“A guy came by and said, ‘What you looking at?’ Man, I wasn’t looking at nothing. But he was pick and pick and pick at me and I wasn’t having it.”

This guest had starting sharing his lament as soon as I crossed the street to Manna House. He told me that he had avoided two fights as he waited for me to show up to start the coffee.

As I unlocked the gate he continued.

“Then another guy came by, and I was just standing here waiting, and he wanted to get into it with me. “Why you staring at me?’ I wasn’t staring at no one. I just looking at the street.”

As we came into the front yard he said, “I guess I’m not safe until I get inside this gate.”

I thought about a guest from a number of years back. He would arrive each day in tattered and dirty clothes. Even if he had showered the day before and gotten clean clothes, by the next day he was a mess. Kathleen finally asked him, “What happens to you when you leave here?”

His response was to point across the street through the front door, “You see those dogs over there? They get me.”

There were no dogs to be seen.

Kathleen asked, “Do the dogs ever come in here?”

“O no,” the guest said, “they wouldn’t dare come in here.”

Sanctuary. A place of refuge. A stronghold. A place of safety.

A guest came today to share her grief. Her cousin, a former Manna House guest, had died. They had been raised together like sisters by the cousin’s mother. Lengthy hospitalizations and time in a nursing home were now over for her “sister.” I did not know the guest who died very well, but Kathleen did. She knew this death was coming, but still this was hard news.

And in the midst of this, I thought of a faithful volunteer who just lost her mother. We had prayed for her and her family when we opened. We had also prayed for guests in prison and in the hospital as we held hands, guests and volunteers together. In our prayers we want to extend God’s sanctuary beyond the gate of Manna House.

A guest came to tell us of another former guest who was just diagnosed with liver cancer. The prognosis is not good. His friend said, “He wants people to pray for him but he doesn’t want his name spread all around.” When I assured her of our prayers, she added, “He’s all worried about the funeral. He doesn’t have anything and he knows his family can’t afford it.”

“Tell him not to worry about that,” I said, “Manna House can help.”

A former guest who is now housed and working came just to talk and to be heard. She had a few things to tell us about her life. She wanted to share some good news about how well her job is going. It was good to hear some joys.

Later I was out in the backyard and saw a guest praying silently in the chapel area. He was alone, sitting on one of the benches there. He was bowed over making his supplications. “God hears the cry of the poor,” I thought.

Sanctuary. A place of refuge. A stronghold. A place of safety.

After I came inside from talking with the guest at the gate, my day had started with Psalm 46 as I listened to the coffee pots begin to percolate creating a kind of Manna House style Gregorian chant:

“God is with us;

God is our stronghold.

God is for us a refuge and strength,

an ever-present help in times of distress.”

We shall not fear though the earth should rock,

though the waters rage and foam,

though the mountains quake at its surging.”

Good Shepherd Needed

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Jesus the Good Shepherd said in John’s Gospel, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). I could have used Jesus and his good shepherding this morning, both for myself and for a guest.

I was at Manna House and I had just finished plugging in the coffee. As I headed from the kitchen into the living room I could hear someone yelling. I went outside. Standing on the patio in the front yard was a woman shouting at the few guests who had gathered early. It was just before 7am. Manna House would not open for another hour.

She turned to me, “They don’t want to listen. They don’t want to be saved. They want to go to hell. The Lord has put it upon me to save them and save them I will.”

“Could you save them a little less loudly?” I asked.

Apparently she could not. Her screed continued with vile and vivid descriptions of the sins of the guests gathered, along with a few obscene gestures. The stream of words was chaotic, with little islands of sense in the midst of the nonsense. “These people need to hear it. They are evil. They are from Satan. I cannot be silenced. The Lord has put upon me to preach and preach I must.” This was more street screeching than it was street preaching.

I remembered to stay calm and not raise my voice, “I’m asking you to leave today.”

“Call the police on me if you want. I’m not leaving.” This statement was spiced with some rather creative swearing and invective. And now she was in my face up on the front porch, waving a rolled up magazine at me.

“I’m not calling the police. I am asking you to leave for the morning.”

I stepped inside the house and called Kathleen. I needed her calming voice and support. The woman outside must have thought I had called the police. She went down the steps of the porch, paused to throw our front yard garbage can (thankfully empty), gathered her belongings, and then went down the street to who knows where. Her inner anguish continued to spill out as she went.

Where’s the Good Shepherd when you need him? She was a lost sheep, and I certainly was not much of a shepherd. Manna House had little to offer her and this morning, since I asked her to leave, she was denied even that little. Our hospitality is not that of the Good Shepherd. Ask us for something and sometimes you will receive. Knock at our door and sometimes it will be opened unto you (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, 8am-11:30am).

Thankfully I have seen some good shepherding when people like this woman get the help they need, get housing, get health care, and get well. But not this woman, not this morning.

In fact, you can go to any large city in the U.S. and find on the streets someone like this woman. Lost in a fog of mental illness, without housing, without medical care, subject to the violence of wolves who will rape and abuse, she is not alone.

She is among the poorest of the poor. Last night she slept on cardboard underneath the awning of the building across from Manna House. And though she is poor, she is not the problem. The problem is that as bad shepherds we would rather spend our tax dollars on more military, more prisons, more football stadiums and basketball arenas than help her.

The problem is that we elect bad shepherds like the ones running the Tennessee legislature. They deny funding for health care while passing bills to make the Bible the state book of Tennessee and to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.

