The Gift of Smallness

Lately, Jesus, Dorothy Day, and St. Therese of Lisieux have gone to work on my soul. I had succumbed to the deadly “bigger is better” and “busier is better” viruses. There were mornings at Manna House when I wondered if it was worth our even staying open. Given the risk to ourselves and to our guests, and the small amount of hospitality we were offering, should we even keep our reduced schedule of two mornings a week, from 8:00-10:000am?

Part of this questioning no doubt came from my sense of the paucity of what we were offering compared to the “glory days.” Pre-pandemic we were open three mornings a week from 8:00-11:30am. Typically, we would manage twenty-five or more people for showers, fifty-one or more for socks and hygiene, and three to four hundred cups of coffee served to several hundred guests. Now we had two mornings a week from 8:00-10:00am, six people for showers, maybe thirty for socks and hygiene, and a hundred or so cups of coffee for maybe sixty guests all total.

Part of my questioning also came from the slower pace for myself at Manna House. With fewer guests, on many mornings I found myself with a significant amount of “down time”—when there was little or nothing to do but wait for another person to finish his shower, so the next guest could be called in.

I know I was also mourning not only the reductions in service, but also the loss of relationships with people on the streets and others who came to Manna House each day we were open. Those relationships relied upon offering a place where it was comfortable to come and hang out. With our limitations on going into the house (one person at a time for use of the bathroom, and one person at a time for showers), we did everything else outside, including the coffee serving and “socks and hygiene.” It was not that comfortable for hanging out. For the people with a place to stay, the choice to stay away was easy. And many of the people on the streets likely found warmer places to go. In either case, the community at Manna House was smaller.

In my mourning and questioning, I heard the voice of Jesus say, 
“‘Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast.’
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn and sad.”

And I listened as I rested, and Jesus said, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches” (Luke 13:18–19).

Then I heard Dorothy Day say, “by little and by little,” we are made whole by the small things, chosen deliberately and repeated each day in the service of the poor.

Then I heard St. Therese of Lisieux say that I should seek the “Little Way” in which “What matters in life is not great deeds but great love.” The key is not performance but relationship.

In the spirit of the little way of the mustard seed, Jesus, Dorothy, and Therese called me to embrace the gift of the smaller, the slower, the fewer. In this gift, I have space for practicing the presence of God. At Manna House this means I can slow down and recognize God’s presence in each guest as “Christ comes in the stranger’s guise” (see Matthew 25:31-46). When I am not so rushed, I can see each person’s dignity, and listen more carefully to each person. I can also take the time to sit for conversation.  

On Thursday, this gift of the smaller meant I sat down with a couple of guests, one black and one white. I listened to their stories about when they were younger. I was gifted as I saw their eyes brighten and smiles come across their faces as they reminisced about growing up in the country. They had simple stories about hunting, swimming, and taking care of “chores.” For a few minutes we were all in another place, a smaller place, a simpler place. Bigger and better took a back seat to the beauty of being with each other. And it was good.

A Stone Rejected Who Became A Cornerstone

I’m not exactly sure when Robert B. started coming to Manna House. It was at least six years ago. This morning his close friend, Darren, shared with me the sad news. Robert died sometime last Thursday morning in his sleep, under the bridge where he stayed. 

For someone who came to Manna House so regularly, I did not know a lot of details about Robert’s life, but his character spoke clearly. He was a quiet man. He was unfailingly friendly but reserved. He liked to keep his nose in a book and out of other people’s business. And he did not really appreciate other people trying to get into his business either.

Always thin, Robert was even thinner since he got out of the hospital in late fall. He had been stabbed and for a while it was touch and go. I went up to see him (my clergy pass allowed me in despite the COVID restrictions). We talked and I prayed with him. This was “a bad cut,” he said in a matter-of-fact monotone. He held no grudge or hatred toward the person who had done it. “We were both being stupid,” he said, “it happens when you drink too much.”

Robert never got too excited about anything. I tried hard with my silly jokes to get him to laugh, but the best I could get was a wry smile and a shaking of his head. He would warn people to not ask me to tell a joke. “They are painfully bad,” he would say, “Don’t get him started.”

He would often ask me for the weather forecast. He wanted to know the ten-day forecast with highs and lows and chances of rain. I had a sense that Robert did not like surprises. He certainly moved in a methodical way, never hurried, but also never slow.

Robert read historical novels, thrillers, and mysteries. Every picture I have of him from Manna House he has a book in his hands, and he is reading. He was a regular in the furthest corner of the backyard. There he constituted with a few others guests an informal library reading space. It was like they created an oasis of quiet in the midst of all the activity of a morning at Manna House.

