Recently, I received some unsettling news about a friend we had known for a number of years, who was charged with a very serious crime. I realize that a charge is not a conviction, but the charges were serious enough that a casual call would not be appropriate. Thankfully, the conversations that ensued among our circle of friends were never speculative or gossiping, but were expressions of deep concern and promise to remain vigilant in prayer.
This event has set me thinking that we often do not know a person or their private pain, weaknesses and struggles. It also caused me to think about justice and mercy and other times in my life I have had to face these issues.
Almost 25 years ago, another person’s weakness and poor decisions altered my family’s life forever and I was personally challenged to live my faith in new and terrifying ways.
I gave birth to my first born son on a beautiful fall evening in early November, 1986. The labor was complicated, ending in a caesarean section which almost claimed my life, as I struggled with a post-operative hemorrhage. When finally the bleeding was controlled, and I was stabilized, I needed a transfusion and rest.
During my recovery, I had a very strange dream. In my dream, one of my older brothers was visiting my parents to tell them that someone had died. I woke the next morning and we were discharged from the hospital. I was anxious to get home with my new baby.
On our drive home, a car almost hit us. As my husband slammed on the brakes to avoid a collision, the dream, long forgotten, came to my mind. We checked my son in the infant seat and continued home. As we drove, I told my husband, Steve, about the dream. He looked at me with a pained look.
When we arrived home, Steve settled me and our son in our bedroom. As I changed the baby and started nursing him, Steve gave me the terrible news.
“Eileen, I have something very difficult to tell you,” Steve said gently. “There has been an accident. Your sister Kathy and her son, Eric, were hit by a drunk driver. Eric is recovering, but your sister died.”
His words cut through my heart like a knife.
While my newborn baby nursed contentedly, my whole body shook with mourning. The contradiction of holding a new life in my arms while given news of death, sent my mind and heart into a state of confusion. Maternal extinct quickly won out as I gathered my composure to care for my baby.
The day was mixed with joy and deep sorrow. My newborn son was a special promise from God that new life comes, even in the midst of death.
The day after the funeral, my family came to visit with us. It was a bittersweet day, introducing my son to my family, while grieving the loss of my sister. I recall conversations that were filled with a desire for vindication, as details of the accident and the drunk driver came out. I found myself conflicted and confused. I knew that drunk driving was a horrendous action chosen mostly by someone who is already confused and broken, without the intent of harming another person. However, we are all accountable for our actions and punishment is necessary to send a message to the offender and others that these actions are not tolerated in a civil society.
Over the next year my family dealt with the legal system and picking up the pieces from this tragic death. My sister’s children were 11 and 14 when she died. It was a very difficult and confusing time for them, their father and for my parents. The drunk driver was sent to jail for nine months and had his license revoked for that time. I mostly stayed away that year, enjoying motherhood and balancing ministry.
During that first year, waves of grief overcame me. I was looking forward to sharing motherhood with my sister. She was older than I and she had nursed her babies, an experience that was foreign to my family. I was looking forward to sharing her experiences and asking questions and learning from her.
As conversations of retribution and anger continued in my family’s processing of the grief, I found myself searching the Bible for scriptures on God’s mercy and justice. The scriptures are loud and clear on the fact that God is just and full of mercy.
I have personally experienced God’s mercy as a vast ocean. It is wonderful thing to know that all my faults and weaknesses are washed away in the ocean of God’s mercy.
“Where is another God like you, who pardons the sins of the survivors among his people? You cannot stay angry with your people forever because you delight in showing mercy. Once again you will have compassion on us. You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean! You will show us your faithfulness and unfailing love as you promised with an oath to our ancestors Abraham and Jacob long ago.” Micah 7:18-19
These New Testament scriptures remind me that we do not have to be perfect to experience God’s grace and mercy. We can be confident that God is always offering grace and mercy to those who seek Him:
“He saved us, not because of the good things we did, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins and gave us a new life through the Holy Spirit” Titus 3:5
“Let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it.” Hebrew 4:16
And I love the Book of Psalms, filled with real life situations, emotions, trials and triumphs. The praises of God resound from hearts that have been broken. This verse reminds me that my Lord is indeed a just God who will defend and protect those in need.
“You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.” Psalm 10:17-18
Our laws and the rights and privileges of our society were founded on this Godly justice and care for the poor and the afflicted. When one offends another through criminal acts, there is a debt to be paid so that that the offended may be “terrified no more”. Forgiveness releases and justice protects. We need them both.
I knew that the debt the drunk driver paid for unintentionally killing my sister was just but I also knew that if I hung onto unforgiveness, I would be the one who would be imprisoned in my heart. I chose to forgive him and even wrote a letter to the editor of her local paper, which was published one year after my sister’s death.
Now almost 25 years since my sister’s death, I found myself facing another challenge to be merciful and require justice in the situation with this old friend. One Sunday, shortly after the news of these charges unsettled our community, I ran into this friend after Mass few times. It was awkward and difficult, but I knew that shunning another person, especially since there were charges, not convictions, was not the way to handle interactions.
When we met outside the Church, I told him that I was praying for him and his family. Visibly upset, he tried to explain some things, but I offered my hand and spoke these words that flowed from my experience and my heart:
“The Lord’s mercy is deep.”
I believe that with all my heart. No matter what we do; God’s mercy runs deep as the vast ocean and for those who need it the most, immersion is the best solution.
Eileen Benthal has a B.A. in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer, speaker and wellness coach at 40DaysToFocus.com and NOFO Wellness Center. She works with clients locally and around the U.S. who are excited about balancing their health in body, mind and spirit.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, 16-year-old Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at email@example.com andfacebook.com/40DaysToFocus.