Christmas Hope on Christmas Eve at Manna House

On the front porch we sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Then we all go in together, for hot coffee, “socks and soap,” women’s showers, and lots of conversation. Christmas eve on a Tuesday morning at Manna House begins.

A guest tells me on the way in, “That Emmanuel song is my favorite. ‘mourns in lonely exile here,’ moves me every time.”

I agree, my favorite Christmas song too. The music and words evoke my longing for God to transform this troubled world. My Christmas hope is that the way things are will give way to God’s dream for the flourishing of the whole creation, humanity included.

Yet, I find it hard to hold to Christmas hope. The way things are is broken. There is oppression, cruelty, hurt, and harm. Evil seems ascendant and relentless. The system is designed to grind people down. Politics as usual and consumer capitalism do not prioritize “the least of these.” The system engulfs and distorts all of us, and we live amidst deadly contradictions and cross-purposes.

I start folding laundry and come across a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt. Immediately, I think of several guests who were put to death by this system. But while they were alive they were big Cowboys’ fans. They would have loved getting this t-shirt. Contradictions. Cross-purposes. Christmas hope?

I look across the laundry room and see the John Kilzer t-shirt I hung up last spring. It tumbled out of the dryer the Monday after he died. John was a friend to those on the streets and people of all walks of life who struggle with addiction. His clothing donations were especially appreciated by our taller guests. He often said, “There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us and only God can fill it.” More, he said God filled that hole with God’s love and there was nothing any of us could do to make God stop loving us.

John’s life and words recall St. Paul’s Christmas hope, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

This Christmas hope holds that despite the hardness of the present order, love will be ascendant, or as Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

So, Christmas hope celebrates the baby Jesus is born in Bethlehem, of all places, a land under the empire of that time. Jesus brings a Way that is Life and Truth, that practices a Christmas hope contrary to empires organized for death; a Christmas hope that leads into the Beloved Community, designed for fullness of life.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux identified the “little way” as a means to practice Jesus’ Way in our daily lives. The little way embodies Christmas hope as it cracks open ordinary tasks so that in them I can share in God’s revolutionary love.

When I pass through the clothing room, a woman who has showered asks if I can help get socks on her feet. She sits in a chair and I kneel in front of her. Her feet are disformed by years of bad shoes and too many miles. Socks do not go easily over her bunions and twisted toes, but eventually I succeed. I help her with her shoes next.

Hospitality invites me to faithfully practice such little acts of Christmas hope, so the light can come in, and so God’s reign comes in.

As the morning slows down, I have time to simply sit with the few guests who remain. We begin to talk about Christmas and the many disappointments each of us has experienced as Christmas came and went. Gifts not received. People who disappointed. It seems like a good time to have a Charlie Brown Christmas moment, an affirmation of Christmas hope. I read to those gathered Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. When I finish guests weigh in.

“Jesus slept outside.”

“Jesus got a rough start.”

“No room for them in the inn.”

I look around and see a guest still asleep on the couch. He has been there all morning. He will return to the streets when Manna House closes.

“He’s coming back, you know,” a guest says about Jesus, “and this time he won’t be born in a barn. This time he’s getting all of us off these streets.”

Christmas hope.

Does God Offer Hope to Those Who Suffer?

Does God offer hope to those who suffer? I am not talking about the suffering endemic to being human, like illness, broken relationships, and failed projects. I am talking about the suffering that is imposed upon some by others, the suffering named “oppression,” and “injustice.” The guests who come to Manna House experience suffering through the injustices of poverty, racism, homelessness, heterosexism, misogyny. It is the kind of suffering that leads to chronic illnesses—both physical and mental, and premature death.

When I took names on the front porch of Manna House on Tuesday morning for showers and socks and hygiene, a guest I had not seen for several weeks approached.

“Where have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been dead,” she said.

It was not the answer I had expected. She was, after all, standing there in the damp grey cold of this morning as alive as you or me.


“I was dead. I was in the hospital and I died. The cockroaches killed me. But now I live.”

I have learned over the years that what sometimes appears as insanity can have a logic that transcends ordinary rationality and reveals a deeper truth.

She continued, “I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.” She smiled, made sure I got her name on the socks and hygiene list, and walked down the steps.

