Bowels and Mercies

Last Monday a very tattered and incomplete New Testament surfaced from the back pocket of a pair of pants going into the laundry at Manna House. On Tuesday, when I was asked for the Word of the Day, I happened to open this worn New Testament (King James Version) to Philippians 2:1-3, 5.

“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. … Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

The question came quickly from a guest.

“What does ‘bowels and mercies’ mean? What do bowels have to do with mercy?”

“Maybe we need to look at another translation,” another guest suggested.

Google quickly gave some other translation options, “tenderness and compassion,” “kindness and compassion,” “affection and sympathy.”

But still we were mystified by “bowels.”

“Maybe it means being moved deep within to be merciful” a guest offered, “Like feeling something in your gut.”

“That makes sense,” I said, and I promised that I would ask our New Testament professor at Memphis Theological Seminary for help with finding the original Greek word translated “bowels.”

Dr. Mitzi Minor responded to my inquiry.

She told me “the Greek word translated as compassion/affection/kindness is quite literally the word for ‘bowels’ in Greek. So, the KJV is literally correct. But it’s a poor translation for us because we don’t usually know that for ancient Greeks the bowels were considered the ‘seat’ of compassion in the body. Sort of like a ‘feeling in my gut.’ And a lot like we use ‘heart’ to indicate ‘love. Imagine 1000 years from now when ‘heart’ is no longer used that way, and someone then trying to make sense of someone now writing ‘I love you from the bottom of my heart.’ They’d think, ‘What does the bottom of the heart muscle have to do with love?’ and likely end up translating the line I love you deeply.’ That’s what’s going on in Phil 2:1. I’d prefer to translate that phrase, ‘If there is any compassion and mercy’ (though I’m also not sure that people really understand ‘mercy’ well either, but I really don’t like sympathy for that word).”

I asked her if this the same Greek word or related to “splagchnizomai” because I had once heard a similar explanation for a description of Jesus’ being moved to compassion in Matthew 20:34,

Yes, she added, that’s the verb form of the noun that is the word in Philippians 2:1.

Given this explanation for “bowels and mercies,” I thought about how the passage on bowels had come from a New Testament in the back pocket of pants worn by someone who would often be denied access to a restroom. Business owners have to be moved in their bowels to open bathrooms to others whose bowels are moving instead of restricting bathrooms to “customers only.”

And I also thought about how this passage is connected with Jesus being a model for compassion. I am encouraged to be moved like Jesus was moved, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

If only I could feel deeply moved by the love of God known in Jesus’ life and teaching, then maybe my bowels of compassion would move too.

I look around and see the results of a severe case of compassion constipation. Fears of “difference,” of “not enough,” of “foreigners,” drive a restrictive politics and economics, bound up by trying to control and dominate “the other.”

This old New Testament text, in its strange translation, points to another way. A way in which somewhere deep within, perhaps where God resides in each of us, a compassion movement can begin. It urges a different way, where we graciously loosen up and take on the compassion of Christ. Moved by Christ’s love we can see each other as sisters and brothers, as sharing in the same humanity. Love can move us, deeply in our guts, to have mercy.

Is God Dead?

“Who is your favorite dead person?”

I thought this might be a provocative question to get guests thinking about who they would like to remember on the Feast of All Saints. In the Christian calendar, All Saints Day commemorates all the saints of the church, both known and unknown, who have attained heaven. It is an ancient feast, having its origins in remembrances of the martyrs and its official establishment goes back to 837 when Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance. Closely following All Saints is the Feast of All Souls, commemorating all of the faithfully departed.

As the days get shorter and the nights get colder and the trees begin to lose their leaves, death seems more in the air. And these days, the power of death is thickly present in our society: bomb threats sent to political leaders, a murderous attack on worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, two African Americans gunned down by a white supremacist at a grocery store with story after story of whites harassing African Americans, a president ordering soldiers to the border to confront a “caravan” of asylum seekers, while at the same time he stokes more and more racist fears and enmity toward any political opponent. And, too, on the very Feast of All Saints, yet another execution in the State of Tennessee.

