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.

 

 

 

 

 

“Memento mori”

“Sonia died last Thursday.” A guest, who had been her companion for the past several years, spoke to me with resignation in the backyard at Manna House.

“I knew it was coming,” he said, “She’d been sick you know for a while.”

Some five years ago Sonia had a stroke. But she was stubborn. She persistently worked through rehab to where she could walk again. She was tough and resilient.

Sonia had a big personality, lots of good sass. She held her own on the streets. She did not take an insult or a slight quietly. At her best, Sonia had a boisterous spirit, a passion for life about her, a quick wit and a sense of humor.

But in the last year or so she began to lose weight. Never big to begin with, she became increasingly frail. Her sass became somewhat subdued, but never went away.

“I don’t like what’s happening to me” she told me once, “this ain’t right.”

She knew death was coming, but she was not going to go quietly; that was not her style.

I do not remember the last time Sonia came to Manna House. As she became increasingly ill we simply saw less of her. Her companion gave occasional updates. None of those were particularly encouraging even though he would always end with, “She’s not giving up.”

Now he shared with me what he remembered of her before her illness came.
“We had a lot of good times. Those are gone now. She’s gone.”

I shared my sorrow at her death, and that I would keep her in my prayers.

“Thanks,” he said, and he walked away to quietly share the news with others in the backyard.

Sonia’s death hung in the air, as people remembered her, mourned her passing, and offered condolences.

Somehow an old Latin phrase came into my thoughts. “Memento mori” which means, “remember that you must die.”

Many years ago, my novice master, Fr. Alfred, when covering the Rule of St. Benedict with us monks in training shared that Latin phrase as part of his commentary on a line in Chapter Four of the Rule that states, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.”

For Benedict, the reminder of death’s reality is a reminder of what is important in life. A life well lived is ordered by love, by compassion, by a simplicity of life that affirms our dignity is in our being made in the image of God. We are to live with a faith in God, not in our possessions, our power over others, or our pathetic attempts to stave off vulnerability.

I thought of Sonia who in her death reminded me of something important about life, including her own life. Each of our guests comes as a gift from God, and in that respect, Sonia was no different than the hundreds of others who have come over the past fourteen years. Yet, Sonia also brought her own distinctive gifts. She brought her unique self to Manna House, in all of her complexity and hopes, sorrows and dreams. She brought her sassy spirit. And thank God she did.

“For It Is In Giving That We Receive”

I will undergo surgery tomorrow morning. So, this morning when I led our usual opening prayer at Manna House, I asked our guests and volunteers to pray for me.

The surgery will remove something in my lungs that does not belong there. The official term is a “pulmonary nodule.” It might be malignant or it might be benign. Either way, I will be in the hospital a day or two after the surgery. If malignant, the surgeon will take more of the lung tissue around the nodule, and there will be some follow up conversation, and possibly additional treatment. If benign, the initial recovery is the same.

After the prayer, I was surrounded by guests offering that they will keep me in their prayers.  I need to put this another way, I was surrounded by love.

I thought later in the morning of this line from the Prayer of St. Francis, “For it is in giving that we receive.”  In the fourteen years Manna House has been open, there has been a lot of giving, but I have received and continue to receive so much from our guests.

This is one of the amazing realities of offering hospitality. It is not a one way street. It is not the “haves” dispensing favors to the “have nots.” Rather, hospitality provides a sacred space in which each of us is freed to give and to receive.

Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan liberation theologian, has written, “there are two economies: one of material goods, and one of spiritual goods. The two are governed by different logic. In the economy of material goods, the more one gives away goods, clothes, houses, lands and money, the less one has.” But he adds, “in the economy of spiritual goods, when more is given, more is received; when one gives away more, one has more… Spiritual goods are like love: when they are divided, they multiply. Or like fire: as it expands it grows.” And he argues, “it is urgent that we vigorously incorporate the economics of spiritual goods into the economics of material goods… It makes more sense to share than to accumulate, to strengthen the good life of everyone, than to avariciously seek the individual good.”

This is the economy of manna. God freely provides. We share and do not hoard, and there is more than enough for everybody. In giving we receive.

This is what hospitality at Manna House coupled with justice seeks to do: sharing material goods in a way that respects human dignity so that we can all flourish, spiritually and materially.

This is what I know from hospitality shared at Manna House. When I (with the help of many other volunteers and donors) welcome our guests and give coffee, showers, clothing, and a place of dignity and respect, I receive love. Not the cheap love of superficial friendliness, but the costly love of sharing our lives, including our sorrows and our joys, our brokenness, and our shared need for human community, and for God’s grace.

