Morning crept in through the window, waking Dixie with its sunny face. She stretched, looking through the lace panels covering her windows. The arch of the sky was a blanket of cornflowers, punctuated with puffs of white. Dixie was not given to pessimism. She took the sun’s hint and chose a bright outlook. She hadn’t seen her mother since yesterday afternoon and the unpleasant scene they’d had in the kitchen. But the conversation with her dad had lifted her spirits, and deep sleep had refreshed her.
Her thoughts turned to Kenny. Had he slept well? Was he planning on coming to church? While there might be some tension associated with his being there, surely that would pass and people would soon get used to his presence. Once they got to know him the drama would wear off and people would relax. Wouldn’t they? She wouldn’t dwell on that now. A storm had been weathered and survived yesterday. She could survive this day as well. As Dixie dressed and tamed her hair she prayed that God would give her a tender heart toward her mother and a willingness to understand her struggles.
It was funny how people could find a million ways to distance themselves from one another, when really they were more alike than not. She thought of the people a generation or two ago in Mississippi who had fought a different conflict of equality. Had they battled in their families? Had they had the same burning in their hearts? You didn’t have to be exactly like a person, or even agree with them, to insist on dignity and a place at the table for everyone. That she was exceptional never crossed her mind. She just couldn’t stomach injustice.
How could she have conversations about God’s compassion and mercy without any actions accompanying the words? She sat down and flipped her bible open to the book of John and read through a couple of chapters. Jesus preached a kingdom of peace with God. And he acted in kindness, even to very unpleasant people. Would his words have meant as much if he didn’t feed people and heal sickness? Truth, without grace, lacked power. Of course she understood her parents’ concern that grace without truth sounded more like an excuse than real freedom. There it was again, the question of how to balance the two in real life.
Glancing at the clock she realized it was time to face the music. Ready or not. She sent a quick text to Angela.
Pray for me!
She grabbed her messenger bag and briskly opened her door. No creeping along the hallway. She was doing this thing. She didn’t want to see her mother for the first time this morning at church. Hopefully she was still home. As she neared the bottom of the stairs she saw light puddled on the hardwood floor and heard water running in the kitchen. Crossing the threshold she saw her mother at the sink, her back to Dixie.
“Good morning,” Dixie said boldly. Her green eyes intently focused on her mother. Her mother’s shoulders tensed. She had startled her. Putting the cup and bowl she was rinsing out into the dishwasher Sharon turned deliberately to face her daughter.
Dixie’s eyes were an intense emerald, but not harsh.
“Dixie, I want to apologize for the scene I caused yesterday. I had no cause to talk to you in such a fashion.” The fine skin under Sharon’s eyes was shadowed by dark circles. Weariness clung to the edges of her dignity. Those words had cost.
Dixie’s heart ached with compassion for her mother. She was sorry if she had caused her pain.
“It’s all right, Mother.” She chose her words carefully. “I’m sorry we argued. I didn’t mean to displease you.” Her own words were hard to say. There was so much hiding behind them. The complexity of the relationship and situation begged for more. But it was a place to start. And it was true, she didn’t want to argue or displease her family. That hadn’t always been the case, but it was now.
The pair stood there, awkwardly, looking at each other, emotion flickering under the surface. Dixie’s phone beeped, breaking the spell. She looked down at the screen and her mother turned back to the sink.
Will do girl! God’s got ya!
It was good to know Angela was praying. Dixie fixed a travel cup of coffee and grabbed a granola bar. “Bye Mother, I’ll see you at church.” She called over her shoulder. It was good to break the ice, without falling in, but she knew the issue was far from over.
The pungent fall breeze stung her nose as she opened the back door. Wood smoke, damp leaves, and chill air created an autumn perfume, comforting and exciting, in one breath. Dixie pulled her cream colored pashmina around her neck. A fragrant gust wafted her ginger curls like the swirl of maple leaves dancing around the base of a tree, and sent cotton balls scuttling across the sky.
After sending Angela a text of thanks she threw her truck into reverse. Maybe young men going off to combat for the first time had the same feeling of let down ecstasy. Battle couldn’t be what they expected. It wasn’t what she had imagined. Crusaders never won. Maybe future generations, but never the crusaders themselves. They spent their dreams and vitality in the fire of public opinion. Only after the fire died down did their actions get weighed out to be discovered as a fool’s errand or a hero’s mission. She needed to guard herself against getting caught up in either.
