Grace Abounds

“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).

I saw her standing on the sidewalk at the end of the Manna House driveway. I was hopeful that she was in a peaceful mindset. This guest has had a difficult history at Manna House. Her outbursts, her threats of violence, and finally her throwing of hot coffee at a volunteer, culminated in her being banned indefinitely three years ago.

A guest who is banned is not allowed at Manna House. Usually a ban is for a week or two, or maybe a month. The hope is that the time away will allow the guest to evaluate what went wrong, and then come back to discuss how a change can lead to being welcomed again.

With this guest attempts to help her develop some minimal respect for other guests and volunteers with shorter bans had utterly failed. The combination of her personality and mental illness were too much for us to handle. So a “permanent” ban was reluctantly imposed.

During this ban she still came around to Manna House once in a while. One of us would serve her out on the sidewalk, away from other guests and volunteers. Sometimes this service was as simple as a cup of coffee. Sometimes it involved more complicated negotiations about clothing items she wanted.

Kathleen and I would also see her around midtown on occasion. Each encounter was always fraught with some anxiety. This guest can move from friendly to volatile in a manner of minutes. Then she disappeared. Months passed without seeing her, until this morning, when I went down to the end of the driveway to talk with her.

I greeted her and asked if she would like a cup of coffee.

“Already sent somebody in to get me a cup,” she replied matter of factly. For this guest going around the rules comes easily.

“Glad to hear you’ve got coffee coming. How have you been?”

“I nearly died a few weeks ago. Sunstroke. I was in the hospital, ICU. They thought I wasn’t going to make it. And I almost didn’t.”

She looked at me as if to emphasize she had been on death’s door. And then added,

“None of us know when we’re going. Could be anytime. Wasn’t my time. Will be sometime.”

“I’m grateful it wasn’t your time.” She smiled when I said this, and then asked for some socks and a shirt.

“I can get those for you.”

Sin’s power is death. I see the power of sin in how this guest nearly died. The summer’s heat and humidity and the lack of shelter, of a place for her to stay, had nearly killed her. And maybe even our ban from Manna House had nearly killed her.

As she sat on a bench in the front yard of Manna House to put on her new socks, she said, “Look at my feet. All swollen and red. Guess it’s from that sunstroke.”

A pair of socks is a small grace. And she liked the shirt I brought out. I knew she likes shirts that are big and hang down around her. I had brought out an XXL.  Perhaps another small grace.

I knew the big grace was that despite all she had been through, despite her being banned from Manna House, she was talking with me. For a moment she trusted me enough to share her life, and extend a gracious welcome to me.

We were in a very small space of grace where Manna House boundaries and her ability on this day to be pleasant intersected. Sin was all around us, and in us, and yet this was a moment in which grace was abounding.

Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. So small I can easily miss the abundance of grace in the Kingdom as it grows and pushes against the power of sin and death.

I left this guest sitting in the coolness of the morning on the bench as I returned to the back yard. Death had to wait for another day.


Thirsty Soul

“I lift up my hands to you in prayer; like dry ground my soul is thirsty for you.” (Psalm 143:6).

I had this verse in my heart as Memphis went without rain for September, making it the third driest September on record for Memphis. And despite a few showers in the early days of October, the verse stayed with me. The ground is still hard and dry. The hydrangea plants in the backyard of Manna House are still droopy.

As I got out of my car in the parking lot across the street from Manna House, a man approached and asked me, “Do you remember me?”

He looked familiar, but I did not remember his name. I knew he was a Manna House guest from a few years back.

He told me his name and said he’s been working and has a place where he lives. “Did you know I got married?” he asked. Then he added, “My wife, she’s got stage four cancer. She’s at Methodist. That’s why I’m here, taking a break from being with her in the hospital room. You all still serving coffee?

“Well shit. I’m sorry. What’s your wife’s name so I can pray for her. And, yes, we still serve coffee. We’ll open at 8.”

I stood there in the parking lot feeling parched. I felt the hard, dry soil of life. I couldn’t help but connect this man’s story to Ronald Kent, who died of cancer just a few weeks ago. I won’t hear him singing in the Manna House showers anymore; or get to rib him about the Dallas Cowboys, his favorite team.

The former guest interrupted my thoughts of drought. He had more he wanted to share with me. “People tell me the good Lord doesn’t give us any more than we can handle,” he said. “I don’t know about that. Either the Lord thinks I’m super strong, or that’s just flat out wrong. What do you think?”

“I think it’s wrong,” I said. “I guess I don’t think it’s so much about God testing us, trying to see what you or I can handle. I think it’s more about how God is always with us, God holds us close even when it doesn’t feel that way.” I was trying to talk my way through my own thirst for God.

Then the man shared with me how God’s gracious rain comes to him in drought. “I have no doubt God is with me,” he said. “But really it’s God in Christ. Jesus is the one who knows our suffering. He suffered. He died. He’s been there. He’s suffering with my wife. He’ll die with her, just like he died for her. We’re never completely alone.”

“You’re right, so right. You have a strong faith,” I told him, “I’ll keep your wife and you in my prayers.”

“Thanks,” he said, “Prayer is all I’ve got now.”

This parking lot theologian reminded me of the biblical and Christian tradition of affirming God’s grace is like rain. God freely offers God’s grace to each of us, like a gentle rainfall. C. H. Spurgeon notes how lovingly God shares this grace. God “directs each drop, and gives each blade of grass its own drop of dew… God moderates the force, so that it does not beat down or drown the tender herb. Grace comes in its own gentle way.”

In the times of drought in my life, God can seem more absent than present. The rain of grace can seem shut off. But the guest in the parking lot showed me how to stay open to God’s gracious rain, to the life-giving water given us in Christ. When I stretch out my hands to God in prayer, when I keep yearning for God’s gracious rain even when my soul is dry and thirsty, God will slake the thirst of my soul.