When the Kyrie Project began, I was after the answers to a couple of questions, but none more important to me than this: when we pray the Prayers of the People during Christian worship, and we pray “Lord, have mercy” or variants therein, what, exactly, are we praying for?
Each Sunday we pray for the sick and as is the tradition in my community, we name, silently or aloud, people we know who are sick. For many weeks, our church was praying for Hedda. Fifteen years old, and dying of brain cancer. I knew this. I had shaved my head in Hedda’s honor a year ago to raise money for St. Baldrick’s Foundation which funds research for cures for pediatric cancer. I’d watched Hedda beat the cancer once, only to relapse mere weeks later. I’d followed along through further hospitalizations, chemo treatments and stem cell transplants. She became paralyzed and needed a wheelchair. Each week we prayed. “Have mercy, O God.”
And then, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Hedda made it to church. It was our annual Jazz Service, with great music. The youth were having a pancake breakfast fundraiser for their trip to The Gathering in Houston this summer, and Hedda came to church.
She clearly wasn’t feeling well. You could see she was in pain. At one point her dad took her out of the sanctuary to get some air.
And we prayed, “Have mercy, O God.”
And I didn’t know what we were praying for. Wouldn’t God’s mercy have been cancer that didn’t return after she rang the bell signifying she’d completed treatment and had clean scans? Couldn’t mercy have been treatments that didn’t mean terrible suffering? Couldn’t mercy have been a cure?
I’ve done enough theological reflection and study and pastoral care over the years to know that’s not how it works. Even if I didn’t have a seminary degree, I have John Green to remind me. “The world is not a wish-granting factory,” Gus tells Hazel in The Fault In Our Stars. I know that we don’t just ask God for mercy — or anything — and have it just appear.
I still didn’t have my answer when Hedda died on March 2. I didn’t have my answer on the day of her funeral, with 1,200 people gathered to celebrate her life and say goodbye to her, or the next day at church when we sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” for her. Or again, as we asked God’s mercy on us as we mourned.
After the service, though, an inkling of an answer began to coalesce. It started when I introduced myself to Hedda’s parents, Camilla and Per, so they’d have a face to the name of the St. Baldrick’s girl. And I confessed that I hoped I’d done right by Hedda during the service as Assisting Minister (prayer leader), and Per hugged me and Camilla said, “We brought some delicious homemade treats today — be sure you get some.” I hung up my robe, headed to the parish hall and found the most amazing thing: Prinsesstårta — a Swedish cake that was a challenge on The Great British Bake Off and is on my Bucket List of bakes to try some day. “Is that what I think it is? A Princess Torte?” I said to one of our youth, a delightful, friendly kid who I talk to randomly from time to time. “You know what that is?”
“Yes, it’s on my bucket list of things to bake one day!”
“Let me tell you how to make it!”
Which he did. He’s from Sweden, like Hedda. I thanked him and got a piece (as delicious as I imagined) while explaining to everyone what the cake was and how they shouldn’t miss it. I walked around, looking at the photo display the family had put together. I glanced across the room, and saw the boy who’d given me baking hints talking with Elva, Hedda’s sister. He was making her laugh a little. Earlier in the day he’d come to our Pastor when he realized our acolyte wasn’t at church and offered to serve minutes before the service started. He was kind to me; he was caring for Elva.
It started to become clear to me: that was mercy.
Mercy in action.
I saw mercy when Elva began to cry as she remembered her sister during the funeral and her mother hugged her and whispered “you can do this.”
I saw mercy when volunteers with their therapy dogs came to the funeral, offering comfort to whomever might need it.
I saw mercy when my friend Lynn encouraged me to go to the funeral, even though I wasn’t sure I should, and mercy when my friend Neil hugged me and sat with me in the service.
I saw mercy when Hedda’s father carried her from the car in the rain to her waiting wheelchair, and then tenderly braced her aching head with his hand through the whole church service.
I saw mercy when a friend of the family followed them out of the sanctuary and got them some ice.
I experienced mercy when Per put his arm around me and told me I did a good job with the prayers.
There was mercy with every ski patrol volunteer who helped Hedda go down a mountain one more time, and every nurse and social worker who helped her family navigate it all, and every person who tied teal ribbons around trees and gathered for flash mobs to cheer her up.
Mercy, in every message and prayer from her friends from school and confirmation class.
Mercy was everywhere.
We walked through the Kyrie Project together and shared our stories of mercy. How we had experienced, how we thought about the word, how music and movies connected us to it, how we wished there were more mercy in the world.
This is what I have concluded.
Mi Sheberakh is a Jewish prayer for healing. It’s a flexible prayer, one that can be adapted to specific situations. Folk singer Debbie Friedman wrote a version that is used by many synagogues. After a friend introduced me to it, I have found myself drawn to it again and again.
Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M’kor hab’racha l’imoteinu
May the source of strength,
Who blessed the ones before us,
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,and let us say, Amen.
Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M’kor habrachah l’avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah,
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, And let us say, Amen
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.
I believe that when we pray “Have mercy, O God” what we are praying for is for the Source of Strength to help us find the courage to be the mercy in the world. To be the hands and feet and mouth of the Divine in the world. I believe we have gone too long abdicating our responsibility to bring the Kin-dom of God into this world through acts of mercy and love as we are called to in the Beatitudes. We need only witness the reaction when a mass shooting happens: calls for thoughts and prayers with little to no movement to action.
That is how we end up in worship on any given Sunday asking for God’s mercy and wondering what we are praying for, or worse, going through the motions and not paying attention to our prayers at all. That is how we end up hopeless, thinking there is nothing we can do to change the world, because we are praying for mercy and nothing has changed.
My friends, we are the mercy. I keep coming back to Micah 6:8. We often quote that verse — but only the second part. We forget that the first part is the reminder that we have already been told what is good and what is required of us: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
When ask God to have mercy on us, on our world, our planet, our leaders, our loved ones and those among us who are suffering, God has already answered our prayers. God has given us one another and the ability to act and speak to and for mercy.
We are the mercy.