So we have had weddings and memorial services at Manna House. We have been to hospital rooms and in jails visiting. Guests surrounded Kathleen with prayer when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. I was surrounded with prayer when my Dad died seven years ago. We lifted up in prayer a volunteer and a guest this morning, both of whom have cancer. We prayed this morning for a guest who lost his partner to death. We share stories from our lives. We even argue politics and religion from time to time. All of this giving and receiving in the “spiritual economy” goes on as goods in the “material economy” are shared.

In this Trumpian age, in which the vile forces of disrespect of other human beings because of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are strengthened and amplified, it is all the more important to create spaces in which we welcome each other as we are—children of God made in God’s image, committed to giving and receiving.

Tomorrow, I will be lifted up by the prayers of the guests of Manna House. Because of the giving I have been able to share at Manna House, I will receive those prayers, that love, and be blessed.

Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Wade in the Water

Memphis has seen an abundance of rain over the past week. The remnants of Hurricane Barry brought days of heavy rain.

On Monday and Tuesday morning guests at Manna House arrived from the streets soaked and tired. Some were as sullen as the low heavy clouds. Others tried to find a silver lining, “Well, at least its cooler,” or “It will be good for crops and gardens.”

Whether sullen or silver lining finders, guests sought shelter from the rain, and we all crowded into the house or onto the front porch.

One guest had creatively covered himself with a combination of trash bags to make a rain suit. He was neither overtly sullen nor looking for a silver lining. He headed straight to the coffee. And then he made for a couch. There he finished drinking his coffee and then promptly fell asleep, the water dripping from his rain suit onto the floor and the couch.

A few guests asked me about the weather forecast. We looked at a radar map on my phone and determined that the rain would last at least through late Tuesday afternoon. This did not lift any spirits. “Last night was a long night trying to find a dry place,” said one, “gonna be a long day.”

Later in the day, I shared with Ed Loring of the Open Door Community in Baltimore how the rain had affected our guests. Ed’s forty plus years of offering hospitality to people on the streets was reflected in his email me back to me, “I am sorry for your guests.  The natural elements are enemies of the poor most often.  The people of Bangladesh await the full force of the waters of the recent typhoon to wash their houses away.  Yet, I sit here at my desk in ‘Ibo’s Place’ hot, tired and wishing for rain.  Damn the contradictions of life.  Damn economic inequality.  Psalm 23 and Black Jesus are correct.  There is enough with baskets left over for all.”

That got me thinking about the Bible and rain. The silver lining finders among the guests reflected Psalm 65:9-11.

“You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain,
for so you have ordained it.

You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers and bless its crops.

You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.”

Maybe the sullen guests reflected the story of the flood in Genesis. There the rain becomes a deadly force, as it creates a flood so that “Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died” (Genesis 17:21-23).

Earlier in Genesis, in the first creation story in Genesis 1, God creates order out of the chaos of “the waters” (Genesis 1:1-13). In Exodus, God drowns the pursuing slave catchers—Pharaoh and his army, in the sea after Israel passed through to freedom (Exodus 14).

In the Bible water is life-giving or death-dealing, depending upon where one stands with God’s efforts for justice and liberation. The prophets make this abundantly clear (Amos 4:7, Jeremiah 3:3, 5:24, 14:22, Hosea 10:12, Isaiah 45:8, 55:10, Zechariah 10:1, Joel 2:23).

In the early church, Jesus’ disciples followed him into the water, and baptism became a sacrament of dying to slavery to sin and rising to new life in Christ, liberation that is loving and life-giving. Later followers of the Black Jesus created a song of liberation for their escape from slavery, “Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the waters.”

Manna House, I hope, is a way station on the road to freedom, a dry place in the midst of rain; that also shares water and coffee to drink and showers and dry clothing. Offering a place of sanctuary, offering hospitality, is not the promised land of deliverance, of full justice. Manna House is shelter from the rain, not housing. Manna House, like the manna in the desert, is not the fullness of the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. At best, Manna House is a place of sustenance along the way. I know we have a long way to go. There will be more rainy days ahead. But a change is going to come.

The Divine in the Daily

Raised Catholic, I was formed in a sacramental spirituality. Christ in the bread and the wine, the very presence of Christ is in ordinary, daily bread, broken and shared. “Give us this day our daily bread.” I expected to experience the presence of the divine, in ordinary, common, essential physical objects—bread, wine, water, oil, candles.

