“His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” – Lamentations 3:22-23
A thin glaze of dust and sleet swept across the road. It was the color of the linoleum they used to lay in church kitchens. The gray, foreboding sky was welcome to some, after months of never-ending heat, but it didn’t promise much moisture. The landscape would turn beige, not white. It would bring more wind than anything.
Yet some of us in West Texas like to drive in that first bout of winter weather. We imagine we are northerners – from Fargo, perhaps, braving a blizzard, treating it like it’s any other day. We’ve got this, we say to ourselves, as we smile and put on our winter coats and hats, and gleefully scrape the wet snow off the windshield.
But then you remember that nobody in West Texas knows how to drive in the snow, that our tires and roads aren’t made for winter voyages, that the highway department won’t be salting the overpasses until later that night, and that you’re on the most dangerous road in the county, with a million tons of oilfield traffic bearing down on you. And it hits you: you shouldn’t be here.
Carrie had offered to let me take our Honda Pilot that morning. “It’s got the snow-traction feature,” she said.
“Nah, I’ll be fine in the truck. It’s not even below the freezing mark yet.”
After I dropped William off at school, I hopped on to Highway 158 to head to work. Suddenly, the dirty sleet turned to snow. The wind picked up. I drove into a low spot on the highway, where water collects after even the faintest of showers.
I hit a patch of ice, and my tires locked up. I started to skid. What are you supposed to do again? Turn into the skid? How hard do you tap your brakes? The truck turned sideways, and then slowly drifted to the middle of the other lane. A yellow dog school bus was coming the opposite direction. Was it empty except for the driver? Or did it have children on it? I tried tapping my brakes. Nothing. I tried steering back into the other lane. Nothing. The bus didn’t look like it was stopping. Maybe it couldn’t stop. It was 100 yards away, now 75, now 50.
Mercy, God. Mercy.
We moved into a new house in March. It is our dream home. We regularly comment on how lucky we are to live there. We love the staircase that leads to a second floor, which, if the Lord wills, would be a place William could call his own one day. We love how the house is covered by a million-dollar live oak tree in the front and Chinese Pistaches in the back that will turn maple red in the fall. We love the big kitchen with the big cabinets and the big island table in the middle, where our family and friends can stand around and drink coffee in the winter, or eat peach cobbler and Blue Bell in the summer, and laugh and cry and hear stories about the beautiful tapestry the Lord is weaving through our lives. We love it all, and I confess that sometimes I pray the Lord lets us keep it until we die.
But we did have one concern when we bought it. The house sits a block to the east of one of the busiest thoroughfares in Midland, Midkiff Road. Now, the traffic noise isn’t all that noticeable. We actually enjoy being conveniently located near Murray’s Restaurant and H-E-B. No, our concern was about William wandering out on to the road.
But we installed a security system that alerts us every time the front door opens. The back yard has a high fence and there are locks on the gates. William hadn’t tried to escape our old home for several years. So I told Carrie, “It’ll be fine.”
A month or so after moving in, we sat down one evening to supper. We were eating early, since I had a deacon’s meeting later. At that meeting, we were going to review the requirements for serving as a deacon in the Lord’s church. Right before supper, I had been reading 1 Timothy 3:12, which says, “A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.” I wondered whether Paul had ever met a person like William; surely he would give me a mulligan on managing my kid.
William snubbed the supper Carrie had made, as he usually does, and went back to Sam’s room. Carrie, Sam and I sat down to watch an episode of Planet Earth 2. It was about wild animals surviving in large cities. We enjoyed our supper and laughed at the monkeys in India that steal food from street vendors. Then I checked the time – only fifteen minutes before the deacon’s meeting began.
“I had better go. I’ll go tell Bubba to eat his supper before I leave.” I walked by the front door on my way to Will’s room, and my heart froze.
The door was wide open.