I thought of last Sunday’s Gospel in which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus appeared to be insane when he said to those mourning the death of Lazurus, “Take away the stone” The voice of ordinary rationality said to him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” And Jesus, firmly rejected that rationality, “Lazarus come forth!” (John 11:39, 43). The deeper truth became evident, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, though they may die, shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26).

Does God offer hope to those who suffer?

“I was dead… But now I live. I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

Later in the afternoon, I came across a quotation from J.B. Metz,” Christian faith involves a continuing effort to keep ourselves open to the coming of God . . . He is Emmanuel, God with us. He breaks in upon us, becomes visible in our horizon, and forms part of our human future. He is ever coming down to us and weaving Himself into our historical pageant” (The Advent of God, 1970:8).

God raised from the dead this woman on the front porch who said to me, “Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

God somehow lifted the suffering and death of this Manna House guest, but also through her spoke to me. Taken literally, I still do not know exactly what to make of her claim that she had been dead and was now alive. But she pointed me to a deeper truth, God comes to break the hold of death. God interrupts the firm grasp of “the way things are is the way things have to be.” God offers a different path, a different way to envision human life, and a different way to live.

I did not expect to encounter someone who had died and yet now lives. I know my imagination, my daily thoughts, feelings, and expectations are shaped by the culture around me. This culture informed by capitalist consumerism creates a life (death?) of fears and anxieties. It also creates the suffering of those on the streets. In my life I worry about my work, about money, about status, about how others see me; about all those things Thomas Merton called “the false self.” These are all ways to be dead.

How may I be attuned to a logic that transcends ordinary rationality and reveals a deeper truth? How to rise from the dead? How to become alive? How to hear how God offers hope to those who suffer?

Henri Nouwen tells of the power of God that enters in prayer. “The discipline of prayer,” he writes, “is the intentional, concentrated, and regular effort to create space for God” (Nouwen, Spiritual Formation, 18). He continues, “The various disciplines of the spiritual life are meant for freedom[for life!] and are reliable means for the creation of helpful boundaries in our lives within which God’s voice can be heard, God’s presence felt, and God’s guidance experienced. Without such boundaries that make space for God, our lives quickly narrow down; we hear and see less and less, we become spiritually sick, and we become one-dimensional, and sometimes delusional, people [we die]. The only remedy for this is the intentional practice of prayer and meditation.”

“I was dead… But now I live. I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” The Advent prayer for freedom and life that gives hope for those who suffer. Amen.

Crossing the Threshold

Guests constantly come and go through the Manna House front door during a morning of hospitality. Anchoring the door and the entire front entrance is the threshold, a slightly cracked and massive piece of concrete. This threshold has been crossed about a million times in the fourteen years Manna House has been open. I have probably crossed the threshold nearly 40,000 times myself.

Despite this heavy traffic, it is easy to not notice this threshold. It is nothing fancy and it is low to the ground; not even in the usual line of sight. But in this season of Advent, I need to pay attention to what a threshold means.

Biblically, the Hebrew root meaning for threshold, gate or door is “caphaph” which means “to snatch away or terminate.” The other word for threshold is “pethen” which means “to twist as a snake.” It appears a threshold is a dangerous place. Why? Because it signals change. As one biblical commentator, Barbara Yoder, explained: “Gates [or thresholds] are where we win or lose. … The threshold is where we either leap forward or back out.” The Bible points to a question as I approach Advent’s threshold, do I give allegiance to the way things are or do I seek to be faithful to God’s way?

Two other commentators on the meaning of threshold, Frederick and Mary Ann Brusatt describe the threshold as, “a crossing-over place that signifies transformation and that can be scary or soul-stirring.” And they continue, “Thresholds also invite us to practice hospitality. Consider the situation at borders throughout our world. They are often tense places where peoples and cultures intermingle, sometimes creatively and other times with hatred and hostility. St. Benedict advised monks to greet strangers with love, knowing that in them resides the presence of Christ.”

Crossing the threshold at Manna House, I meet Christ in the guests who also cross the threshold. I can tell you the transformation I have experienced crossing this threshold is both scary and soul-stirring. Scary because I know I often fail to treat Christ very well. I am too quick to judge, too suspicious, too busy, too afraid to be able to hear and understand and respond with compassion. When I cross the threshold of Manna House, I am invited to an Advent of preparing for Christ who came not only as an infant threatened by poverty and persecution, but also comes in each and every person “made strange,” dehumanized, and subjected to death-dealing exclusion.