My sacramental spirituality was deepened by seven years at St. John’s Abbey and University, three of those years I was a Benedictine monk. The Rule of St. Benedict emphasizes the sacredness of the ordinary, of the daily. God is present in a schedule of daily prayer, in regular times for silence, in the rhythm of prayer and work (“ora et labora”). Monks are even urged “to regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar” (Rule of Benedict chp. 31). And this divine presence in the daily is especially emphasized in the monastic practice of hospitality, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35)” (Rule of St. Benedict, chp. 53)

My formation in sacramental spirituality shapes my work at Manna House. The daily tasks of hospitality are times of divine encounter. The daily tasks draw me out of myself in a discipline of love. Each task requires that I be open to a daily reality that is demanding, insistent, ongoing: folding laundry, making coffee, filling sugar containers, wiping down the picnic tables, the benches, and chairs before opening, taking out trash, sorting donations, cleaning the shower room and the small bathroom. What could be drudgery is an invitation to divine encounter.

This sacramental spirituality is most important in the daily demand to open my eyes to see Christ in the guests who come for showers, clothing, coffee, and a place of sanctuary from the streets. To the Catholic list of seven sacraments, an eighth sacrament is added. I learned early on the definition of a sacrament, “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus clearly institutes the outward sign of “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:35-36, 40). And those who participate in this sign instituted by Christ hear these grace-filled words, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Mt 25:34).

Christ in the stranger was invited in on Tuesday morning when we opened Manna House at 8am. Christ prayed with us and then headed to the coffee line or the showers.

I talked with Christ in the backyard. He even has the initials “J.C.” A volunteer had given J.C. coffee. There was also cold water available. The thirsty were given something to drink.

A little later in the morning, I walked to the nearby Southern College of Optometry (SCO) with Christ present in two guests. The walk over was slow. Both guests have leg problems. Only one had a cane. They shared the cane. One used it for half a block, then the other for the next half block, and on. When we finally got there, they picked out frames for new glasses. SCO had given free eye exams. Manna House will buy the frames. The sick were looked after.

Meanwhile, other volunteers offered showers and clothes to Christ. Ten women showered and after them, two trans. Christ’s need for some fresh clothing was met.

Christ talked with me about the meal that had been served at Manna House the previous evening. Christ had been hungry and had been given something to eat.

Christ came from 201 Poplar and got on the shower list for Thursday. He reminded me that in a previous stay out at the penal farm, Manna House had put some money “on his book” so he could get items like underwear and toothpaste. The prisoner had been attended to.

Toward the end of the morning, Christ arrived in a car driven by his wife. Christ has cancer which has metastasized from his kidneys into his lungs and other organs. He is tired and in pain. He had a doctor’s appointment to get to later. I promised to pray for him and to make sure we also pray for him every morning when we open.

This is the hard edge of sacramental spirituality. God present in the daily, reaches into every corner of our lives, in the ordinary demands of life, and even into suffering and death. God invites me into the daily tasks of hospitality, and into relationship with people I might otherwise avoid, to go beyond myself. God’s invitation to be open to the needs and suffering in human life (including my own), invites me to face reality. This reality punctures my illusions of self-sufficiency and makes possible my embrace of shared vulnerability. Responding to God’s daily invitation, I can affirm that love, going out from myself to give myself to God and to others, is the path to fullness of life. Bread must be broken to be shared.

“Lord I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

I have been quietly grieving. Death has been demanding my attention.  Two men were recently gunned down in Memphis. One this past weekend, and one last night. One was a prominent and wealthy white Memphian. The other was a young African American in the Frayser area wanted on several warrants. The first was murdered by an as yet unknown assailant in an apparent robbery. The other by Federal Marshals as they sought to arrest the young man. Family and friends of these men are grieving. I am saying prayers and wondering about justice in this city.

Last week, I went to a wake and a funeral for a friend who committed suicide. His long struggle with depression ended the same way as with six other friends, one of them a cousin of mine. I am grieving. I am saying prayers for my friend, his family, and friends.

In the past week, several friends have shared that they have lost a parent to death.  Another has lost a brother. I am remembering my friends and their grieving in my prayers.

And death on a larger scale dominates the front pages. “100 Killed in Sudan and Dozens of Bodies Are Pulled From Nile, Opposition Says” (New York Times, June 4, 2019). “Afghan War Casualty Report: May 31-June 6,” with this first sentence, “At least 50 pro-government forces and 19 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the past week” (New York Times, June 6, 2019). “Russian jets carry out deadly bombings in Syria’s Idlib,” with this first sentence, “At least 25 people have been killed in aerial bombardment carried out by Russian jet fighters in Idlib region, with schools and medical centers knocked down during a continued Syrian military offensive” (Aljazeera, June 10, 2019). I am grieving and saying prayers and wondering if war will ever end.