Remembering the dead in this time of death might seem a strange way to resist death. But the dead are not remembered to dwell on death. We are to remember the dead to be renewed in the hope of redemption, of new life, of fullness of life, all solidly grounded in the Source of Life, God, who is Love.

And so the guests at Manna House shared answers to my question. Though I admit my question elicited more puzzlement than responses at first until I refined it. “Who is the most important person in your life who has died? Who do you miss the most?” In response, guests offered their sacred memories of loved ones who still live in their hearts, and whom they hope to see again.

The first few guests I talked with had memories accompanied by the uncomplicated grief and love of a loved one lost.

“My Grandmomma. She raised me. If I have any sense at all that comes from her.”

“I had a friend. We ran together in high school. He died young. I still miss him.”

“My mother. She loved me, without hesitation or judgment. And she kept on me to be better.”

“Daddio and Ten Four, they both looked after me and I looked after them.”

But then came a memory that was very painful. A guest teared up as he said, “My daughter. She died of an overdose when she was twenty three. I’ll never get over that.” He shared with me her name and we prayed together.

The journey through death, went deeper when a guest gave me an answer that stopped me in my tracks. “Who is the most important person in your life who has died? Who do you miss the most?”

“God,” the guests said, “He’s dead to me.”

I could tell he did not want to say anything more. In this moment, in his suffering, I simply stood there in silence before saying, “You are loved” and then I walked away.

I thought later of an exchange that happened between Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. As the story goes, Sojourner Truth was in the audience at Faneuil Hall in Boston back in 1847 when Frederick Douglass, despairing that slavery would ever end suggested that God had abandoned African Americans. Truth stood up and asked, “Frederick, is God dead?” The question is inscribed on her tombstone. In the face of the powers of death, the power of slavery, Sojourner Truth asserted her faith in a God who is Love, who is Liberating, and Life-Giving.

The Feast of All Saints and its companion feast of All Souls both reflect the most important feast in Christian life, Easter. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s life-giving, liberating, and loving overturning of the power of death, and those powers that impose death. I wonder if while Jesus was on the cross if he did not share with this Manna House guest the deep despair of feeling God’s death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus said as he died.

This death of Jesus touches upon and connects with the death of each person who suffers and dies at the hands of the powers of death. Jesus was, after all, executed by the most brutal form of capital punishment the Romans used. Jesus’ death connects with the death of each homeless person, each person in poverty, each person killed in justice struggles. Jesus’ death question connects with the Manna House guest who in his suffering feels God’s death. And, yes, Jesus’ death also connects with each one of us who face the question, “Will I love and give of myself in love? Will I reject the power of death that makes me afraid of the stranger, of the other, of losing face, of not winning the rat race?”

Jesus got his answer in the resurrection, God’s emphatic overturning of his death sentence, and God’s loving promise to overturn every death sentence. Love is what liberates us from fear of death because love is what liberates us from death.

The Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls echo Easter, when God spoke into the ear of Jesus as he lay in the tomb, and raised him with the words, “You are loved.”

“Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

“Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

 

“Do you know how I can get my check started again?” a Manna House guest asked as folks gathered in the front yard of Manna House drinking coffee.  “My check stopped when I was in jail.”

I was curious about why he was drawing a check.

“Disability” he said, “I have a brain injury. I get seizures. I can’t work.”

Other guests started to offer advice. One said, “They’ll make you prove that disability again, even though you proved it before.”

This elicited some hard realism from another guest. “They’ll turn you down at least a few times before you’ll get approved. Seems like standard practice.”

The guest was discouraged. “I don’t know if I have it in me to get through all that again. I had a social worker help me the first time.”

This led to more advice, about who could be asked, what organizations might help. But again the realism, “Seems like they just don’t want you to get help.”

Then a word came from a guest who had been standing by silently, taking it all in, “Whatever you do, remember, the people at the Social Security Office didn’t make the rules. Your battle is with the system, not with the people there.”

At that, our resident Bible scholar, looked up, turned a few pages of his Bible, and read, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” And he added, “Ephesians, 6:12, King James Bible.”

“Well, ain’t that the truth?” a guest added his version of “Amen.”

