Why Is It So Hard to Show Mercy?

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

The lyrics of Peter Gabriel’s song “Mercy Street” were inspired by an Anne Sexton poem titled “45 Mercy Street.” Her poem is dark. She can’t find number 45 anymore. In her dream she searches, but there is no house at that number on Mercy Street where she grew up, where generations of her ancestors lived. It only exists in her memories. And her memories are a nightmare.

Something horrible happened there at 45 Mercy Street. We can only guess what. Whatever it was, she carries deep inside her and tries to hide it, leave it with pills and drink. She complains that there is no one she that can reveal her insides to. Alone in her misery. No mercy.

Anne Sexton, a contemporary of Sylvia Plath, won the Pulitzer prize for poetry. Anne Sexton suffered from bipolar disorder that got worse as she got older. When she was 45, a well-known and celebrated “confessional” poet, she committed suicide. It was her fifth attempt. She was convinced that no one wanted to hear the deep pain that she revealed to the world through her poems.

Peter Gabriel wrote the lyrics to his song “Mercy Street” some ten years after Anne Sexton’s death. He heard her longing for mercy, “mercy in Daddy’s arms.” His lyrics beg the question “Who’s Daddy?” Who is it who brings mercy? Who withholds mercy?

Not all creative folk suffer from debilitating mental health issues. Not all genius comes from dark struggles with demons. And the one who offers or withholds mercy comes in many forms.

All of us dream of mercy, of forgiveness, of reprieve, of release from our demons; from our shadows.

Again, today we explore the theme of mercy. I hope you are reading your Touchstones Journal, and doing your own reflection, “exploring spirituality,” which is part of our mission as UUCSH.

The Rev. Naomi King, a UU minister and the daughter of the novelist Stephen King, wrote this piece about taking a spiritual path through muck and mire.

“We don’t flower in faith because we are perfect or accomplished. We grow faithfully through our struggles, our imperfections, our practices, our misses, our failures, and our trying again. We grow faithfully transcending what holds us back and twists us away from mercy, forgiveness, love, and generosity. Humility requires transcending vanity, while still having a strong sense of self-worth. Generosity requires transcending fear and growing in trust and good-will. Forgiveness requires transcending vengeance, while holding still to loving accountability and radical acceptance. Every human trait that is considered spiritually positive demands our living practice every day. The way to transcendence is right through the muck and mire….”

Rev. Naomi King, excerpted from “Getting Out of Our Own Way Faithfully,” June 4, 2012.

We dream of mercy even though we allow our vanity, fear, and vengeance to twist us away from its power.

I’ve read that there is some evidence that Anne Sexton abused her children and her husband. But I know that vanity, fear, and vengeance can be overcome. 

Why is it so hard to show mercy, when mercy stops the cycle of hate and progresses the evolution of the beloved community?

Anne Sexton longed for mercy. Yet it must have been terribly hard to show her kindness.

We fear the demons. We fear our own shadows. We see only the person twisted, distorted by our or by their demons. 

My spouse, the Rev. Dr. Robin Tanner, is a brilliant preacher and an accomplished social justice organizer. She gets calls from numerous organizations to show up and speak for change. She almost always says yes. She always answers to a merciful force. 

A few days ago, she was asked to come to a demonstration in Somerville. She said, “Let me put you in touch with the UU minister in Somerville.” She asked me if I would go instead of her. Normally, I would have said, no, I’m busy when what I often mean is I don’t measure up to you. 

I said yes to her and no to my fear.

This past Wednesday afternoon it was cold, windy, and overcast at 4 PM, as I made my way to the front of U.S. Representative Tom Malinowski’s office to meet three members of Wind of the Spirit. They had come to make a video to share with Rep. Malinowski, to once again ask him to act upon his promises to stand up for essential workers (essential workers who aren’t citizens, yet pay taxes on their wages, just like citizens do). They wanted him to act on their behalf, to provide a path to citizenship, so they could realize the full compensation of their labor.

