Friday, February 10, 2012

The Mystery of Mercy

My husband, who is an actual badass (not to be confused with the girl mouthing off online while ensconced in the comforts he provides by laboring twelve hours a day in the snow), first rolled out the concept of mercy to our then-six-year old daughter after I dispatched him to discipline her one evening. I stood at the kitchen sink, thankful he'd come through the door in time to do my dirty work. Instead of enduring the fallout from a well-earned swat, they both emerged from the next room in somber unity and began setting the table for dinner. Her sentence had been commuted.

Alaska has mild consequences for minors caught consuming and possessing controlled substances, or at least that was the case in the mid-nineties, during which whiskey and weed were my primary vocation. As I wrapped up a particularly busy summer of cannery work, beach bonfires and camping, I recall starting the school year with a tidy twenty hours of community service.

St. Monica and St. Augustine, Mother and Son
As fate and the magistrate would have it, I served part of this sentence at our local police station on an early Saturday morning.  Attempting meekness out of embarrassment more than manners, I arrived and asked the dispatcher for my duty. I expected to be mopping jail cells or scrubbing bathrooms, but instead was ushered up a narrow staircase to a small room and seated at a large, round table. There was a milk crate filled with cassette tapes at my feet, and on the faux woodgrain tabletop, an industrial strength magnet and a tape player. My task was simple and demonstrated by the gruff old lady who had booked me many times. "Put each tape on the magnet, both sides, to erase it. Make sure it worked by listening to them here." With that, I was left alone and began working.

The magnet hummed against the silence of the room, soon giving way to a stilted rhythm of plastic and metal: I'd grab a tape, flip it against the flat surface of the magnet and then into the tape deck, where its blank status was announced with an even louder hum. The ominous boredom droned on for less than a half hour before I reversed the order of these steps. And skipped the last two. Now, rather than erasing tapes, I listened to hours of police evidence and shoved a dozen of the best ones into the waistband of my (no-doubt high waisted, 1990s) jeans. I then set off like Miss America, waving goodbye to the policemen as I sought out my equally delinquent friends to bask in the awe of such ill-gotten treasures.

The tapes languished in storage for a year or two and were next used by a live-in boyfriend to scare a former boyfriend during a drug sale. Actual hilarity ensued (and was caught on tape) as Mr. Seller entertained himself by playing Mr. Buyer's old DUI interview tapes, implying that he had connections beyond the bucolic biker gang he trafficked for. Seller would not know for many months that Buyer himself had been arrested, worked a deal with the police and was undercover in exchange for leniency. At that moment. In true Keystone Kriminals style, we had unwittingly broadcast to the police that we possessed classified tapes --- through their own wired informant.

At least two years later, my desk phone rang and the chief of police asked for an appointment. My life had taken some  turns, and he was by then a professional contact of sorts. No instinct alerted me to the personal nature of the call until it was too late. He calmly asked about 'the issue of some tapes'. My bravado and dishonesty had been left in my teenage years, and I did not pretend an interest in recreating the juvenile standoffs I had once enjoyed in that building. I also had more to lose and sensed the possibility of mercy. After I admitted my brazen theft, he explained his reticence in pursuing the matter. Since it was unlikely the evidence could be recovered from my long estranged lover who now faced a moderate prison sentence for our activities, the matter of the tapes was let go. 

Why was I spared? The only answer is love. This love fosters mutual humility, which trumps the power imbalance between two parties. We can experience a spontaneous desire to insist on the good, the potential, and overlook grave faults in another. Not to be ignored are reasons of efficiency, a more philos application than the Chief's agape acceptance of my offense  --- as in the case of correcting children, we can exhaust ourselves with scrupulosity if we don't occasionally make use of mercy to our own benefit. Much like the exercise of charity, both souls are enriched and invited to grow.

Criminals and children are both opportunists, and this mysterious gift of mercy has to be selectively granted. If our kids never receive due punishment, our words lose weight and their character suffers. Had I not sat in the police chief's office ready for sentencing, the force of his unnecessary kindness would have been diminished. The more grandiose the offense, the deeper the gratitude when forgiven with ease.

Just as important as mercy's cause are her effects. Immediately following the spanking which never materialized, our daughter was helpful and cheerful, besides being grateful. At least twenty minutes of productivity was gained, and the bond between father and daughter was visibly strengthened. As for my meeting in the police station, it cemented my identity as a clean and sober adult and made good use of my progress so far. My debt had been paid by another.

Nowhere in my Christian travels have I found a sentiment broader than "the ground is level at the foot of the cross" (except maybe Peter Kreeft's "if we believe in a loving God, we must also believe in the possibility that Hell is empty"). Of this we can be sure, and of His mercy we can never be worthy.


  1. Another funny and well written post.

    One comment on Peter Kreeft's "if we believe in a loving God, we must also believe in the possibility that Hell is empty".

    Once in a while Kreeft misfires, and this quote is one of those times. Of course hell must have people...but only if God is, in fact, a loving deity.

    Why? God made man in His own image. Foremost here is having free will, being free to choose. So God opens the birdcage out of love. When man wishes to be apart from God, God will most certainly let him do so, out of love alone. Hell is, if anything, a home built for and by sinners who cannot accept God. God, because he is loving, will never take this freedom from man, the freedom to choose evil. Hence, hell will always have people, and when the bus comes by on its way to heaven, some people will stay off. It's a tough choice, to give up sin, and methinks (based upon my experience here on earth) that heaven will likely be less populated than hell...if God is in fact loving...

  2. This makes me think of a pickup line of sorts (you've been warned) that my husband shared with me, when we first met. I think his exact words were, "God loves you enough to let you go to Hell, why would I claim to know better?" So although that sounds nuts as 'first date chat' now --- he was speaking specifically about continuing the lifestyle I was immersed in, or getting sober --- it's still a pretty good analogy for sin/attempting virtue.

    Mystery. And I'd say the birdcage can only be opened from the inside, but God leaves it unlatched. ; ) Great points.

  3. "God loves you enough to let you go to Hell, why would I claim to know better?" Wow. I'm still pondering this packs a punch; is subtle. Your husband blows away philosophers!

    And I'd say the birdcage can only be opened from the inside, but God leaves it unlatched. Heh. I'd say he only gives birdcages to those lucky ones who pray for them real real hard...