Robert had a dignity about him that was part humility and part acceptance of himself for who he was. He sometimes came to Manna House after having drank too much. He was always apologetic and vowed to not do that again. He told me that Manna House was a place he felt welcomed, and he wanted to keep it that way.

The first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation is the cornerstone. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure. Robert was a “stone that the builders had rejected” (Psalm 118:22). He was on the streets, one of the “homeless” defined as a problem and sometimes even a menace. But he “had become the cornerstone” at Manna House. His steady presence helped establish a sense of orderliness in which people can relax, and hospitality becomes possible. 

I am unsettled by Robert’s death. Life seems more precarious than ever these days. But I am also going to hold onto Robert’s witness to ordinary steadfastness and human decency in the midst of failures and falls. He would certainly wobble from time to time, but he constantly returned to read a book, to say hello, to be a friend. Perhaps he showed that joy in life is only possible in the midst of vulnerability. That seems like a lesson I can rightly draw from the life and character of Robert, much like the life of another stone that was rejected and became a cornerstone.

Waiting in the Cold

I asked a guest waiting in line for coffee, “How are you this morning, other than cold?” 

He hesitated a few seconds, then answered, “I’m cold.”

As he walked away cradling his cup of coffee I thought, yes, colder than cold. Too cold to be anything other than cold.

Sunday’s rain had given way to a grey Monday morning. The clouds were low, temperatures were in the 30’s, and the dampness of the air made it feel even colder.

In years past, we would have all gathered in the house, warm and cozy against the chill. In this year of the pandemic, we gather outside, still in the backyard. There we can practice social distancing and not be in an enclosed space. Less chance to contract the coronavirus. But also less hospitable. No soft couches. No warm house. And wearing masks adds to the diminishment of hospitality. Voices are muffled, making it harder to have conversations. And if there are smiles, they cannot be seen.

All this made the Saint of the Day on Monday, St. John of the Cross, seem appropriate. He is most famous for his exploration of what he called, “the dark night of the soul.” I am no mystic, but there is something about that phrase that speaks to me, especially in this time of pandemic and Advent. In the night of pandemic, disease, suffering, and death stalk us. In the night of Advent, we await the Light of God in a Savior who will bring healing, peace, justice. Psalm 42 comes to mind as a prayer for these days, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:1-3).

In the dark night of the soul, the absence of God is palpable. Instead of God’s warm love, it is colder than cold. There is not simply loss, but loss upon loss. More than three hundred and four thousand dead in the United States. Hospitals are nearly full. Unemployment is up. People are facing evictions. Life is disrupted on so many levels and in so many ways. 

I came to work at Memphis Theological Seminary from this morning at Manna House. The buildings are mostly empty. A few faculty teach their online classes. A few staff take care of seminary business. But there are no students present. There is no buzz of conversation as a class ends and students fill the hallways. Like the hospitality at Manna House, the work of education is diminished. But even so, these changes are nothing compared to families adjusting to the loss of a loved one, or people adjusting to reduced work or the loss of jobs.

How to respond? How to live in this time? What to do in the dark night of the soul, this dark night of pandemic, this time of Advent? Where is your God when it is darker than dark, colder than cold?

St. John of the Cross invites me to consider doing nothing; nothing but wait in the darkness. There I face the hard reality. I cannot force the Light to come. I cannot force God to bend to my will. I have to wait, empty handed, empty hearted, thirsting for the living God. I need to wait, to get emptied of myself so there might be room for God. In this way, waiting for St. John of the Cross is not passivity; it is waiting in openness to God. 

So, I am going to wait and do a few things that I think are consistent with the presence of God.

I am going to wait as I hand a cup of coffee to a cold guest standing in line at Manna House.

I am going to wait as I listen to a guest tell me “These are hard days; days of distress.”

I am going to wait as I hear from a friend who is a chaplain at the VA of yet another death from COVID19.

I am going to wait as I wear a mask, and wash my hands, and practice social distancing. 

I am going to wait with openness to the truth that someday the Light is going to come. I am going to wait, in anticipation of and preparation for that day when God will come. On that day, God will bring some warmth for the colder than cold, some light for all of us in darkness, and some water for all of us who pray along with that thirsty Psalmist. Until then, I wait.

“Let the Little Children…”

The Inner Child

“I’m ready for my shower today.” One of the women guests greeted me as I came out of Manna House with the rest of the volunteers. We were about to start the morning with prayer with our guests. I had to give her the bad news.

