Where Have You Been?

“Where you been? I haven’t seen you in like three weeks.”

“I was downtown and around.”

“Well, I’ve been looking for you. I was worried about you.”

“Thanks. I’m ok. Good to be missed.”

I was in the laundry room folding clothes with the windows open.  I could hear the guests talking on the front patio and porch. I could hear guests checking in with each other, making sure their friends are making it.

“Where you been?”

When I started to reflect on this question, I thought about the Bible’s first question, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). God asks Adam this question after he had eaten of the forbidden fruit. This question can be read as accusatory: God asks the question to find out Adam’s guilt. But I think it can also be read as God asking a question of concern, like one guest asking another “Where you been?”

To care for another person is to want to know where they have been, what is going on in their life, how they are doing.

From Genesis on, I can find in the Bible where God is always looking for us, like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep. When the shepherd finds that lost sheep, the shepherd does not judge or condemn, but offers healing hospitality and rejoicing (Ezekial 34:11, 16, Luke 15:3-7).

I think Jesus spoke through the guest who asked, “Where you been?” And the guest who responded saw this as a godly question, and acknowledged what I know to be true in my life, it is good to be missed, it is good to be found, it is good to be welcomed.

I have certainly missed Manna House guests during our time of being on reduced days and hours for hospitality. Now that we are slowly adding days and hours, more guests are returning.

We added back showers on Mondays a couple of weeks ago. We clean and air out the shower room between each use, and we are only allowing one person to shower at a time (we have two shower stalls). Socks and Hygiene distribution has been moved to the back porch, so people can wait in the backyard and they do not have to congregate in the house as they wait for their names to be called. Thankfully our backyard is big enough that people can spread out and do the physical distancing necessary. We are requiring all guests and volunteers to wear masks.

As guests return, I am catching up with them, and they are catching up with me and with other volunteers. We have all been lost. We have wandered around, lamenting our loss of a place to gather and welcome each other. We have missed each other. This place of hospitality is where together we are found, healed, and rejoiced over.

In the larger scheme of things, I think this is what our society and our world needs. We need to create a society in which we ask each other, “Where have you been?” We need to create a world of welcome in which we are healed and rejoiced over.

God is looking for us. We are found by God when we look after each other. We are found by God when we hear God’s voice in the voice of the Other; when we hear God say, “I can’t breathe” as Jesus said on the cross, as George Floyd said under the knee of a cop. We are found by God as we lift that knee of oppression, and kneel instead to wash each other’s feet (John 13:1-7).

“Where you been?” Imagine if we sought out each other to welcome each other. Imagine if each one of us knew that we were missed. We might get closer to the reign of God.

In this Parched and Weary Land

When my alarm went off Thursday morning, I was tired. I wanted to go back to sleep. I did not want to get up and go to Manna House. My soul was dry. My spirit was thirsty.

I could have prayed, “O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). But that prayer would have been a lie. I was not earnestly searching for God.

I still got up and went to Manna House. Maybe God’s grace means good habits are hard to break.

Later in the morning, a guest made me think and pray about water in this parched and weary land. He said to me, “You know what’s really been hard out here?”

“What?”

“No place to get water.”

He described the shortage of water for drinking and washing. With the coronavirus pandemic closures the streets are more barren and desolate.

“The bathrooms of fast food restaurants are closed. The library is closed. The two water taps we relied upon are closed off. Finding water has been hard. It’s near impossible to clean up, much less shower.”

This lack of water is not from a drought. There is plenty of water. But not if you are poor and on the streets. The pandemic makes poverty and homelessness worse.

So I wondered, where is God in this? Later in the day I found the prophet Isaiah gave a response.

“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue fails for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water” (Isaiah 41:17).

Together this guest and the prophet Isaiah reminded me why I get up and go Manna House. God calls me. God calls me to the holy work of offering water to those who are thirsty and to those trying to find a place to wash up.

My conversation with this guest about water started as we watched guests use two new portable handwashing stations. A local nonprofit, “A Lee Dog Story” provided Manna House with these stations. Guests washed their hands before they walked up onto the porch for coffee and a hygiene bag. Other guests walked into the house to use the bathroom and the sink in there for handwashing.