“How,” I asked, “Do you go about rejecting the system but loving the people complicit in the system?”

I had been to a MLGW office with Manna House guests before. The long lines, the multiple layers of regulations and requirements to get power turned back on, the presence of an armed guard, the long lists of rules posted on the walls as we sat in uncomfortable plastic chairs, all were typical of places where the poor go to plead their cases for justice or for mercy. The Social Security Office on Cleveland, the “pit” at 201 Poplar, General Sessions courtrooms, jail visitation areas, emergency room waiting areas—they all have a mean spirit, just as they tend to be organized to be inhospitable.

A guest offered this wisdom born of years of confronting the principalities and the powers. “You can’t get caught up in the place. Stay loving with the people. They have it hard too.”

Manna House guests regularly experience and look deep into the reality of evil structured in the way things are. As a guest said to me one morning, “I’m told I’m nobody so often in so many places and in so many ways. They try to take my somebody away.”

But he concluded, “Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

When I heard that I thought of Kathleen who often says, “Our guests bring us their best.” Their best comes with a strong realism regarding how things are messed up, but an even stronger sense of hope. This is not a facile optimism, but the kind of hope grounded in faith tested by suffering and injustice, and unwilling to yield to the powers and principalities. This is the faith and the love I experience each time our guests come to Manna House, because we certainly do not meet all of their needs, and we certainly have days when our edges are a bit rough.

The witness of the guests at Manna House helps me to buck up and to not give in to the “luxury of despair” that tempts the privileged. They teach me how to live in hopeful and loving resistance to the principalities and powers, seeking justice, as Sharon Welch writes in Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, “without the assurances of eventual victory and without the ego- and group-building dynamics of self-righteousness and demonizing.”

Or, to put it more succinctly, “Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

“Go to the poor. You will find God.”

The rain has come every morning this week. Mostly gentle, occasionally intense, the rain moved us from the backyard to the front porch and inside the house. Elbows ran a bit closer together, and chairs were a bit harder to find.  Some might call it “cozy” while others may say it was “crowded.”  Either way, being inside at Manna House is a precursor to the winter months which will be here sooner than we think.

Due to the rain, our guests arrived in various stages of being soaked. Not everyone who comes to Manna House is suffering from homelessness. Some manage to maintain a precarious grasp on housing. The housed were more likely to arrive sporting an umbrella. Those on the streets sometimes had umbrellas, too, though they were typically missing a rib so the canopy sagged and provided less protection. Some had donned flimsy ponchos, the kind you can get for a buck or two at a convenience store. Those lowest on the rain gear “food chain” had resorted to plastic bags for rain protection. The bag would cover their torso as they popped a hole in the bag for their heads, and two more holes for their arms.

Housed or homeless, everyone’s shoes were wet, and so were their socks. Dry and clean socks were a more precious gift than usual. And those on the shower list were happy to discard their wet clothes for fresh and dry clothing.

I was reminded by the rain of how we all need a place to stay; a place to protect us from the elements. We humans are fragile creatures. We lack fur to keep us warm. We do not carry our resting place with us like turtles. Water does not just roll off of us like a duck’s back. We need places out of the rain and cold, or out of the heat and the humidity. A shared and basic human need is for shelter. Even more, we really need a home, especially a home where we can feel secure and welcomed and loved.

I also thought about how Jesus identified with those who have no homes, when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). In context, he was laying out the cost of discipleship to someone who had too easily proclaimed, “I will follow you wherever you go!” Jesus calls us comfortable ones to take the risk of going where he goes, to go where people are suffering. There our hearts can be opened and we can find the compassion and desire for justice born of shared vulnerability. I know I am tempted to think I can ward off my human fragility by acquiring more and more and pretending I do not need help. Jesus calls me to compassion born of a broken heart.

This morning was the feast of St. Vincent de Paul. He said, “Go to the poor, you will find God.” In saying this he did not romanticize the poor, nor did he deny the horrors of poverty. Instead he saw how serving those in poverty could open hearts to see our shared humanity, our need for each other; the recognition of mutual vulnerability that calls us into seeking life together. In the person soaked by the rain, covered by a plastic bag, God invites me into what saves all of us, namely, love. As St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.”

