Sometimes when I’m still, when the house is quiet, my wife and children are out and the dog is sleeping, I find inside an intense gratitude for life as it is in this present moment. In these moments I realize what I have to give. I find in the stillness that God has provided a bounty not to be kept but to be given away.
My friend Mike, an African American man who works at New Life’s site in New Bloomfield, reminded me that it takes time to catch fish. My son and I had some nice earthworms and we went out to the pond with Mike and we threw our lines in for a few hours until it got too dark to see and then we packed up and went home. But Mike reminded me that if we wanted to catch anything we’d have to be willing to sit there and not find something else to do for a while. I replied, “That’s why I’ve never been any good at fishing.” I’ve always got something “better” to do, like staring into a computer screen.
A while ago I stood in the silence of the kitchen and sliced honeydew melons that we grew in our own garden. Something said to turn on the radio or put on some music, but I resisted it and just enjoyed the quiet. It feels good to prepare to eat something you’ve grown. This morning my youngest daughter picked Jalapeno peppers in our garden. She doesn’t eat them, but she can appreciate picking them. We’ve given away most of what we’ve grown this year. We didn’t grow a lot but we’ve had more tomatoes than we needed, and there are more growing and ripening now.
Hospitality, that moral action that requires patience and prayer, is a fundamental part of following Jesus. It has the potential to ground us in the present moment when we remember that Christ comes in the form of the stranger in need. He shows up unexpectedly and throws us off balance, reminding us that we are not in control and that what we have is not ours to dispose of as we please.
Hospitality reminds us that we take so much for granted. Important things like time and space. When we fill our schedules with important people and places to visit we take for granted that our homes are waiting for us when we return, and that loved ones will greet us at the door. The stranger reminds us that the simplest actions of laying down to sleep or raising food to our lips or pulling on a shirt or soaping and washing our faces and bodies are not to be taken for granted. Even things like relieving our bowels in the privacy of a bathroom and having toilet paper and running water are actually gifts, which when given to strangers, remind us of what we have.
When we set out to journey alongside the homeless and poor we enter a strange new world where we actually share in much of the same pain that our guests feel. We get taken up with little irritations like lost IDs, broken chairs, dirty floors, little scraps of paper with important information that get unfolded and refolded until they form holes and fall a part. We get a taste of the kind of patience and humility needed to survive in a world run at a senseless break-neck speed. After a while we start to realize that the world is broken in a way that we just can’t fix within our lifetime and that as systems change with the times they get more complicated and create new problems.
We watch some of our friends who are labeled “chronically homeless” grow old with us. We’ve seen them get better and get into apartments and then sadly, sometimes get worse and return to the streets. But in being there with them we’ve come to realize that what we want for them we cannot make for them. Life is made up of a God’s gifts and our series of choices. Our prayer is that our friends receive God’s grace along with their own choices. That in time His grace would lead them to make different choices. I never cease to be amazed by how much pain humans can inflict on themselves with bad choices. Those of us who’ve made some pretty bad ones ourselves know that there is still hope, even as age sets in and the wear and tear on our bodies begins to show.
We want to be living signs of God’s hope, not by looking like heroes, but by our simple routines, day after day. We want to be somebody’s lifeline not because we gave them money or a referral, but because we took the time to look them in the eyes and demonstrate care. In an age where the idea of hospitality has become professionalised and removed from personal space, we have to recover the Christian tradition of welcoming strangers as Christ and recognizing and affirming their inherent dignity and worth as persons made in the image of God.
Christine Pohl writes in her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,
“Many persons who are not valued by the larger community are essentially invisible to it. When people are socially invisible, their needs and concerns are not acknowledged and no one even notices the injustices they suffer. Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect.”
We have to remember our own vulnerability and inner poverty before God, and draw from His grace the resources to share with others. The more we reach out to others the more we come to realize our own inner wounds. We may begin by thinking that we are patient and loving people, willing to give to all. Then we learn that really we don’t possess the patience and love and compassion needed to continue, but that we ourselves are in desperate need.
It starts to become clear when I get quiet that this journey of faith is less about my own abilities and more about simply letting God have His way. When I become willing to let God in, new grace comes in great measure. When I tell God how things should be done and close myself off from sharing, my world shrinks and grows cold. To deny the stranger hospitality is to deny our own humanity,
“The man who wishes to exempt himself from providing for his neighbors should deface himself and declare that he no longer wishes to be a man, for as long as we are human creatures we must contemplate as in a mirror our face in those who are poor, despised, exhausted, who groan under their burdens. . .” [John Calvin, quoted in Making Room.]
I learn with every new face in need that I really don’t know people like I think I do. Growing up at NLEC like I did, I think I know a thing or two about people because of what I’ve seen. It’s easy to try and prejudge people, to fall back on old ways of analyzing and categorizing people. A friend of mine recently said, “rather than offering change to people, offer them the space to change.” And that’s what it’s really all about isn’t it? If we view human relationships like we’re the little Dutch boy of lore trying to fill cracks in a dyke with our fingers than we’re lost before we start. We have to pray for the eyes of faith to see people as God does. They’re not empty mouths waiting to be filled. They’re not penniless innocents with their hands out. Every person is a unique bearer of God’s image. Every person to some degree has Christ to share with us. Our encounters with people are so brief and incidental. But if we try to create opportunities for quality time with people, if our actions allow God to have His way, even though we can’t sometimes see it, then good things come about.