Next Thursday we will resume offering showers. We think we have a way to do this that is safe for the guests and the volunteers. It will mean fewer showers, and frequent cleaning of the shower room. But it will mean ten people from the streets will be able to shower.

At the end of the morning the same guest stopped me at the door. I was headed out to bring in the coffee pot, the sugar, and the creamer. He held out two empty plastic water bottles.

“Can you fill these for me?”

At that moment I looked Jesus in the eye. He looked tired. His clothes were rumpled and wrinkled and worn. He had not shaved for at least a few days. His baseball cap had sweat marks all across the front bill.

“When Lord did I see you thirsty?” (Matthew 25:44)

I took the water bottles, went inside, and filled them with cold water. I went back outside and handed them to this guest. He said thanks and see you next week.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” said the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 55:1). And he was echoed by Jesus, “If anyone thirsts, let that one come to me and drink” (John 7:37).

When I left Manna House, I was still thirsty. My soul was still dry. But now I was earnestly seeking God in this parched and weary land, because in this guest, God had been even more earnestly seeking me.

Realism and Resistance: Wisdom for the Long-Haul Journey

He pushed the wheeled walker ahead of him as he came up the sidewalk. I have known him ever since we opened Manna House nearly fifteen years ago. He is a big man, broad shouldered, heavy but not overweight. He played football when he was young, many years ago. He has worked hard all his adult life, physical labor, warehouses, construction, landscaping. About a year ago he started walking with a cane. Today was the first time I have seen him with a walker.

“How are your legs” I asked him.

“Not good. They may have to go they say.”

“They who?”

“My legs. The doctors say my legs may have to go.”

“That’s not good.”

“What can I do? If they go, they go; but not without a fight.”

Realism and resistance. I have learned this lesson many times over from guests who come to Manna House.

Realism. Life does not bend to our wills. There are some things no matter how hard we try that we cannot change. Illness and death are part of life. Evil persists and gets embedded in our personal and institutional lives.

Resistance. I do not have to like this shadow side of reality or embrace it or surrender to it. I can accept illness and death without being foolhardy about my health or willing to consign others to death too early. I do not have to submit to evil, either personally or institutionally.

The guests teach the realism and resistance at the heart of Christian faith and discipleship. There is a world in need of redemption; and there is a Redeemer incarnate in human life. There is crucifixion, imposed by the powers that be, and there is resurrection, the power of life and love at work in the world. There is evil, and there is good that will not be conformed to evil and will resist evil (Romans 12:21).

Realism and resistance. Another guest on Thursday confirmed the lesson. She is the first to arrive on Thursday mornings. She has always been a regular guest, but now she is among the few who make up a kind of faithful remnant in this time of offering reduced services. She consistently has two cups of coffee. She always arrives alone and leaves alone. She does not say much. But her eyes are bright, and her smile is ever present. She struggles with mental illness and with poverty. She worked in corporate America until something gave way in her life and she ended up on the streets. She is housed. She lives on a disability check, and with carefully predetermined rituals that provide stability. She knows what she has to do, and she does it.

The Psalms provide prayers that reverberate with realism and resistance. Realism recognizes, “All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning” (Psalm 73:14).

Resistance draws from another Resource.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).

Likewise Psalm 88, realistically recognizes the hardness that comes in life.

“I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death” (Psalm 88:3).

“I am shut in; I may not go out my eyes are dim with grief” (Psalm 88:8b-9).

And faithfully calls upon God in resistance.

“But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:13-14).

In these days of pandemic, I need my teachers at Manna House to share with me this lesson of realism and resistance. And I am grateful to them and to the echoes of this lesson in Christian faith and the prayer of the Psalms. Together they provide wisdom for the long-haul journey.