The Handcuffs of Gentrification

A guest approached me the other morning at Manna House with disturbing news.

“I was handcuffed by the police yesterday.”

This is a guest who carries with him a well-worn Bible that he frequently and devoutly reads. We often talk together about “the Word of the Day” find some phrase or story that connects with our lives. Other guests often ask him to pray for them, and he does, right away. He puts his hand on the person’s shoulder, bows his head, and prays. He is in many ways a pastor for people on the streets. He is always ready to listen, to offer an encouraging word, and to share a passage from the Scriptures that might inspire. His Christian faith reminds me of St. Francis, a wandering ascetic whose love for others was always readily apparent.

“Why would the police handcuff you?” I asked, stunned that he would be subject to any police suspicion.

“I was sitting on the steps of a building with another guy. He doesn’t come here, but he’s a good guy. We were just sitting there. I had used a water tap to wash my face cloth. It was a hot day, and I needed a cool cloth. But the cops came up and grabbed us. They said we had broken into the building. They pointed to a window that was open.”

“Did they arrest you?”

“No. But we were in handcuffs for two hours.”

“Two hours? Did you at least get to sit an air-conditioned police car?”

“No. We were in the sun the whole time. They called the owner of the building and it took him an hour to get there. He knows me, and he immediately told the police they had the wrong guys. They should let me and the other guy go. The funny thing is that the window the police pointed to was the one I had told the building manager about last week. He told the police all that and then left.”

“And they still held you for another hour?”

“Yup. And threatened us, saying they could still arrest us for criminal trespass, and that we shouldn’t be in this neighborhood. I guess they didn’t like being shown up by the building owner or something.”

I thought of an article I read recently, about the criminal justice system and systemic racism. Systemic racism, the author wrote, “means that we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them. When you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede is rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept black people in their place. For much of the early 20th century, in some parts of the country, that was its primary function. That it might retain some of those proclivities today shouldn’t be all that surprising.” (See, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/18/theres-overwhelming-evidence-that-the-criminal-justice-system-is-racist-heres-the-proof/?utm_term=.31621d6b3822)

Keeping black people in their place, like telling them they “shouldn’t be in this neighborhood.” Did I mention that this guest and his friend are both African American? And yes, it is not only about race, it is also about class. Systemic classism tells poor people that they are not welcome in certain areas.

What “Word of the Day” might speak of what this guest experienced in being handcuffed? Micah the prophet saw this oppression of the poor, and connected it to denying people housing, “But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses” (Micah 2:8-9).

This guest was handcuffed in the area now being called “The Medical District.” The plan is to make this area around the UT Medical School, the Southern College of Optometry, Region One [the Med], and LeBoheur more attractive for wealthier people to move into. You can’t have poor people in such an area, and certainly not homeless black men. This is how gentrification works.

While I was talking with the guest who was handcuffed another guest arrived. He had on a t-shirt that said, “Dixie Homes Reunion.” Dixie Homes was a large public housing project near LeBonheur that was torn down back in 2005. This guest, I found out, had grown up there. We talked about the reunion.

“Where are the people from Dixie Homes now?”

“All over the city.”

“Any live in the houses that were built on the old Dixie Homes property?”

“O hell no!” he said, “Nobody could afford to live in those.”

So, a little more from Micah to chew on in these days. God sees the injustice that is going on.

“Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).

Still Full of Sap, Still Green

A mother had shown up with her child, three years old, named, “Heaven.” She had a little toy guitar that she was playing.

“Have you heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe?” I asked her mother.

“Who’s she?”

“She’s the Godmother of rock and roll. Your daughter there is gonna play like her when she grows up.”

A few of the older guests around nodded their heads.

“I know of her. She was something else.”

“She could sure enough play. Gospel. Blues. Lord, she was good.”

I brought up one of her songs on “You Tube.” So we listened a little while to “Didn’t it Rain?”

“You gotta know your history, little one,” an older guest said to Heaven, who strumming her toy guitar as we listened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

“How she gonna know someone so old?” the little girl’s mother sounded incredulous, “Is she even still alive?”