“But today is Thursday. Women’s showers were on Tuesday. You won’t shower today.”

“No, today is my day for a shower.”

“Today is Thursday.”

“No, it can’t be.”

“It is. I’m sorry.”

When I left Manna House two hours later the same guest sat on the curb. She was playing with something in her hands that I couldn’t quite see. As I walked across the street, she called out to wish me a good day. As I drove off, she was still sitting on the curb. Completely occupied with her own thoughts.

Each of us starts as a child. I watch my five-year-old daughter grow and I am filled with wonder. She seems to learn new words and phrases every day. Her personality blossoms. She tries out the world around her. She is always asking questions. She spends hours playing, indulging her imagination. She is so full of promise and potential. She knows she is loved.

And I see a guest at Manna House, and I wonder. How did someone become so damaged? How did this person come to carry so much hurt? How constrained is this person by a world twisted by poverty, untreated mental illness, addiction, the powers of racism, sexism, homophobia? “What was this guest like as a child?” What happened? Where did all of the promise and potential go? Did this person ever know she or he was loved as a child?

I think of Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). In Jesus’ day, children were little more than property, the lowest or nearly the lowest on the social status scale. For Jesus to urge that children be welcomed was a revolutionary assertion. Those who were the lowest are most welcome, have great dignity, are deeply loved, in the Kingdom of God. Jesus gives a vision of how we ought to be in relation to each other, brothers and sisters of a shared Parent.

Sometimes my daughter says to me, “Dadda, show me pictures of when I was a baby.” I think she wants to relish a time in which the questions and challenges of growing up were less frightening. There is no doubt that growing up is hard. As an African American child, she is already negotiating and responding to the racism built into our society. She asked me the other day, “Why do white people hate black people?” And it is only going to get more complicated for her (and for her Momma and me).

I deeply desire a world in which we would enjoy each other in our differences of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, geography, because we all shared enough love, and those physical and cultural goods we need to live well. I wish we would play well with each other, enjoy each other’s company, be in a Beloved Community that reflected God’s deepest desire for our lives. I want us to be God’s children together, not hurt or damaged or oppressed. I want to see again that vision, that picture, of how we once were, in the beginning, full of promise and potential, fully knowing that each of us is loved.

Lamentation: Standing in the Need of Prayer

Lamentation. Biblical faith does not shy away from honestly stating the harsh realities of a violent and unjust world. And neither do Manna House guests. 

“I don’t need this place.”

“I’m tired of being told to wash my hands and wear a mask.”

“I don’t feel as welcome here as I used to.”

“I hate having to come here.”

God is in the prayers of lamentation. Lamentation incarnates the human desire for justice, for peace, for well-being. Made in the image of God, I can recognize a desire for well-being deep in my soul that comes from God’s imprint upon us and God in-dwelling with us.

But I do not want to hear the lamentation of our guests directed at me. So, I respond in ways not very consistent with hospitality.

“If you don’t need this place, why are you here?”

“I’m tired of asking you to wash your hands and wear a mask and keep it up over your nose.”

“Social distancing means we cannot open the house to everyone. We have to stay in the backyard.”

“You don’t have to come here.”

I would like to be the hero of this story. But I am not. I need the hospitality of our guests who come to Manna House. I need their word of “thanks” and their gratitude. Almost all give those gifts freely. But I get too focused on the hurtful and angry words of a very few. Some might say, “That’s just human nature.” I would add, “That’s just fallen human nature. That’s my sinful nature.”

Manna House, I have come to realize, is a place where brokenness meets brokenness, compassion meets compassion.

This week in the greyness and drizzle and chill of each morning, I had to remind myself of how we meet here in our fallibility, finiteness, and corruptibility. Or as Paul put it, “None are righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10).

This gives me some patience and empathy with angry guests, and with myself. Winter is coming. The pandemic is getting worse. These are hard times. People are tired, worn down, grieving losses and fearful of even more losses, angry with themselves and with the world. And so am I. 

I see so much loss in my life. My mentor and friend and second mother Murphy Davis died this past week. COVID19 is infecting those closer and closer to me. I know I am getting older and more susceptible to illness. More, I see in the lives of our guests how institutional and cultural failures most adversely affect people in poverty. Our political and economic systems never quite match the hype and these days are failing miserably. And all of the “isms” (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism to name a few) indicate our infinite capacity to divide and hate. Reasons for lamentation indeed.

“O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed” (Lamentations 1:9).


“Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised” (Lamentations 1:11).

“Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace” (Lamentations 5:1).

I wish there was a clear resolution after lamentation. But there is nothing neat and tidy about suffering, and the injustices that heap on more suffering. There is our cry for help. But it remains uncertain whether or not God will hear and respond by coming to our aid.

“Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us” (Lamentations 5:21).

At the end, what comes to mind is a song. It is a song that our guests know well. It is a song that arose from the lives of Black people who knew lamentation and knew a faith more powerful than any trial or tribulation, “It’s me O Lord standing in the need of prayer.” Lord hear our prayer.

Angels at Manna House, from September 2014

This past Monday, September 29th [in 2014], after the gate to the backyard was opened, we gathered with our guests as we do each morning, to pray. On that day, as I led the prayer, I announced that it was the Feast of Archangels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. When I came across this fact during my morning prayer I had not been all that thrilled. Archangels seem like a mythological hangover lurking around the edges of Christian faith. Angels are a little bit too sappy for my taste, like the old TV program, “Touched by an Angel,” or that movie with John Travolta, “Michael.”

          But then I remembered Hebrews 13:2 that I now shared with our guests, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares.” Maybe I just needed to focus on the presence of God’s messengers in those who come to Manna House. (The Hebrew word for angel is mal`ach, and the Greek word is angelos; both words mean “messenger”).

          So I invited all of us present to turn to our neighbor and say, “Good morning Angel!” There was much laughter as we all considered the outside possibility that some whom we welcomed were angels, messengers of God. 

            I was pleased with my theological recognition that the Bible holds together angels and hospitality. Abraham and Sarah welcomed visitors who were angels (Genesis 18). The same angels found Lot to be hospitable, but the people of Sodom to be utter failures when it came to hospitality (Genesis 19, Ezekial 16:49). Mary had an angelic visitor, namely Gabriel, giving her the news that she was pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). Mary was quite hospitable, given the surprising news Gabriel gave in that visit.

            I was also pleased that one of the readings on this Feast Day gives an ancient and poetic depiction of angels in the Book of Revelation, the same angels who we welcome in the practice of hospitality. In Revelation, these angels are crucial in spiritual warfare. “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated… And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world…..” (Revelation 12:7-9).

After this battle is over “a loud voice” is heard “saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God’” (Revelation 12:10-12).

Angels acting on the authority of Jesus Christ throw out the prosecutor who would condemn us on Judgment Day. Given that angels are those we welcome when we offer hospitality, the very angels to whom we offer hospitality are the ones who throw out the D.A. (District Accuser a.k.a. Satan). Michael and the others angels, to whom we offer hospitality, are our Public Defenders advocating for us on Judgment Day.

Hospitality and throwing out D.A.’s, that kind of angel theology appealed to me. No sap and sentimentality there.

But, later this same morning, I was called into the house. A volunteer told me a guest who had just arrived wanted to see me. I was not particularly happy to hear this. Almost always this means the guest wants a special favor, and he was told “no” by another volunteer. So he’s appealing to a higher authority, me. And now I have to say “no” again. I was certainly not thinking my high theological thoughts about guests as angels as I approached him. I brusquely said to him, “Stephen, what do you want?”

He replied, “I don’t want anything.”

“Then why do you want to see me?”

“I have something for you.” And he handed me a little red purse, smaller than a post-it note.

Now Stephen is quite mentally ill, and my compassion started to come back, albeit a bit paternalistically.

“Thank you Stephen. This is very nice.”

“No, you idiot,” he said, “Open it!”

I undid the little metal snap on the purse. Inside there was a thin piece of cardboard. I began to pull it out. I saw a tiny golden angel lapel pin attached to it and the words, “This is your guardian angel who will watch over you all your days.”

My knees grew weak. I could feel tears in my eyes. 

“Thank you Stephen. You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“O yes I do,” he replied, and with that he turned and left the house.My years of theological training had about dried up inside of me any belief in angels. I could talk theological talk about angels and hospitality and D.A.’s, but in this moment my talk was silenced. I simply had to accept the mystery of God and God’s angels. I had been touched by an angel.

The Gift of a Purple Heart

A guest, I’ll call her “Sally,” called me over to her. She sat alone at a picnic table in the backyard at Manna House. I was not pleased that she wanted to talk with me. Sally is short white woman probably in her early forties. She is very mentally ill, cantankerous, strangely dressed, and disheveled. My past interactions with her have included asking her to leave Manna House for being disruptive. But this morning, Sally seemed calm. She told me she had something for me. She said it was a gift. “Thanks for all Manna House does,” she said. Sally reached out her hand and put a small costume jewelry purple heart into my hand. On the heart it read, “Nurse.”

