Tag Archives: hospitality

Who’s invited to the Party?

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Who’s Invited to the Party? The Difference that Love Makes

Dear Friends,
Last week NLEC hosted an Appreciation Day for all of our Club 24 members. We sent out invitations and called all those who month after month faithfully send their financial support to this ministry. We set up the worship studio here with games and food and drink. There were booths with funny costumes and raffles, dart boards, and a DJ provided the jams. The live in staff helped set everything up, and then as our guests were arriving, we opened the front doors to let our daily lunchtime guests in from the street. These are people who come expecting a few sandwiches, but on this particular Saturday they found themselves somewhere unique. We said, “Come in and enjoy the food but you cannot just take it and leave. You need to stay at the party to enjoy it.”
And that was when I noticed something very special happening. I had been working with a young man who was in our thirty day program, but because of a mental disorder and a lack of medication, because of aggressive behavior and an inability to follow the rules, I had to refer him elsewhere.
I’ll call him “Duke.” Duke came in to the party and it was like he was right at home. His eyes got so big and his smile grew and he just wanted to do everything at once! He sat down to color a picture of Jesus and he drew rainbows on everything. He got himself a plate of food and ate it as he moved from place to place. He came to my dart booth and he won prize after consolation prize. He put matchbox toys and dolls and other toys in his bag to give out to others, people I wondered if he even knew. And I kept thinking to myself, “This is exactly what I needed to see, Lord.” I’d been asking the Lord how we could create spaces here at NLEC that would just allow those with mental disorders and disabilities to just be present and enjoy themselves. And here was a direct answer to my prayer. Here was Duke enjoying himself. Only a day before he chose not to stay at our shelter anymore because he didn’t like it, but today here he was at the party.
At the party there were young and old people, people of all colors, shapes and sizes. We all laughed and clapped and gawked as a woman in her 70s who regularly brings in prepared meals for the shelter danced like she was 25 with another young man. I gawked because I myself just don’t have the courage to do that.
The Bible tells us about a special banquet we’re all invited to. It’s called the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb. (Revelation 19:9)
Parties allow us to just hang out and be ourselves in a carefree manner we’re not used to. They create a different sort of space all together for a while. Some people feel like church is a big party. Parties are places where people are accepted. But there are also rules at parties. You have to wear the right kind of clothes. You can’t mistreat the host of the party. You can’t crash the party for the food and then take off. Everyone knows these things. If you were going to throw an important banquet party, who would you invite? Why? Think carefully about this question because Jesus illustrated what the Kingdom of God is like with a story about a big party invitation.
“Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ “But they paid no attention and went off — one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:1-14, NIV)
What was Jesus trying to say in this parable? When God sent his servants the prophets to call his people back to him they rebelled. And this is the story of salvation. God, our creator and provider, has sent out an invitation. John 1:10-11 says that the Word “came into the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which belonged to Him and they who were His own did not receive Him.” So this parable illustrates God’s invitation along with judgment.
If you’re like me you like invitations but not so much the judgment. We live in a country without kings, where individuals get to be their own little kings—so long as they get along and play fair. What Jesus tells us in this parable is that we belong to a higher authority. To want God’s provision and protection without obedience to God is to want to be left alone. Its to want something for myself different than what I was made for. I can tell you from personal experience, every time I’ve told God I have better things to do than His will it has always met with complete defeat.
God’s people (Israel) rejected their prophets and Jesus and his disciples. Jesus himself became the paschal Lamb on the cross and he fulfilled all that God required in His own death and resurrection. And Jesus spoke of enjoying a drink with us in His Father’s Kingdom.
“Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:27-29, NIV)
It is hard to enjoy a banquet meal when you have no place to call home. Banquets are for people with enough and more to spare. They are a celebration of contentment and plenty. The story of the Passover, the meal that Jesus transformed, is that God’s people were celebrating a liberation. They were a people no longer slaves, no longer homeless. But in Israel’s recorded history we find a people who continually rebelled against God and could never be at home with themselves. In Jesus’ day they were an Occupied people, under harsh Roman rule, constantly expecting violence and even total ruin. Jesus promise for his disciples, gathered just prior to his death, spoke directly to their state as an oppressed and broken people.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4, NIV)