“How old are you?” the older guest asked the mother.

“I was born in 1992. You figure it out.”

“That makes you exactly young,” said another guest, “Shoot. I was already married and working in ’92.”

Others joined in sharing their ages.

“I was born in 1979. I’m pushing 40.”

“I’m forty-three.”

“Fifty-six here, but I feel older.”

And then the older guest who wanted to emphasize knowing history said, “I’m 76.”

We were all astounded.

“What’s your secret?” I asked.

“Ain’t no secret,” he said, “I just keep waking up. Ain’t no special wisdom I have. Sometimes I’d wished I was dead. But I just kept waking up. That’s most of how I’ve kept on livin’. I wake up and get moving.”

“God gets me up every morning,” one of the more pious guests then intoned.

“O yes,” the older guest said, “I know it’s God nudging me, but I’m the one that’s gotta get out of bed. God isn’t going to put my feet on the floor and get me out the door.”

“Well, thank God you made it thus far, then, because without God you’d be done.”

“God’s got my thanks. I know where my life comes from and where I’m going.”

I kept thinking on the music and the ages and the faith I was hearing. So when I was asked a few minutes later for the “Word of the Day,” I turned to Psalm 92 verse 12-15. The Psalm seemed to resonate with the reflections of the morning on age and history and the trajectory of God through our lives.

The just flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are still full of sap, still green,
showing that the Lord is upright;
God is my rock, and there is no injustice in God.

Street Theology

“God’s got my back. But I’ve got my front.” A Manna House guest was explaining to me his approach to life.

“I’m getting old. I can’t be catting around like I used to. I gotta find a regular place I can call my own.”

“How long have you been out on the streets?” I asked him.

“Ten years more or less. Here and there. Sometimes I’ve had a place, but never as steady as I’d like.”

“What’s kept you out here?”

“I can’t seem to keep a job. I don’t know. I get anxious. I wander off. Something in me isn’t quite right. I’m on medication now. That helps. But for years it was just me.”

“What do you mean by ‘God’s got my back. But I’ve got my front’?

“I’ve got to take care of my own business, but God makes sure I make it through.”

I spent last week at Bethel University teaching in the Program of Alternative Studies of Memphis Theological Seminary. This program is for persons who are seeking ordination in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church but for one reason or another cannot pursue a seminary degree.  I taught a class called “Spirituality and Social Justice.”

Part of our discussion was about the spiritual foundation that inspires and sustains our seeking justice and being engaged in the work for justice. So we read together from the Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, looking for spiritual resources for commitment to the long haul struggle for justice. We came across this statement:

“As believers continue to partake of God’s covenant of grace, to live in the covenant community, and to serve God in the world, they are able to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord. Believers never achieve sinless perfection in this life, but through the ministry of the Holy Spirit they can be progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, thereby growing in faith, hope, love, and other gifts of the Spirit” (Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, 4.22).

I heard in this theology from the church an echo from the Manna House guest’s theology from the streets. “God’s got my back” or in other words, God “through the ministry of the Holy Spirit” makes it possible for me to “be progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, thereby growing in faith, hope, love, and other gifts of the Spirit.” “But I’ve got my front.”  In other words, “As believers continue to partake of God’s covenant of grace… and to serve God in the world, they are able to grow in grace… [but] never achieve sinless perfection in this live.” I have a responsibility to attend to my business, to seek God’s will for love and justice in the world.

I also heard an echo from Thomas Aquinas who said, “grace perfects nature.” God graciously, that is lovingly, works within each of us respecting our human nature, the very human nature that God created. We are called to grow in God’s love and justice, consistent with our nature as human beings.

There is a true humility in this theology of God’s work in our lives. “God’s got my back” recognizes that I am not on my own. I do not make it through this life, I did not even come into this life, without God’s ongoing love. “But I’ve got my front” acknowledges I have a role to play as well. I am not a passive robot or a plaything of God (consider in contrast how the ancient Greek and Roman gods messed with humans). God loves us enough to create room for us to have responsibility to take care of our human business, to seek to live with each other with dignity and justice.

