— Gertie Warren Funderburk
One of my lasting memories of my grandmother, Gertie Warren Funderburk, was how she'd respond when I had done something original—like sink a fish hook in my finger, or carry a bushel of pecans from the yard into her house in my stretched out t-shirt. She'd trill out a deep breath in a weary whistle, and say, "Mercy!" Back then, the only time I reached for the word myself was when gamely wrestling with my older brother. Hopelessly pinned and exhausted, I used it only reluctantly when obliged to surrender the match.
Recently though, I was giving a talk at a very nice assisted living place and my fifth grade teacher whom I hadn't seen in forty-five years was in the audience. And there I was reminded that, while I'd previously been familiar with the meaning of the word "mercy," it wasn't until a particular incident in Mrs. Charlotte Matula's elementary school class that I felt the full force of its power. My childhood friend Sean Daichman and I were avid fans of the old Bob Newhart Show, and we were reliving an episode of it during Mrs. Matula's lecture one afternoon, becoming so tickled that we couldn't stop laughing. Upon interrupting her lesson for about the third time, Mrs. Matula brought the class to a halt and sent us outside, promising punishment as soon as she reached a good stopping point. Sean and I grew solemn upon our exit, expecting to be sent to the principal's office, and it looked as if that was the way it was going as Mrs. Matula joined us outside her room, looking very stern and seeking an explanation for our misbehavior. Sean, a bit less anxious than I was, recounted the details of the Bob Newhart Show, thinking its sheer hilarity might prove exculpatory. For my part, I just stood there sorely distressed. Maybe Mrs. Matula felt some sympathy for me given the worried look on my face, or maybe she too was a Bob Newhart fan, but what she did next was this: she trilled out a deep breath of her own and told Sean and me to return to class, insisting only that we re-gather ourselves, refrain from any further antics, and telegraph to the rest of the class a sense that we'd been punished quite severely.
At the conclusion of my talk a few weeks ago, I approached Mrs. Matula and told her how this experience had stuck with me, but she didn't seem to recall it. Maybe this was because it was how she commonly dealt with such conduct? To her, maybe such acts of mercy weren't unusual. I expect this was probably the case as four decades on, she appeared to be a woman full of grace. So full of grace that she didn't seem struck by the story or surprised by it. It was as if it was her way of doing business. As if she'd stopped counting or even recalling such emblematic acts. They'd simply become a part of her nature.
To become more graceful seems a worthy goal—but how might we go about it? How do we cultivate a more graceful temperament, a more grace-filled approach to life. I think the answer is tied up in this notion of mercy. If grace is the picture we want to see when we look at ourselves, then acts of mercy are like the pixels which form and define the image we seek.
Or think of it this way—how often is the result we deserve for our errors, our sins, our deliberate coloring outside the lines, one that never comes to us. Think about all we get away with, all the times we outrace karma, our just desserts. How many times have we failed to live up to the standards we know we should? How many times have we acted negligently, even recklessly, without a bad result? Think of all you've done and left undone without true justice levied. God is graceful because God acts with mercy. Mercy, mercy at most every turn.
The lesson might be this: we build lives of grace by piling up acts of mercy. If you're angry at someone—forgive. If someone offends you, acts rudely to you either devoid of or with complete self-awareness, do your best to let it go. It's through our dispensation of individual offerings of mercy that we become men and women of grace. I don't think there's any other way. And while I'm unsure how many such acts of mercy are needed to transmit a nature of grace, I have a sense that such a person probably doesn't count them up anyway.
God — More mercy. Amen.
— Greg Funderburk