O Captain! My Captain!

“I’m just here minding my own business.”  Tim Moore made this announcement every time he entered Manna House to get coffee. Tim was a long term guest who started coming when he was experiencing homelessness. In recent years he had a place to live, and he worked steadily at “the yellow store” down the street from Manna House. For the past year or so Tim struggled with a variety of health issues. He died this past Sunday at work.

“I backslid again and I need you to pray for me.” Tim approached Moses every time he came to Manna House and asked for prayer. Tim was well aware of his faults and failings and his need for prayer. Of the guests who call upon Moses to pray for them, Tim was the most consistent. So it was that a regular part of the scene at Manna House was Tim and Moses in a corner or on the front porch, with Moses’ arm extended and hand placed on Tim’s shoulder, with both of their heads bowed, praying.

“I’m going to get married.” For most of last winter and into the summer, Tim would tell me on Monday of his plan to get married. On Tuesday he would express doubts. On Thursday he would tell me the wedding was off. This went on for months. Finally late last summer he told me, “I’m out of this getting married business.” I still do not know what began the cycle or what ended it. But Tim entertained me and many other volunteers and guests with his marriage announcements.

“He was a good man in his own strange way,” a guest said in response to the news of Tim’s death. That seems an apt description of Tim. There was a fair amount of bluster about him (he really never did mind his own business). He often had lively exchanges with other guests about nothing in particular. Yet the two photos I have of him are of him alone. In the one he sits by himself at a picnic table in the backyard of Manna House. He is not facing the camera (he usually did not like having his picture taken). In the other photo he is standing alone in the living room of Manna House looking toward the front door. I had taken the picture one morning when things had gotten slow and he agreed to be photographed.

“I’m going to miss Tim,” said another guest. He was echoed by many others. The chill and grey clouds on this morning gave apt expression to the gloom I felt about Tim’s passing. There is a lot of coming and going among guests at Manna House. There are new people every day who arrive for hospitality, and there are many who I see for a month or so and then they are gone. It is like the ebb and flow of a tide bringing up flotsam from the chaotic sea of poverty. And then there are guests like Tim, who faithfully arrive each day, not because they need much, but because they have made Manna House their own. Tim was more like the captain of a small boat who came into the harbor each morning with yarns to tell of what he had seen on that sea of poverty.

Tim’s death hits hard. Thinking of Tim as a captain, Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” that I first heard in “Dead Poets Society” came to mind. It seems apt on this day of learning that Tim has died. I’ll share the first and last stanza:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

                         But O heart! heart! heart!

                            O the bleeding drops of red,

                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

                            But I with mournful tread,

                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead.

Christmas Hope on Christmas Eve at Manna House

On the front porch we sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Then we all go in together, for hot coffee, “socks and soap,” women’s showers, and lots of conversation. Christmas eve on a Tuesday morning at Manna House begins.

A guest tells me on the way in, “That Emmanuel song is my favorite. ‘mourns in lonely exile here,’ moves me every time.”

I agree, my favorite Christmas song too. The music and words evoke my longing for God to transform this troubled world. My Christmas hope is that the way things are will give way to God’s dream for the flourishing of the whole creation, humanity included.

Yet, I find it hard to hold to Christmas hope. The way things are is broken. There is oppression, cruelty, hurt, and harm. Evil seems ascendant and relentless. The system is designed to grind people down. Politics as usual and consumer capitalism do not prioritize “the least of these.” The system engulfs and distorts all of us, and we live amidst deadly contradictions and cross-purposes.

I start folding laundry and come across a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt. Immediately, I think of several guests who were put to death by this system. But while they were alive they were big Cowboys’ fans. They would have loved getting this t-shirt. Contradictions. Cross-purposes. Christmas hope?

I look across the laundry room and see the John Kilzer t-shirt I hung up last spring. It tumbled out of the dryer the Monday after he died. John was a friend to those on the streets and people of all walks of life who struggle with addiction. His clothing donations were especially appreciated by our taller guests. He often said, “There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us and only God can fill it.” More, he said God filled that hole with God’s love and there was nothing any of us could do to make God stop loving us.