I looked in Sam’s bedroom. Curious George was playing on the TV, but Will wasn’t watching. I went back outside and looked in the bed of my truck, where William sometimes likes to hide. Empty. I ran upstairs, yelling “William? William?!” Nothing.
I bolted back to the front yard and looked down the street, towards the green, winding curves of Seaboard Ave. Then I turned west. Midkiff.
I jumped into my truck and started driving. My pulse quickened. I drove to the park. He wasn’t there. I drove down Stanolind Ave. He wasn’t there. Then I turned to Midkiff. And I saw traffic on that busy road was backed up half a mile. I knew why.
There had been a car accident in the turning lane: a minor fender bender, but a woman sitting in one of the cars was crying. A police officer was talking to her. Then I saw another police officer on the other side of the road, standing around a group of people. A large man was holding a kid in his arms.
Mercy, God. Mercy.
As I pulled up, I rolled down the window and yelled out, “That’s my son!” I turned into the alley and jumped out. “William? Are you okay?” The man handed him to me, and William grasped me as tightly as he ever has. He was not hurt, but clearly frightened. The bystanders glared at me.
The police officer was friendly but rightfully suspicious. “What is he doing out of the house?”
“I don’t know. He just bolted…Did he cause this accident?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think the accident happened before he came over.”
“Where did you find him?”
The large man who had been holding Will said, “He was just walking down the middle of the street…barefoot.” The bystanders glared at me.
The police officer asked a few more questions, and then said, “Well, I don’t think there’s any reason to issue a citation. I see that he is…special.”
“You should put a latch on the front door to keep this from happening again.”
The bystanders glared, and then walked away silently.
To say the least, I missed the deacon’s meeting that night. But a few nights later, at another church meeting, a fellow deacon approached me. “Hey, I saw you on the side of Midkiff Road the other night. Were you in an accident?”
The scripture passage came back to mind. “A deacon must manage his children and his household well.” The knife twisted in my heart. And it has since, every time I drive down Midkiff Road.
The next evening, this happened.
[Doorbell rings]: “Hi, I’m your next-door neighbor.”
CLARK: “Oh, hi there! Nice to meet you! We’ve been meaning to introduce ourselves.”
NEIGHBOR: “Um, I don’t really know how to tell you this, but your dog is on the roof.”
ME: “What?! How in the world did he get up there?”
[Chief, our 100-pound black lab, barks, then sees me, scurries to the open window upstairs, and squeezes his butt back inside. Another window opens.]
SAM: “Dad, did you know the dog got out on the roof!”
ME: “Yes, I know. Go put some clothes on!”
[The front door opens.]
ME: “Oh my Lord, William, go put some clothes on! Don’t come out here in your underwear!”
[William goes over to the neighbor]: “Hi there! Hug please?”
NEIGHBOR: “So, um, welcome to the neighborhood.”
ME: [Walking back into the house]: “Mercy sakes alive! It’s like a circus around here. Jesus take the wheel!”
My grandfather died on April 13th, which happened to be a Friday. This did not go unnoticed by Sam. But the rest of us marveled more at the fact that my other grandfather also passed away on April 13th, sixteen years before.
The following Tuesday, we laid him to rest at the graveyard, before attending a memorial service at First Presbyterian Church. The boys and their cousins walked around the graveyard – no, that’s not right – they ran around the graveyard. They played hide and seek behind the pine trees. Sam tried to find the oldest grave in the cemetery and quizzed his cousin Corin on his subtraction abilities. William traipsed behind, giggling, arms flapping in the air, playfully attempting to catch a piece of his cousin Fiona’s dress.
I tried to be the dad, be the guy in charge, and convey the austerity and…you know…gravity of the event, but have you ever tried to manage little kids in a graveyard?
Then I heard his voice in my mind. Mercy, y’all leave my boy alone!
Pappas had a great way of saying that word, mercy. My mom inherited it from him, and so did I. We pronounce it with a hard r, almost as if you were saying marcy. I often find myself saying it when I’m frustrated: like when the boys are in the car with me, and someone cuts me off on the road, I’ll use it in lieu of a curse word. Mom says mercy when I’m being obnoxious at the dinner table, or when our team loses at dominoes, or when I haven’t called her in a few days. Mercy, Clark Thomas.