The problem is also in our hearts. They are not the hearts of good shepherds. Instead, they are closed and hardened like Pharaoh’s, satisfied with keeping people enslaved and exploited. We are like the anti-Good Shepherd. We have learned to accept the presence of the suffering on our streets all over this country.

When I went back inside, I prayed Psalm 23. Come Good Shepherd come! We need some green pastures, still waters and restored souls. We need some goodness and mercy. Maybe tomorrow the Good Shepherd will show up and this woman and I will have a better morning.

Waiting Upon the Lord

He is always there waiting at the gate when I arrive at Manna House. He stands on the sidewalk as I unlock the gate for the front yard. I usually arrive by 6:40am to start the coffee. Even when I arrive ten or fifteen minutes earlier, he is there. If I arrive after 6:45am, he tells me “You’re late.”

He is usually alone at that early hour, though occasionally there is one or two others. But he is the only one consistently there, waiting.

He has a place to live, a small apartment nearby. So why does he come so early? I have asked him that question several times. He has said a variety of things in response, all pretty much the same.

“I’m up. I get going.”

“I dunno. I just want to be here.”

“I don’t mind waiting.”

The explanations do not explain much. So, I’m left to wonder. He does not have to be there early to make sure he gets on the shower list. He never gets on the shower list. He does not have to be there early to get on the socks and hygiene list. We guarantee guests can get on that list until 8:30am, even if by then we have more than fifty one people. He does not have to be there early to get coffee. We serve coffee all morning. What draws him out to be there so early?

I asked him again this morning, “Why do you get here early?”

His answer this time was different, “I like to wait.”

I have been mulling over his response ever since. He may well be the only person I have ever met who likes to wait. Since he gives a positive meaning to waiting, I am going to start thinking of him as a witness to waiting. In his witness, he may well be onto something easy to overlook, the importance of waiting, of embracing waiting, of practicing waiting.

His embrace of waiting made me think about the importance of waiting in a life of faith. The Psalms have many references to waiting upon the Lord. (See Psalm 5:3, 25:5, 27:14, 33:20, 37:7-9, 39:7, 123:2, 130:5-6, 145:15-16). The two major seasons in the Christian year are about waiting. In Advent we wait for Christmas. In Lent we wait for Holy Week and Easter.

What these all have in common with each other is a sense of expectation and hope. To wait in faith is not passive acquiescence to the way things are. To wait in faith is to actively anticipate intervention, transformation, liberation, resurrection. To wait in faith is to prepare for what one is waiting for. The biblical words in Hebrew and Greek for “waiting” typically carry the meaning of waiting expectantly, of waiting with hope.

Maybe I can learn from this guest at Manna House the importance of waiting as a spiritual discipline. To wait means to avoid both impatience and boredom, to avoid both not being willing to wait, and not thinking there is anything worth waiting for. Maybe this guest is teaching me, giving witness to the waiting of which the Psalmist writes, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:5-6).

Easter Fish

We are in the season after Easter so when asked, I insisted that the “Word for the Day” had to come from one of the Easter stories.

“Read the one about the guys going to Emmaus.”

So, I did. The whole story, from the two disciples meeting Jesus along the way to Emmaus, to his explaining the scriptures to them, to his staying with them and them recognizing him in the breaking of the bread.

“They should’ve mentioned the wine, not just the bread. You can’t eat that bread without some wine.”

“Some people say it was grape juice, not wine.”

“Why? Jesus made water into wine. He liked wine.”

“Either way, you need something to wash that bread down.”

“Didn’t Jesus feed his disciples fish after he rose from the dead?”

“That’s another story. It’s a different one.”

“Hey, what’s that fish sign Christians used?”

I never know when the focus of the discussion is going to change slightly. I wanted to get my answer right, so I used my phone to look up the fish symbol. The Greek word for “fish” is “ichthus.” Ichthus is an acrostic for Iesous, Christos, Theou Yious, Soter, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The first letter of each of those words in Greek creates the Greek word “Ichthus.”

“Why did they use that sign?”

A little more research, “Well it turns out that it was a kind of secret symbol among Christians who faced occasional persecution from the Romans. The fish sign could mark meeting places without arousing suspicion.”

“You mean like a sign to indicate a Christian cat hole?” A cat hole is a secret place a person on the streets creates in which he or she might sleep safely and protect one’s scant possessions. Sometimes a cat hole is under a bridge or in an abandoned building or behind a thicket of bushes. The goal is to have a place others cannot easily see or find. The goal is to have a place the police cannot find, to avoid persecution.

“Yup, to mark a Christian cat hole. “

“Did you know that hobos in the old days had ways of marking safe places? We’ve got one of those on our H.O.P.E. shirts.” H.O.P.E. stands for “Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality. It is a local advocacy group made up of people currently or formerly on the streets.

“I’ve heard that but what were some of the signs?”

More research revealed some of the common signs marking safe places and also ways to give warnings. I shared that my Grandma Weis used to feed hobos out the back of her house. The house was near some railroad tracks. My Mom told me this story a few years ago when we were first starting Manna House. I would guess that there was a mark on the house or nearby that directed hobos to my Grandma’s house.

“Hey, those hobos were on a journey, like the disciples going to Emmaus.”

“But where do you see Jesus around here?”

J.C. happened to walk out the door. I frequently call him “Jesus Christ.” There was a lot of laughter when I said, “Well, there he goes right now!”

I talked with J.C. once and asked him if he minded me calling him, “Jesus Christ.”

“Nope. It’s a good name and I get your point. Jesus is in those of us who come here.”