I looked back into the cut-price coffee shop, trying to catch the barista’s eye through the misty shop front. The Americano I’d been so looking forward to slurping now lay slopping all over the pavement, steaming in ridicule at me.
I’d dropped the paper cup while fumbling my way out the door, tired at the end of the day in a busy week with barely a break.
I now had 10 minutes spare, away from the demands of work and life. 10 minutes to chill. Just time to grab a coffee and wander down to the beach for a few minutes to meditate/pray, or just be still, before meeting my family at our church for a brilliant but busy, noisy family event.
10 cherished minutes of quiet me-time.
The coffee shop was just closing. As I looked back, I wondered: would the barista offer to give me a replacement drink for free? The spilled coffee was entirely my fault. I’d already paid for it, and dropped it out of my own sheer clumsiness. The shop had no obligation to give me another.
I think my eyes may have looked slightly pleading and helpless as I walked back in with the empty cup and dripping plastic lid. Would the barista exercise mercy?
I remembered Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”, that I’d read just that morning in a daily reflection. But what does that even mean? Even merciful people are sometimes persecuted and mistreated. Is it simply the promise of a future heavenly blessing? Or is there more to this than meets the eye, as is so often the case with Jesus’ teaching?!
My job is, in some respects, all about mercy. Making friendly, accessible healthcare available to some of the most vulnerable, dejected people in our community, with kindness and compassion: people who, because of their traumatic histories and complex needs, can be difficult or challenging.
Bringing non-judgmental care to those who need it most.
You could say I get paid to be merciful. Of course, money’s not my motivation. Mercy and compassion are in my blood, my bones, my DNA, as a result of a miracle of grace (as you can read about in my autobiography).
But, just because I tend to be merciful to others, does that mean I can expect mercy back? Could I expect a free replacement coffee??
In the past I’ve refuted the whole idea of karma. Probably for two reasons…
One: I’d drawn clear-cut lines between my Christian faith and other religions. The concept of karma was anathema to my Christianity: it belonged to a different religion, not to the “truth” of Jesus.
Reason number two goes something like this:
I’d heard of Hindus who’d got depressed and exhausted, living under the impossible burden of karma, straining to escape a negative cycle and achieve a better life for themselves in their next incarnation, in much the same way as a westerner who believes heaven is for “good” people might strive to prove themselves by their many acts of charity.
The good news of Christ, the “grace” of which Christians speak, tells a better story: it tells us we’re free of all such reward systems, whether of karma or heaven – that there is a higher principle at work in the world, where God’s goodness is for everyone, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.
All well and good. I’m happy to say I still believe that.
But my more recent understanding of religion and spirituality, including this morning’s reflection from Franciscan friar, Fr Richard Rohr, informs me that there are far more parallels and mutual influences between world religions than we might at first realise.
Some believe Jesus was influenced by ancient Eastern spirituality. Certainly, while remaining within Judaism, he brought fresh ideas – a new, spiritual outlook – to his worn-out religion. “You’ve heard it said….but I say…..”
Rohr is convinced that “Jesus taught a karmic worldview” (through sayings like the mercy quote above and many other examples).
He and others, casting off archaic ideas of external rewards and punishments, suggest that even Jesus (like Buddhism) taught that we’re punished by our sins more than for our sins, and that kindness its own reward in the now – no need to wait for heaven later.
The volunteers I manage in the homeless healthcare service where I work bear this out. They often tell me they get far more out of volunteering than they put in. When Jesus spoke of rewards in a spiritual realm (or “heaven”), I wonder if this is the kind of thing he had in mind: positive payoffs for our minds and souls – the type of profound happiness that’s unshakeable because it’s founded in sacrificial giving.
I wonder, as well, if a kind disposition attracts kindness. I’m convinced it does.
Likewise, when it comes to less attractive qualities, Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount) likens the effects of our anger and lust on ourselves to the burning rubbish-heap called Gehenna outside Jerusalem. It makes perfect sense to understand this as a description of the mental and spiritual anguish caused by our own negativity and disloyalty. Negative thoughts will destroy us.
Our kindness, on the other hand, will encourage others to be kind, and reflect back on us. Both a ripple and mirror effect.
The barista looked at me with obvious pity, cheerfully offering to replace my spilled Americano with a fresh one.
I breathed a sigh of relief and walked out with a smile and a coffee.
I have no idea whether that was karma. I’m content to live with mystery and unknowing.
But it made me happy, it caused me to feel good about the world.
It made me thankful to God.
I felt glad to have made human contact with the kind barista. It inspired me to reflect on the ideas above and put these words together.
It makes me want to pass on kindness to someone else.
Please read my About page to find out more about this blog.
I also have a book! Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, with themes of homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon. Find out more here.