Street Theology

“God’s got my back. But I’ve got my front.” A Manna House guest was explaining to me his approach to life.

“I’m getting old. I can’t be catting around like I used to. I gotta find a regular place I can call my own.”

“How long have you been out on the streets?” I asked him.

“Ten years more or less. Here and there. Sometimes I’ve had a place, but never as steady as I’d like.”

“What’s kept you out here?”

“I can’t seem to keep a job. I don’t know. I get anxious. I wander off. Something in me isn’t quite right. I’m on medication now. That helps. But for years it was just me.”

“What do you mean by ‘God’s got my back. But I’ve got my front’?

“I’ve got to take care of my own business, but God makes sure I make it through.”

I spent last week at Bethel University teaching in the Program of Alternative Studies of Memphis Theological Seminary. This program is for persons who are seeking ordination in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church but for one reason or another cannot pursue a seminary degree.  I taught a class called “Spirituality and Social Justice.”

Part of our discussion was about the spiritual foundation that inspires and sustains our seeking justice and being engaged in the work for justice. So we read together from the Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, looking for spiritual resources for commitment to the long haul struggle for justice. We came across this statement:

“As believers continue to partake of God’s covenant of grace, to live in the covenant community, and to serve God in the world, they are able to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord. Believers never achieve sinless perfection in this life, but through the ministry of the Holy Spirit they can be progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, thereby growing in faith, hope, love, and other gifts of the Spirit” (Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, 4.22).

I heard in this theology from the church an echo from the Manna House guest’s theology from the streets. “God’s got my back” or in other words, God “through the ministry of the Holy Spirit” makes it possible for me to “be progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, thereby growing in faith, hope, love, and other gifts of the Spirit.” “But I’ve got my front.”  In other words, “As believers continue to partake of God’s covenant of grace… and to serve God in the world, they are able to grow in grace… [but] never achieve sinless perfection in this live.” I have a responsibility to attend to my business, to seek God’s will for love and justice in the world.

I also heard an echo from Thomas Aquinas who said, “grace perfects nature.” God graciously, that is lovingly, works within each of us respecting our human nature, the very human nature that God created. We are called to grow in God’s love and justice, consistent with our nature as human beings.

There is a true humility in this theology of God’s work in our lives. “God’s got my back” recognizes that I am not on my own. I do not make it through this life, I did not even come into this life, without God’s ongoing love. “But I’ve got my front” acknowledges I have a role to play as well. I am not a passive robot or a plaything of God (consider in contrast how the ancient Greek and Roman gods messed with humans). God loves us enough to create room for us to have responsibility to take care of our human business, to seek to live with each other with dignity and justice.

Maya Angelou put it this way, “It is this belief in a power larger than myself and other than myself which allows me to venture into the unknown and even the unknowable.”

Knowing that God’s got my back gives me the hope that love and justice are attainable, are worth struggling for, that as Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Knowing that God’s got my back allows me to confess that something in me is not quite right, and I need to face that truth honestly. I need to reach out for help, from God and from others, so we can struggle together for love and justice.  Taking care of my own business requires that I acknowledge my responsibility and confess my sin, trusting that God does have my back. God has not abandoned me in this struggle for love and justice. God will make sure I get through. I can rely on God’s grace. Sin and injustice will not be triumphant.

Hat Thief

St. Basil wrote, “Should we not give the same name of thief to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

I am hat thief. I have too many hats. I accumulate baseball caps. I go somewhere to visit, and I buy a hat. It is my souvenir. And since I am bald headed, people like to give me hats. I get hats for my birthday. I get hats at Christmas time. No matter the source of a hat, I wear the hat for a while, and then it gets put up on a shelf. After a while it gets pushed further and further back, by other hats.

I was convicted of hat thievery this morning while I was at Manna House. Today I was part of the crew doing hospitality in the backyard. The backyard, with its shade and greenery, fills with guests as soon as we open, and stays full most of the morning as guests seek to avoid the heat of the July sun.

The backyard is where guests approach me about getting on the “list” for showers or “socks and hygiene” or about special requests. I refer all the “list” requests to the “list person,” which today was Kathleen.

The special requests require some discernment. I can handle most of them by urging the person to get on “the list.” A few simply require a firm “no” as what is requested is beyond our limits. Some, thankfully, can be handled as part of the regular flow of hospitality within the necessary boundaries we have at Manna House.

“I need a piece of paper to write down a phone number.” That’s not a problem. I make a quick dash into the house and get a piece of notebook paper.

“I need the phone number for Shelby County Schools.” I can easily look that up on my phone.

“What’s the Word for today?” I shared from Psalm 80:20, “Lord God of hosts, restore us; light up your face and we shall be saved.”

But it was in the midst of such special requests, that the evidence started to pile up to convict me of hat thievery.

“I need a hat for my head. The sun is getting me.”

“Hey, can you get me a hat? I’m getting burned up on my head.”

“This shade is nice, but when I go back out there, I sure could use a hat.”

At first, I was able to confidently refer these requests to the socks and hygiene list. On Thursdays, the guests on that list can get hats.

But later in the morning, when I knew the list was full, I could not make such an easy referral. Instead, I went into the house to see if more hats could be given out. That is when I found out our hat supply is dangerously low. If I gave out more hats today, we would not have hats for the men who are signed up to shower on Monday. That’s when I remembered the words from St. Basil. And that’s when I had to confront my own hat thievery. I have more hats than I need. I have stolen them from the guests at Manna House who asked me for a hat this morning. I will give them back Monday when we open. Well, at least most of them.