Jesus at Our Doorways
Morning walks are a gift in retirement years. One sees things with eyes that are both old, and new. One remembers, prays, dreams. Today I notice the doorways.
In doorways, along streets were I often walk are folks without shelter. In the early morning light I see them. Many are asleep, a few are up, moving, repacking their belongings. I speak sometimes: “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Mostly the response is silence or “no thanks.” Today, Ronnie says “that would be nice.”
In my city are dozens, perhaps hundreds, who seek evening shelter at our doorways, under bridges and in wooded clearings. We have shelters and multiple social service programs – some very good ones. Years ago, the church I served in this town made a commitment to seek to make a difference. A fine set of service agencies have resulted. Even so, the number of persons living on the streets keeps growing. They come from nearby towns where resources are few, and, truly, they come from around the nation. Mental health resources, creative responses for addictions and resources to aid severe poverty are insufficient. We look to the mayor, other city officials and social service agencies to make a response and are often disappointed.
As I walk, Revelation 3:20 comes to mind. 3:20 “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.” (NRSVUE) The King James Version’s memorable translation begins “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” The meaning of this passage has been spiritualized by much of American Christianity.
After all, the book of Revelation is “apocalyptic” literature filled with symbols and metaphor like dragons, angels, seals, beasts, earthquakes, rivers and gardens. Revelation is an interpreters paradise. Many a theological shyster has used Revelation for purposes that are contradictory to the messages of the Torah, Prophets or Jesus of the Gospels. Some interpretations naturally move away from seeing real-flesh-and-blood-folks, like Ronnie, who sleep in our doorways.
Revelation 3:20 is often spiritualized to mean that Jesus stands in an individual’s experiece or “the heart’s doorway.” It is a passage used in support of “born again” Christianity to mean that if one “opens the door of the heart” then Jesus will “come in” and that person will then be “saved.”
This is, no doubt, helpful to many. However, what of a wider understanding of this, not just a spiritual awakening, but a true “behold” event? What if the one on the outside seeks shelter and fellowship with the insiders, us?
What if Jesus’ representatives are actually at our doorways? What if these persons are signs of Jesus’ presence today? Over and over in Revelation there is the phrase “I know your works.” The writer of Revelation does not write, “I know your heart experience,” but rather “I know your works.“
In the 8th Century BCE, the prophet Isaiah challenged his listeners to do more than join the institutionalized rituals — the “fasting” on certain occasions. The question Isaiah posed was “what does God require of us?” He answers, “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:7).
On our streets today, in every city and town, folks sleep in doorways without shelter. More resources are needed. And how much of the continuing challege around this dilemma resides in an inability to “behold” the one at the door as worthy of our response and more? How might these be seen as a part of a larger story — one that requires more of us? Social service agencies can serve as buffers protecting from having to do anything other than donate a few bucks and then look the other way.
Our “programs” and “agencies” can actually allow us to avoid discovering the stories of those who sleep in our doorways. Insufficient resources is a truth. But more resource and programs are not enough. We also live in a culture that looks on the poor as those who are in the situation due to their own personal “moral failing.” Such a perspective limits our imagination and distorts our empathy.
John McKnight reminds us of an even more fundamental complication and reality. Our institutional responses, well-meaning as they are meant to be, can become twisted and upsidedown. Agency programs can fall into virtue cycles, and end up spending more energy on applying for the next grant or designing the next fund-raising event than in listening to, and beholding those in our doorways. Additional government and philanthropic regulations require more staff. Our bureaucratic impulses turn those “being served” into “clients” who are to be “treated” according to an outside formula or “an outcome.” The persons without shelter, or with “mental illness” or suffering an addiction lose their voice and the unigue and powerful stories they bring, These are the very things that might better shape a genuinely effective response to root causes. Public servants can be turned into masters rather than the servants.
Ronnie and I sat at a table outside a shop along Kirkwood Street sharing coffee and a pastry. He tells of losing his job, his spouse and contact with his children. He says, “I have lost everything I love.” We pray. I mention some agencies, services nearby. He already knows them. He looks at me, nods and smiles saying, “This morning the coffee is enough.”