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.”