John’s life and words recall St. Paul’s Christmas hope, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

This Christmas hope holds that despite the hardness of the present order, love will be ascendant, or as Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

So, Christmas hope celebrates the baby Jesus is born in Bethlehem, of all places, a land under the empire of that time. Jesus brings a Way that is Life and Truth, that practices a Christmas hope contrary to empires organized for death; a Christmas hope that leads into the Beloved Community, designed for fullness of life.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux identified the “little way” as a means to practice Jesus’ Way in our daily lives. The little way embodies Christmas hope as it cracks open ordinary tasks so that in them I can share in God’s revolutionary love.

When I pass through the clothing room, a woman who has showered asks if I can help get socks on her feet. She sits in a chair and I kneel in front of her. Her feet are disformed by years of bad shoes and too many miles. Socks do not go easily over her bunions and twisted toes, but eventually I succeed. I help her with her shoes next.

Hospitality invites me to faithfully practice such little acts of Christmas hope, so the light can come in, and so God’s reign comes in.

As the morning slows down, I have time to simply sit with the few guests who remain. We begin to talk about Christmas and the many disappointments each of us has experienced as Christmas came and went. Gifts not received. People who disappointed. It seems like a good time to have a Charlie Brown Christmas moment, an affirmation of Christmas hope. I read to those gathered Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. When I finish guests weigh in.

“Jesus slept outside.”

“Jesus got a rough start.”

“No room for them in the inn.”

I look around and see a guest still asleep on the couch. He has been there all morning. He will return to the streets when Manna House closes.

“He’s coming back, you know,” a guest says about Jesus, “and this time he won’t be born in a barn. This time he’s getting all of us off these streets.”

Christmas hope.

Does God Offer Hope to Those Who Suffer?

Does God offer hope to those who suffer? I am not talking about the suffering endemic to being human, like illness, broken relationships, and failed projects. I am talking about the suffering that is imposed upon some by others, the suffering named “oppression,” and “injustice.” The guests who come to Manna House experience suffering through the injustices of poverty, racism, homelessness, heterosexism, misogyny. It is the kind of suffering that leads to chronic illnesses—both physical and mental, and premature death.

When I took names on the front porch of Manna House on Tuesday morning for showers and socks and hygiene, a guest I had not seen for several weeks approached.

“Where have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been dead,” she said.

It was not the answer I had expected. She was, after all, standing there in the damp grey cold of this morning as alive as you or me.

“What?”

“I was dead. I was in the hospital and I died. The cockroaches killed me. But now I live.”

I have learned over the years that what sometimes appears as insanity can have a logic that transcends ordinary rationality and reveals a deeper truth.

She continued, “I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.” She smiled, made sure I got her name on the socks and hygiene list, and walked down the steps.

I thought of last Sunday’s Gospel in which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus appeared to be insane when he said to those mourning the death of Lazurus, “Take away the stone” The voice of ordinary rationality said to him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” And Jesus, firmly rejected that rationality, “Lazarus come forth!” (John 11:39, 43). The deeper truth became evident, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, though they may die, shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26).

Does God offer hope to those who suffer?

“I was dead… But now I live. I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

Later in the afternoon, I came across a quotation from J.B. Metz,” Christian faith involves a continuing effort to keep ourselves open to the coming of God . . . He is Emmanuel, God with us. He breaks in upon us, becomes visible in our horizon, and forms part of our human future. He is ever coming down to us and weaving Himself into our historical pageant” (The Advent of God, 1970:8).

God raised from the dead this woman on the front porch who said to me, “Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

God somehow lifted the suffering and death of this Manna House guest, but also through her spoke to me. Taken literally, I still do not know exactly what to make of her claim that she had been dead and was now alive. But she pointed me to a deeper truth, God comes to break the hold of death. God interrupts the firm grasp of “the way things are is the way things have to be.” God offers a different path, a different way to envision human life, and a different way to live.

I did not expect to encounter someone who had died and yet now lives. I know my imagination, my daily thoughts, feelings, and expectations are shaped by the culture around me. This culture informed by capitalist consumerism creates a life (death?) of fears and anxieties. It also creates the suffering of those on the streets. In my life I worry about my work, about money, about status, about how others see me; about all those things Thomas Merton called “the false self.” These are all ways to be dead.

