Advent Journey

Early winter in Memphis. I watch leaves let go of trees. The backyard of Manna House is almost completely covered by the fallen leaves.  I see winter’s approaching starkness in the bare branches overhead. And I find my faith in Light and Resurrection tested. In my morning prayer, I read apocalyptic visions that will culminate in a Son born among the least. Yet I know that Son will be immediately threatened by a murderous ruler. This is a time of advent journey.

In this advent journey, I feel the cold of the mornings. I hold the hands of guests during our opening prayer on the front porch. Their icy flesh hints of death. It is a harsh reminder of what it means to have no warm place to stay for the night. Even if they found shelter, that momentary warmth is gone by the time we open at 8.a.m. Shelters usually ask people to get up and get outside by 6 or 7 a.m.

In this advent journey, the line forms quickly and quietly as our guests enter the light and warmth of Manna House. They seek coffee to warm their bodies. They seek welcome to warm their souls. We are going through more hot coffee more quickly each morning. It takes about twenty minutes for the first one hundred cup coffee pot to be emptied. Some guests have taken to filling small thermoses so even after we close they will have some hot coffee. They try to carry the light and warmth of the house with them.

Along this advent journey, my faith is tested, both in God and in humanity. The Christ who arrives at Manna House suffers from our sins, and he is announced by an angel from on low, “There’s a man in the front yard who needs an ambulance.”

I go outside and see a man seated on a chair near the front gate. Another guest had brought a chair down to the gate for the man to sit on. The man is shaking slightly as he sits. He is old and black, and though I recognize him, I cannot remember his name.

He reminds me of his name, and says, “I was just discharged from the Med about an hour ago. They left this in my arm.”

He rolls up his sleeve to reveal an IV port, still taped to his arm. Then he hands me his discharge papers. Dizziness and high blood pressure and dehydration conspired to put him into the emergency room. People in a hurry apparently conspired to leave the IV port in him. The temptation is to rush, for all of us. It is how we lose the Light and end up in darkness.

A guest insists I call an ambulance. Another urges the man to get a lawyer and sue.

“No need to do that,” I respond about the ambulance. “I’ll take him back to the Med.” We have enough volunteers (thankfully) so I have the leisure to leave Manna House for a while.

I get my car from across the street. A few guests gently deposit the man in the front seat. I reach across to click his seat belt into place. Off we go on our Advent journey.

The Med (or should I say its new fancy name, “Region One”?) is about three quarters of a mile from Manna House. We talk along the way.

“I was headed to Catholic Charities,” he says, “I’m working with them to get a place. Do you know Dick Hackett there? He’s going to help me.”

“Sure I know of Dick Hackett. He was the mayor of Memphis.”

“When he was mayor, my Momma cleaned his house, so I figure he owes me.”

We arrive at the hospital. I help him out of the car. He takes my arm so I can steady him while he walks. We take very slow steps as we head arm in arm to the Emergency Room. The nurse on duty at the front desk listens to his story. She does not apologize or offer any explanation about why the IV port was left in his arm. She does come around immediately and go to work.

“There, all done,” she says, as she swiftly and cleanly pulls out the IV port.

We walk slowly back to my car, arm in arm. I drive him to Catholic Charities. He methodically makes his way up the steps, holding the railing, and enters the building. I wonder how his meeting with Dick Hackett will go. It is still Advent.

Bowels and Mercies

Last Monday a very tattered and incomplete New Testament surfaced from the back pocket of a pair of pants going into the laundry at Manna House. On Tuesday, when I was asked for the Word of the Day, I happened to open this worn New Testament (King James Version) to Philippians 2:1-3, 5.

“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. … Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

The question came quickly from a guest.

“What does ‘bowels and mercies’ mean? What do bowels have to do with mercy?”

“Maybe we need to look at another translation,” another guest suggested.

Google quickly gave some other translation options, “tenderness and compassion,” “kindness and compassion,” “affection and sympathy.”

But still we were mystified by “bowels.”

“Maybe it means being moved deep within to be merciful” a guest offered, “Like feeling something in your gut.”

“That makes sense,” I said, and I promised that I would ask our New Testament professor at Memphis Theological Seminary for help with finding the original Greek word translated “bowels.”

Dr. Mitzi Minor responded to my inquiry.

She told me “the Greek word translated as compassion/affection/kindness is quite literally the word for ‘bowels’ in Greek. So, the KJV is literally correct. But it’s a poor translation for us because we don’t usually know that for ancient Greeks the bowels were considered the ‘seat’ of compassion in the body. Sort of like a ‘feeling in my gut.’ And a lot like we use ‘heart’ to indicate ‘love. Imagine 1000 years from now when ‘heart’ is no longer used that way, and someone then trying to make sense of someone now writing ‘I love you from the bottom of my heart.’ They’d think, ‘What does the bottom of the heart muscle have to do with love?’ and likely end up translating the line I love you deeply.’ That’s what’s going on in Phil 2:1. I’d prefer to translate that phrase, ‘If there is any compassion and mercy’ (though I’m also not sure that people really understand ‘mercy’ well either, but I really don’t like sympathy for that word).”

