“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7
It is not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something. -Leo Buscaglia
There’s just something about helping another person in need that can turn even the hardest hearts happy. I think of Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Scrooge McDuck--because 90% of what I get to watch these days are cartoons) as he danced down the street Christmas morning giving out gifts and money to the poor on his way to help Bob Cratchit. As I visualize his overflowing joy I can’t help but wonder about the cause of his happy. Many people quote, “It is better to give than to receive.” To which I agree. Others illuminate further by saying, “It feels good to give.” Which is also true. But why?
To be happy while helping others can be elusive. It's easy to get burned out or fed up. It's even possible to get secondary post-traumatic stress disorder (Called Secondary Traumatic Stress) from helping those who have PTSD. As foster parents, we were trained on how to avoid the burnout but nothing really prepares you for the burden that comes from caring for some of society's most vulnerable. That’s part of the reason why I'm fascinated by Jesus' claim in Matthew 5:7 that you can be happy helping others. “Happy are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.”
What does mercy even mean?
Because I’m a big nerd I looked up mercy in the dictionary. And a thesaurus.
“Showing kindness to someone when you have the ability to punish or harm.”
Hmmm, interesting….we tend to just apply this rule when talking about forgiveness to individuals who have hurt us in some way--but that’s not what the definition says. It doesn’t say mercy is exclusive to those who have harmed us. It says showing kindness to those whom we have the ability to harm. On that basis, really, technically, this could be anyone, anywhere. Not just your small group of friends and family.
This could be in person, on the phone, or hardest of all--people you interact with online. Wowzer! That's a lot of people. That's why after reading this verse and definition, I've decided to broaden my view and approach to mercy by calling it by its synonym: humane.
Nowadays, the word humane is rarely talked about outside of it's connection to caring for animals. But the verb really should apply to people too. Being humane, merciful conjures up the image of providing care for the most vulnerable in our society. It’s about scooping out the selfishness in our hearts and replacing it with the never-ending compassion that comes from above. It takes guts to live at that level of mercy. The ancient Greek called this Parabolani. Meaning to gamble with your life. The Latin translation of Parabolani means to risk it all. There was a group of Christians in the first century who received the title of Parabolani for nursing the sick and dying of the Plague in Alexandria. For most, it cost them their lives. In Philippians 2:30, Paul used this same word- Parabolani- to describe a friend who helped the sick at great cost to his own life.
Are you brave enough to be humane? Are you willing to Parabolani yourself? I would like to think I am, that I try daily. I’ve been on both ends of mercy--the giving and the receiving.
When I was at my most vulnerable, others stooped down, had compassion on me and nursed me through cancer. I then got the opportunity to do the same for my mom as she fought breast cancer.
In 2012 at the age of 32, It took less than seven days from the moment I showed a doctor friend this spot on the back of my ankle to having it surgically removed. At one point, I found myself sitting on an exam table arguing with the plastic surgeon who specialized in skin cancer removal. I had no grasp on the reality of my situation.
“I’m really too busy at work. Can we schedule this for some time in a couple of weeks? Next month?”
I did not get my way. The incision site was a 2x4 inch tornado-shaped gash on the back of my left Achilles that hurt excessively. I had to not walk on it and keep my leg in the air above my heart for two weeks straight after the surgery to keep the incision from opening up around my tendon. Unfortunately, the melanoma had already spread so more surgeries were required. The tornado grew into a 4x7 inch hurricane. The swirling vortex of doom. I was required this time to keep my leg in the air for 21 days in order to prevent a non-union with the skin graft. I lived on the couch from the beginning of May to end of July.
What do you do for three months of immobility? I had neighbors, family, friends come over and help. They were incredibly supportive as I needed help doing almost everything from changing bandages to getting meals. I also met Pinterest on that couch. What a great way to kill time when you can’t move and are in a monumental amount of pain. Oh Pinterest, how I love thee and my husband hates thee. I got so many good ideas from there. Great for my hair, makeup and wardrobe. Not so great for Sean’s honey-do list. Ideas/hacks for our house have grown exponentially since I started using Pinterest. Sean’s one concession for doing all the extra work is he gets to buy new tools for each job. Our house has never looked so farmhouse fresh and his 4 tool boxes have never been so full.
In order to continue pursuing adoption, our adoption agency mandated I have a letter from an oncologist stating I was cleared of all cancer or they weren’t gonna let us proceed. The oncologist set me up with a dermatologist and between the two of them, I get my insides and outsides checked out twice a year. I’ll have to do that for the rest of my life. According to my oncologist, there’s a 60% chance the melanoma could come back anytime, anywhere on my body-especially my brain, spinal cord, or lungs. In fact, in October 2013 the dermatologist found a small black dot on the outside of my right calf. It came back pre-cancerous and now both legs sport cancer-related scars. In 2014, the oncologist also found a spot on my right lung. I had to have a whole round of MRIs and CT scans for that one. It took a full seven days to get the results back. Longest week of my life. We’d just gotten our first foster kids we were hoping to adopt and I was shaken up to find out I might have lung cancer. Literally shaking on the inside. It’s not cancer yet-just a cyst. I have to get lung MRIs done every year to monitor for any changes. I’ve had 10 biopsies over the last five years. Each time its a trial to stay positive, patient and fearless. Most biopsies come back negative, thank the Lord. But on my latest biopsy earlier this year, the small bit removed from my face came back precancerous for squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma. Not melanoma. This means my body’s trying to grow two types of cancer. Terrible. I am such an overachiever.
Knowing some of the work that goes into combating cancer gave my mom an advantage when she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. I understood some of the lingo, tests and procedures she would eventually have to go through. So together, we fought. But not without fear. Cancer is super scary. In any form. Walking into chemo treatments with her every week straight for six months required both of us to Parabolani ourselves. Every drip of chemicals into her body killed the cancer but damaged her heart. She stayed with us as she got weaker and there were nights when I’d help her into bed and neither of us was sure she would wake up the next morning.
Chemo treatment was every Tuesday for 6 months. For 8 hours we sat there--she in her leather recliner covered in prayer and a thick blanket and me in a metal folding chair huddled beside her trying to keep her spirits up and keep myself warm in the cold of the chemo ward. After chemo came surgery, then radiation. Thank the Lord, my mom survived and spends her time spreading unconditional kindness to those around her especially her new adopted grandkids.
Having someone return the mercy you showed them is an incredible gift. I’m thankful for the reciprocal kindness my mom and I were able to show each other in the fight against cancer. Mercy shown. Mercy received. Sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way. Many people do not return the kindness you show them. Because to give out mercy without being shown it in return can be draining emotionally. It can cause burnout and lots of anger. It’s incredibly difficult to open one’s life to another person especially when you know they are unwilling or incapable of returning the kindness you have shown them. To be humane comes at a great cost. It takes an incredible amount of determination, bravery, and grit to Parabolani yourself to help others who cannot help themselves. That’s why I appreciate the promise of happiness that comes with the entire verse. When you are merciful, you will also receive mercy. No qualifications. Simple and assured. You will receive mercy. It just may not come from the person to whom you gave mercy. It might come at the blessing of an Ebenezer Scrooge who’s found a new lease on life. Or at the gentle hands of family or friends who encourage you as you fight great battles. It could be anyone. Anywhere. Wowzer! That’s a lot of mercy.
Still not sure you have what it takes to risk it all for others? Have hope. There is a verse for you. Matthew 5:8 “Happy are the Honest….”
Photo credits: Josh Appel, Matt Collamer, Kira Auf Der Heid