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Bernie’s Need for Mercy
That Includes Love, Understanding, Forgiveness
It poured like wine. It looked like wine. And it stained the sleeve of his suit coat like wine. But it was his first communion in a Methodist church, and, even though Bernie knew better, he was not prepared for the surprise he felt when he tasted it. It turned out to be grape juice.
To his Lutheran taste buds, it was like taking the first bite out of a Mounds candy bar, missing the mark and chomping, instead, on the cardboard insert below the bar.
He then remembered. In the 19th Century, The United Methodist Church was deeply involved in the Temperance Movement. Grape juice was originally invented by Thomas Welch, a Methodist minister, so Methodists and others would not need to use wine for communion.
Bernie choked back an involuntary snicker because he was both surprised and proud of his rapid recall. God bless Thomas Welch. Bernie pretended to have a deceptively decent cough which he politely covered by placing the slightly bent finger of his right hand against his mouth.
But Judy, his wife, was standing next to him. She caught his eye, and he then knew they both were on the verge of slipping down a spiral of illogical thought that could result in an outright burst of inappropriate laughter – a vulnerability Bernie, now in his 70s, recently learned he needed to guard against as a person without fine-tuned control over involuntary responses. It was just a part of the aging process, he supposed – along with discovering more hair growing unreasonably out of his ears and nose and releasing flirts of lower-track gas at inappropriate (usually quiet) moments.
Bernie tried logic to get out of his untimely jovial mode. After all, they were visitors at the church to hear their granddaughter sing her favorite solo during the service. He didn't know communion was going to be served at the pew, and there was no convenient way not to participate – an option he would have preferred while visiting a church for the first time.
Bernie's arthritis in his hands had again been acting up, so Judy had just rescued him by grabbing his individual chalice and holding it for him as the usher poured the juice into it. She knew it was too small for Bernie to handle, but she had not yet perfected the grace it took to help Bernie sip from a tiny chalice. In the process, half the juice did not make it to his mouth and ended up, instead, on the sleeve of his suit coat.
"God bless Thomas Welch and Welch's grape juice," Bernie silently repeated to himself.
Trying to hide the stain with his hand, Bernie looked at Judy again as she was sipping her Welch's grape juice. She swallowed it quickly in desperation but then, in trying to cover up the inappropriate grin on her face, let out a snort.
Bernie started to snicker again, and, in trying to hold it inside, lapsed into a deep heaving that moved his whole body and threatened to burst into uproarious laughter. Bernie shifted his weight to his right leg, bowed his head and forced himself to picture, in his mind, his mother's funeral. His face turned hot, and his armpits were damp.
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” - Brené Brown
Judy, in trying to hide her grin, was employing another, perhaps wiser, tactic. She was letting short bursts of giggle – a giggle here, a giggle there – mixed strategically with the deeper notes of the solemn organ music.
That was the real problem. Bernie had not yet learned how to gradually let his silliness out. Instead, the pressure was building, and he kept hearing himself repeatedly ask, "Are you laughing with us, Lord?"
Suddenly Bernie burst into a spurt of full laughter during the quietest of interludes. He finally muffled it by biting hard enough on his tongue to refocus his attention on the pain of reality instead of such derelict musings.
The couple standing next to him – he in his blue suit and silver hair, she in her aqua shirt dress and honey blonde perm – glanced responsively at both Bernie and Judy and then pretended to ignore them.
Bernie tried to imagine himself small – so small that the parishioners around him couldn't see him because he was standing under the pew. But that didn't help.
He felt like an idiot because everyone around him could see he was an idiot. And deep in his brain, Bernie knew he was going to hell for disturbing this most solemn of sacraments of the church.
Maybe idiots, however, don't go to hell because they don't know any better, Bernie thought. Maybe he should pretend he doesn't comprehend the travesty he had just committed. Maybe he should pretend to be a child while walking out the church door. He's a stranger in this congregation, after all, he assured himself. No one knew him. And, as an idiot, people would naturally ignore him. And he would be forgiven.
But that would be hypocrisy and mark him as a condemned person, Bernie reminded himself with a bit more clarity. He would appear to be mentally disturbed, and that would put him on the path to multiple sessions with a psychotherapist.
The congregation sat down, and, as Bernie did likewise, he stiffly looked around in back. No one was looking at him. He swiped a glance into the vacant faces of the couple next to him. Bernie imagined what it would be like to be at peace with one's self. They looked so calm and collected and peaceful. It was as if they had truly received absolution.
But maybe they had left their inner thoughts conveniently at the door as they entered the sanctuary. Or maybe they also had their own chronic vulnerabilities, their innate weaknesses, their twisted rationales. He just couldn't see them.
The service finally ended, and, as the parishioners slowly filtered out of the pews, Bernie stood stiffly with Judy at his side. Judy nestled her face into his shoulder.
"That was awful," she finally said, her voice muffled by his suit lapel. She again giggled but suddenly stopped. He looked into her eyes and saw disappointment. "I shouldn't have looked at you. I just couldn't help myself."
"I know, honey," Bernie said, limp with exhaustion but buoyed by relief. He hugged her, realizing how much they both needed each other's love, understanding and forgiveness – the three underpinnings of mercy.
Bernie's takeaway tip from this episode: Be open to the power of mercy
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Here’s to elderhood and vulnerability!
Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF retired, author of “Opening Up” newsletter
“Story-guided Discussion for Finding Peace with Vulnerability”