Maya Angelou put it this way, “It is this belief in a power larger than myself and other than myself which allows me to venture into the unknown and even the unknowable.”

Knowing that God’s got my back gives me the hope that love and justice are attainable, are worth struggling for, that as Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Knowing that God’s got my back allows me to confess that something in me is not quite right, and I need to face that truth honestly. I need to reach out for help, from God and from others, so we can struggle together for love and justice.  Taking care of my own business requires that I acknowledge my responsibility and confess my sin, trusting that God does have my back. God has not abandoned me in this struggle for love and justice. God will make sure I get through. I can rely on God’s grace. Sin and injustice will not be triumphant.

Hat Thief

St. Basil wrote, “Should we not give the same name of thief to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

I am hat thief. I have too many hats. I accumulate baseball caps. I go somewhere to visit, and I buy a hat. It is my souvenir. And since I am bald headed, people like to give me hats. I get hats for my birthday. I get hats at Christmas time. No matter the source of a hat, I wear the hat for a while, and then it gets put up on a shelf. After a while it gets pushed further and further back, by other hats.

I was convicted of hat thievery this morning while I was at Manna House. Today I was part of the crew doing hospitality in the backyard. The backyard, with its shade and greenery, fills with guests as soon as we open, and stays full most of the morning as guests seek to avoid the heat of the July sun.

The backyard is where guests approach me about getting on the “list” for showers or “socks and hygiene” or about special requests. I refer all the “list” requests to the “list person,” which today was Kathleen.

The special requests require some discernment. I can handle most of them by urging the person to get on “the list.” A few simply require a firm “no” as what is requested is beyond our limits. Some, thankfully, can be handled as part of the regular flow of hospitality within the necessary boundaries we have at Manna House.

“I need a piece of paper to write down a phone number.” That’s not a problem. I make a quick dash into the house and get a piece of notebook paper.

“I need the phone number for Shelby County Schools.” I can easily look that up on my phone.

“What’s the Word for today?” I shared from Psalm 80:20, “Lord God of hosts, restore us; light up your face and we shall be saved.”

But it was in the midst of such special requests, that the evidence started to pile up to convict me of hat thievery.

“I need a hat for my head. The sun is getting me.”

“Hey, can you get me a hat? I’m getting burned up on my head.”

“This shade is nice, but when I go back out there, I sure could use a hat.”

At first, I was able to confidently refer these requests to the socks and hygiene list. On Thursdays, the guests on that list can get hats.

But later in the morning, when I knew the list was full, I could not make such an easy referral. Instead, I went into the house to see if more hats could be given out. That is when I found out our hat supply is dangerously low. If I gave out more hats today, we would not have hats for the men who are signed up to shower on Monday. That’s when I remembered the words from St. Basil. And that’s when I had to confront my own hat thievery. I have more hats than I need. I have stolen them from the guests at Manna House who asked me for a hat this morning. I will give them back Monday when we open. Well, at least most of them.

How Can We Sing the Song of the Lord on Alien Soil?

Sometimes I feel deeply estranged from the world as it is. I feel like I am living in an alien place, that I do not belong here. Sometimes I feel like we are all strangers in a strange land. On such a day, the power of death hangs heavy in the midst of hospitality.

Thaddeus Lawrence was killed last Saturday. Manna House guests shared the news with Kathleen and I at church on Sunday.

Thaddeus was a tall, slender, African American man with a loping stride that covered a lot of ground. He had been coming to Manna House for a number of years now. He wrestled with mental illness, but more he wrestled with the harshness of homelessness.

On his good days, his face would light up with a mischievous smile. On his bad days, he appeared with a very stern face, and he would say angry words, usually not to us, but to the world in general.

But whether smiling or struggling, each day that Thaddeus came to Manna House to get on the list for showers, or socks and hygiene, he would present his ID.  We do not require ID for any services at Manna House, but he would always show his ID, point to his picture, and say his name, “Thaddeus Lawrence.”

When we opened for the day, Thaddeus would come and get his coffee. Typically he would then stand off by himself. But some days he would get very close up in my face to share some secret insight. I never could understand what he was saying. I never could follow his train of thought.