 

Humbled Hospitality

The neighborhood is quiet this Thursday morning. I look down the street toward Claybrook and Jefferson. Once in a while someone goes in or comes out of the “yellow store” at the corner. The small park where people usually congregate is empty. Looking up the street, there are no students from the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering crossing to gym class at Mississippi Boulevard Church. It is a beautiful sun-filled morning; spring is in the air. Birds sing their songs, trees are leaved out in fresh green, and weeds are growing quickly through every crack in the sidewalk or patio bricks. Yet, there are few people to be seen.

The sense of isolation, or even desolation, is broken on occasion as a Manna House guest arrives. They come one by one. On occasion two will show up at once.  Voices are a bit muffled for some as they speak through facemasks. It only takes a moment or two to hand each guest a “hospitality bag” filled with hygiene items, a pair of socks, and a granola bar. It was the same on Monday night when we handed out takeaway suppers. Greetings are brief. Words are few.

I am grieving the loss of hospitality in which people would congregate at Manna House, drink coffee, exchange news, gossip, argue politics or religion. I am not getting my usual theological education from Moses, Larry, Don, Joyce, Patsy, among my other teachers from the streets. I am missing sharing bad jokes with Darren and Robert, and whoever else would listen. As Kathleen said to me the other day, “Just giving things out isn’t hospitality.”

Fifteen years ago, Manna House started. Every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday morning since then, we have been open. Same for the More on Monday meal added about a year later; every Monday evening the door would open, and people would come in. People from the streets and from surrounding neighborhoods with low income housing gathered. Hospitality was offered: a sanctuary place was created where a community of people formed around shared cups of coffee, showers, clothing, hygiene items, food, conversation. If I have done my math right, we have been open well over 3,000 times with more than 80,000 guests welcomed (that includes repeaters). I find this quantifying of what has gone on and what is past only highlights what is not happening now.

But something is happening. Albeit on a small scale. I am going to call it “humbled hospitality.” No conversation is more than five minutes. But the hello, and the inquiry, “How are you doing?” sometimes sparks a few words.

One of the guests who arrives asks me if I am still willing to be a reference for him. “They might call you this week. I have a bunch of applications in and this one place called me. I’m trying not to get my hopes up.” I tell him that if they call I will definitely put in a good word for him.

Another guest approaches me as I am pulling weeds, “Do you have anyone to mow the grass?” When I explain that we do it ourselves, he responds, “I’m looking for work. I was doing so good. I had a landscape job. Got myself a place. Even got a car. Now, no work. I may lose my place. My car is gone.” I think of the 22 million unemployment claims made over the past four weeks. The number is staggering; the reality is one person after another without work, each with a story of how they were doing when they had work and the suffering they are experiencing without work.

Yet another offers a blessing to those of us handing out the hospitality bags. “God be with you. Just good to see you.”

One more gives me an update, and some of that theological education I have been missing. “I’ve got the cancer. I’m through the surgery. I don’t know what lies ahead but God is with me, just like He’s with you.”

It is still Eastertime. And this guest’s message to me makes it plain. In these times when the night seems so strong and it seems like the light will never shine through again, God’s love comes through. God’s love is stronger than disease and death. To be a witness to the resurrection, I have to live with the conviction that every spark of light is part of a larger dance of love that will spread and burst forth in a flame that cannot be quenched. So it is with humbled hospitality, what little I may offer, still makes possible the sharing of some human relationship in this time of social distancing. And for now, I have to trust that spark can be part of God’s dance of love, of God’s larger flame.

“How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Guests are no longer lingering at Manna House. They come, usually one by one, to get the meal on Monday night, and the hygiene “hospitality bag” on Thursday morning. There’s no waiting for their name to be called for showers. We are not doing showers right now. There’s no gathering for conversation around cups of coffee. We are not serving coffee right now. This is what hospitality looks like in a time of COVID-19: welcoming people for a few basic services in ways that will not encourage the spreading of this coronavirus.

We practice welcome by calling arriving guests by name, and by asking each as they arrive how they are doing. Occasionally our welcome also leads to meeting a special need, perhaps for a blanket or a hat. And our welcome also means the bathroom is available while Manna House is open. Thursday morning several guests took the opportunity to wash up.