I asked her if this the same Greek word or related to “splagchnizomai” because I had once heard a similar explanation for a description of Jesus’ being moved to compassion in Matthew 20:34,

Yes, she added, that’s the verb form of the noun that is the word in Philippians 2:1.

Given this explanation for “bowels and mercies,” I thought about how the passage on bowels had come from a New Testament in the back pocket of pants worn by someone who would often be denied access to a restroom. Business owners have to be moved in their bowels to open bathrooms to others whose bowels are moving instead of restricting bathrooms to “customers only.”

And I also thought about how this passage is connected with Jesus being a model for compassion. I am encouraged to be moved like Jesus was moved, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

If only I could feel deeply moved by the love of God known in Jesus’ life and teaching, then maybe my bowels of compassion would move too.

I look around and see the results of a severe case of compassion constipation. Fears of “difference,” of “not enough,” of “foreigners,” drive a restrictive politics and economics, bound up by trying to control and dominate “the other.”

This old New Testament text, in its strange translation, points to another way. A way in which somewhere deep within, perhaps where God resides in each of us, a compassion movement can begin. It urges a different way, where we graciously loosen up and take on the compassion of Christ. Moved by Christ’s love we can see each other as sisters and brothers, as sharing in the same humanity. Love can move us, deeply in our guts, to have mercy.

Is God Dead?

“Who is your favorite dead person?”

I thought this might be a provocative question to get guests thinking about who they would like to remember on the Feast of All Saints. In the Christian calendar, All Saints Day commemorates all the saints of the church, both known and unknown, who have attained heaven. It is an ancient feast, having its origins in remembrances of the martyrs and its official establishment goes back to 837 when Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance. Closely following All Saints is the Feast of All Souls, commemorating all of the faithfully departed.

As the days get shorter and the nights get colder and the trees begin to lose their leaves, death seems more in the air. And these days, the power of death is thickly present in our society: bomb threats sent to political leaders, a murderous attack on worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, two African Americans gunned down by a white supremacist at a grocery store with story after story of whites harassing African Americans, a president ordering soldiers to the border to confront a “caravan” of asylum seekers, while at the same time he stokes more and more racist fears and enmity toward any political opponent. And, too, on the very Feast of All Saints, yet another execution in the State of Tennessee.

Remembering the dead in this time of death might seem a strange way to resist death. But the dead are not remembered to dwell on death. We are to remember the dead to be renewed in the hope of redemption, of new life, of fullness of life, all solidly grounded in the Source of Life, God, who is Love.

And so the guests at Manna House shared answers to my question. Though I admit my question elicited more puzzlement than responses at first until I refined it. “Who is the most important person in your life who has died? Who do you miss the most?” In response, guests offered their sacred memories of loved ones who still live in their hearts, and whom they hope to see again.

The first few guests I talked with had memories accompanied by the uncomplicated grief and love of a loved one lost.

“My Grandmomma. She raised me. If I have any sense at all that comes from her.”

“I had a friend. We ran together in high school. He died young. I still miss him.”

“My mother. She loved me, without hesitation or judgment. And she kept on me to be better.”

“Daddio and Ten Four, they both looked after me and I looked after them.”

But then came a memory that was very painful. A guest teared up as he said, “My daughter. She died of an overdose when she was twenty three. I’ll never get over that.” He shared with me her name and we prayed together.

The journey through death, went deeper when a guest gave me an answer that stopped me in my tracks. “Who is the most important person in your life who has died? Who do you miss the most?”

“God,” the guests said, “He’s dead to me.”

I could tell he did not want to say anything more. In this moment, in his suffering, I simply stood there in silence before saying, “You are loved” and then I walked away.

I thought later of an exchange that happened between Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. As the story goes, Sojourner Truth was in the audience at Faneuil Hall in Boston back in 1847 when Frederick Douglass, despairing that slavery would ever end suggested that God had abandoned African Americans. Truth stood up and asked, “Frederick, is God dead?” The question is inscribed on her tombstone. In the face of the powers of death, the power of slavery, Sojourner Truth asserted her faith in a God who is Love, who is Liberating, and Life-Giving.

The Feast of All Saints and its companion feast of All Souls both reflect the most important feast in Christian life, Easter. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s life-giving, liberating, and loving overturning of the power of death, and those powers that impose death. I wonder if while Jesus was on the cross if he did not share with this Manna House guest the deep despair of feeling God’s death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus said as he died.

This death of Jesus touches upon and connects with the death of each person who suffers and dies at the hands of the powers of death. Jesus was, after all, executed by the most brutal form of capital punishment the Romans used. Jesus’ death connects with the death of each homeless person, each person in poverty, each person killed in justice struggles. Jesus’ death question connects with the Manna House guest who in his suffering feels God’s death. And, yes, Jesus’ death also connects with each one of us who face the question, “Will I love and give of myself in love? Will I reject the power of death that makes me afraid of the stranger, of the other, of losing face, of not winning the rat race?”

Jesus got his answer in the resurrection, God’s emphatic overturning of his death sentence, and God’s loving promise to overturn every death sentence. Love is what liberates us from fear of death because love is what liberates us from death.

The Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls echo Easter, when God spoke into the ear of Jesus as he lay in the tomb, and raised him with the words, “You are loved.”