Thaddeus was killed by a hit and run driver near the intersection of Claybrook and Jefferson, one block from Manna House. He had been attacked and thrown into the street, and that was when he was hit.

Guests were very shaken by his death. Some saw what had happened. Others in hearing the news reflected on the violence they know so well.

In the midst of our grief a guest asked me for the “Word of the Day.” I was moved to share Psalm 137. Originally this psalm was about the Israelites in exile.  But in Christian usage “heaven” stands in for “Zion,” and “the City of God” for “Jerusalem.” I like to think of the vision of the Beloved Community as replacing Zion and Jerusalem. In the Beloved Community, we will all come together, all will be welcome, and we will all flourish together in the presence of God. So, I paraphrased a bit as I shared the psalm,

By the rivers of Memphis there we sat and wept,

remembering the Beloved Community;

on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps.

For it was there that they asked us, our captors, for songs, our oppressors, for joy.

“Sing to us,” they said, “one of your freedom songs.”

O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?

If I forget you, City of God, let my right hand wither!

O let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember you not,

if I prize not the Beloved Community as the first of my joys!

The words of the psalm hung in the humid morning air. For a while no one said a word. Then a guest responded,

“Slaves won’t sing for their masters.”

“They aren’t going to entertain those who are killing them,” said another.

“Someone might steal one of those songs, like Elvis took the black man’s music,” said yet another.

“That’s a sad Bible reading” said one more guest, “it’s bleak, but so right.”

“That’s how I feel this morning, knowing about Thaddeus’s death,” I said.

“No one deserves to go that way. Run down like a dog in the street,” a guest added.

Later that morning, after I had left Manna House to go to work, I got a phone call from a minister at a midtown church. An apparently homeless man had been found dead on their property. Could I come and see if I knew who he was? I went. I saw him lying dead. I did not know him. None of us gathered recognized him. As I walked back to my car I started to cry. Thaddeus and this unknown man, both dead. I called Kathleen and returned to Manna House. I had to grieve with her.

I thought of another phrase “vale of tears” that comes from a translation of Psalm 84:6, which describes those strengthened by God’s blessing in the midst of sorrow. Even in the valley of tears they find life-giving water. I feel the tears, but I am also feeling pretty thirsty for that life-giving water. Come Lord Jesus, come!

What About Romans 13?

What about Romans 13:1-7?   A few notes to help one’s biblical study

Does Paul endorse unquestioned Christian obedience to the law/government and participation in state violence?

First:  what is Paul’s attitude toward the Roman Empire in his other letters?

  1. 1 Thessalonians: What will happen to those who trust in the Roman Empire’s “peace and security” (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:31-18, 5:2-3). What is Christian armor compared to Roman armor? (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Ephesians 6:10-17)
  2. 1 Corinthians: Who does Paul hold responsible for the death of Jesus? (1 Cor 2:6-8) What will happen to the rulers of this world? (1 Cor 15:24) What is the wisdom of Christ vs. the wisdom of the world? (1 Cor 1:18-25)
  3. Philippians 3:20: Where is the citizenship of Christians?
  4. Colossians 2:12-15: What does Christ do to the rulers and their way of “justice”?
  5. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8: Does Paul trust Roman justice and encourage Christian participation in it?
  6. Acts of the Apostles 17:1-8: Of what are Paul and Silas accused? Paul also uses Roman power when necessary—appeals to Caesar (Acts 25)

 

Second:  Immediate Literary Context of Romans 13:1-7, Put Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Romans 12 and 13.  Paul’s ethic for Christians is counter-imperial: no violence, no imitation of the evil that wrongdoers have done

  1. What had Paul just written in Romans 12:17-21 regarding how Christians are to live? “Beloved never avenge yourselves…” and “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
  2. What does Paul write immediately after Romans 13:8-10? “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” “Love does no wrong to the neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
  3. If Paul is endorsing state violence and/or Christian participation in or support for state violence in Romans 13:1-7 then he is contradicting his own teaching regarding love and the need to reject vengeance.