How are the guests doing? Not that well. The isolation of the streets is compounded by the closing and reduction of hours for places for people to go. The library is closed. Fast food restaurants are carry-out only; dining rooms and bathrooms are closed. Meals are all takeout, so soup kitchens do not allow for sitting down together to eat.

“It is always hard out here,” a guest said, “now it’s harder than hard.”

I have been seeking to discern the presence of God in this “harder than hard” time of disease, desolation, and death. I have been trying to figure out “How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).

At Manna House this morning there was time between guests arriving to talk. Fr. Val was there, as he is every Thursday. And he brought up this Sunday’s Gospel. It will be Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Lord is read. This year that means Matthew’s version. In Matthew, Jesus on the cross cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus’ words come from Psalm 22. There is a pattern in this psalm, a going back and forth between cries of being abandoned by God and affirmations of the gracious presence of God.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.

In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”

What to make of this pattern of lament and lauding of God? How might this psalm and Jesus in his words on the cross speak to this “harder than hard” time? Pierre Wolff, in a book titled, “May I Hate God?” writes that when “We think we are accusing God… in reality God is sorrowfully questioning the world through us.” Jesus in crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” affirms his faith that God is on the side of deliverance, not death; compassion, not crucifixion; salvation, not shameful execution.

I cannot question God unless at the same time I trust God wants something different. Put another way, all that is in me that desires life, that desires a better world, that loves, that seeks justice, that aspires for the good of all humanity and the creation, that is God within me. All that is in me that mourns life lost, that sorrows at suffering, that cries out at injustice, that is God within me.

And so, I am left with a choice in this “harder than hard” time. Jesus faced the same choice in his temptations in the desert. Is God with us in our vulnerability, or should we put our trust in the way of control? Jesus faced his vulnerability as a human being as he responded to each temptation; the same vulnerability I face in my humanity. Will we live on the Word/bread of God, or on the economic power of turning stones into bread? Will we trust in God to be with us or will we test God by claiming religious power over life? Will we serve and worship a God at odds with the powers that be, or serve and worship the idol of domination over others?

Jesus chose to embrace his vulnerability, to practice compassion, not control; discipleship, not domination; solidarity, not separation. Jesus chose to be with the outcasts, the lepers, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the foreigners, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, the unclean, the ostracized and excluded. Why? Because that is where God breaks in to affirm another way, and where we can sing God’s song of love and justice, while we live in a strange land, where those are in short supply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hospitality in this Time of COVID-19

This Manna House guest was resigned and defiant about COVID-19, “If I get it, I get it. But I’m not going to help it along.” He explained how he uses the travel size hand-sanitizer he carries with him, and how difficult it is becoming to find a place to wash his hands.

“I can’t find a bathroom with restaurants closed. Where am I supposed to wash my hands now?”

I had no answer to his question other than, “While we’re open you can use the bathroom here.”

It was Monday evening. Ashley and I were serving a take-out meal at Manna House. That morning Kathleen and I had gone to Manna House to share with guests that we would be open only one morning a week for the next few weeks as part of trying to reduce the chances of “social transmission” of COVID-19. We would no longer offer showers or serve coffee. We could no longer offer a place to gather. We would continue to serve the meal on Monday evenings. The guests received the news with sorrow, but also with hope.

“This will pass.”

For the Monday evening meal, Kathleen made soup. Ashley and I served the soup in a cup with a lid, and guests also received some snacks and granola bars in a paper bag.

Guests came to the front door, got the soup and the bag and went on their way. As guests received this modest meal most offered some kind of thanks.

“Glad you’re open tonight.”

“Thanks for being here.”

“A hot meal! Thanks!”

Guests also occasionally shared observations about COVID-19, the various closings around the city of Memphis, and how this was affecting them.

“What I miss the most is the library. I’d go there to check my email. It was the only way I had to stay in touch with my family.”

“Where do they expect us to go to ‘shelter in place’?”

“I’ll make it. I’ll find a way.”

“I hate this #!@#$^& virus.”

“What can I do? I’m out here. No place to go but back to my cathole.”

The usual light-hearted banter among guests was absent. There was a lot of worry, anxiety, and a sense of worsening isolation.