How may I be attuned to a logic that transcends ordinary rationality and reveals a deeper truth? How to rise from the dead? How to become alive? How to hear how God offers hope to those who suffer?

Henri Nouwen tells of the power of God that enters in prayer. “The discipline of prayer,” he writes, “is the intentional, concentrated, and regular effort to create space for God” (Nouwen, Spiritual Formation, 18). He continues, “The various disciplines of the spiritual life are meant for freedom[for life!] and are reliable means for the creation of helpful boundaries in our lives within which God’s voice can be heard, God’s presence felt, and God’s guidance experienced. Without such boundaries that make space for God, our lives quickly narrow down; we hear and see less and less, we become spiritually sick, and we become one-dimensional, and sometimes delusional, people [we die]. The only remedy for this is the intentional practice of prayer and meditation.”

“I was dead… But now I live. I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” The Advent prayer for freedom and life that gives hope for those who suffer. Amen.

Crossing the Threshold

Guests constantly come and go through the Manna House front door during a morning of hospitality. Anchoring the door and the entire front entrance is the threshold, a slightly cracked and massive piece of concrete. This threshold has been crossed about a million times in the fourteen years Manna House has been open. I have probably crossed the threshold nearly 40,000 times myself.

Despite this heavy traffic, it is easy to not notice this threshold. It is nothing fancy and it is low to the ground; not even in the usual line of sight. But in this season of Advent, I need to pay attention to what a threshold means.

Biblically, the Hebrew root meaning for threshold, gate or door is “caphaph” which means “to snatch away or terminate.” The other word for threshold is “pethen” which means “to twist as a snake.” It appears a threshold is a dangerous place. Why? Because it signals change. As one biblical commentator, Barbara Yoder, explained: “Gates [or thresholds] are where we win or lose. … The threshold is where we either leap forward or back out.” The Bible points to a question as I approach Advent’s threshold, do I give allegiance to the way things are or do I seek to be faithful to God’s way?

Two other commentators on the meaning of threshold, Frederick and Mary Ann Brusatt describe the threshold as, “a crossing-over place that signifies transformation and that can be scary or soul-stirring.” And they continue, “Thresholds also invite us to practice hospitality. Consider the situation at borders throughout our world. They are often tense places where peoples and cultures intermingle, sometimes creatively and other times with hatred and hostility. St. Benedict advised monks to greet strangers with love, knowing that in them resides the presence of Christ.”

Crossing the threshold at Manna House, I meet Christ in the guests who also cross the threshold. I can tell you the transformation I have experienced crossing this threshold is both scary and soul-stirring. Scary because I know I often fail to treat Christ very well. I am too quick to judge, too suspicious, too busy, too afraid to be able to hear and understand and respond with compassion. When I cross the threshold of Manna House, I am invited to an Advent of preparing for Christ who came not only as an infant threatened by poverty and persecution, but also comes in each and every person “made strange,” dehumanized, and subjected to death-dealing exclusion.

Crossing the threshold is also soul-stirring. I have been brought to my knees in lamentation by Christ in the guests. I have seen their suffering and so many have been lost to death, crucified by neglect, rejection, systemic racism and poverty. Yet crossing this threshold is also soul-stirring because it is here that the guests have taught me the truth that though the darkness of these evils does not go away in this life, still as John’s Gospel says, “the light shines on inside of the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it” (1:5).

This light illuminates the truth from Psalm 84:10, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

When I stand at the threshold of the house of God, I stand with those excluded from the buildings and institutions of the powerful. I am called by God to enter into solidarity with and welcome those who are kept out and dismissed with disdain.

In their essay on the threshold, the Brusatt’s refer to the traditional Christian monastic practice of “statio.” In this practice, “the monk or nun enters the church or chapel but pauses first at the threshold to shed any burdens, agitations, and distractions which might get in the way of being truly present to God.”

As I cross the threshold at Manna House, I am invited to practice this “statio.” I need to prepare myself to receive each guest as Christ. I need to practice a dangerous and different threshold vision in which those pushed away are welcomed in. I need to replace in my head and my heart all of those derogatory names from the dominant culture that play upon stereotypes of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, with actual names of persons made in the image of God. I need to cross what Abraham Joshua Heschel describes as “the threshold of repentance, of unbearable realization of our own vanity and frailty and the terrible relevance of God.”

