I have sometimes prepared a bible study for young people and – let me be frank here – just not ‘felt it’. Not at all. Usually this comes from doing stuff in my own strength (which is a rubbish plan at the best of times because I am feeble).
There was this one time when the talk I needed to prepare was on mercy. God’s mercy! Pretty stonking stuff. Except, I wasn’t feeling close to God. Wits end actually – feeling pretty rubbish and alone, ‘going through the motions ministry’ I call it. If you have been in ministry for any length of time you will know how to do this – it isn’t exactly blagging (which again – if you have been in ministry for a while – you will know how to blag). The going through the motions ministry is where you can say and do the right things but you are like the android from Prometheus (or, better still, Blade Runner) you can’t feel anything. Operating out of a kind of ‘so overloaded with other peoples stuff and emotions and where do I take my own stuff so I can deal with it and what If I take it to this mythical place and I actually CAN’T deal with it’ place.
Anyway, back to mercy. The subject of my talk was this great word that cannot explain or contain the monumental mercy we have received. There is a song off Matt Redman’s current album with the line, ‘may I never lose the wonder, oh the wonder of your mercy’. Well, I had.
So, I pulled out all the stops to try and make this the best talk on mercy EVER – it’s funny how when we have NOTHING we try and give it EVERYTHING. I had bible commentaries all over the place, there would be a drama, there would be contemporary film references, I would be funny and clever, it would be fine. I KNEW in Shakespeare there was a great quote on mercy (at the time I was not in a place to think whether I knew what Shakespeare was on about, I just lobbed it in). Portia, in the Merchant of Venice says this, ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d – it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Upon the place beneath.’
So I do my talk on mercy to the youth group. It’s pretty rubbish, I’m like a zombie. Words are coming out of my mouth, but there is no heart and soul in it. I am dry and barren and not in a good place.
It’s a couple of weeks after this session that I am at a huge youth festival with my youth group. They are loving it. I am worse than ever. People worship around me, lifting hands closing eyes – in raptures. I am in a giant bubble – I feel it is so real this bubble, I am surprised when people get within a few feet of me that they don’t bounce off.
One evening there is a ‘call’ to come forward for prayer. Inexplicably and – to my conscious mind, unbidden – come tears and I just stand there. Not making a sound, but streams just pouring down my face. I feel so exhausted – with life, with trying to be a Christian, with bringing the youth group (what was I thinking), with the futility of it all. I the find that at least some part of me has had enough of my pity party and my legs are walking me to the front. A guy comes up to me to pray for me, my eyes still streaming. He says, ‘hello, I’ve never done this before – been on a prayer ministry team’ (I think, but don’t say, ‘great – this is what I need – some amateur!’). Anyway, he starts quietly praying for me once we have been through the usuals (what’s your name, is there anything specific you want prayer for?) then – he starts bobbing up and down, clearly very excited. ‘Oh’ he exclaims. ‘I think I’ve had a word!’ (‘Oh, great’ I think), ‘I’ve never had a word before!!’ (Oh, GREAT. I think). “Does this mean anything to you . . . ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d’.
I am in bits. This guy knows nothing about me. The God he has prayed to knows EVERYTHING about me. All I can think of at the time is. God Knows me. GOD knows ME. God KNOWS me. He knows, the lack of feeling, the exhaustion, the weariness and the ‘is this worth it’ stuff in my heart at that moment. He knows it all, he knows all of me, and yet – still He comes, still He meets with me, still He is tender and loving – and merciful.
I receive it now.
I get it now.
When Shakespeare wrote this bit for Portia – maybe he was thinking about the scripture where it says ‘the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteousness’ (Matthew 5 verse 45) this rain, dropping from heaven upon the place beneath.
I am that place.
I am receiving SUCH mercy.
Mercy can’t be EXTRACTED or FORCED – it cannot be, as Shakespeare says, strain’d. In my straining I had refused to rest in what God has already done for me through Christ, I refused to receive what was already mine!
Mercy. I think later, as I have thought about it again – I am just in AWE that God would bother with the little detail. But, he did two things that night when I went forward for prayer – He nudged me gently with what he knew my cynical and tired heart could not explain away – and he blessed this guy who prayed for me when I told him that what God had revealed to him was spot on.
Shakespeare got it right too. He goes on to say, ‘it is twice blessed’ blessing Him that gives and Him that receives.