Manna House, like soup kitchens and shelters—are where basic services for people on the streets are offered. At their best, they are also gathering places where welcome and respect and community are shared. We call Manna House “a place of hospitality,” and we try to welcome our guests as we would welcome the very presence of Christ (Matthew 25:31-46). But now hospitality is taking a strange and baffling turn. We can welcome people as we offer limited services, but we have to do so in ways that do not encourage gathering. COVID-19 means gathering is dangerous; gathering is now inhospitable.

Yet in in the absence of places of gathering, the isolation and alienation of being on the streets is intensified. Imagine the isolation people with homes are feeling. Magnify that isolation one hundred times. That would be close to what people on the streets are feeling.

One guest lingered a bit after getting his to-go supper. I asked him how he was doing.

“It’s nothing really new. It’s just making worse what was already bad.”

Then he added,

“I gotta deal with what’s dealt. And right now this is a bad hand.”

“What will you do if you get sick?” I asked.

“I’ll try to ride it out, like I always do. If it gets bad, I’ll go to the emergency room. But I heard they might get overrun.”

We had prayed with our guests before we served the meal.

“God, thank you for the beauty of this evening. Thank you that the rain has stopped for now. God be with us in these anxious and fearful times. God help scientists and doctors to find a cure for this virus. Help us to support each other. Amen.”

“God is with me,” a guest had offered when she received her meal at the door, “God is with us. God will help us through.”

Later that night I heard this guest’s faith echoed in a psalm:

“Turn your ear to me, Lord, and hear me,

for I am poor and destitute.

Keep my life safe, for I am faithful;

O God, save your servant, who trusts in you.” (Psalm 86:1-2)

In this spirit, I will continue to pray for our guests. And we will keep offering hospitality as best we can in this time when hospitality means keeping some distance. May hospitality come again to mean the creation of a place where we can gather together to share life.

God is Our Refuge and Strength

I went out onto the porch at 7:45am on Monday to share the bad news with the gathered guests. There would be no showers today, and no socks and hygiene. Manna House will be open for coffee, the use of the restroom, and each person will be offered a pair of socks with a bar of soap. Guests are not allowed to congregate in the house, and I recommended not congregating in the yard after getting coffee.

I talked with the guests about COVID-19. Closing schools, businesses, entertainment venues, and churches might stop it from spreading too fast and overwhelming hospitals. Social distancing might help stop it from getting to the most vulnerable, the aged, and those whose immune systems are compromised by illness.

I reminded our guests that everyone who serves at Manna House is a volunteer; there is no paid staff. And some of our volunteers fall into the categories of people that are most threatened by this disease, as do a number of our guests. We will try to stay open, I concluded, as long as we can find a way to do that that is responsible to guests and volunteers alike. Hospitality in these days requires finding ways to slow or stop the spread of this dangerous and even deadly virus.

When I finished it began to rain, again. If this is not the wettest winter in Memphis history, it must be close. It seems like day after day the rain comes, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, but always falling. The rain made the chilly forty degree temperature worse.

I was downcast. The cost for the poor is always so great. And now the cost was going up. Manna House exists to mitigate the suffering of people on the streets and in poverty. Our modest efforts to address that suffering have become less in order to try and stop this virus from spreading.

I felt during my announcements and in confronting the realities of the spread of this virus, like life is unraveling. I heard the psalmist who speaks of feeling like the earth is shifting under my feet, and the mountains are falling into the sea (Psalm 46). Where is God’s hospitable order that separates the days from the nights, the dry land from the sea, and puts everything together so that all can flourish? (Genesis 1).

Then after we opened the guests began to share their views.

“We can get through this together.”

“I’m just glad you all are open.”

“Thanks for the coffee.”

“Thanks for the socks.”

“God got this.”

“At least you’re still open so I can pee.”

Then a guest came to Manna House with a big smile on his face. He shared some good news, “The courts are closed.”

Here is the truth of these days that the guests are helping me see. God is at work and God is present somewhere in the darkness of this spreading disease. God has not deserted me or you or the Manna House guests. God is calling each of us in what Henri Nouwen names as “all of the unexplainable absurdities of life.”

