A song came to mind recently that I haven’t heard in a long time. It caused me to sit in quiet reflection and I found myself thinking back to a time when the mercy of God so overwhelmed me it nearly took my breath away. You might know what I’m talking about…when your heart breaks with the pain of what you see, the agony of what you hear and you are compelled to act.
“Every day they pass me by; You can see it in their eyes. Empty people filled with care; Headed who knows where. On they go through silent pain; Living fear-to-fear. Laughter hides their silent cries. Only Jesus hears….People need the Lord. People need the Lord. When will we realize, people need the Lord.”
I had gone to New York for a weekend with a girlfriend. We had taken the train from Fredericksburg to Grand Central Station and upon disembarking we immediately entered into a world so unlike the one we had left behind. I admit, my life has always been pretty sheltered. New York City can be a culture shock. For those of you who have visited the Big Apple, you know it takes a while to adjust your senses to the sights and sounds of this great city.
My friend and I wanted to visit Ground Zero. Instead of taking a cab from our motel, which would have been very expensive, we elected to get the full experience of our trip by taking a ride on the subway. Thank heavens Mary is organized and well-planned because being the high-strung person I am I would never have made it on my own. I would have freaked out. Totally. I especially need people alongside me when I venture out of my comfort zone because I don’t hear well. I need someone to be my ears. Mary is the kind of friend who knows when I need her to take control. She knows that to get my attention she must tap me on the arm before speaking or physically guide me along by putting her hand under my elbow. Just so you know, I’m not so prideful that I mind. Especially in New York City!!
As Mary listened intently for the announcement of our subway stop, I observed the people in our car. One man stood out from the rest. He was clean and well-dressed. He had no packages, no brief case, nothing in his hands. He sat upright with his legs crossed and his hands placed neatly in his lap. There was no stress or worry lines marking his face. He seemed calm and self-assured.
As I watched and wondered about this man who didn’t seem to fit into the scurry of activity around us, the door of the subway car opened and a young man entered. He stood in the front of our car and began to speak. He was pale and gaunt, thin and dirty, ragged and disheveled. With boldness and courage, though, he told us he had AIDS. His family had disowned him. He had lost his job. He had no friends. He lived on the streets. The heaviness of his burden was obvious and his hopelessness reached into the very depths of my soul. He needed money for food. It was all I could do to keep from crying.
Lord, have mercy….
I wanted to help. I needed to help. I became desperate to help. I reached into my purse, but at that moment our stop was announced and the subway doors flew open. Mary took my arm. I was so conflicted I probably would have missed our stop to stay behind and give this young man what he wanted including all of my money. I would have told him about my merciful God who gives hope to the hopeless. I would have made sure he knew this earthly life is not all there is…there is more, an eternal reward for those who know Jesus…the friend of sinners…the hope for all mankind.
I didn’t have time. I wasn’t prepared. It all happened within seconds. As I let Mary lead the way I turned my face to look at the well-dressed man who had first caught my attention upon entering the subway car. When everyone else passed by without a backward glance, when others hurried on to get a seat, the man who seemed to have no cares in the world reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a neatly folded bill. As he got off the car I saw him graciously hand that bill to the ragged young man and that subway car became the mercy seat of Christ. Hope came alive. As I turned away the tears fell just as they are now. Some feelings are too powerful to forget.
For the rest of the afternoon I heard the cry of that young man over and over again…”Have mercy on me!” Although he didn’t say those exact words, he conveyed them and that was enough. I had but one thought: I wasn’t prepared to come face-to-face with the cry for mercy. Like the well-dressed man in the subway car who had neatly folded bills in his pocket, waiting patiently for the Spirit to move, I wanted to show without hesitation the merciful love of my Father.
“Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Matthew 5:7
When compassion compels us to action, that is mercy. When we can’t look the other way. When we can’t stay silent. When we can’t stop the heart from feeling the pain of others. When we can’t forget the face of AIDS….or the plight of the orphan…or the loneliness of the widow….or the hopelessness of the homeless…whenever mercy rises within us, we identify with the heart of Christ. Ironically, the Greek word “blessed” means happy. Happy are the merciful…happy are those who share Christ’s heart for the wounded, the oppressed, the sick…for they shall receive mercy.
When I think of how merciful God has been to me, how I’ve cried out to Him for mercy at times in my own life, how can I withhold mercy from those who cry out to me? I know what God has delivered me from. I know where I’ve been. I know I haven’t always made the right choices. There was a time when I strayed far from God, but He was waiting with open arms for me when I returned home. He has never withheld His love from me. Yes, I’ve had to suffer consequences for my poor choices, but God’s grace and mercy have met me even there. Heaven help me if I ever become so callous that my heart no longer feels the pain of those who cry out.
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:13
The next year when Mary and I went back to New York I prepared myself. I neatly folded some $5 bills and kept them in my pocket. As we walked the streets of New York we both kept a watchful eye for divine opportunities. I can’t say that I met anyone else who had quite the same effect on me as the young man in the subway car, but when I got home I didn’t have one single $5 bill left. I’d given them all away. Happy was I…
….merciful I want to be, not just in New York City, but wherever God leads….
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Psalm 23:6