“You all mean a lot to me,” she said.

A purple heart? In the military, the purple heart in awarded in recognition of being wounded in war. In hospitality, just what is the war and what are the wounds? 

Sally herself is more deserving of a purple heart. I cannot fathom the wounds Sally has suffered from the violence of homelessness. I have some knowledge of statistics regarding the depth of horror of women face in homelessness. Studies show that almost all women on the streets have suffered sexual violence at some point in their lives. Women in homelessness are highly likely to be assaulted and raped. One study described homeless women as enduring a “traumatic lifestyle” in which incidents of sexual assaults are “layered upon ongoing traumatic conditions such as struggling to meet basic survival needs and living with ongoing threats and dangers.” (See https://vawnet.org/sites/default/files/materials/files/2016-09/AR_SAHomelessness.pdf).

To try and understand Sally’s wounds, I have to also add the violent injustice of untreated mental illness, the anguish of addiction, and the loss of connection with family and friends. Her wounds, like the woundedness of so many on the streets, means carrying a grief characterized by shock, despair, and anger. The trauma from the violent uprooting of people from homes, human dignity, and hope is a deep wounding. 

And yet in the midst of her wounds and loss and grief, Sally offered me the gift of a purple heart. Did she sense my wounds from offering hospitality to wounded people? I have seen the violence our guests have suffered from homelessness and poverty. I have lost count of the number of guests who have died. I see guests arrive blooded from falls or fights. I still remember the man who arrived in a wheelchair covered in his own excrement and maggots. I have seen guests convulse from seizures. I have prayed with guests as they have lost parents, siblings, friends. I have heard guests tell their stories of rejection for being gay, lesbian, or transgendered. I have seen the torment in the eyes of guests whose mental illness is untreated. I have heard the anger of guests when I have told them “no” because our hospitality has its limits too. 

Where do I go with this woundedness? How do I accept woundedness without becoming so calloused that my ability to show up again and again to offer hospitality is destroyed? Sally’s gift of a purple heart pointed not only to the woundedness of our guests, but also to my own woundedness. But I cannot stop there. For me, the recognition of woundedness in a purple heart is finally not enough. I have to turn to another symbol of woundedness, the cross, to find a way of compassion through woundedness. The cross was imposed on Jesus as a way to crush him and his reign of God movement. The wounds imposed on Manna House guests are intended to crush them. The wounds I receive doing hospitality are intended to harden my heart, so I stop offering hospitality.

Jesus resurrected still has the wounds from the cross. Jesus resurrected still has a purple heart. But instead of bringing death, those wounds and that purple heart now give witness to healing and life. This is the hope that emerges from grief. There is a healing that emerges from woundedness. When I attend to the wounds from the perspective of the cross, I find that the wounds invite me into compassion. I will not run from the woundedness of the guests at Manna House or my own woundedness. Our wounds join us together. From the perspective of the cross, I am invited through the gift of the purple heart to see our mutual vulnerability and our need for each other.

Sally is still on the streets, still suffering from mental illness and addiction, still susceptible to the violence done to women on the streets. But in the light of the cross, her gift of the purple heart reveals to me something more going on with her, and I hope with me. Our wounds call us to embrace and support and heal each other. Our wounds call us to share with each other the gift of the purple heart, wounds transformed by love, and wounds that know the necessity of justice in which the wounding will stop.

Water is a Sacrament of Salvation

I felt the Holy Spirit move me Thursday morning at Manna House. I had to say a few things about water as I invited all of us to wash our hands before entering the backyard.

“Come and wash your hands!

Wash this death-dealing virus away!

Soap up and let the water flow over your hands.

Water is liberation. Water is life.

The Israelites passed through water on their way out of slavery into freedom.

Jesus passed through water on his way into his liberating work as the Son of God.

In baptism we pass through water on our way to liberation from sin and death.

I got a few “Amens,” and “Alleluias,” from guests as they went to the handwashing stations. I believe the hand washing took on a holy significance. 

Hand washing, especially in this time of pandemic, is a way to promote life, the fullness of life for which Jesus came.

And hand washing points to another reality. Water is at the heart of the hospitality we offer at Manna House. Certainly, without water, no hands get washed. 