There is an intensity in life right now. We are not in ordinary times. I can hear God’s call to pay attention, to the ways in which God is present in the still abundant gifts of this life. The guests this morning called me to pay attention to what is shared; not to what I cannot do.

I can also hear God’s call to pay attention to the deep injustice and suffering that runs counter to God. I am called to pay attention to this troubling part of life that includes this disease and the way it is going to adversely affect, and yes, kill the most vulnerable. I am angry about this reality. And I am angry that our health care system is so weakened by corporate medicine, and by the failure of our government (and us) to create a political and economic system that cares for all people, not just the wealthiest. I am also angry that the current presidential regime is so negligent, so wrapped up in the egotistical mania of Trump, that it has botched efforts to lessen the spread of this disease.

So in these days I am going to listen to God’s call to compassion and to anger, to thanksgiving and to lament. The psalmist affirms, “God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand, in time of distress. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should rock and the mountains fall into the depths of the sea, even though the waters rage and foam, even though the mountains be shaken by the waves” (Psalm 46:1-3). God is with us in the midst of the uproar and even chaos of these days. “The Lord of hosts is with us,” if we but pay attention and listen to God who is with the poor, the vulnerable, the suffering. This God is a refuge and a strength who leads us in our vulnerability into solidarity.

A Faith Reflection on the Coronavirus

COVID-19, the Coronavirus is an apocalyptic event. I do not mean the world is coming to an end. The word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word that means “to reveal, or uncover.” COVID-19 is revealing a great deal about our politics, our economics, our culture (including our religion), and the state of our souls.

The emptiness of the American soul is being revealed in the presidency. The worship of power, money, and violence is incapable of a truthful, compassionate, and just response to sickness and suffering.  This is the character of the current president, and this character will only be revealed more and more as we go forward. And to be clear, this emptiness is not unique to the American presidency. Across the globe governments have lied about COVID-19. As one headline put it, “Truth Has Become a Coronavirus Casualty.” (https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/09/truth-coronavirus-china-trump-pence/?utm_source=PostUp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20219&utm_term=Flashpoints%20OC)

The Father of Lies, Satan, claimed that he could give the kingdoms of this world to Jesus. In one of his rare truthful moments Satan revealed that states are fallen creatures, reflecting our own fallen humanity as those who create and sustain states. The state will not save us even as we can urge the state to do the limited good it can do and to do that well.

The emptiness of our economic life is also being revealed. The virus came to be within the context of a market in which wild animals were being sold for human consumption. Death comes from deadly markets, organized around human wants to the neglect of the well-being of God’s creation. Just as death comes from deadly forms of political and cultural organization, so too death comes from a deadly form of markets. The virus is revealing the fragility and deadly character of a global economy premised upon cheap goods produced by cheapening human lives. Our destruction of the local, of rural communities, of small towns, of urban neighborhoods as factories have closed, is now coming back to haunt us.

We reap what we sow is being revealed. We reap cancer from farming with Monsanto. We reap wars from an imperial politics. We reap exploitation of children from a hyper-sexualized culture. We reap climate change from an economy overly dependent upon carbon fuels. Wrongdoing spreads virally unless we find ways to resist that do not replicate the wrongdoing (Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good).

These revelations also reveal the challenge to our own souls in this time. We will not be able to respond well (compassionately, justly) to this virus or to these other forms of death if we cannot tell the truth about ourselves, our economy, our politics, our culture. Will we be revealed as truth-tellers, or people who prefer to lie and be lied to?

Trump has to lie about this virus and about everything because truth would bring an end to his presidency. Biden or whoever is nominated among the Democrats will have to lie if he hopes to be elected. Our culture, our politics, our market is premised upon lying. The primal lies of Manifest Destiny, of 3/5 human beings in the Constitution, of slavery, of Jim Crow, of the atomic bombiings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of destroying a village in order to save it, of “Operation Enduring Freedom” (among others), of bailing out the banks, of building walls and caging children… Do we want the truth about our lives? Are we willing to be open to the truth?