Crossing this Advent threshold points to the joy of Christmas, when God in Jesus graciously opens the door to each of us to cross the threshold of God’s house and enter into life, love, and liberation.

 

Keep Watch

“Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Matthew 24:42

Advent begins with Jesus’ apocalyptic call to “keep watch,” or “be alert.” Read the signs of the times. In the midst of the ordinary, something is about to happen. There will be an unveiling (the meaning of the Greek word “apocalypsis”) that will reveal a truth contrary to the current powers that be.

I know hospitality can become humdrum. My ability to discern and recognize the presence of Christ in the people who come to Manna House for coffee, socks and hygiene, and showers can be obscured by the power of routine. I find there is a rhythm of people and services offered that make most mornings at Manna House quite ordinary.

So, this morning, as I typically do, at 8am I went out to the front porch and invited guests and volunteers to join in prayer. Like we do every morning we are open, we formed a circle and reached out to hold each other’s hands. But as I began to lead this ordinary time of prayer, a guest standing near the gate shouted out, “Please pray for our friend Michelle who died.”

I felt the greyness of the skies darken. The cold wind seemed to blow hard and chill more deeply. The bleakness of the morning took on greater intensity. The power of death appeared unchallenged. Another guest struck down, crucified by the streets.

So, we prayed. We prayed that Michelle be welcomed into the presence of God, into love, warmth, home. And we prayed that God would take away the bitterness of life.

Then we went inside. Nothing out of the ordinary. The house was warm. Coffee was served. Setting up people for showers, and the offering of “socks and hygiene” began.

Minutes later a guest erupted in anger when he was told he could not shower at Manna House today. He had been ugly toward volunteers the last time he showered. As he left he hurled words of accusation about our failure to be what we say we are. This was not the first time for such anger and such words. And it certainly will not be the last.

After he left, the conversations among guests that had fallen silent resumed. So, too, did the usual banter of offering showers and socks and hygiene. Guests came in when their names were called, and volunteers ably served them. The rest of the morning proceeded without incident, as is usually the case.

What then on such a morning am I supposed to be alert to, to keep watch for? Did the Lord come in the death of Michelle? Had the Lord come in the anger of the guest turned away? Was the Lord in the sorrow of the man who had called for prayers for Michelle? Was the Lord in those drinking coffee and taking showers? What was being unveiled, revealed, on this morning?

I really do not know. Advent tells me to enter into a time to sit with both the presence of darkness and the promise of light. This is not a time to force answers or glibly find meaning in suffering and the hardness of life. Advent is a time of liminality, (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”). In this liminal time there is ambiguity and disorientation. What once was is no longer certain, and what will be has not yet emerged. I need to keep watch in the twilight of Advent. Here is my Advent commitment, like the psalmist, I need to “wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6).

Why, my soul, are you downcast?

On Tuesday I woke up about 3:00am and never really got back to sleep. As I lay there awake, I felt surrounded, both literally and figuratively by the darkness of the night. I was in a constant loop of worries and anxieties until my alarm went off at 6:00am.

I had a lot on my mind, really on my soul. This time of year at Manna House, due to the cold, we switch from being in the backyard for serving coffee and generally hanging out with our guests, to being in the house. This is never an easy transition. The house becomes crowded, sometimes chaotic. Guests who struggle to be in close proximity to others, get anxious and sometimes act harshly toward those who get too close.

The move indoors means winter is coming. On Monday morning guests had asked me about the weather forecast for the week. So both they and I knew the forecast for rain and cold. Part of my worries in the night were about our guests who do not have shelter. Some of my anxiety was sharing their anxiety about what the change of season means for being on the streets. There is anxiety about getting warmer clothes, hats, gloves, blankets, coats. My anxiety on this night included wondering how we are going to meet those needs. And behind all these anxieties is a deeper anxiety. Will someone on the streets, perhaps someone we know, freeze to death this winter? Death from the cold comes almost every winter.