Along the way colors shimmered. Maple trees, lit on fire by the morning sun, wore a flaming jewel in the heart of each leaf. She squinted and fumbled for her sunglasses. It was just a short drive to the white frame church. Just enough time to compose her thoughts, never an easy thing for her to do considering the way they whirled themselves into little tornadoes.
Under the circumstances it would have made sense for Dixie to arrive a little late for service and slip in quietly. She wasn’t given to such shrinking back though, and her concern was for Kenny’s comfort. She wanted to make sure, if he came, that she was there to welcome him. Pushing open the wooden doors the first person Dixie saw in the little foyer was her mother’s friend Barbara McDonald. Ugh. It was time to face the music head-on. Dixie lifted her chin, almost imperceptibly, squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. She looked at Mrs. McDonald, planning on making eye contact and offering a smile, a friendly hello, but suddenly the brochures on the table near Mrs. McDonald were all-consuming and she avoided looking at Dixie all together. People were trickling in, greeting each other, and finding a seat. Dixie glanced into the sanctuary to make sure Joe and Kenny weren’t in there. When she turned back around toward the front doors the pair was just coming in. Joe with his hand holding onto Kenny’s arm; Kenny with his head down. Joe smiled and spoke with a man standing nearby. Dixie moved toward Kenny, her heart bursting with emotions she didn’t have time to name. He raised his head a little; relief and recognition flooded his bruised face.
He didn’t even take the time to greet her. “I don’t know if I should have come, Dixie.”
She grabbed his free hand and squeezed it. “Kenny, I’m glad you did. How did you rest last night? How’s your head?” The goose-egg over his right eye was still swollen pretty good and the bruising had moved down to cover his eyelid. He still looked pretty bad. Good, Dixie thought. Let people see his wounds. Let people see what hate could do. The fire of indignation warmed her belly. But just as quickly Kenny’s embarrassed look around the room cooled it and filled her heart with a quiver of humility. Joe smiled at Dixie and glanced at Kenny. He saw it too. The fear, the unease of Kenny’s expression.
He patted Kenny’s shoulder. “Come on Kenny, let’s get you settled.” He turned watery blue eyes to her face and smiled. “Good morning, Dixie girl.” Dixie followed them into the sanctuary. As she walked she felt the eyes of everyone in the room on them. A couple of people smiled at Kenny, most just kept their distance, a few turned their backs and whispered loudly. Joe moved to his usual spot in the middle, not too far forward not too far back. Dixie watched while Joe helped Kenny sit and then slide in beside him. Kenny was obviously stiff. It hurt Dixie to think of his pain, even more his shame. She stood by the old satiny pew, wishing desperately for a way to ease Kenny’s discomfort. The organ music began to play.
Dixie leaned toward the two men. “I’m going to sit with my Mother this morning. I’ll see you after the service.” She patted Joe’s hand and reached out to squeeze Kenny’s. It felt a flimsy gesture. She wanted to sit down beside them in solidarity. But she would honor her father’s request that she sit in her usual spot with her mother. She crossed the aisle and moved to her seat in the second pew from the front on the left side. Sliding down toward the middle she left room for her mother to join her. Her dad was talking to the song leader, Mr. Jenkins, near the front. He looked up and caught her eye, winked, smiled, then turned back to the hymn book the two were looking at. She smiled to herself. It settled her to know he wasn’t angry with her, that he understood her heart.
As her dad and Mr. Jenkins moved to the platform her mother slipped in beside her. Tension was spread across her mother’s lovely features as she glanced at Dixie. Dixie smiled. The lines around her mother’s mouth softened, but she didn’t return the smile. Dixie felt as if she were waking up. How could she have been so oblivious to the pain her mother was living in. Now that she was aware of it she realized the signs had always been there. Probably she had seen them in other people’s lives as well and had dismissed their expressions and actions as selfish or rude, when in reality they may have been hurting. Dixie suddenly felt the smallness of her understanding, and her limited view of the world. Everyone had a story to tell, but you had to be a safe person to get to hear it. Goodness! The work of being a safe person, gracious, patient, and kind, felt daunting. It wasn’t her nature.
Mr. Jenkins was asking them to stand and sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The words of humble companionship swept over her. She hoped Kenny’s heart was being wrapped in love as he sang. It took effort not to look back over her shoulder at him. Her sweet voice sung out with hope in the promise that Jesus would take care of the burdens of this life, if we but ask. After all four verses the congregation sat down and the organist played a special number as the offering plates were passed. The last quavery notes died away and her daddy stepped up to the pulpit, handsome in his blue suit. His green eyes skimmed his congregation, lovingly, longingly, intensely. They lingered over the place she knew Kenny and Joe were sitting. She found herself holding her breath. What would he say?