But Pappas’s said it best. He would tilt his head and chuckle, his eyes dancing cheerfully as he said it. Mercy sakes alive, he’d say, on the porch of the cabin after I had scored a 30-pointer in dominoes. This boy is just eating my sack lunch! Or when mom and dad would give me the look I often give Will and Sam now – you know, the look parents give when their reserves of patience have been completely tapped out, and they turn into Yosemite Sam two seconds before he blows his stack – at moments like that, Pappas would pull against his suspenders, come alongside me, and say, Mercy, y’all leave my boy alone. Pappas was my defense attorney, my Atticus Finch.
But not just mine. Everyone thought that way about Pappas. I never heard a cross or disparaging word said about Dan Foreman. People went out of their way at Wall Street Bar and Grill, or at the Post Office where he served Midland for decades, or at First Presbyterian Church, just to shake his hand. It wasn’t because he was all that powerful, or wealthy, or advantageous to them. They shook Pappas’s hand because he made them feel good. Every single one of them thought they were his friend, and they were. He never held a grudge – ever. He was always more interested in other people than himself, and was content to be quiet and listen when others (usually me) spouted their ignorant opinions. I’ll never know a humbler, kinder, more gracious and merciful man.
Pappas wasn’t one for big productions, so the plans for the memorial service at the church were simple: country hymns would be sung, a simple homily would be preached, and then it would be time to head over to the house on “L” Street for sandwiches and homemade ice cream.
Minutes before the service began, as we waited in the church parlor, I noticed that William’s brow was still glistening with sweat from running around the graveyard. He had a look of confusion on his face. Knowing that William does not like interruptions in his daily routine, I wondered how he would act during the funeral. Would he crawl under the pew like he normally does on Sunday mornings at our church? Would he hop up into Marmee’s lap and ask to watch Curious George on her phone? Would he hop on to the platform and rip his shirt off?
We didn’t get the chance to find out. As we began walking into the sanctuary, the organ – that magnificent, powerful First Pres organ that I’ve loved ever since I was a kid, the organ that rumbles so low during the final verse of “Joy to the World” on Christmas Eve that you walk out like a vibrating string in the Lord’s ten-stringed lyre – the organ sprang to life, and it freaked Will out. He dropped to the ground, and anchored his weight into the floor. He turns into a 200-pound sandbag when he does that. He put his hands over his ears.
I carried him to the bench in the hallway behind the sanctuary, and softly attempted to coax him inside. He wouldn’t have any of it. He sat down in the floor, folded himself over, and whimpered. I don’t know why.
Carrie came out and offered to take my place watching Will. “Nah, it’ll be fine.” She stood by my side.
A group from the children’s day out program at First Pres walked by. They were three, maybe four years old. They held their hands together and quietly walked by, but not before gawking at the eleven-year-old in the floor throwing a fit. The old pangs came back. I looked down at Will, heard the service beginning, and started to pray bitterly.
Then I heard that voice. Mercy, Clark. Leave my boy alone.
We went to the church’s cry room, and held each other.
It had been a long week for Carrie at school. Friday couldn’t have come soon enough. “I think I’ll take the boys to the baseball game tonight,” I said with some pride in my voice, “and give you a break from whiny children.”
“Ok. Are you going to take both boys?”
“Sure, why not?”
“William had a rough day at school, Clark. Are you sure? He might melt down on you like last time.”
“Nah, it’ll be fine.”
I really should stop saying that.
As we walked up to the ticket booth for the game, Sam carried his birthday present – a new baseball mitt. He was stretching it, trying to break it in so he could catch a foul ball. I was carrying Pappas’s old glove, the one that had caught ten thousand of my pitches, the one I had caught a foul ball with when I was a kid. Pappas had waited with me outside of the players’ dressing room that night, so I could get a few autographs.