I also mulled over the hatred toward people experiencing homelessness, which makes providing housing and other basic necessities controversial.  I know it is a hatred fed by a banquet of racism, an individualistic culture of competition, fear of strangers, and a false sense of scarcity. And in these days, this banquet of hatred is served up by people in the highest offices of the land, including the presidency. Trump and his followers revel in the denial of human dignity for people in poverty—including people on the streets, and people of any color other than white, people of any nationality other than “white American.” My soul was bedeviled by how many of Trump’s followers are people who claim the Christian faith, who believe Trump is divinely authorized, despite his disdain for the poor, the very ones Jesus said are blessed.

When I got to Manna House on Tuesday morning, slightly groggy from the long night, I turned to Psalm 43.

Vindicate me, my God,
and plead my cause
against an unfaithful nation.
Rescue me from those who are
deceitful and wicked.

The psalm seemed to have been written for this day in its analysis of the present realities, “an unfaithful nation,” “those who are deceitful and wicked.” And though I wished those words did not apply to me as well, the psalm implied that I, too, have done something wrong that warrants God’s rejection. I am not immune from the sins of racism, self-righteousness, fears grounded in insecurity, and worries about scarcity.

You are God my stronghold.
Why have you rejected me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?

Given the signs of the times and my own brokenness, the psalm then offered exactly what I need in my life:

Send me your light and your faithful care,
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God.

If the psalm had stopped there perhaps I would have been good. I would simply “let go and let God.” But the psalm as the word of God did not end on such a sappy, superficial, “Don’t worry, be happy” false note. No psalm, no prayer, magically ends the realities that caused my anxieties that troubled me in the night.

Those realities go on, and they require my attention and my resistance. If I am to follow Jesus I have to take up the cross. I have to go against the death-dealing meanness of our culture and our economy and our political life. And I have to struggle against the misshapen desires of my own heart. Neither of those realities is going away anytime soon.

So the psalm ends with hardness intertwined with hope.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise God,
my Savior and my God.

Grace Abounds

“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).

I saw her standing on the sidewalk at the end of the Manna House driveway. I was hopeful that she was in a peaceful mindset. This guest has had a difficult history at Manna House. Her outbursts, her threats of violence, and finally her throwing of hot coffee at a volunteer, culminated in her being banned indefinitely three years ago.

A guest who is banned is not allowed at Manna House. Usually a ban is for a week or two, or maybe a month. The hope is that the time away will allow the guest to evaluate what went wrong, and then come back to discuss how a change can lead to being welcomed again.

With this guest attempts to help her develop some minimal respect for other guests and volunteers with shorter bans had utterly failed. The combination of her personality and mental illness were too much for us to handle. So a “permanent” ban was reluctantly imposed.

During this ban she still came around to Manna House once in a while. One of us would serve her out on the sidewalk, away from other guests and volunteers. Sometimes this service was as simple as a cup of coffee. Sometimes it involved more complicated negotiations about clothing items she wanted.

Kathleen and I would also see her around midtown on occasion. Each encounter was always fraught with some anxiety. This guest can move from friendly to volatile in a manner of minutes. Then she disappeared. Months passed without seeing her, until this morning, when I went down to the end of the driveway to talk with her.

I greeted her and asked if she would like a cup of coffee.

“Already sent somebody in to get me a cup,” she replied matter of factly. For this guest going around the rules comes easily.

“Glad to hear you’ve got coffee coming. How have you been?”

“I nearly died a few weeks ago. Sunstroke. I was in the hospital, ICU. They thought I wasn’t going to make it. And I almost didn’t.”

She looked at me as if to emphasize she had been on death’s door. And then added,

“None of us know when we’re going. Could be anytime. Wasn’t my time. Will be sometime.”

“I’m grateful it wasn’t your time.” She smiled when I said this, and then asked for some socks and a shirt.

“I can get those for you.”

Sin’s power is death. I see the power of sin in how this guest nearly died. The summer’s heat and humidity and the lack of shelter, of a place for her to stay, had nearly killed her. And maybe even our ban from Manna House had nearly killed her.

As she sat on a bench in the front yard of Manna House to put on her new socks, she said, “Look at my feet. All swollen and red. Guess it’s from that sunstroke.”