Crossing the threshold is also soul-stirring. I have been brought to my knees in lamentation by Christ in the guests. I have seen their suffering and so many have been lost to death, crucified by neglect, rejection, systemic racism and poverty. Yet crossing this threshold is also soul-stirring because it is here that the guests have taught me the truth that though the darkness of these evils does not go away in this life, still as John’s Gospel says, “the light shines on inside of the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it” (1:5).

This light illuminates the truth from Psalm 84:10, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

When I stand at the threshold of the house of God, I stand with those excluded from the buildings and institutions of the powerful. I am called by God to enter into solidarity with and welcome those who are kept out and dismissed with disdain.

In their essay on the threshold, the Brusatt’s refer to the traditional Christian monastic practice of “statio.” In this practice, “the monk or nun enters the church or chapel but pauses first at the threshold to shed any burdens, agitations, and distractions which might get in the way of being truly present to God.”

As I cross the threshold at Manna House, I am invited to practice this “statio.” I need to prepare myself to receive each guest as Christ. I need to practice a dangerous and different threshold vision in which those pushed away are welcomed in. I need to replace in my head and my heart all of those derogatory names from the dominant culture that play upon stereotypes of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, with actual names of persons made in the image of God. I need to cross what Abraham Joshua Heschel describes as “the threshold of repentance, of unbearable realization of our own vanity and frailty and the terrible relevance of God.”

Crossing this Advent threshold points to the joy of Christmas, when God in Jesus graciously opens the door to each of us to cross the threshold of God’s house and enter into life, love, and liberation.


Keep Watch

“Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Matthew 24:42

Advent begins with Jesus’ apocalyptic call to “keep watch,” or “be alert.” Read the signs of the times. In the midst of the ordinary, something is about to happen. There will be an unveiling (the meaning of the Greek word “apocalypsis”) that will reveal a truth contrary to the current powers that be.

I know hospitality can become humdrum. My ability to discern and recognize the presence of Christ in the people who come to Manna House for coffee, socks and hygiene, and showers can be obscured by the power of routine. I find there is a rhythm of people and services offered that make most mornings at Manna House quite ordinary.

So, this morning, as I typically do, at 8am I went out to the front porch and invited guests and volunteers to join in prayer. Like we do every morning we are open, we formed a circle and reached out to hold each other’s hands. But as I began to lead this ordinary time of prayer, a guest standing near the gate shouted out, “Please pray for our friend Michelle who died.”

I felt the greyness of the skies darken. The cold wind seemed to blow hard and chill more deeply. The bleakness of the morning took on greater intensity. The power of death appeared unchallenged. Another guest struck down, crucified by the streets.

So, we prayed. We prayed that Michelle be welcomed into the presence of God, into love, warmth, home. And we prayed that God would take away the bitterness of life.

Then we went inside. Nothing out of the ordinary. The house was warm. Coffee was served. Setting up people for showers, and the offering of “socks and hygiene” began.

Minutes later a guest erupted in anger when he was told he could not shower at Manna House today. He had been ugly toward volunteers the last time he showered. As he left he hurled words of accusation about our failure to be what we say we are. This was not the first time for such anger and such words. And it certainly will not be the last.

After he left, the conversations among guests that had fallen silent resumed. So, too, did the usual banter of offering showers and socks and hygiene. Guests came in when their names were called, and volunteers ably served them. The rest of the morning proceeded without incident, as is usually the case.

What then on such a morning am I supposed to be alert to, to keep watch for? Did the Lord come in the death of Michelle? Had the Lord come in the anger of the guest turned away? Was the Lord in the sorrow of the man who had called for prayers for Michelle? Was the Lord in those drinking coffee and taking showers? What was being unveiled, revealed, on this morning?

I really do not know. Advent tells me to enter into a time to sit with both the presence of darkness and the promise of light. This is not a time to force answers or glibly find meaning in suffering and the hardness of life. Advent is a time of liminality, (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”). In this liminal time there is ambiguity and disorientation. What once was is no longer certain, and what will be has not yet emerged. I need to keep watch in the twilight of Advent. Here is my Advent commitment, like the psalmist, I need to “wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6).