“It’s the boats!”
On a walk with my mother along the Oceanside pier just a few days ago, we saw “the boats.” I knew exactly which boats she meant as she pointed them out: the boats that taught me mercy.
You see, when I was about three years old, my family vacationed along this exact stretch of California coastline. I remember it vividly. Perhaps it is even my earliest memory. In any case, it had been a long day of driving and playing at the beach, and my dad promised me that if I was very good, he would take me to look at all the boats in the harbour once my brother went to bed.
Well, as is the way with one-year-olds, my brother did not go to bed as early as I’d hoped. And, as is the way with three-year-olds, I was more than a little tired and more than a little cranky. As I already had the vocabulary of a well-filtered sailor (that is, I could speak in full sentences but was ignorant of “bad words”), I sassed back to my parents and was promptly sent to bed.
My dad, sympathetic to the thwarted hopes of an overtired (if much-too-outspoken) three-year-old, came to get me after I’d finished being angry. He took me to see the boats after all.
Now, I have always been stubborn. I have always, admittedly, preferred cold justice to gentle forgiveness. And yet, I believe that mercy cuts deeper than justice ever could. Even back then, I felt my father’s kindness more keenly than his anger; it is possibly more convicting to be permitted what we do not deserve than to be punished for what we do.
We looked at the boats for a while and I thought with all my might, trying to make sense of what had happened. Finally, I came to my first real theological conclusion:
“Dad,” I said, seriously, “You showed me mercy.”
This, my earliest memory, is also my first memory of the Gospel. I understood at three years old that I had been shown mercy and grace, for I did not get what I deserved. Instead, I got to go see the boats.
It is funny to look at the boats now. I laughed to myself as I ran past them this morning, twenty years later. Taking a cranky toddler go to look at the boats seems such a small thing. And yet, it meant everything. In that simple moment, with childlike clarity, I first understood the mercy of a good father.