Courtesy or Mercy

My Wednesday night bible study group has been doing a deep dive into mercy. At the risk of oversimplifying, mercy is forgiving the guy who just rolled over your flip-flop shod foot with a shopping trolley. Why is mercy important? Because God shows every one of us mercy without limit, and if we love our neighbor as ourself, as He commands us to do, we must also show them mercy.

It is easy to conflate mercy and courtesy. They are not the same but they are related. Ponder mercy and courtesy along with consideration, empathy, thoughtfulness and all of that ilk. Then think about how much (or how little) of a role they play in the world today. Clearly, not enough. It would be a much better place if there was more.

Something happened about two decades ago, the memory of which has been banging around in the empty boxcar of my brain for about a week that is a touchstone for me, of sorts, in this discussion of mercy and the other social graces. Looking back, it was a tiny thing. So small in fact that I am probably the only person who still remembers it.

I was booked on a 7:00AM flight out of LAX for Boston one morning and arrived at the airline’s “club” to check in. I was first in a line of one waiting for the person behind the counter to tend to another traveler. I could hear their conversation and learned woman and I were to be on the same flight. As she handed over her boarding pass she was told the flight had been cancelled. The traveler’s mood quickly darkened. She loudly proclaimed that she had important meetings that afternoon that she could not miss and that the airline had ruined her plans. The counter person said that she could book her on the 8:00AM flight which would arrive an hour later but the traveler was not appeased. The traveler’s continued ranting while the ticket woman calmly explained that it was the best that they could do. It didn’t really help much, but the traveler accepted her fate and moved from the counter.

airline-check-in-attendant-returning-businessman-s-passport-at-the-airport-check-in-counter_1689984I stepped forward, handed the woman my boarding pass and said that I was on the 7:00 Boston flight. She started to explain the cancellation but I interrupted and said that I heard what she had said to the previous client. I seem to remember her saying, “You heard all that?”

I replied, “I think everyone did.”

She offered me a seat on the 8 o’clock. I said, “OK” and she went to work. We chatted a bit and I commented that I throught her previous customer’s reaction was uncalled for. There are a lot of things to get upset and argue about in the world. A bad call on a tag at home plate is likely the least among them. But arguing about not getting a seat on a cancelled flight made little sense to me. A bad attitude and a raised voice were not going to get it un-cancelled. I told the agent that I had flown enough to know that these things happen and explained that my dinner of steamed clams and onion rings would just have to wait. We probably laughed a couple of times during our chat as I tried to cheer her up. I think it worked because instead of being wedged into seat 26D she moved me up to first class.

Why was I nice to the woman behind the counter? It wasn’t just because the only other person I saw her interact with was anything but, although it was on my mind. It was because I try to treat people the way that I want to be treated. That is not as much a God thing as the way my parents raised me. But it is a God thing as He instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I certainly didn’t do it to finagle an upgrade. In fact, I was genuinely surprised when she did that. So my little bit of courtesy and kindness was reflected back to me in a way I had not expected.

So was that mercy? Maybe. The Good Samaritan in Luke 10:33 who took pity on the man who was robbed and beaten senseless showed mercy, so maybe, in a very small way, it was. Mercy starts with paying attention to what is happening in the world and doing something to help where a need is seen. But more than that, to show mercy effectively you must first understand the reason it is required. In the case of the ticket agent it wasn’t hard. It only required paying attention. The next step was to do something to help because showing mercy requires action.

James 2:17 says “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (NKJV) Mercy starts by paying attention with an open heart, then being willing to be inconvenienced for those around us.  Showing mercy demands that we take action to help our neighbor who has a need great or small.

Show someone mercy today because we live in a world that needs all the mercy we have to give.

(Updated May 22, 2016)

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