Safe Place with Ruth Graham

Mercy. It’s a word we all know and use. But what does it mean?

I am to speak on that subject in February so I have been thinking a lot about it.

Perhaps the most-often used definition is that it means compassion. Compassion is not pity. Compassion is a lot stronger than pity – compassion has muscle and action. You can sit in a chair and have pity for someone but to have compassion means you get up from your chair and do something to help.

So mercy has to do with action toward another that is kind when you have it in your power not to. For instance, a criminal might appear before a judge who was kind but not merciful. The guilty verdict would be read and the sentence given. The judge would not yell, or bang his gavel or demean the criminal. He may use a soft tone of voice when he sentences him to 30 years in prison. He was not particularly merciful. He was doing his job.

On the other hand a criminal comes to stand before a merciful judge. The guilty verdict is read, the sentence give. But the merciful judge grants the criminal a merciful sentence by having the handcuffs unlocked and the criminal is set free through no merit of his own. It was the judge’s own mercy that set him free.

Obviously, that is an oversimplified example but you get my point! (I hope!)

Where does forgiveness come into play with mercy? Perhaps I would say that justice comes first – one has to speak the truth. The forgiveness comes in to release the person from the debt. Then mercy can be granted or not. But a critical step in mercy is repentance.

When we come to God we repent of our sin. We turn from it. We agree with God that we are flawed sinners and have no merit on our own and ask Him to forgive us. He shows His mercy in forgiving us and He exchanges our good works, which are really “filthy rags”, for Christ’s righteousness which is perfectly holy. “The great exchange”, as I call it.

I was thinking of mercy this week after Manning’s sentence was commuted by former President Obama. Was Mr. Obama being merciful? You know, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Mercy requires repentance and justice. If repentance has not been shown and justice has not been established then mercy is watered down and made weak.

Repentance takes time for verification. Not for God – He knows our hearts. But in a human interaction, we need to be able to see the fruit of repentance to manifest itself. Is the life changed and different? Or is it an act?

There was a certain justice in Manning’s sentence – 35 years in prison for passing classified governmental documents to Wikileaks. To some it was too lenient to others, it was too harsh. I guess I would argue that to break the nation’s confidence placed in him as an officer and leak sensitive, classified documents is a VERY serious thing. Manning served 6 years of the sentence.

Mr. Obama has not explained his decision so we can only guess and conjecture.

I have no guess. I cannot imagine the former President’s rationale for doing so over the advice of his military advisors and his Secretary of Defense. Did he do it just because he could? Did he do it as a favor for a donor? Did he do it out of the goodness of his heart? Did he do it to spite someone? I just don’t know. Maybe he heard evidence of deep, life-changing repentance. I don’t know.

Manning will live the rest of his life knowing he sold his country, his unit, his integrity to the enemy. He may be ostracized by some of his countrymen or heralded by others. Or perhaps his conscience is so seared, he doesn’t care.

The court decided justice was 35 years in prison. It would be nice to see repentance. As a nation and individuals we can forgive him for his deed and mercy is part of that forgiveness. But I am not sure justice has yet been served.

I am still puzzling over this – I do not believe this commutation was merciful. What do you think?

“Behold” is sort of an old-fashioned word; we don’t use it much. And it is a word that needs some sort of explanation. If you tell someone to “behold”, they are going to ask you, “Behold what”? Same if we were to say “Look”. We’d have to tell the person what to look at or where to look or when. If not using language, you’d just point at the object or direction they are to look.

To me, “Behold” is more dramatic than “Look”. It’s like it is saying, “This is important. Pay attention.”

This Christmas season I heard a whole message on “Behold”. It is used in Luke 2:10  – the story of the angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. “And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people…”(Luke 2:10 KJV)

When someone tells you not to be afraid they usually add some sort of explanation as to why you shouldn’t fear. In this case the angel said it was because the angel had good news – great news for everyone – no one was going to be left out. Then the angel said what the good news was: a savior was born that very day in Bethlehem. Not just any savior but “a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

The country of Judea, where Bethlehem was, was an occupied land – the Romans were hard and often brutal in their rule of the little country and its Jewish people. The Jews had been looking for a savior for centuries – always hoping God would rescue them. They prayed for it. God had promised the Messiah. They had listened to the prophets but it had been 400 years since the last prophet – had God forgotten? Were they truly abandoned by God? But the prayers and hopes continued.

