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  • Courtney Ellis

Small Mercies

A decade and a half ago, I interned as a hospital chaplain assigned to the ICU. Like most mainline denominations, mine required a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, so I trooped off with ten other Future Pastors of America™ to learn about charge nurses and hospital rounds and waiting rooms and grief. Before that summer I’d never seen a person die. By the end of the first month, I’d witnessed a dozen.

One rainy morning I watched from the wings as the ICU staff called a Code Blue, doctors jumping atop a patient’s chest to pound CPR, the patient’s ribs cracking under the pressure. Hours later I charged into my supervisor’s office unannounced, tears streaming down my face.

“Can I help you?” Eileen asked, a forkful of lunch halfway to her mouth.

I launched into a sobbing rant about death and injustice, about witnessing horrors and God’s failure to intervene, about how much it hurt to see bodies fail. She listened.

Before that summer I’d never seen a person die. By the end of the first month, I’d witnessed a dozen.

When I’d spun myself out and run out of tears, I collapsed in her chair and she asked, “Courtney, what do you need?”

“What do I need?” I asked. “I need God to do something about all this suffering. I need a better world. I need justice and mercy. I need people to stop dying.” Again, she listened.

Then she said, “I think what you need is to go look at the babies. Don’t go to the NICU where the sick ones are. Go up to the main maternity ward and just have a nice, long look at those fat, healthy babies.”

I was aghast. I was annoyed. I am not even a baby person. (Give me a kitten or a book any day.) Still, she was my supervisor, so I went.


Jesus speaks of heaven and hell. Paul writes of principalities and powers. Ezekiel witnesses dry bones come to life. Moses parts the Red Sea.

Yet these epic stories are surrounded in Scripture by the smallest, most mundane moments of glory: a cup of cold water, a mustard seed, a sparrow, the discovery of a lost coin, a meal at the table, a jar of oil.

I turned thirty-nine this week. When my husband asked me what I’d like for my birthday, I responded in melodramatic fashion: peace on earth, an end to the pandemic, and a year-long trip to the spa with a new novel to read every day.

And truly, that is what I would like.

Epic stories are surrounded in Scripture by the smallest, most mundane moments of glory

I’m not even a spa girl, but after the last eighteen months, the idea of sitting in a fluffy robe under dimmed lights, surrounded by the smell of lavender and my feet in a warm soak sounds quite restorative. (The peace sounds good too.)

Daryl smiled. After fourteen years of marriage he’s well aware that he married someone prone to excess, whether it takes the form of chocolate chips or emoting. He smiled and then he waited.

“I think I’d like a new board game,” I said finally. “Some chocolates. Good rum.”


The fat, healthy babies in the maternity ward did exactly what babies should do: they slept and rubbed their otherworldly eyes and waved their impossibly tiny fists in the air. I watched them, waiting for some miracle to happen, for the ragged edges of the past weeks to suddenly smooth themselves out, for God to speak to me.

Nothing major happened. It is rare that anything major ever does.

The babies cooed and slept and turned toward the nurses, toward the light.

After a few minutes, I went back to the chaplains’ room and ate my lunch.

When faced with a world afire, it is tempting to feel that any action we take is too impossibly small to be of any use at all.

Nothing major happened. It is rare that anything major ever does.

Why bother? we wonder. I’m just one person. It’s just one meal. I only have ten minutes, ten dollars, ten ounces of patience left in my rapidly emptying tank.

Yet incremental action is still action. Anyone who’s ever run a fever knows the difference a few degrees of temperature can make. Every chef will tell you there’s a tremendous shift between half a teaspoon of salt and a full one. The impact of a dripping eave can wear away a stone.

I celebrated my birthday with thanksgiving and tears, sitting amidst the complications of a year I’d hoped would be different, easier, less complicated, less sad. Yet writing a book on happiness taught me that we almost never experience seasons of pure joy. Moments, yes, but seasons take on all tenors; celebrations with grief intermingled, lament tinged with laughter.

I will eat the chocolate. I will drink the rum. Daryl and I will play the board game, its rules turning out to be a bit too complicated for our leadership-stress-fried brains.

We will talk about the past year, the past decade, the past fourteen years we’ve shared together. I will tell him the story of Eileen sending me up to look at the babies.

“Did it help?” he will ask.

“It didn’t then,” I will say. “But it does now.”


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