Jesus said knowing the truth will set us free. Freedom here is the freedom to live well, to flourish, to have abundant life (John 10:10).

Now that we are in the grips of this death (with other deaths circling nearby) the challenge is to live in resistance in ways that do not replicate the lies that got us here.            The lie that life is just a matter of individual survival. The lie that we need to hoard, to “take care of ourselves.” The lie that closing our borders even more will stop the virus. The lie that we should fear each other as bearers of the virus. The lie that there is nothing we can do but submit to the inevitable. The lie that is coming that we need martial law to effectively respond to this virus.

The truth is as ordinary as handwashing. The truth is as ordinary as taking legitimate precautions not to spread this virus. The truth is as ordinary as checking in with elderly neighbors, with friends who have compromised immune systems. The truth is as ordinary as refusing to hoard and to live in fear and anxiety. The truth is as ordinary as facing the truth about our own lives.

The truth is we are all vulnerable human beings who die, so we need to treat each other with love, compassion, justice. The truth is that death does come for us all, and that we are less in control than we might have thought. The truth is that life is a gift, a gracious moment. God calls us to embrace life as a gift and share it. But Satan calls us to regard life as possession. Life as a possession is something that we desperately seek to hold onto by denying we are intertwined, interdependent, and integral to each other as members of the human family.

God is on the side of truth, life, and freedom/liberation. This is the truth we need: God calls us, and loves us into seeking to be well with each other and the whole creation. God is on the side of those suffering under lies, death, and enslavement masquerading as freedom. This is the truth we learn in the life of Jesus: God is on the cross because God is in resistance to the lies. God is resurrection because lies and death do not have the last word. In this apocalyptic moment God asks us, “Will you accept each other as brothers and sisters? Will you accept that you are God’s beloved children? Will you hear and live by the truth that is being revealed?”

 

Shared Grief and Shared Compassion

I heard the word of God come through the book of Job. I sat in a classroom at Memphis Theological Seminary and God’s word described those considered outcasts. With minimal paraphrase, Job 30:5-8 gave a harshly accurate and contemporary description of people labeled “homeless.”

“They were forced to live away from people;
people shouted at them as if they were thieves.
They lived under bridges,
in cat-holes, and among abandoned buildings.
They cried out like dogs in a junkyard
and huddled together in illicit campsites.
They are deemed worthless people without names
and were forced to leave the neighborhood.”

When Job spoke these words, he tried to set himself above and apart from those he described. But through suffering, he learned compassion born of the solidarity of shared humanity. He came to listen and learn from people on the margins. Suffering “de-centered” Job so that he could both hear God and become compassionate. That is what I learned in the classroom.

On Thursday morning, the word of God came as I and other volunteers prayed with our guests gathered on the front porch of Manna House. In prayer, we placed before God the grief of those who live in the way Job described. The guests who come to Manna House live that life and carry that grief. They are pushed away, despised, and disrespected. They are seen as other than human, as wild dogs or feral cats, dirty, and disgusting. They arrive tired and cold from the places where they fitfully slept in the abandoned nooks and crannies of the city. We prayed in recognition of this grief, calling for God’s loving justice.

Then in our prayer we went a step further. We placed before God the additional grief our guests carry, which is the grief of human loss we all share. Talk with any one of our guests, and the stories of loss spill forth. They are stories any one of us might be able to tell. Loss of parents, caregivers, spouses, friends, jobs, sanity, sobriety, health. But for our guests, their stories are made worse by the fragile social safety net they already experienced in poverty, which unraveled under the weight of such loss.

Yet there is the human connection of loss and grief. Neither volunteers nor guests are immune to the vulnerability of human life. We cannot change the reality that we lose those we care about and love. And we, too, will get sick, our bodies fail us as we age, and death will come to us as certainly as to all who live.

So we prayed from the shared grief in our hearts to the loving heart of God. Heads bowed in recognition that yes, we are in this together. Touch us God with your healing love. Help us embrace our shared vulnerability. Help us to learn solidarity in suffering, grief shared in grace, and to end the illusion of separateness, and the denial of our shared humanity.