The game was sold out, but there was room on the grassy berm in the outfield where we could sit. That was trouble. There is a playground and splash area in the outfield, and previous experience had taught me that if William observed these delights, he’d ditch the baseball game altogether. And that’s exactly what he did. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded, but there were so many kids at the ballpark that night – swarms of toddlers, little leaguers, tweens who should have known better – all darting around that chaotic scene. Meanwhile, Sam was down at the berm, wanting to watch the game and catch a home run ball with his new glove. Then he saw a friend from school, and they began walking down the concourse. I felt torn, stretched, understaffed. I couldn’t keep an eye on both boys. So, I resorted to yelling.
“Sam, get back here! SAM! GET BACK HERE!”
I turned my head quickly. Where did William go? I turned the other way. Had Sam heard me? I turned back. Had William just run over the little girl crying at the bottom of the slide?
Sam arrived at my side. “Dad, I’m just over here talking to my friend!”
I freaked out. “Son, I couldn’t see you! C’mon, we need to get your brother, and we’re going to go sit down for a minute and calm down.”
I walked over to Will. “Come on, Bubba, let’s go over here to the berm and watch the game.”
“No, daddy! Play!”
“No, buddy, you’re way too wild, and there are way too many kids out here. Let’s go over there and calm down.”
I tried picking him up. He sandbagged me. I growled and used every ounce of strength I had to lift my child, dragging him to an empty spot behind the center field fence.
William began smacking his head, enraged that I had removed him from the playground. He banged his head on the dirt. Blood began to fill his mouth, as he had bitten deeply into his bottom lip. It was time for an executive decision.
“Time to go, Sam.”
“Dad, it’s only the second inning! I want to stay!”
“But Daddy, why?”
I picked up Will. He clawed at my back. I saw I had blood on my shirt, and then I realized that it wasn’t the blood from Will’s mouth, but from my face and neck, where he had opened up gashes with his nails. I carried Will through the swarms of fans in the concourse, glaring at me. I felt warm urine begin to soak my shirt where I was carrying my son. He punched me in the face as we walked through the gates and into the parking lot.
Sam continued to plead his case all the way to the car. “Dad, why can’t we stay?” Red tear streaks and scratches covered Will’s face. A bump was rising on his forehead. I got them into the car, and then didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Finally, I turned to Sam.
“Son, I’m sorry. I wish we could stay. But William needs to go home.”
“But why can’t we go back?”
“Look at me! Look at Will! You think we’re going to go back inside after what just happened?”
“No. It’s…it’s just not fair, Dad!”
“You’re right. It’s not fair. But Sam, this is what it means to be a brother. You have to do what’s best for him, not for you.”
“But he doesn’t do what’s best for me! I wanted to stay at the baseball game, and…”
“I know. I know. Just call it mercy this time, Sam. Mercy.”
As we walked back into the house, I expected, and deserved, Carrie’s “I told you so.” But she didn’t say that – she never does. Instead, she helped William get out of his wet clothes and into the bathtub. She offered me condolences that we didn’t get to stay for the game.
When it was time for William to get out, I went into the bathroom. “Bubba, you ready to get out of the tub?”
“No Daddy. Sam help.”
Sam came in, without being asked, and took the towel out of my hand. “Come on, Will, it’s time to get out of the tub. I’ll help you.”
“Daddy, you get out of here.”
I closed the door, but peeked back through the crack. William crawled out of the bathtub on his own, and Samuel gently draped a towel around him. Then he gave Sam a hug, and said, “Sorry, pee pee clothes. Sorry, Sam, baseball game.”
“That’s okay, Will.”
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” – 2 Cor. 1:3
Christians have often heard from pulpits and commentaries about the importance of distinguishing between mercy and grace. We are told that mercy is not getting the punishment you deserve. Mercy is compassion, pity, and clemency, while grace is getting the good you don’t deserve: unmerited favor, forgiveness, and kindness. As Michael Herrington has written, “mercy is the servant to grace’s glory […] Good Friday always gives way to Easter Sunday.”
