat and fever in the middle of the weekend? Ugh! I feel terrible! Even though, if the illness was coming in from nieces and nephews, I’d be like, “Whatever, it’s not your fault. It is what it is, if we get it, we’ll deal with it.”
Now, why do I give myself permission to self-flagellate for things I can neither control nor would ever dream of holding against anyone else?
I said once before that mercy begins with me. Apparently it’s a lesson I haven’t yet internalized.
I must have been six or seven, not yet old enough to be fully aware of the vague sense of financial worry caused by growing up on a farm in the 1980s. But plenty old enough to know better.
I stole a couple pieces of candy from the open Brach’s bin at the IGA.
I knew what I was doing was wrong.
I also knew I wanted that candy, and that in my family, you didn’t ask for stuff like that. It wasn’t like there was a prohibition; I just always knew some things you didn’t ask for.
I don’t think most people understand this, so let me try to explain. Once, coming home from a trip, we were half an hour from home at suppertime. My parents had a long discussion about whether to go out to dinner or to go on home, pull a hunk of meat out of the deep freeze, thaw it out, and make something, even if it meant supper was an hour and a half late. I remember holding my breath, because we never, ever, ever went out to dinner.
Most people can’t comprehend the marvel, the excitement I felt when they decided to go out. But you see, we never went out to eat. We couldn’t afford it, so we didn’t do it. And by “never,” I don’t mean “once or twice a month.” I mean never. When we took twelve-hour road trips to see family, we packed breakfast and lunch and ate at rest stops. On a field trip in junior high, I got made fun of for ordering a happy meal–but I picked that because I knew what was in it, which wasn’t the case with anything else on the board. When I went to dinner with my boyfriend’s parents in college, I was so overwhelmed by the menu, I ended up picking the cheapest thing, even though I knew I didn’t like it, because I didn’t know how to process all those options, and I didn’t want to spend too much of someone else’s money. I just had no experience eating out.
Whether I was aware of it or not, all that background was exerting an influence on me the afternoon when I pocketed the candy from the bin on the end cap at IGA. I knew it was wrong, but I also knew how much I wanted it, and without being able to articulate it, I knew I wasn’t going to get it any other way.
Mom was still loading grocery bags into the trunk when my big sister found me out and told on me.
Mom marched me right back into the store and made me give the candy back to the cashier. I can’t remember if I had to apologize or not. I’m sure I did. And then she told me we’d wait until Daddy came home, and Daddy would decide on my punishment.
It was a horrible, horrible afternoon. I don’t think I left my room. There was fear of punishment, and there was the equal pain of my conscience. And when the big, dust-caked pickup rolled into the driveway, I remember the awful feeling in my stomach. I knew I was in for it. I mean, this was far and away the worst thing I’d ever done.
It seemed to take forever. No doubt they had a parental conference in the kitchen, while I tried to read, or write, or draw, there in my room at the northwest corner of the house.
And then came the heavy footsteps, creaking on hard wood floors. Dad came into the room and sat down on the bed next to me.
I don’t remember much about that conversation. There must have been some lesson about the Ten Commandments, but the only thing that’s clear in my memory is the moment where Dad paused and folded his arms and leaned back, and I thought, This is it. And then he said:
“Well, I think you’ve been punished enough, so we’re going to let this go now.”
I was stunned. In the moment, my relief was all about escaping punishment. But in retrospect, I realize that his choice to extend mercy was the single most effective discipline he could have imposed. Because I knew I deserved punishment, and escaping it made me so very aware of the need to be better. My dad’s mercy didn’t so much wake my conscience as set it on fire.
It’s never shut up since. It directs everything I do and say. (Well, almost everything. The occasional thoughtless comment gets out, and causes bounteous conscience exercise afterward.)
I don’t know how my dad knew I was already punishing myself. And I don’t know how to recognize it in my own children. In the moments when my kids tussle or act out, I often wrestle with discipline. They need to understand that what they’ve done is not acceptable. It’s our responsibility to form our children’s consciences, and you can’t do that without the concrete imposition of limits. But the point of discipline is to create discipleship—a desire to follow out of love, not out of fear of punishment.
And that gives me a question to ponder today, which I share also with you: In my parenting, am I looking for the moments when what is most needed is mercy rather than consequences?
Sometimes I take things too seriously.
Shocking, I know. No one would ever have guessed that from reading this blog. (Ahem.)
For five months I’ve been focused on how hard mercy is to live out. And it is a challenge, each and every day. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a drudgery.
Alex and I spent the month of April with a handful of his classmates, building a boat out of cardboard. I had never heard of such a thing before, although apparently cardboard regattas are a not an uncommon phenomenon. This one is a fundraiser for the Central Missouri Food Bank, and we learned about it because it is sponsored by the radio station that is partner in education with Alex’s class.
(You catch a couple of glimpses of Alex’s team right near the beginning of this video, in a white boat with gray “pages” painted across it. Their boat was called the “5th grade chronicles,” and they all dressed as their favorite book character.)
Although his interest in the project had everything to do with the words “build,” “boat,” and “cardboard,” and nothing at all to do with “works of mercy,” it was the latter that made me commit to participating despite April being an exceptionally intense scheduling month.
Cutting cardboard, using Gorilla glue and caulk doesn’t feel much like a work of mercy. But we also did a 5th grade bake sale before school one day—fifty cents per item or three for a dollar. It was twenty minutes long on a Friday morning, and it made almost five hundred dollars. It was a wild twenty minutes, that’s for sure. And that? That did feel like a work of mercy, because all of that money went to the Food Bank.
On a drizzly Saturday morning at the end of April, we all met at a lake and the kids climbed in their boat. We had no idea if it was constructed such that the mathematics of displacement would keep them afloat. For all we knew, the boat might go straight to the bottom the moment it cleared the shore. Alex was kind of hoping to sink—just “not right away.”
They didn’t sink; in fact, they won their race. The moms who supervised and directed the construction were feeling pretty pumped and empowered afterward. And it was a good reminder that mercy doesn’t have to be wrapped in solemnity and constrained by knowledge of the world’s suffering. Sometimes mercy can be, well…fun.