Sharing in vulnerability, we turned to God and to each other to learn compassion, and we turned against seeking to control and dominate and exclude.

Job’s words describe the results of control, domination, and exclusion. Job’s word deny the humanity of those “deemed worthless people without names.” There is no recognition of our common human experience of loss and grief. Solidarity is shattered when we refuse to open ourselves to the grief of others, and our own. In the absence of compassion born of shared grief, we exclude those we deem “different” and do them violence.

Job learned a way of solidarity and compassion from his suffering and grief. This is the way, the truth, and the life that we can learn from Jesus, who was moved with pity to heal others, who wept over Jerusalem, and who suffered and died, and who in rising calls us to new life.

In this way, in this new life,

we welcome the stranger.

We come together as people.

We greet each other as brothers and sisters.

We call each other by name.

We live together in community.

We invite each other into our homes.

We know love that shares grief.

We know the grace of God.

 

God is Our Shelter

God is our shelter and strength,
always ready to help in times of trouble. Psalm 46:1 (Good News)

Thursday morning was cold and damp. After days of rain, the temperature had fallen. Guests gathered on the porch and in the front yard to await the opening of Manna House. No doubt they felt the brisk and soggy North wind that ran right through clothes and went deep into bones. After a long night under a bridge, or tucked into an abandoned building, or in a tent deftly hidden in a wooded area, the desire to be welcomed into a warm place and get a cup of hot coffee, is palpable.

So, as I came from the house onto the porch with the other volunteers, I called out to the guests waiting, “Good morning. We’re going to say a short prayer and then open. If you want to join in, that’s fine; if you don’t that’s fine too.”

I felt the frozen hands of a guest to my right and my left as we joined hands to form our circle for prayer,

“Let’s pray,” I said, and so I began, “Thank you God for the clouds, the rain, and the cold.” The guests laughed. Thank God for what? Kathleen suggested I was trying to use reverse psychology on God. More laughter. Maybe I was.

But I was also thinking of the three young men Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in King Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace who sang in resistance,

Cold and chill, bless the Lord;

praise and exalt God above all forever.

Frost and chill, bless the Lord;

praise and exalt God above all forever.

Hoarfrost and snow, bless the Lord;

praise and exalt God above all forever. (Daniel 3:67, 69-70)

Resistance. God is above all forever. God is not defeated by, is not under, but is sovereign over the ruler that put the three young men in the furnace. They are not submitting to a mere king. And God is sovereign over the powers (economic, political, and cultural) that put people out in the cold on the streets. Those powers neither have the last word, nor do they determine the worth and dignity of those rendered homeless.

But how do I give witness to the resistance stance that God is above all forever? I think one way consistent with God’s character is to offer shelter, a place of refuge, a place of hospitality.

I have been reflecting on how often the Bible testifies to God giving shelter. One of my favorite psalms begins, “God is our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Shelter or refuge appears over twenty times in the Bible in reference to God. (Hebrew, machaseh—”shelter,” sometimes translated “refuge,” or sithrah—”shelter,” or in Greek, skēnōsei, see Revelation 7:15, “shelter” or “tabernacle with”). A basic characteristic of God is that God offers shelter.

God’s shelter protects, hides, secures, comforts, and welcomes those who are vulnerable, despised, and denigrated by the powers that be. God’s shelter affirms human dignity and rejects the mean-spirited ostracizing of the poor.

The prophet Isaiah contrasts God’s shelter with the way of cruel and ruthless rulers, “For You have been a refuge for the poor, a stronghold for the needy in distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like rain against a wall” (Isaiah 25:4).

In these days, those in power promote and amplify the disparaging and mocking of the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, or anyone identified as somehow not “great.” God is not having it, and I must not either. Cold and chill must bless the Lord. The cold-hearted must be thwarted by offering God’s shelter. And God’s shelter does not warehouse the poor and coerce into worship as a condition for services offered. God’s shelter finally means a home, a place to live. To follow the God who shelters, hospitality must point in that direction and must advocate for housing, homes. Anything less is complicity, not resistance.