With all this death and grieving on my heart, I saw one of our guests at Manna House looking closely at the crucifix that hangs in the “chapel” at Manna House. The chapel is an open space set apart by a storage shed on one side that creates a wall, with the other three “sides” open but under a roof supported by wooden beams. The crucifix hangs on the shed wall. A small wooden statue of St. Francis stands just to the right of the crucifix.

The chapel is often where our most vulnerable guests gather. Set apart by the shed and the roof the chapel has distinct boundaries, creating a sense of refuge that draws those who find other people’s company difficult, those who are loners and/or those whose mental illness makes them uncomfortable in a crowd of people.

The guest staring at the crucifix is one of those vulnerable guests. He was shot and paralyzed from the waist down several years ago. At the same time he tries to project invulnerability. He is a young African American man known on the streets for his anger, his bitterness, and his quick resort to violence and threats of violence. He makes his way in the world through the dangerous work of selling drugs. He is a seller who also uses. There he sat, gazing intently at the cross. He knows death and was staring at this symbol of death—the cross.

“The God of Jesus’ cross,” James Cone wrote in The Cross and The Lynching Tree, “is found among the least, the crucified people of the world” (Cone, 23).  And yet the particularity of Jesus’ death by execution also includes the broader human experience of death. As a disciple of Jesus I am called to be in solidarity with the crucified—those whose deaths have come from injustice, and those whose deaths come from our human condition. As a disciple of Jesus, I am to embrace the shared vulnerability of death so that I can practice compassion and self-giving in resistance to the power of death. As Jesus himself said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

Here is where I am faltering right now. I am trying to resist death (and its close friend injustice), but feel overwhelmed by its power. I am trying in prayer to listen to and for God’s graciousness. But I am not hearing much. I am trying to say my prayers that those who are grieving will be comforted. But I am wondering if such condolences offer only empty words. I am like the man in the Gospel who said, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

So I am meditating on this scripture, and on this line I came across recently, “At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.”—Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” Atlantic Monthly, April 2018

May God help me, may God help the man in the wheelchair at Manna House, may God help the family and friends of Brandon Webber, and of Glenn Cofield, and may God help all of us, to feel loved by God, to live in the hope of the feather of God’s grace. “I believe, help my unbelief.”

Love Incarnate is a Harsh and Dreadful Thing

Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, liked to quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, from his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Loving humanity in the abstract is easy. Loving a particular person is hard. Serving “the homeless” is easy. Serving the guest who is consistently cranky and demanding is hard. I get reminded of these truths almost every single day we are open at Manna House.

In the Manna House neighborhood there is a man in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down from a gunshot wound he suffered several years ago. He is known as a low level drug dealer. He has a perpetual scowl on his face. The last time he was at Manna House (several months ago) he threatened to kill a volunteer. He was asked to leave, and only the pressure of many other guests sent him on his way. He is not a very pleasant person, to put it mildly.

He showed up last week and wanted to get on the shower list.  Do we let him shower? After a short deliberation we recommitted ourselves to hospitality, not in the abstract, but to this person. He showered and got a fresh set of clothes to put on. As he was leaving he gave a hearty thank you to those who had served him. Even if he had not done so, it was still the right decision to offer him hospitality.

On Tuesday, a woman showed up who wanted to get on the shower list. She struggles mightily with mental illness. Her illness often renders her mean-spirited, foul mouthed, and generally difficult to work with in selecting clothing to change into after her shower. She’s probably been banned from the shower list six or seven times over the past two to three years. Do we let her shower? Again, after a short deliberation we recommitted ourselves to hospitality, not in the abstract, but to this person. She came in and did fine, not great, but better than other times. It was the right decision to offer her hospitality.

Saying “no” is another part of loving in the particular and concrete that is hard. It is never easy to say “no” to a request from a guest.  Sometimes, however, love and hospitality require saying “no.” A guest approached me in the backyard. He asks for “special favors” almost every day he comes to Manna House. This time was no exception. On this Tuesday, his request was for a backpack. I explained that we give out backpacks on Thursdays to those on the shower list. He continued to plead his case. I continued to say, “no.”

