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.