Jesus has not left us divided, alone, broken and empty. He has given us his Holy Spirit. He has given us all we need for life and godliness. Christ is our Paschal Lamb and we celebrate him not on the run, but in expectation of his Lordship in the Kingdom of God. That kingdom came, is present, and is coming in the future. Our faith in Christ is a celebration of his real presence in us and an ongoing expectation of his reign as King.
I often ask people, “What gives you the courage to keep going when you’re facing things like having the gas and lights shut off, getting behind on rent, ending up homeless?” I really want to know first because I’ve never had to go through that. But I believe also that anyone going through it has a story to tell me. Very often the person will talk about their faith in God. Now that faith is a faith under trial, but they have a testimony.
We celebrate the Christ who has died and risen and won the ultimate victory of faith through trial. He suffered humiliation and loss like none of us will ever experience. God himself, all powerful, all knowing, humbled himself, lived thirty three years of trial and rejection, shared himself with men and women who could only barely understand him, and then paid the sacrifice only he could pay. That is a lot to celebrate!
But the invitation to the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb is for the Bride of Christ, the Church that has endured great persecution. We must not imagine that persecution was only for the early Christians, or that our country’s freedom of religion somehow secures for us protection from the devil, the world and our flesh. The Church in Revelation 19 is a pure and holy Church because it obeyed Jesus regardless of how much the nations tried to deceive and lead it astray. And this is a word for us today. In Jesus parable the first subjects the invitations were sent to were distracted. They’d forgotten their true King. They enjoyed their privilege but figured they owed no one honor.
It is time to repent, brothers and sisters, and make ourselves ready for the King who is returning. We cannot afford to lose this invitation. I think of a friend who we recently placed in an apartment. He had left an abusive family that took his monthly disability money and used it for alcohol and drugs. He fled that situation and was brought here by the police after being found homeless on the street. Since arriving in his new apartment he became lonely. Within a few hours he sought out old friends and used up what was left of his money with the only kind of people he knew.
This is what a sense of home is like without a real willingness to settle down and trust Jesus Christ. You can have a place of your own that is quiet and safe, but without real peace in your heart you will go anywhere to seek out the chaos and distractions you are used to. Some people use food, television, and movies just to cut the loneliness they feel inside. These things can’t take the place of people, and they can’t take the place of Jesus.
Without the Holy Spirit and Christian brothers and sisters there is no way we can truly be settled. In this world Jesus promises us two things: provision and persecution. We can’t have one without the other. In Mark 10:28-31 Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (NRSV)
In the Church we leave everything to follow Jesus and then receive a hundredfold back with persecutions and eternal life. I know so many people who welcome the idea of a banquet but shun the thought of persecution. The love that we know in Jesus Christ leads us into suffering in this world and on behalf of all who suffer. Jesus asks nothing of us that He himself is not doing. I shudder to myself when I encourage Churches to welcome the homeless, the addicted, the impoverished. I shudder because I know that it is not easy. This is true not just for Churches but also for new members of this ministry. New believers who have committed to serving here with very little themselves are placed in harm’s way. They’re learning to love and that makes them vulnerable. The call to follow Jesus makes you vulnerable to a lot of pain. That makes this place a revolving door.
Now many churches are revolving doors for the wrong reasons. They’re places where you can sing praises, be encouraged, and there is no threat of persecution. No one calls you to account and everyone is wearing a face. Even so people come and go and don’t really get the point of why they came in the first place. Everyone wants acceptance, no one wants obedience.
What is happening in America is that churches have become so affirming, so nonconfrontational, and so turned inward, that they promise a life without suffering and persecution. They think they’re being persecuted when what they are voting for is opposed. That’s just silly. Real suffering is siding with people whom society has thrown away. Real persecution comes from obeying Jesus’ call to really get to know people and attempt to teach them obedience. That sort of obedience makes us a threat. We’re teaching people their value apart from consumerism. We’re far more concerned with whether they can learn to live in community than whether they can become tax payers. As a nonprofit you’ll never get government money for doing that!
Even so the love of Jesus Christ is good news to those who are perishing. We are becoming people who love and know we are loved. We become people who can share ourselves with others. We look forward to that day when we will be at home with all the righteous, enjoying victory over sin, death, and the devil. We’ll share heaven with scores of saints across time and we will know Jesus face to face the way he knows us. I want to be ready for that party, don’t you?

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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hospitality and stillness

homegrown honeydew

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.

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