 

Third:  the Historical Context in which Paul Writes

  1. Christians are a minority, and the Roman Empire is not a democracy. Christians have no hope of transforming the Roman Empire through any sort of typical political activity to which we may have access to today. Paul is urging members of the Roman church community to lay low—to not disturb Roman order insofar as they can do that and remain faithful to God. They are to see God’s hand even in events contrary to God’s will for human life. God is ultimately in control of history, including the Roman state. Divine authorization of state authority is not divine approval for everything the state does. Further, the sword referred to in Romans is the judicial sign of authority, not an actual sword.
  2. So, even though Paul may realistically see that the state may have power to execute, it is clearly NOT the calling of Christians to seek vengeance through state violence or to approve of state violence. Christian calling is to live alternative life of the Kingdom of God and insofar as possible not engage with the state.

 

Fourth: Paul is being descriptive rather than prescriptive

  1. Paul is not offering any blessing to state power, but simply observing what it is like and making sure it is seen as UNDER God’s sovereignty and thus subject to God’s judgment. He has already made it clear that Christians who are to live as the Body of Christ in the world are to live by a very different standard.
  2. What is the evidence for the view that Paul is being descriptive rather than prescriptive?

a: Paul’s description of the Imperial rule is in opposition to Roman views which claimed that the Imperial rule simply brought peace, and no mention of HOW it brought that “peace”–through the sword and the cross.  Paul’s description unmasks Roman ideology about the “Pax Romana” as false, as a cover for the brutal realities of Roman imperial power.  (See also 1 Corinthians 2:7-10, where Paul identifies “the rulers of this age” as responsible for the execution of Jesus).

b. Why was Paul writing to the Church in Rome? Paul was urging the church in Rome to welcome back exiled Jewish Christians.  Right after Romans 13, Paul writes in Romans 14, “Welcome those weak in faith…” in reference to the Jews.  A major theme of the letter is the unity of the Church in Rome “in Christ” rather than continuing divisions between “Greek and Jew.” (See Romans 2-4, 9-11—where Paul specifically addresses relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians).

c.  In the Hebrew Scriptures (Paul’s “Bible”) those who carry out the wrath or vengeance of God are not friends of God.  Rather their use of violence will one day rebound to destroy them.  For example, see what Jeremiah the prophet says about Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 25:8-14), and what Isaiah says about Assyria as agent of Lord’s judgment (Isaiah 10:5-22).

Fifth: Paul’s Peace of Christ or “Pax Christi” versus the Peace of Rome or “Pax Romana”:

  1. Peace of God and Christ is the Peace Paul Endorses—not the Roman Peace that is enforced by the sword and cross: Romans 1:7, 16:20; Phil 4:7, 9; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2, 13:11; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2, 3:16
  2. What is the Peace of God/Christ? The path to God’s Peace is not through violence (imposing the sword and cross on others) but through obedience to the way of God. This way of God in Jesus that consists in love is exactly what the power of sin and death tries to destroy through the cross, but is prevented from doing so since God’s power brings resurrection. Freed from the power of sin and death through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who share in Christ’s life are to live as Christ, in loving service to others. see Romans 12:1-21

 

Sixth, Paul Reflects the Heart of the Biblical Faith About God:  God is a God of life, not of death. God is a God of liberation, not oppression.

  1. God in raising Jesus Christ from the dead defeats the power of sin and death, opening us to new life in Christ. Life in Christ is what we are to share with others. Romans 6:12-14.  We are to share life of Christ through a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:15-20). The state may engage in revenge, but Christians should not. Christians should live in a way that stands against/resists such an approach to justice.  See also Matthew 5:38-48
  2. God’s justice seeks the redemption of sinners, not their death. This has been a major theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans… And, in fact it is a major theme of the whole Bible…How does God deal with sinners? God holds them accountable for the sake of bringing them to repentance, reconciliation, restoration to life. See the stories of Cain, Moses, David, the people of Israel, Old Testament Prophets, i.e. Ezekial 33:11, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.”
  3. Paul calls Christians to a Ministry of Reconciliation, not a ministry of revenge! See 2 Corinthians 5:15-20, Christ’s way of life is the pattern for Christian discipleship. (Romans 14:1a, 3b; 15:7, Phil 2:5-13)