On an ordinary night as the shepherds guarded their sheep a very extraordinary, startling thing happened. An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared – just one angel. But with it came the brilliant, dazzling, shining of the glory of God. This was the Shechinah glory, “the visible token of the presence of the eternal”. It was God’s glory. Any time it appeared the natural response was awe and fear. (Moses at the burning bush, the Hebrews traveling in the desert, in the tabernacle…)

These shepherds were simple, hard-working, ordinary people; they were held in low esteem, not necessarily thought to be important enough for any honor or recognition much less a visit from an angel. The Talmud says that the sacrificial sheep were pastured in Bethlehem so these sheep were probably ones intended for the daily sacrifices in the temple.

The Good News of a savior – at last  –  was given first to ordinary, hard-working men who showed up faithfully to do their job tending the sacrificial sheep. They weren’t special. They didn’t earn it. They simply showed up for work that night. And their lives were forever changed.

God shows up in the ordinary, mundane-ness of life.

It was overwhelming, unexpected, frightening. The angel knew and anticipated their fear so the angel said “Do not be afraid.” before he said anything else. (God knows our penchant for fear.) And said “behold” then told them why they need not fear – he was bringing good news of joy for everyone – not just a select few – everyone, all peoples. And the joy was going to be in the fact that that very night a Savior was born. He was right at that very moment, indeed, lying in a manger wrapped in rags.

Then suddenly heaven opened and a host of angels were praising God. That’s a whole bunch of angels!! Not just a church choir. Not even the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir – much, much larger.

These shepherds tended the sheep of the sacrifices. They knew what the law required – a blood sacrifice. No doubt, they knew some of the prophecies and perhaps had even heard the whispers of a promised, coming Messiah. After the host of angels went back into heaven they wanted to see what the angel talked about. They didn’t wait. They didn’t take a vote. They didn’t discuss the theological ramifications. They went. They moved their feet “in haste”.

What they discovered was the angel told the truth! This extraordinary thing was not a dream or hallucination – it was real – they saw Mary and Joseph and the baby. The Messiah!

What a thing to behold!





Perhaps you have seen and heard the U.S. Postal Service’s cute advertisement about the little girl who obviously has asked for a hippopotamus for Christmas. The catchy tune plays over and over in the background. Her parents have looked and researched for one online and it is delivered just in time for Christmas by the USPS. Then on Christmas morning she opens it up, is excited but…out of the corner of her eye she sees through her window a deer in her snow-covered yard and reaches toward the window longingly. Her parents notice her longing and their happy faces become crest-fallen knowing another “want” has just been created!

Such is the dilemma of our commercial driven culture. We are not satisfied. Madison Avenue, Hallmark, Target, Toys R Us and a host of others know just which buttons to push to get us to “want” other stuff.

However, that is not my drumbeat today!

The tune, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” is catchy and I find it goes round and round in my head during the day – not “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World” but “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”! (At least I have learned to spell it!) And I bet that just reading this makes the tune start in your head!!

Well…one morning as I was reading my Bible my eye was caught by a note in the margins with the word “hippopotamus”. Was a hippopotamus mentioned in the Bible?! Yes. (Job 40:15) The word actually is “behemoth”. But it means hippopotamus.

How’s that for Biblical trivia?!

Just an extra gift to you at this wonderful time of year!

A Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and those gathered around your table.

I love this holiday – so far they haven’t really found a way to over-commercialize it. It is simply family and friends getting together to share big bird, time-loved dishes from grandmother, football, conversation sprinkled with arguments all hemmed with nostalgia.

“They” are trying to encroach on the holiday by opening stores in the late afternoon or early evening. (In recent past, my youngest daughter ventured out to the stores and enjoyed the chaos. The older I get the less I like chaos.

All three of my children will be with me! And 6 of my grandchildren. I’ll share photos.

But I am sure each of you are preparing for the days with anticipation just like I do. All families are alike. All are dysfunctional. So don’t beat yourself up over some unpleasantness that occurs. Just don’t you be unpleasant!

And do take the time to thank God for His many blessings. In this country we are blessed with peace, bounty, beauty and diversity which adds color and texture to this amazing tapestry. I am blessed in my family with a father who is still living and has 4 great-great grandchildren and 4 siblings still living and in good health. I came through two successful surgeries this fall. My children are well and employed!

Sometimes I look around me and just thank God for the blessing of heat, a dry bed, actress to healthcare, a bed at night – not to mention that I can get out of bed on my own, can smell and see and hear. So often I just take it for granted…But it is all God’s blessing on my life.

It could be gone tonight…but He is still God and He still blesses me with His presence and love. Nothing can separate me from His unconditional love. Nothing can separate you for His unconditional love.

That is a blessing worth celebrating this Thanksgiving Day!

(And everyday!)