They had asked Robin if she would go and start their video with a prayer.  She asked if I would go in her place. I said yes.

All I had to do was ask for mercy in the public square.

After I got home, Robin told me that the person who asked her to come had called to say that after they sent the Wind in the Spirit video to Rep. Malinowski, he said YES. Later that same evening the news carried the story about the immigration reform legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for essential workers and others.

Mercy begets mercy.

I have been reading social media posts for a decade now. Maybe it is time to stop. I am rarely shocked by what people say on the many platforms. There is so much there I don’t need to hear. Last week I read a post written by a UU, not one I know well, but a UU nonetheless. The few sentences this person wrote were full of hate and damnation for a public figure (not the one or two you may be thinking of). The public figure this person was deriding is young and pushing for a faster timetable to make things better for more people. I don’t understand why people hate this public figure. This person was already on the ground in Texas, having raised a huge amount of funds for those suffering and in need of mercy.   

Reading the hateful words written by a person I know to be UU made me sad. I wish I knew what was going on inside that person, that was causing such a “twist… away from mercy, forgiveness, love, and generosity.”

It made me remember the many times I have missed the opportunity to show mercy, to silence my biting sarcasm (my personal form of hate speech). It made me remember the years it took for me to manage myself well enough to keep still and remain non-reactive when folks came toward me spewing their outward facing demons. So often, we only get a few seconds, a sentence or two. Why waste it on fear or vengeance, when we could show mercy, forgiveness, love, and generosity?

It takes daily practice to see through the hate, anger, and self-loathing and instead focus on the fearful, hurting underneath, hidden deep within the person before us who somewhere inside longs for mercy.

We all deserve it.

The Rev. Naomi King tells us that to practice mercy, transcendence is required. 

Each of us, and together, practicing transcendence.


First, she says, take the posture of humility, and combine that with a strong sense of self-worth.

You are loved no matter what, the Universalist says. You are worthy no matter what, the Unitarian says. 

To be humble means to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, will never be perfect. That we will and do make plenty of mistakes. And that it is in the muck and mud where we learn and grow, where we exchange the mercies that keep us keeping on.

Practice again and again recognizing that your worth does not come from what you do, or even from who you are. Each and every one of us is worthy simply because we exist. Every person on this earth is worthy. Move on past the primal urge to defend yourself, to protect your little fiefdom. You—we—are all in this together. Each worthy, each valuable. Move from the tribal fights into the higher rhythm of mercy that begets mercy.

Secondly, practice cultivating a spirit of generosity and know for yourself how giving pushes aside fear. Give a dollar. Give time. Give kindness. Give your attention to another’s insides, to your own. Trust that love will win. Learn to trust that it is worth it. 

Thirdly, practice forgiveness. Not forgetfulness. Rather, practice forgiveness by combining accountability and radical acceptance.

I asked my spouse if her church was going to acknowledge the Sunday that will mark one year of virtual worship. That led to my commenting that some public figure had said yesterday or the day before that it could very well be December before there is a real return to full life, breathing together inside being with others who aren’t in our immediate pod. She said, “I have accepted that that is likely to be true. It is what it is. I have resolved to live in this current reality.”

That is radical acceptance. The truth of the moment is what it is. One must be able to live with it. Accepting the truth of the past, the truth of the present, is the only way to be accountable for harms done and to be willing to not only acknowledge the harms done, but to forgive and be forgiven; to stop the cycle of harm, and live in the power of mercy.

There is a poster hanging in my office at church, which says:

“Love is hard. Love for people, especially those who are different from you. Love that says I see you as a person. Love that says ‘let your unique light shine in the world!’ because each of our souls touch the divine mystery. Love that says we’re on a journey together, and my fate is tied up with yours. Love that grabs you and won’t let you go until your whole life is dedicated to siding with love. Love that changes the world. Love is hard. Do it anyway.”

May we do it anyway. May we choose mercy, forgiveness, love, generosity.

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