Even more, without water we could not offer hot coffee for guests to drink. Without water there would be no cooler filled with cold water to drink on hot days. Without water we could not offer showers for our guests. Without water we could not do laundry to cleanse the clothes and towels for showers. Without water we could not clean the coffee pots and sugar containers, and we could not mop the floors.

From beginning to end, water flows through our hospitality. Water’s role in hospitality signifies God’s liberating welcome to new life. Biblically, water is a sacrament of salvation.

The prophet Isaiah says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).

Jesus makes offering water a sign of discipleship. “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward” (Mark 9:41). And again, “I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink” (Matthew 25:35).

At the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. After this washing in water he gives them the new liberating commandment for life in God, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

Paul writes that we are buried with Christ “through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4, see also 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:5 and Colossians 2:12).

In the Book of Revelation, the final vision includes “the river of the water of life.” This life-giving river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, and the hospitable invitation is given, “let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:1-2, 17).

On Thursday morning, I felt the Spirit hover over the waters of hospitality at Manna House (Genesis 1:2). There was a hint of the new creation made possible as water flowed and offered life. And it all started with the invitation to wash our hands.

The Transfiguration of the Lord and of the Slow Man in the Shower

The showers at Manna House these days are a scarce commodity. Due to COVID19 restrictions, instead of two in the shower room, only one person at a time is allowed into shower. The shower room also needs to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between each shower. And we have reduced our hours of hospitality, so volunteers and guests alike spend less time together, even with masks and physical distancing. Due to all of these considerations, instead of twenty people on Monday and twenty people on Thursday getting a chance to shower, we only have room for six on each day.

            I am sure that showers are the most important physical form of hospitality we offer at Manna House. No doubt the safe sanctuary offered is important, and so are the socks and hygiene, and the coffee. But the showers and the change of clothes for each person who showers, are most transformative.

            Today, near the end of the morning, two of the people who had signed up for showers did not show up. There was enough time, barely, to offer another person a shower. Among the guests still in the backyard there were several regular guests who had showered on Monday. They declined the offer to shower. “Give it to someone who hasn’t showered yet this week,” each of them said.

            There was a new guest. He sat alone on a bench drinking his coffee. In front of him was his wheelchair, with his belongings strapped to the chair with various ropes and makeshift ties made out of grocery store bags. He was delighted to be asked to shower. “I haven’t had a shower for several weeks. I’m covered in sweat and mosquito spray.”

            Off he went to the clothing room. Volunteers carefully and compassionately helped him pick out clothes and shoes. Then he went into the shower room. 

            Last call was made for coffee. All the other guests left. The coffee pot, coffee cups, and sugar and creamer containers were picked up and put away. The shirts, socks, and hygiene items to be shared with guests in the backyard were all picked up and put away inside. The trash was taken out. and trash cans were taken to the street. The laundry was sorted, and two loads of laundry were begun. We gathered in the house for our time of reflection with all of the volunteers. And after all of this, there was still no sign of the man who had gone into the shower room.

            I grew a bit impatient. I said to one of the volunteers, “No good deed goes unpunished.” 

I asked a volunteer who had helped get the man ready for his shower, “What do you think is taking him so long?” She said, “Well, I know he wanted to shave.”

Not ready to wait any longer, I started toward the shower room door. Just then, the man appeared, smiling, freshly shaved, clean clothes, and a fresh mask that he was beginning to put on. “I feel like a new man,” he said.

I thought about how he looked in the backyard before he was asked if he wanted to shower. Hunched over his coffee cup, eyes down, rumpled and smelly clothes. I thought about how he looked now, and what he said.

Then I thought about this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration. Jesus on the mountain “was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (see the whole story in Matthew 17:1-9).

            I thought about how right Peter was when he said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

            I thought about how before me now, as Jesus promised, was he himself, mystically present (Matthew 25:31-46). I heard, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

            I did not fall down prostrate as the disciples did at Jesus’ transfiguration. But I did hear at the transfiguration of the slow man in the shower, “Rise, and do not be afraid of people who take too long in the showers.”

            Sometimes I am slow to hear God. Often, I am hard of heart. Like Peter in the Gospels, I have little faith. I over-estimate my willingness to follow Jesus, and under-estimate the cost of discipleship. I need constant reminders that God is not far away, and yet is on a different timetable than my own.            

Jesus told his disciples as they came down from the mountain after the Transfiguration, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” I am telling you this vision of the transfiguration of the slow man in the shower because death has been defeated. Jesus has already been raised from the dead. And for this reason transfiguration can happen at Manna House on Madison Heights, like it did on Mount Tabor.

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.