My Orthodox journey to this point can be divided into two phases. The first and longest phase was the theological exploration. The second, and which I find myself in now, is coming to a greater understanding of Orthodox worship. Even as someone deeply inclined toward Orthodoxy, some of the finer points of the Divine Liturgy (their weekly, Sunday morning service) have prompted personal skepticism as to whether the ritual sprung from the meaning or vice versa. I still have volumes to learn in that area however, and the purpose of this post isn't to examine the development of any one liturgical aspect. The objective is simply to relay some recent thoughts of mine on what is probably the most repeated phrase in the Orthodox worship economy: "Lord, have mercy."
One of my favorite writers of all time in any genre is the late humorist, James Thurber. In his My Life and Hard Times, he describes a private moment of futility while laying in his bed as a child late one night. Trying to remember the name of the New Jersey city, Perth Amboy, Thurber recalls:
I began to indulge in the wildest fancies as I lay there in the dark, such as that there was no such town, and even that there was no such state as New Jersey. I fell to repeating the word "Jersey" over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into.
This passage has always been one of my favorites of Thurber's, admittedly because not long before I first read it years ago, I'd actually engaged in this exact exercise to the same realization. I was overjoyed to learn that someone (even someone notable!) out there was as strange as I. More recently these remarks have served as an unlikely baseline from which to evaluate the Divine Liturgy.
The phrase "Lord, have mercy" makes upwards of thirty appearances in almost every Orthodox parish in the world on Sunday mornings. This repetitive liturgical spirit is a stark contrast to the church of my youth, a Southern Baptist establishment that avoided Communion itself at least forty-five Sundays per year, for fear of what we might call "The Thurber Principle." Surely due in part to conditioning received from that environment, I would describe my attitude toward the 30-fold liturgical prayer for God's mercy (until recently) as something between "non-confrontational acceptance" and "quiet skepticism."
But I recently purchased an Orthodox daily prayer book that set in motion an entirely different perspective. Last night when reading through the various prayers, I noticed a clear theme: prayer for mercy. Indeed, the phrase "Lord, have mercy" is repeated at least three times in most prayers, and even as many as twelve times in some others. It immediately feels like overkill when looking at it on a page, and even trying to sincerely pray this way is difficult to do without allowing my latent anti-religious suspicion to take over, driving me to land the plane early.
Speaking of planes...
I was repeating the phrase over and over as the written prayer called for, when a sudden chord of familiarity was struck. It was the cadence that did it. A sick feeling welled up in my stomach and a chill came over me as I was transported back to the cockpit of a small, commuter airplane in the Summer of 2002. I'd decided to stay in the small town of my college that summer before my senior year as opposed to returning home because I'd just begun to date my future wife, and being 90 miles away from her was better than being 900 miles away.
I took a job doing grunt work around a warehouse for a guy named Stan Montgomery. He was building small, commuter aircraft kits for recreational pilots who had time for that sort of thing (if you don't know what an aircraft "kit" is, google it or something). On the fateful morning of June 18, my boss had me meet him at the small, country airstrip in Dayton, TN. He was going to take me for a spin in his prototype: the SQ-2000 (pictured at left). Less than a minute after lifting off the ground, my boss asked me to look out my window and tell him what the right landing gear looked like. "It's down," I said. Stan's face immediately fell. After what seemed like several minutes of him staring gauntly ahead, I asked him, "What's the deal, Stan? Everything OK?" His response was, in a word, unsettling. "Do you believe in Jesus, Josh?" I was immediately struck with both fear and confusion. Fear for obvious reasons, confusion because I knew Stan to be a Mormon and I couldn't remember where Jesus fit in their puzzle. I told him I did believe in Him and feebly asked, "Why should that matter just now?"
He didn't answer at first. Instead, he radioed his business partners who by that time were on the ground at the airstrip waiting for Stan and I to finish our flight. They engaged in a protracted conversation almost entirely in avionics jargon, but at one point Stan made the comment, "I have one of my workers with me." There was a haunting pause on the other end before his partner finally said, "Everything's gonna be OK, Stan. We'll be on the runway waiting for you."
Stan hung up his radio and proceeded to tell me that the right landing gear was broken. Specifically, he told me it was as good as not there, and that we would have to crash land. He told me he was going to circle around and cut the engine as we coasted down to the runway, land the plane on the left and rear landing gears, drift the plane into the grass, then set the right wing down. "Pray we don't go into a spin," Stan ominously urged. "Unfortunately," he continued, "we're going to have to burn fuel for a while before we do this." Translated, "If we're lucky enough to skirt the laws of gravity and avoid going into a death spin, we need to also ensure against death by fiery gas explosion."
I took the advice from my Mormon pilot and began to pray. Unlike what books and films might portray, profound personal reflection is about the last thing possible in the midst of near-death situations. I was consumed by fear and mental blindness as we glided aimlessly over those misty, sun-drenched Tennessee hills that early morning. I managed only one plea to Heaven: "God help us!" Over and over I sputtered those words in my mind. Over. And over. And over. And over. It was a prayer of hopeless dependence. It was literally a dying cry.
That visceral moment came to me with sudden, unnerving clarity last night as I repeated those words, "Lord, have mercy." Finding a parallel between my spiritual juxtaposition to God and my physical juxtaposition to death twelve years ago was unavoidable. What is the prayer, "Lord, have mercy," if not a dying cry of hopeless dependence? What better encapsulates the glory of our salvation than the truth that, without the mercy of a loving, incarnate God who shared in our weakness, we would each be facing death without hope?
As you may have noticed, I walked away from that plane crash twelve years ago. I didn't come away with even a single scratch or bruise. There isn't time for the details of how the landing played out, but suffice it to say it had Divine fingerprints all over it. When I told people about the crash back then, the same question was asked of me by nearly everyone: "What do you think you've been spared for?" The temptation was there for several years to fantasize about what great and noteworthy thing God was imminently going to involve me in. I've no idea if there is anything "great" in store for me by human standards, but I know that plane crash has been the spiritual gift that's kept on giving. Even now, over a decade later as my family journey toward "the ancient faith," I can repeat the words "Lord, have mercy" ad nauseam. Instead of the words becoming "idiotic and meaningless," awareness of my hopeless estate apart from Christ's victory will be all the more deeply felt.
Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!
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