Holding on in the Dog Days

The “dog days” of summer are here. In Memphis, the heat and humidity are intense. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the “dog days” arrived when the star Sirius appeared in the July sky and rose just before the sun. This sign in the sky signaled the hottest time of the year. They believed the “dog days” could bring fever, or even catastrophe. In our time, this ancient view is appropriate. A guest said this morning, “We got high temps, high humidity, high infections, and high tension on the streets.”
In these dog days, Manna House guests arrive bedraggled. Incessantly hot weather in the day goes hand in hand with swarms of mosquitoes at night that make sleep impossible. So, we offer a place to rest in the shade, some cold water, some coffee, showers with a change of clothes, and socks and hygiene, and we hope all this provides some welcome relief.
But even though Manna House is again offering showers for men twice a week, pandemic precautions restrict the number of showers to six men each morning. Only one person is allowed in the shower room at a time (instead of the usual two). And since we sanitize the shower room after each person showers, that further limits the number of people we can serve. The combination of pandemic and our small shower space means the shower list fills up quickly. Each morning people are turned away. Some bow their heads in sorrow, others lift their voices in anger. Both responses are justified, and both make my heart ache. The relief offered at Manna House is limited.
Further the pandemic has significantly changed the way we offer hospitality, even as it has not ended it. We are all wearing masks at Manna House and practicing physical distancing. When guests arrive, they are directed to the handwashing stations. If they need a mask, one is provided. We encourage people to sit six feet apart on the benches and at the picnic tables. I miss seeing the smiles of our guests. I miss being able to shake hands as part of welcoming people to Manna House. I miss the ease of gathering without worrying about infecting others or getting infected.
I find offering hospitality in these dog days physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting. I know I am grieving loss. I feel the loss of the days when the shower room could handle twenty to twenty-five men on Mondays and Thursdays, and ten to fifteen women on Tuesdays. I feel the loss of volunteers who have rightly decided the risk is too high for them to come to Manna House. I feel the loss of guests who have perhaps decided the same thing, or perhaps find our reduced services not worth coming for anymore. I feel the loss of wearing masks, with muffled voices, and again no smiles. I feel the loss, for now, of the weekly shelter offered at the Manna House Women’s Sanctuary. Much work and many funds and the building is largely unused until a safe way of offering shelter can be found. I feel the loss, too, in the way these days are grinding down guests. I can see the physical decline that comes from being on the streets. The grief I feel is deep and I slog through it in these dog days.
How to honor my grief and not get stuck in it? How to honor my grief and still offer hospitality? I find the old practice of Lectio Divina learned in monastic days to be helpful. I turn to a passage in the Bible and stick with it and let it stick to me (easier to do in days of high humidity). I mull it over. I chew on it. I step away from it and come back to it. I pray over it and with it. I ask, what is this Word of God in these human words telling me to be and to do? 
In these dog days, I am called to biblical passages that speak to relief from the heat and the cooling refreshment of water. Here are two, both from the prophet Isaiah:
“They will not hunger or thirst, nor will the scorching heat or sun strike them down; For God who has compassion on them will lead them and will guide them to springs of water.” (Isaiah 49:10)
“The Lord will guide you always; 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.” (Isaiah 58:11)
So, I pray: Heat and pandemic and death are here. But so is God in the water that cools and gives life. The dog days are here. But so is God who is the Creator of the stars and the sun and the moon. I feel stuck in the doldrums of the dog days. But I have a Compassionate Companion along the way who reminds me of where I am headed. 
As I pray over these Isaiah passages, I begin to hear the words of the old hymn reborn in the Civil Rights Movement, “The only chain that we can stand,
Is the chain of hand in hand.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on”
Indeed, in these dog days, hold on.

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