A pair of socks is a small grace. And she liked the shirt I brought out. I knew she likes shirts that are big and hang down around her. I had brought out an XXL.  Perhaps another small grace.

I knew the big grace was that despite all she had been through, despite her being banned from Manna House, she was talking with me. For a moment she trusted me enough to share her life, and extend a gracious welcome to me.

We were in a very small space of grace where Manna House boundaries and her ability on this day to be pleasant intersected. Sin was all around us, and in us, and yet this was a moment in which grace was abounding.

Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. So small I can easily miss the abundance of grace in the Kingdom as it grows and pushes against the power of sin and death.

I left this guest sitting in the coolness of the morning on the bench as I returned to the back yard. Death had to wait for another day.

 

Thirsty Soul

“I lift up my hands to you in prayer; like dry ground my soul is thirsty for you.” (Psalm 143:6).

I had this verse in my heart as Memphis went without rain for September, making it the third driest September on record for Memphis. And despite a few showers in the early days of October, the verse stayed with me. The ground is still hard and dry. The hydrangea plants in the backyard of Manna House are still droopy.

As I got out of my car in the parking lot across the street from Manna House, a man approached and asked me, “Do you remember me?”

He looked familiar, but I did not remember his name. I knew he was a Manna House guest from a few years back.

He told me his name and said he’s been working and has a place where he lives. “Did you know I got married?” he asked. Then he added, “My wife, she’s got stage four cancer. She’s at Methodist. That’s why I’m here, taking a break from being with her in the hospital room. You all still serving coffee?

“Well shit. I’m sorry. What’s your wife’s name so I can pray for her. And, yes, we still serve coffee. We’ll open at 8.”

I stood there in the parking lot feeling parched. I felt the hard, dry soil of life. I couldn’t help but connect this man’s story to Ronald Kent, who died of cancer just a few weeks ago. I won’t hear him singing in the Manna House showers anymore; or get to rib him about the Dallas Cowboys, his favorite team.

The former guest interrupted my thoughts of drought. He had more he wanted to share with me. “People tell me the good Lord doesn’t give us any more than we can handle,” he said. “I don’t know about that. Either the Lord thinks I’m super strong, or that’s just flat out wrong. What do you think?”

“I think it’s wrong,” I said. “I guess I don’t think it’s so much about God testing us, trying to see what you or I can handle. I think it’s more about how God is always with us, God holds us close even when it doesn’t feel that way.” I was trying to talk my way through my own thirst for God.

Then the man shared with me how God’s gracious rain comes to him in drought. “I have no doubt God is with me,” he said. “But really it’s God in Christ. Jesus is the one who knows our suffering. He suffered. He died. He’s been there. He’s suffering with my wife. He’ll die with her, just like he died for her. We’re never completely alone.”

“You’re right, so right. You have a strong faith,” I told him, “I’ll keep your wife and you in my prayers.”

“Thanks,” he said, “Prayer is all I’ve got now.”

This parking lot theologian reminded me of the biblical and Christian tradition of affirming God’s grace is like rain. God freely offers God’s grace to each of us, like a gentle rainfall. C. H. Spurgeon notes how lovingly God shares this grace. God “directs each drop, and gives each blade of grass its own drop of dew… God moderates the force, so that it does not beat down or drown the tender herb. Grace comes in its own gentle way.”

In the times of drought in my life, God can seem more absent than present. The rain of grace can seem shut off. But the guest in the parking lot showed me how to stay open to God’s gracious rain, to the life-giving water given us in Christ. When I stretch out my hands to God in prayer, when I keep yearning for God’s gracious rain even when my soul is dry and thirsty, God will slake the thirst of my soul.

Heat and Hospitality

“At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, ‘A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; a wind too strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them’” (Jeremiah 4:11-12).

The hot dry weather of the past month in Memphis suggests Jeremiah’s word of judgment from the Lord might also apply here. And, too, as global climate change is manifested in raised temperatures around the world, I find Jeremiah terribly accurate in pointing towards our self-inflicted punishment.

“Your own conduct and actions
have brought this on you.
This is your punishment.
How bitter it is!
How it pierces to the heart!”

Disaster follows disaster;
the whole land lies in ruins.

