Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ocean of Mercy

It was the early 1970’s, and I had dropped out of college. I was “getting my life together,” as my mother told her friends. Actually I was in the final stages of a spiritual crisis that needed to be resolved before I could continue my education and pursue a career. To pay the bills during this spiritual search, I worked as a salesclerk in my grandfather’s hardware store in Salem, Massachusetts.

Every day during my lunch break I would go to one of two places. Sometimes I would walk to Salem’s old First Church, founded in 1629 by the Puritans, and sit quietly in the sanctuary. (This historic Unitarian congregation was the only church in town that kept its doors open during the day for people like me to come and pray.  Consequently this trinitarian Baptist still has a soft spot in his heart for Unitarians.)

If I wasn’t communing with universalists, I would drive my Ord down to the Salem Willows and sit by the ocean. (The F had fallen off my ’67 Fairlane, so I called it Ord.) Winter or summer I would sit by the sea and let the swells of the ocean soothe my soul. I learned to pray to the rhythm of the waves. I read through the New Testament for the first time while snacking on saltwater taffy.

The ocean became a spiritual companion to me. She was my mentor and teacher. She spoke to me the way the river spoke to Siddartha in Hermann Hesse’s novel. Later it was in a little Baptist church at the ocean’s edge that I placed my life in Christ’s hands. I was baptized in the ocean at a public beach while sunbathers gawked at a hippie going for a dip with his clothes on.

Though I now reside in western Pennsylvania, I still return to the ocean annually to enjoy the salt breeze, pay my respects, and listen. One thing the ocean has taught me is mercy. There is an old hymn written by an English preacher named Frederick Faber in the nineteenth century. He must have spent time at the ocean, because he also heard the song the ocean sings. “There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea.”

When I think of mercy it comes with the scent of seaweed and the sound of squawking gulls. I picture mercy like the wide expanse of the ocean. For me mercy is spaciousness. I know that is not the derivation of the Greek word used by the Gospel writers. Biblical scholars can set the etymological record straight. But for me mercy will always mean openness.

God opened up my clenched soul and dropped his mercy into it. The key to keeping God’s mercy alive is to keep our souls open, offering that gift of mercy to those who have closed their hearts against us. For when we try to keep mercy for ourselves, it flows through our fingers like water. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

Artwork is “The One Who Showed Mercy” by Christopher Koelle. Stone.

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