“Turn with me to the book of John, chapter 1 verses 35-51.” He opened his bible and began to read about the first men to follow Jesus. When he was done he looked up.
“Over the past few weeks we’ve spent time in the first chapter of John. We’ve established that Jesus was completely man, and completely God. That he was the chosen one the people of Israel were looking for. That he was on a rescue mission, to bring salvation, grace and truth. He came because we needed him present with us to show the way. Today, John is moving from establishing the truth that Jesus, God’s son, had authority for his mission, to telling us who Jesus invited to join him in that ministry. He’s beginning to fill in the picture of what that mission looked like. Given the importance of the task you might have thought Jesus would chose the most educated, the most experienced, brightest future leaders he could find. But he didn’t. He chose uneducated laborers. Jesus doesn’t always chose the people we think he will.”
His rich baritone paused. He looked back out to the section Kenny was sitting in. “Jesus chooses the ones who need him.” His eyes found Dixie and Sharon sitting together on the second pew. “He chooses the ones who are ready to hear there is a way to be reconciled to the Father. To one another. He chooses the ones who are looking for him. Why?”
Richard looked down and flipped the pages of his bible until he found the passage he was looking for. “2 Corinthians 5:16-19 says, “So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.””
“The why is in the last word of the passage. Reconciliation. Jesus came to reconcile, and call others to himself to live in the same goal of salvation. We’ll see later in the book of John that those who were unaware of their need to be reconciled to God, who put up barriers blocking somebody else’s way to God, were opposed by Jesus. He has the final say on what being made right with God looks like, and how it happens. He refuses to share that right with anyone else.”
“It’s important before we go any further in our study of the book of John that we establish two things. Jesus came to earth with supreme authority. He had every right to say and do the things we will read about. Second, his ways aren’t ours. You and I would have chosen different people to be on our team than a group of rowdy fishermen, and a tax collector. Not Jesus. Don’t expect Jesus to do what you would do. If you can acknowledge those two things, Jesus has authority, and he came to do things differently than man does, I think you will find yourself surprised by what he has to offer. I know I have been. Tradition and religion had clouded my way of thinking. But reading through this book with an open heart has given me a new appreciation to the reconciliation Jesus came to offer.”
The muscles in Dixie’s shoulders were drawn across her back like a bow. She was still holding her breath.
Her dad was saying, “I hope you’ll hear the invitation in Jesus words in verse 51, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.” Jesus is inviting you to see him as the bridge. The way back to the Father. For everyone! The book of John will ask you this question. Can mercy be too extravagant, can there be too much grace? The fearful say yes. But the slip from breathless faith to robust religion comes from not looking in the mirror enough, the mirror of God’s standard, and recognizing how woefully we measure up, and then the quick intake of breath as we realize that mercy never runs out. It’s still here to kiss us hello in the morning.
It should bring us to tears in a heartbeat. And in that heartbeat we realize that lavishing mercy on another woeful beggar can never make us unholy. Quite the opposite. Did Jesus lose holiness when a prostitute covered his feet with her kisses, quite scandalously, in public? No, his glory shone all the more. Mercy, breathing in, pouring out.
Mercy never loses the hard edge of holiness. It makes it attainable.
Jesus was never made less holy by embracing the tax collector, conversing with well women, rubbing shoulders with the possessed, leprous, loud mouthed, riotous, dirty, immoral, or heathen. And he wasn’t made holy because he obeyed every law, and observed every holy decree. He was, he is, holy because he is himself. In the touching of others he wasn’t soiled, they were made clean.
Can there be too much mercy, too much grace, too much compassion? Never! Now is the time for mercy and we should never fear handing it out like water, living water. Because we’re made holy by Jesus’ presence in us and his presence always brings mercy!
I’m going to ask Mr. Jenkins to come and lead us in Oh, To Be Like Thee. If you need to acknowledge Jesus authority and your need for him this morning, you come to the front.”
Dixie watched her daddy step back with tears in her eyes. That sermon couldn’t have been easy to give. He was making a way for Kenny. He was making a way for all of them. She wondered how much it would cost him. She closed her eyes as the organ played and Mr. Jenkins sang.
Oh! to be like Thee, full of compassion,
Loving, forgiving, tender and kind,
Helping the helpless, cheering the fainting,
Seeking the wand’ring sinner to find.
She prayed with every phrase that the congregations hearts would be full of compassion, tender and kind. She prayed her mother would find what she was looking for, and learn to be loving to others who were seeking. She prayed Kenny would know he was loved. She prayed for her own heart too.