“My people are fools;
they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
they know not how to do good.”  (Jeremiah 4:18, 20, 22)

Jeremiah and the other Old Testament prophets see a connection between human degradation and the degradation of the creation. As we pursue a way of life marked by disregard for the well-being of others, the creation, too, is adversely affected.

A prophet sees the connection between the heartless conditions of homelessness that lead to thousands of early deaths, and the poisons that have killed of millions of birds in the United States. Environmental racism combines white supremacist hatred of Blacks with the placement of toxic dumps in Black neighborhoods. Treating other human beings as objects to be used is intertwined with treating the creation as an object to be exploited. Depersonalization of human beings is inevitable in connection with desecration of the creation.

I do not have to look far for the prophetic connection between denying people their dignity and destruction of the creation.

Guests from the streets in search of a shower at Manna House, arrived this week particularly hot, sweaty, and dirty. Doing the laundry meant encountering the smells of soiled socks, shirts, underwear, and pants. To walk the streets of Memphis means going through neglected neighborhoods, sleeping in abandoned buildings, and being assaulted by the trash blowing around.

At the national level, earlier in the week, President Trump proposed rounding up people on the streets and putting them into concentration camps. At the same time, the building of his wall of shame on the southern border of the US is destroying wilderness areas, and his regime is turning back years of protections for the air and water.

A prophetic vision sees how hatred of others leads to hostility toward the creation.

But the prophets also point to how we may heal our relations with each other and with God’s creation.

Isaiah says,

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
God will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:9-12).

Hospitality thus is a way we seek to practice resistance to the hatred and hostility. Kathleen draws from the Montessori school tradition to encourage us at Manna House to “prepare the space for hospitality.” We work to have a beautiful backyard where trees and shrubbery form a green welcome for our guests, “a well-watered garden” where guests can get away from “a sun-scorched land.” Affirming our guests’ dignity, we seek to create a place that has beauty, comfort, and a sense of sanctuary, even during these hot days.

 

 

“It’s challenging.”

“It’s challenging.”

A guest in the backyard of Manna House shared his approach to living in the hot and still humid early September Memphis weather.

“It’s challenging.”

A slight breeze tried to move the dense air. This guest shared that he does not expect the heat to break anytime soon.

“Looks like it will be another week or more. But what can you do? Make the best of it. Keep living.”

I thought, this is Job who has heard God speaking out the whirlwind, reminding Job that God is the Creator, and the world (including its weather) does not exist under Job’s direction but under God’s (Job 38-41).

Like the biblical Job, the Job of the backyard has learned that there are powers so great that the best one can do is adjust to them, survive them, acknowledge their presence, make peace with them, and keep going.

“It’s challenging.”

I heard in this response, the biblical Job’s response to God. Here is a willingness to listen, to learn, and to go on, chastened but assured of God’s loving presence.

“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore, I humble myself
and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-6).

The great illusion that I live under so often is that I am in control. This illusion drives my attempt to control my own life, and the lives of others, and even the world around me. The illusion of control tempts me to do violence, to try and force the world to meet my expectations.  At the very least I get angry and live with a kind of frustrated smoldering resentment because I cannot make the world fit into my expectations. My desire for control can even make me try to make God into my own image, giving divine sanction to my efforts to control others.

This teacher at Manna House, this Job of the backyard, points to another way. This is not passivity or resignation to the inevitable. Rather it is a way of compassion, of acknowledgement of shared suffering, shared vulnerability, and the commitment to live through it together. It is a way of modesty about my place as a human being in a world which is not centered on me.

“It’s challenging.”

The reality of struggle is not denied, but it is also not defeating. I can live with this Power greater than me because it is not out to get me, even if it is not organized around my desires, and not amenable to my control. God is disclosed to us, James Gustafson wrote in “Theocentric Ethics,” as the powers bearing down upon us, sustaining us, and ordering human life within the complex interactions of the natural and social worlds. God both makes possible our lives and places limits upon us.

“It’s challenging.”

The Job of the backyard teaches me humility. This word, derived from the Latin “humus,” means earth or dirt. I am of this earth. I live within the heat and humidity. And with others, I can do this with hope, and maybe even love. And that is challenging.