I used to have all the answers. I did. I was maybe in the third grade when I wrote a letter to president-elect Bill Clinton to let him know that there was a very obvious answer to the homeless epidemic. My dad sometimes let people sleep in his office. People aren’t using office buildings at night anyway, I reasoned, just make them share. People should want to do it. Now that I am older and understand why people are homeless, things like mental illness and drug addiction. I understand why I wasn’t selected as an 8-year-old advisor to the president.
At one time, I had all the answers to the huge education problems in this country. I was an education undergrad. I could have told you a lot about what everyone should be doing and how and why. I loved to talk about my theoretical classroom. As a public school teacher, working in the practical classroom, I have as many questions as I had answers. About as many answers as I have feet. Lets just say my actual classroom does not run as smoothly as my theoretical classroom did.
When I reflect on the prompt I got in my email box this week for Mercy Mondays, I am reminded of all the times my big ideas disintegrated the second my theory landed in the dust of reality. When practicing mercy, how do we move from the theoretical to the practical? It is the thing I think I love most about Jesus. My faith does not rest in a theory or set of practices that should work, it rests in a person who did.
If I want to be more like Jesus, it is not okay to sit on the side of the pool and talk about how you should be swimming. This girl’s gotta get wet. Care to join me?
The word that keeps me from diving into mercy head first, is the word should. I have learned to despise this word. In the context of the classroom, especially at a “high needs” (read high poverty, high minority,) school, I learned that it was one of the most useless words in the English language. Conversations would go something like this.
Peron 1: Students show up to school hungry, they can’t concentrate.
Person 2: Well they should eat breakfast.
Person 1: I don’t know that there is anything in the house to eat.
Person 2: Well, their parents should by them something, they should have something available to eat. Their parents should spend the money to do that.
Every single thing that person two said is correct. The kids should be fed, there should be food in the house, someone should care enough to buy it. (My friend calls this pattern “shoulding on people.”) All of those things are true….and yet the students were still hungry. They still needed fed.
I work with a group of high needs students at the suburban school I am at now. As we go to meetings and form plans to help these kids who are floundering, I have been confronted with that word again. Should. It is as useful now as it was then (not at all). More than once I have found myself sputtering: You are absolutely right, a student should have a pencil, they should have done their work, they should not have talked back…but they did. What now?
I don’t want this to sound like my colleagues are unmerciful hags and I am a bringer of mercy. My heart shrinks at the thought of giving mercy, and mostly it is because of my righteous indignation. I shouldn’t have to do that!
I find myself using should to relieve me of my responsibility to provide mercy to someone who God loves. He should have done it my way, She shouldn’t have gotten herself into that mess, they should do better.
Even if I am right. Even if they should have done it my way, should have avoided the situation, should do better. More often that not, especially when dealing with issues like systemic poverty that person is acting out of pain.
Babies should never be left unloved.
Kids should never go hungry.
Wives should never be abused.
Men should never have to bury their babes.
We don’t live in the should. I think the Bible calls that Eden, and while we were designed for that place, that is not where we currently reside. I use the word “should” to take the responsibility to offer mercy off of myself and place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the person the Lord has called me to serve.
In the hijacked words of the pop-princess Gwen Stefanie in the prophetic classic “Holla Back Girl” This SHOULD is bananas B-A-N-A-N-A-S! (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)
This thought pattern doesn’t help anything, it doesn’t solve problems, or feed people, it simply perpetuates the cycle of brokeness that sin started, but Jesus ended. God did not look down on us and say “you should stop sinning, if you would just knock it off everything would be better.” No, He had mercy on humanity, more specifically me. He said, “You should be with me. You will be with me. I will find a way.”
I say “you should do better” but mercy says “this situation should be better.” Frankly, I need to get my should together: Stop using it as a weapon and start using it as an invitation to join with others as we usher in the Kingdom of God.