How is this love and hospitality? Love for each person who comes to Manna House means ensuring that each is treated with equal respect. If getting something depends upon the quality of a story and ingratiating one’s self to the person who is purportedly “in charge” then some will be left out, some will be disrespected. Guests who are less mentally adept, less skilled at playing to my sympathy, less pleasant in look and or smell, are not treated with equal love and respect by such a system.

Further, such a system is not hospitality. Rather, it is a patronage system that simply reinforces power over and exploitation of those “in need.” It casts me in the role of “savior,” making me the one who decides on my own who gets what. This is ego-inflation, not hospitality. Hospitality gives to each person who comes what is made available for all through the community offering hospitality. There is a discipline to love that includes listening to and being obedient to this particular community of hospitality. That is a reality that is “harsh and dreadful” because it stings my ego.

A particular scripture helps me to see how love has to be made concrete and not left to an abstraction. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Or as Jesus put, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). God calls me to make my love particular, just as God did in becoming a particular human being in a particular time and place. My love has to take on flesh, or it is not love.

Come Out of Babylon

Moses stood in the backyard at Manna House reading from the Book of Revelation about the fall of Babylon. Around us were men and women and two children sitting at picnic tables, benches, and a few lawn chairs.  We were all there, seeking sanctuary from the streets of perhaps the most powerful empire in history. Empire lives on the deadly malignancy of despising the vulnerable, of creating a system in which persons are expendable.

Moses read, “After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory. And the angel cried mightily with a loud voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!” (Revelation 18:1-2).

I walked toward the back of the yard where we somehow got into a conversation about where people are from.

“Brewton, Alabama.”

“Valdalia, Arkansas.”

“Philadelphia, Mississippi.”

I had never heard of the first two, and the guests from each said they were too small to be of any importance. I had to look them up. The power of cell phones and Google went to work.

Brewton, Alabama got its start as a mill town. Two sources of water run through the town, Murder Creek and Burnt Corn Creek.  Trees were harvested and lumber was produced. The usual celebration of commerce continued in the history for a while, as the town became wealthy, with timber barons building fine houses. Then a turn to something different. I read out loud from the short Wikipedia article, “In October 1934, Claude Neal, a 23-year-old African-American man arrested for the murder of a local young white woman in Greenwood, Florida, was moved to the jail in Brewton for safekeeping. After a lynch mob learned where he was being held, about 100 men came to Brewton in 30 cars and kidnapped him from the jail. He was smuggled back into Jackson County, Florida, where announcements of his planned lynching were broadcast on the radio. Neal was tortured, shot and hanged by a small group near the Chattahoochee River before his body was taken before a crowd of thousands. His body was later hanged from a tree in the Marianna courthouse square. Whites later rioted in Marianna, prompting the Florida governor to order more than 100 troops to town to put down the violence. More than 200 people were injured, mostly black, but including two police officers. Black-owned houses were looted and burned in the riots.”

The backyard got quiet. White guests shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, especially the one from Brewton. African American guests were shaking their heads.

“I never heard that story before,” said the guest from Brewton, “I’m not fond of that history.”

“You scratch a bit here and there and that stuff comes out, all the time,” said an African American guest.

“What about Valdalia? Let’s move on,” said an African American guest, “I know that stuff too well.”

I could not find a Wikipedia article on Vidalia, Arkansas.

“Try Cherry Valley,” the guest from there suggested helpfully. Sure enough an article appeared. Total population these days of about 600. Four famous residents over time. One seemed worth learning more about, Pat Hare, blues musician. He left Cherry Valley and came to Memphis where he recorded at Sun Studio. I noted this, “His guitar solo on James Cotton’s electric blues record ‘Cotton Crop Blues’ (1954) was the first recorded use of heavily distorted power chords, anticipating elements of heavy metal music.” Hare spent the last 16 years of his life in prison, where he formed a band named ‘Sounds Incarcerated.’”

“Never heard of him,” said the white guest from Vidalia.

We listened to one of his recordings.

“That’s definitely a man with the blues,” said an African American guest, “He could have been from my hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi. I’m Choctaw. They tried to run us all out, but some of us stayed.”

“Were you there when those three Civil Rights Workers were murdered in 1964?” I asked.

“Yes, a bad time, but all the times then were bad for us. You had to stay low.”

I was back in the Book of Revelation. Babylon, “a dwelling place for demons.” And the author of Revelation had this advice, seek a sanctuary, “And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and let you receive of her plagues. For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Revelation 18:4-5).

Come out, indeed. Resist empire. Create sanctuary. Practice hospitality. Find another way.