I suppose this kind of differentiation ought to be made on a theological level, to understand the full picture of the Father’s unspeakable gift of His son Jesus Christ, as well as the daily mercies and graces offered by the Holy Spirit. Yet at the same time, I wonder if these distinctions distract us from the most important fact about both mercy and grace: the fact that our Heavenly Father delivers them both.
We often find mercy and grace mentioned in the same breath by the authors of the New Testament. Hebrews 4:16 encourages us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” In the famous “But God” passage in Ephesians 2:4-5, we are reminded that “by grace you have been saved,” because God is “rich in mercy.” And the mother of Christ, known around the world as a woman “full of grace,” spends more time in the Magnificat talking about the mercy of God than anything else (Luke 1).
In the Old Testament, it seems to me (ignorant of Hebrew, utterly dependent on English translations) that mercy and grace are often used interchangeably. Take for instance Psalm 57:1a: the NASB has “Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,” but the ESV has “Be merciful to me, O God be merciful to me.” According to Strong’s Concordance, the word used here is חָנַן – transliterated “beseech […] grant graciously […] have mercy.”
Theologians like to play the parlor game of what it would be like if Christ showed mercy on the cross but did not offer grace afterwards, but that’s not what happened. God gives mercy and grace through the cross. He gives. He gives.
As I watched Sam wrap the towel around William, I realized that God is indeed the Father of many mercies, and so am I. Not only are my children mercies themselves, but they are “vessels of His mercy” (Romans 9:23). I walk about as if I am not completely dependent on His mercy, but I am. I am awash in mercies. Every morning, I discover them anew.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us.” – Luke 1:76-79
Last Sunday evening, we sat Sam down and showed him To Kill a Mockingbird. It was too hot to do anything outside: for ten days in a row at least, the temperature had been above 100*, and had approached 110* at times. To make matters worse, it hadn’t rained since God knows when.
Sam was into the story at first – one forgets how much To Kill a Mockingbird is about children’s anxieties and relationships. But as the story evolved into the Tom Robinson plot line, he lost interest. I thought about reprimanding him for not paying attention, but I heard a voice say,
Leave my boy alone.
I carefully hid my tears when Atticus courageously sits in front of the jail cell with his lamp and book. Or when Tom earnestly denies the crime he is charged with: “I did NOT sir.” Or when Atticus implores the jury to do their duty, “in the name of God.” Or when the door swings open and the young hero shrinks back, only for Miss Jean Louise to knowingly smile, realizing that the man who saved her is the one she had been afraid of for so long. Or when the sheriff mercifully saves Boo Radley from being smothered by the town’s attention, because that would be like shooting a mockingbird. And I heard a voice say,
I really struggled to keep my composure in the final scene, when Atticus is shown sitting in Jem’s room, with Scout in his arms. Someday Sam will understand how beautiful that moment is.
Soon after the movie ended, a storm came up – the first one in months. We thanked the Lord for his tender mercies on our land. I tucked the boys and Carrie into bed. The rain stopped, so I opened the windows and doors, and let the cool evening air rush in. Peace descended on our home.
Then, around midnight, I heard someone talking. I rose out of bed, and saw William’s light was on. I was all ready to deliver a scathing sermon on how it was midnight, and how he needed to go to sleep, for crying out loud. “Mercy,” I whispered under my breath as I opened the door.
But what a sight I saw. William was sitting up in bed, his hands folded together, and he was praying.
“House, school, church, Marmee, Pops, Nannie, Papa. Mama, Daddy, Sam. No Sam sad ba-ba-baseball game. No fits. G-g-g-good boy. God’s son, Hee-sus, kitty, Grandma, Pappas, heaven.”
A light rain began to fall again.
He would be in Will’s room all night. And He would be there when Will woke up in the morning.