There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

My husband is the rector, or head pastor, of a church in Houston, and we […]

Carrie Willard / 6.14.18

My husband is the rector, or head pastor, of a church in Houston, and we live in a rectory, which is a house owned and maintained by the church. You might know it as a parsonage or a manse. In our fifteen years of marriage, we’ve lived in four different houses, but this is our first stint in a rectory. We chose to live in this house for a variety of reasons: we’d been burned on some harsh real estate transactions in the couple of years prior to the move, and we knew we couldn’t otherwise afford to live in the neighborhood near the church. The rectory comes with other perks, as well: it’s a half-block from the best neighborhood park, the closest school is fantastic, and we don’t sit in the infamous Houston traffic to get to work every day. In this ZIP code, though, there’s the chance that we’ll feel a bit like fish out of water. I called my husband during the first week we lived here: “I just saw a Land Rover run into a crepe delivery-truck. We’re movin’ on up.” For two kids who grew up in the rolling hills of Nowhere Fancy, this place can feel a little out of our league.

And so, we can feel a little bit like posers when we go to the neighborhood pool, or when we peruse the neighborhood Facebook page. The page can feature requests like, “Need someone who can REALLY clean a range hood. Danish Copper. Don’t want to spend a fortune.” Or: “Trying to figure out how to entertain in a small house. 4000 sf is just not enough space for a good party.” Or: “PM me if your nanny was wearing a red shirt at the park today. I HAVE NEWS FOR YOU.”


Recently, there was a heated dispute about whether thong bikinis were appropriate swimwear for women at the local pool. Being a melanoma time bomb myself, I am more accustomed to donning a long-sleeve swim shirt and swim leggings (yes, that’s a thing, and they’re WONDERFUL, so shut up), but I don’t have much of an opinion on ThongGate 2018. (“They’re European,” seemed to be the general consensus, which apparently covers a lot of ground, if not a lot of skin.)

Our neighborhood Facebook page (West University Information Trading) recently made it to the pages of Texas Monthly, a shiny magazine with in-depth journalism. The article is here, if you’d like to read it. (I’ll wait.) I read it three days ago, and I still have indigestion from the stress of the whole situation. If you’d rather have me summarize, here goes:

On the day before Easter, a woman (Kellye Burke) took her kids to the neighborhood cookies-and-ice-cream shop. Kellye saw a teenage girl wearing a Trump t-shirt. She apparently exploded at the girl and her friends, in front of her own kids and others. Her behavior was reported on the local Facebook page, and the parents of the teenage girls found out that she was a member of city council. She tried to apologize (kind of), and things went way downhill from there. There is currently a petition to recall her election, which apparently is going to cost more than the price of one of the delicious cookies at the shop where all of this started. Anyone and everyone seems to have an opinion about this. I think it’s notable that it happened on Easter weekend, when all of the families involved were working around their worship schedules to squeeze in an apology between celebrating the Risen Reconciler and sitting down to ham and potatoes.

I don’t know any of the players involved, but it’s a small enough neighborhood that I know folks on the periphery, and I know how upset everyone seems to be about this. The Texas Monthly article puts it succinctly: “No one can deny that what Kellye did was profoundly dumb, and dumber still given the state of the country and given the politics of West U.” The article goes into great depth about the turmoil that ensued, and how it spread: “Over the next few days, the story went just about everywhere: the New York Post and New York Daily News; the Miami Herald; the Calgary Sun; the Guardian, in London*; Fox News. Only one reporter, someone with the Houston Chronicle, contacted Kellye for comment.”

*As opposed to the Guardian in Pittsburgh?

Back at the local pool (site of ThongGate 2018), some of the petitioners-to-recall-the-election were allegedly harassing some teenagers about where they could set up their Official Petition Table. The teenagers in both of these incidents seem to be the only ones staying out of the fray, despite the so-called adults’ best efforts. Kids these days.

There are many things that are surprising to me in this story. Kellye’s initial behavior, as noted in the article, was “profoundly dumb.” That’s putting it mildly. Regardless of whose team she was on, or whose words she was quoting to the girls in the original incident, it was a bad decision. In the immortal words of my great-grandmother, “There’s no trouble like the trouble you make yourself.” What is really astounding, though, is the mushroom cloud of hostility that has followed from the entire community, even in the wake of attempted apologies. And then, there was a voice in the wilderness, from a retired school teacher:

 …a sweet-faced older woman named Sally McCandless, who has lived in the neighborhood for 41 years and is a retired schoolteacher as well as the wife of a former West U city councilman, rose to her feet. McCandless confessed that she hadn’t planned to speak that day; her voice shook, possibly from age, possibly from anger.

“This is amazing to me, what’s going on,” McCandless began. “I would like to think, as a community, we can come together on this. Did Kellye Burke make a terrible mistake? Yes, she did. Has she recognized that? Yes, she did. And I would think that the adults in the room, in the community, whether it’s through your church or Christian values or whatever, that there would be this feeling of forgiveness. But to go to the extreme of having a recall—that’s ridiculous,” she continued, nearly spitting out the last word.

“As far as the children, in terms of a learning moment: you, as adults in this room, are their models. And you are out there creating this hyperbole of this situation—you are not the good models that these children need.” Many in the audience burst into applause. Some of the opposition didn’t hear her, though, because they were out in the hallway, gathering signatures for the recall.

Sally McCandless for President! We should all be listening to the retired schoolteachers in the room.

But we don’t. We, like Kellye Burke, say and do impossibly stupid things. And then we really mess up this whole forgiveness bit. We are monumentally bad at it. Not only are we really terrible at forgiveness, we’re not really sure how it works. And if it extends to Those People, the ones over there wearing the t-shirts of the Enemies, or the one right here screaming at the t-shirt wearers, then what part do we have in it?

In the aftermath of the Facebook page blowup, a separate Facebook page was created. (Isn’t there always a spinoff?) In this new group, there would be “no censorship” and no deleted posts. OutragedFacebookv.2 lasted for less than a week, when someone criticized the words of the creator of the group. Then, it was shut down and “archived” for all eternity. So there.

Here’s some good news. You don’t need to wrap your head around what happened in my neighborhood on Easter weekend, or in the social media explosion afterward. There’s no need to keep all of the players straight. You don’t even have to understand God’s forgiveness of all of us, in spite of the fact that we don’t deserve it. We don’t have to understand any of it, and there’s no test at the end of the chapter.

I love this verse in the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” by Frederick William Faber:

For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we would gladly trust God’s Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving
for the goodness of our Lord.

For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind. The mind-blowing carelessness of human behavior, even when there are t-shirts and teenagers and OFFICIAL PETITIONS involved, is small and insignificant next to the love of God. I am so grateful for that.