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.

O Captain! My Captain!

“I’m just here minding my own business.”  Tim Moore made this announcement every time he entered Manna House to get coffee. Tim was a long term guest who started coming when he was experiencing homelessness. In recent years he had a place to live, and he worked steadily at “the yellow store” down the street from Manna House. For the past year or so Tim struggled with a variety of health issues. He died this past Sunday at work.

“I backslid again and I need you to pray for me.” Tim approached Moses every time he came to Manna House and asked for prayer. Tim was well aware of his faults and failings and his need for prayer. Of the guests who call upon Moses to pray for them, Tim was the most consistent. So it was that a regular part of the scene at Manna House was Tim and Moses in a corner or on the front porch, with Moses’ arm extended and hand placed on Tim’s shoulder, with both of their heads bowed, praying.

“I’m going to get married.” For most of last winter and into the summer, Tim would tell me on Monday of his plan to get married. On Tuesday he would express doubts. On Thursday he would tell me the wedding was off. This went on for months. Finally late last summer he told me, “I’m out of this getting married business.” I still do not know what began the cycle or what ended it. But Tim entertained me and many other volunteers and guests with his marriage announcements.

“He was a good man in his own strange way,” a guest said in response to the news of Tim’s death. That seems an apt description of Tim. There was a fair amount of bluster about him (he really never did mind his own business). He often had lively exchanges with other guests about nothing in particular. Yet the two photos I have of him are of him alone. In the one he sits by himself at a picnic table in the backyard of Manna House. He is not facing the camera (he usually did not like having his picture taken). In the other photo he is standing alone in the living room of Manna House looking toward the front door. I had taken the picture one morning when things had gotten slow and he agreed to be photographed.

“I’m going to miss Tim,” said another guest. He was echoed by many others. The chill and grey clouds on this morning gave apt expression to the gloom I felt about Tim’s passing. There is a lot of coming and going among guests at Manna House. There are new people every day who arrive for hospitality, and there are many who I see for a month or so and then they are gone. It is like the ebb and flow of a tide bringing up flotsam from the chaotic sea of poverty. And then there are guests like Tim, who faithfully arrive each day, not because they need much, but because they have made Manna House their own. Tim was more like the captain of a small boat who came into the harbor each morning with yarns to tell of what he had seen on that sea of poverty.

Tim’s death hits hard. Thinking of Tim as a captain, Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” that I first heard in “Dead Poets Society” came to mind. It seems apt on this day of learning that Tim has died. I’ll share the first and last stanza:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

                         But O heart! heart! heart!

                            O the bleeding drops of red,

                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

                            But I with mournful tread,

                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead.

Christmas Hope on Christmas Eve at Manna House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus slept outside.”

“Jesus got a rough start.”

“No room for them in the inn.”

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

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

Christmas hope.

Does God Offer Hope to Those Who Suffer?

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

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

“Where have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been dead,” she said.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

Does God offer hope to those who suffer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Threshold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Keep Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why, my soul, are you downcast?

On Tuesday I woke up about 3:00am and never really got back to sleep. As I lay there awake, I felt surrounded, both literally and figuratively by the darkness of the night. I was in a constant loop of worries and anxieties until my alarm went off at 6:00am.

I had a lot on my mind, really on my soul. This time of year at Manna House, due to the cold, we switch from being in the backyard for serving coffee and generally hanging out with our guests, to being in the house. This is never an easy transition. The house becomes crowded, sometimes chaotic. Guests who struggle to be in close proximity to others, get anxious and sometimes act harshly toward those who get too close.

The move indoors means winter is coming. On Monday morning guests had asked me about the weather forecast for the week. So both they and I knew the forecast for rain and cold. Part of my worries in the night were about our guests who do not have shelter. Some of my anxiety was sharing their anxiety about what the change of season means for being on the streets. There is anxiety about getting warmer clothes, hats, gloves, blankets, coats. My anxiety on this night included wondering how we are going to meet those needs. And behind all these anxieties is a deeper anxiety. Will someone on the streets, perhaps someone we know, freeze to death this winter? Death from the cold comes almost every winter.

I also mulled over the hatred toward people experiencing homelessness, which makes providing housing and other basic necessities controversial.  I know it is a hatred fed by a banquet of racism, an individualistic culture of competition, fear of strangers, and a false sense of scarcity. And in these days, this banquet of hatred is served up by people in the highest offices of the land, including the presidency. Trump and his followers revel in the denial of human dignity for people in poverty—including people on the streets, and people of any color other than white, people of any nationality other than “white American.” My soul was bedeviled by how many of Trump’s followers are people who claim the Christian faith, who believe Trump is divinely authorized, despite his disdain for the poor, the very ones Jesus said are blessed.

When I got to Manna House on Tuesday morning, slightly groggy from the long night, I turned to Psalm 43.

Vindicate me, my God,
and plead my cause
against an unfaithful nation.
Rescue me from those who are
deceitful and wicked.

The psalm seemed to have been written for this day in its analysis of the present realities, “an unfaithful nation,” “those who are deceitful and wicked.” And though I wished those words did not apply to me as well, the psalm implied that I, too, have done something wrong that warrants God’s rejection. I am not immune from the sins of racism, self-righteousness, fears grounded in insecurity, and worries about scarcity.

You are God my stronghold.
Why have you rejected me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?

Given the signs of the times and my own brokenness, the psalm then offered exactly what I need in my life:

Send me your light and your faithful care,
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God.

If the psalm had stopped there perhaps I would have been good. I would simply “let go and let God.” But the psalm as the word of God did not end on such a sappy, superficial, “Don’t worry, be happy” false note. No psalm, no prayer, magically ends the realities that caused my anxieties that troubled me in the night.

Those realities go on, and they require my attention and my resistance. If I am to follow Jesus I have to take up the cross. I have to go against the death-dealing meanness of our culture and our economy and our political life. And I have to struggle against the misshapen desires of my own heart. Neither of those realities is going away anytime soon.

So the psalm ends with hardness intertwined with hope.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise God,
my Savior and my God.