1st Sunday After Christmas Year B
“And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent amongst us.”
The Formation Weekend
For me it’s a four-hour drive from Siloam Springs to Little Rock, so I had plenty of time to consider what was about to happen over the weekend. I had decided to stay two nights at Our House, a shelter for the homeless run by the Roman Catholic Church in Little Rock while I attended the Diocesan Deacon Formation Program. The Deacon Formation group had been given a tour of place before, but it was during the hours when the occupants were not allowed in the shelter and they were not available for us to speak to them. I wanted to know the people. I wanted to hear their stories. The ‘what’ and ‘how’ of a ministry is important but sometimes we stop there and never understand the ‘who’ and the ‘why’. I decided then that I needed to incarnate, to become a part of their world. I was hoping to see what the Christmas experience looked like from God’s perspective. What does it take to incarnate? What did God gain? What did God lose?
I found the parking deck where I would leave my car over the weekend. There were decision to be made of what I would take with me into the shelter and what I would leave behind. I set off walking with bag in hand, a bag packed with all I needed to survive the weekend. In my bag was my Day Planner. It was my life in a nutshell. It had my schedules, my to-do lists, my credit cards, and my cash. To lose this book would cause great confusion not to mention mental anguish. When I arrived at the shelter I deliberately walked past the door because I discovered, I needed to think about this just a little more. I wondered what they brought into the shelter. I presumed everything that they needed to keep going from one day to the next. It occurred to me that having a pair of boots stolen would be just as disastrous for them as having my Day Planner taken from me. My moral dilemma was, if I wanted to incarnate could I do it without taking what I held valuable to me into their world? Is incarnation possible without experiencing risk? I passed by the door a second time struggling with theory and practice. There was too much at stake so I walked back to the car and hid my Day Planner under the seat. Apparently visiting and incarnation are two separate things. God’s tent held everything. He didn’t have a storage unit outside the camp. My first failure left me a little deflated.
A Man Called ‘Cadillac’.
I pushed the buzzer on the door and heard the door release and then stepped into an unknown world. At the end of the hall stood a perky young lady who welcomed me, asked my name, and gathered all the pertinent information. After explaining the rules that I would live under while there, she called for one of the residence to come and escort me to the men’s dorm. In a moment a man came out of the door, grabbed my hand, shook it enthusiastically, smiled and introduced himself as ‘Cadillac’. As he escorted me to my bed I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if we were all named, like in the Native American tradition, after some kind of spiritual journey? Hello, ‘Cadillac’, I thought, just call me ‘Day Planner’. We arrived at bed number 5, the bed right next to ‘Cadillac’s. The resident of this bed before me had gotten paid at work. It was Friday. He began drinking his way through the remainder of the weekend. Since this was not on the list of acceptable behavior at the shelter he lost his bed, or as Cadillac referred to it, “He was invited to go live in his tent once again.” My first task was to get a couple of plastic bags and bag up all his worldly possessions before I could move in. The man on the other side of my bed woke up and notice that a new person had moved in. He sat up on the edge of the bed and began talking to me. “I won $113,000.00 today at the casino. A few days more and I’ll have my million and then I am out of here.” I stood there somewhat startled. How do you respond to a statement like that? When I realized that he was serious I replied, “Usually my luck is not that good.” He comforted me by saying, “The important thing is not to give up. Your luck is bound to change.” Incarnation involves entering into a different reality that you might never have experienced before and realizing that as foreign as it may be to you, it is very real to those around you.
The dinner call was made and ‘Cadillac’ said, “Follow me”. We walked into the dining room and in the confusion I lost him. The residents had lined up along the wall. They knew the routine, women and children first and then the men. As I waited I noted the landscape of the room. Three long rows of connected tables divided the room up evenly. A row of tables had an incredible feast prepared and spread out on it. It was being served by one of the local churches and there were children and adults dressed in the same colored blue T-shirt with a large white cross on the front. Each one smiled as they filled our trays with the bounty they had brought. They fully intended to bring God their best and they had succeeded. It was apparent that every resident could have gone through three times and still have food left over.
With my plate full I turned and began to go down between two long rows of tables that were left for the residents to eat their meal. I sat down next to a man named Jim who when I arrived had his head bowed in prayer. When he finished he lifted up a Star of David that hung around his neck and kissed it. Paul came later and joined us at the table. Jim and Paul began a conversation on where work might be available, an important subject at the house. During their conversation my attention was on the volunteers. I went back for ‘seconds’ and asked one of the volunteers, “Did your church cook all this food?” “Yes we did.” He seemed to glow. “We began about 3 o’clock this afternoon cooking it.” “Well it sure is wonderful. There is going to be more food than we will ever be able to eat. Have you guys already eaten?, I asked. The man looked a little startled. “No, we usually go out to eat together as a church after this.” I suddenly became aware that the tables with all their bounty had become a dividing line between us, between the servers and those being served. We were at a meal but there was no communion. I felt embarrassed for them. As I went back to my place at the table “Cadillac’ stood up and said, “We should thank these wonderful people for feeding us. Let’s all give them a hand.” While they clapped, my attention fell on Jim and Paul once again. Jim said, “I hear that there is work in Pine Bluff.” Paul looked around and then leaned over and whispered to Jim, “Yeah, but you know that town has been taken over. It’s about 80%....” And then he listed some ugly terms use to describe several minorities. My face went flush. I grew angry. How could they? Of all people, they should know of the common bond between themselves and everyone else in the room. I felt embarrassed for them. I then turned my sight on a group of people down at the other end of the tables surrounding ‘Cadillac’ and the great gulf of empty space between our group and theirs. Then I looked up to see Jim’s, Paul’s and the others faces of our group and then my own face which were all white and the black faces at the other end of the tables and suddenly I was embarrassed once again but this time it was for myself. Incarnation sometimes means discovering more about yourself than the world you enter into. What did God learn about himself that he might not have understood before? Was; ”Yet, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” a meaningful moment for God? Incarnation is powerful. It changes everything.
Speaking of Change
It was difficult to sleep that night, new sights, new sounds, people moving about. I moved in and out of sleep listening to the many conversations going on around me. I heard their concerns and their issues. The next day I was struck with how different the conversations at the deacon formation were to those I had heard the night before. Incarnation means being a diplomate for two very different worlds. You have to learn the language of each and then translate the conversation between them. Without that conversation there will always be many tents and never one big tent.
There were so many other events that left me much to think about on my way back home to Siloam Springs. I wish I had time to tell you about them and maybe in another setting I will. So I will leave this meditation with this last story. On the day that I had to leave I began packing up to go home. ‘Cadillac rolled over in his bed and asked, “Are you leaving us?’ I wanted to leave quietly. Sundays the residents are allowed to stay all day and most sleep in. But ‘Cadillac’ made me face the fact that I was leaving and they were staying, at least for now. “I don’t think you are going back to your tent. You’re going home aren’t you?’, he said. He saw right through the whole thing. After a moment of silence, I shook his hand and said, “Yeah, thanks for letting me stay with you.” He chuckled, “Be good to your wife or you’ll be back.” I think I learned something about ‘Cadillac”. I left there and went to worship at Sunday morning services at a local church downtown. During the announcements I listened to a very long speech delivered by a Jr. Warden on why the church needed $250,000 for a new church organ, $30,000 for a Rose Garden, half a million for a new worship center and finally $30,000 more for a Labyrinth. My –my – my. Tents have gotten so expensive.