(USNS Mercy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect, Second Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218
Seems like "mercy" is one of those words we use a lot in church but not so much out in the real world, other than as an exclamation. In fact, some might claim it's a little on the obsolete side. When you read in the papers about various and sundry criminals who are are in the process of getting their sentence lessened in some way, the papers tend to now use the word "clemency" instead. In the case of Death Row prisoners, we tend to use words like "stay of execution" or that the sentence was "commuted."
I chose a photo of the USNS Mercy because these days, the Department of Defense tends to think that an oil-tanker-turned-hospital-ship is also obsolete, in an era where we can fly personnel to a brick-and-mortar hospital. Mostly, these days, the USNS Mercy tends to be sent to sea to aid in humanitarian efforts, and more or less does "American public relations."
By the dictionary, the word "mercy" basically means "kindly forbearance," and comes from the Anglo-French merci--"thank you."
But "mercy" is one of those words, I suppose, we all think we know the meaning, but really don't think a whole lot on it. It's kind of interesting to think about it in terms of the famous hospital ship. It expands on what mostly, we have as a very general definition. I think we tend to dismiss the word "mercy" as simply "getting a break," or "being forgiven," or at most, "being forgiven when we have done something wrong."
So I sat for a while and surfed the net a little about the history of the USNS Mercy. It's actually the third ship with that name, although in this most recent version of it, the designation was changed from USS to USNS (more on that in a minute.)
But in modern times, the main function of the USNS Mercy has been pretty much humanitarian, although the Navy crew and civilian staff are trained to be of service in wartime. She's been to several locations in the South Pacific in recent years, particularly after natural disasters. Her sister ship, the USNS Comfort, was in Haiti last year, following the earthquake. I would not find it surprising if she will be dispatched to Japan following this recent earthquake/tsunami.
Thinking about this makes me realize something about "mercy" in a general sense, too. Mercy goes where it is needed; not necessarily because it is wanted or desired. I don't think it's a "cause and effect" thing. Just as the USNS Mercy's next mission is deemed by higher powers in the Navy, "mercy" is pretty much God's business and God's call on where it will be in the lives of humankind. I think the important thing for us is we know of its existence, and we have hope of its deliverance--but not on demand, not on our whims, and with the understanding it actually might show up when we don't want it, or expect it, or even think we need it.
That's certainly been my experience. Many of us are grand champions at beating ourselves over the head. Sometimes we don't think we are deserving of mercy, but there it is. Other times, we desire it in the worst way, but it seems absent. We end up having to walk through a situation to its conclusion--the learning is not in a rescue, but in seeing something out to the end. Then there are the times we are so blinded to the place of unease we are in--it just seems like business as usual--and something happens to make us realize we are the recipient of kindly forbearance that we did not expect, but find ourselves amazingly grateful--a surprise gift.
I mentioned earlier about the ship designation on the USNS Mercy. USNS stands for "United States Naval Ship," which means a ship not technically in the wartime fleet, but under the direction of the Navy. It's a modern designation for support ships. Under the Geneva Convention, hospital ships are not to be war targets and not to be fired upon.
But here's the flip side--hospital ships are not allowed to carry ordinance. That means not even deck guns for self-defense. Should someone want to fire upon the Mercy, she's defenseless. That's a very real vulnerability in this world of terrorism.
Which brings up my other important point about "mercy"--for as grand and wonderful as mercy is, and as comforting as being its recipient can be, we are still free to dismiss it. We actually have the ability to ignore it and reject it, and continue to wallow in our self-imposed muck.
I have spent some of this Lenten season looking back at my own life, and recognizing the many, many times I have been the recipient of God's mercy. I think of all the ways my life could have turned out, and I am grateful beyond belief I have been blessed with the life I have. But in that recognition also comes remembering times I rejected mercy, and chose to continue to be miserable. I am grateful I did that far fewer times than the times I accepted mercy.
But the good news is that I need not have guilt over that. Unlike the USNS Mercy's vulnerability, we can't destroy "mercy." As the collect says, God's truth in Christ is unchangeable. Mercy is a piece of that truth. When God's mercy steams into our port and drops anchor, even if we ignore or reject her,she merely sits offshore until we are ready to climb aboard--thanks be to God!