Towards Hospitality

Some insightful thoughts on hospitality from the Center For Parish Development:

Contemporary images of hospitality—and of community—tend to be shaped by an “ideology of intimacy.” Such an approach emphasizes sameness, closeness, warmth, and comfort. Difference, distance, conflict, and sacrifice are to be avoided at all costs. A facade of harmony is maintained by eliminating the strange and cultivating the familiar, by suppressing dissimilarity and emphasizing agreement. Those who are strange—“other than we are”—must either be excluded or quickly made to be “like us.” The image is of homogeneous communities of retreat where persons must be protected from one another—and from outsiders—and where reality is suppressed and denied due to fear and anxiety...

It is true that the stranger represents an unknown and sometimes dangerous figure. Yet three key events in the New Testament—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—all recount the coming of a divine stranger. In each case the newcomer brings blessings and gifts which both disorient and transform. “The child in the manger, the traveler on the road to Emmaus, and the mighty wind of the Spirit all meet us as mysterious visitors, challenging our belief systems even as they welcome us to new worlds.”  The stranger plays a central role in biblical stories of faith and for good reason. “The religious quest, the spiritual pilgrimage, is always taking us into new lands where we are strange to others and they are strange to us. Faith is a venture into the unknown, into the realms of mystery, away from the safe and comfortable and secure.”

Don't try so hard

My sporadic blogging has come with a change of pace as I'm out of the office until August, doing some construction and spending time with my family. In the midst of this shift a theme has emerged a few times as I've reflected on this past year in my new job and adapting to life in a new-old community (I grew up here in Abbotsford, but have been away for a few years). The theme is around striving, or trying too hard. A line from Ecclesiastes that comes to mind is "chasing after the wind." The poet concludes that a life characterized by striving is, quite simply, "meaningless."

So in our family we trying to slow down and stop trying so hard, exploring what a meaningful pace is in day-to-day life. I'll leave you with a few passages from the Message translation that highight this theme well:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Mt. 11:28-30)

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Gal. 5:22-23)

 “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. (Mt. 6:25-34)

Visioning the little things

I always feel a bit torn when it comes to discussions about an organization’s vision, be it a church, educational institution or business. Yes, clarity in direction and identity is important to achieving effectiveness, but the visioning process can create a sense of progress (i.e. lots of talk), without very much actual clarity or progress. Meetings and words create the sense that we are in fact doing something before anything has in fact changed or been done. In the context of Christianity, I think this is a real danger, what I call the “illusion of faithfulness.”

Having just been involved in a visioning process with colleagues, one in which we were aware of the danger of mere talk, I’ve been trying to focus on the value of simplicity, particular when it comes to visioning Christian engagement with world. In The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne offers a helpful corrective, acknowledging the value of the little things in life and faith:

“Mother Teresa offers us that brilliant glimpse of hope that lies in little things: ‘We can do not great things, only small things with great love. It is not how much you do but how much love you put into doing it.’ Above our front door, we have hung a sign that says, ‘Today…small things with great love (or don’t open the door).’

It is easy to fall in love with the great things, whether we are revolutionaries or church-growth tacticians. But we must never simply fall in love with our vision or our five-year plan. We must never fall in love with ‘the revolution’ or ‘the movement.’ We can easily become so driven by our vision for church growth, community, or social justice that we forget the little things, like caring for those around us. An older charismatic woman told me, ‘If the devil can’t steal your soul, he’ll just keep you busy doing meaningless church work.’”

As Christians, we place our hope in a person (Jesus) not just inspiring words. Thus, in the most personal way, I hope to begin visioning the little things, a place to find love and meaning moment to moment, person to person.

A tree and the simple presence of God

We were instructed to experience the afternoon in complete silence. I’ve experienced times of silence before, but it had been awhile. There was also instruction to slow down and listen, to pay attention to our surroundings and (hopefully) hear the voice of God. As I thought about it, and decided to lay aside any skepticism I had and enter into the experience, I became quite expectant. This was going to be a profound experience. God was going to speak to me!

During this time I had the opportunity to kayak along the shore from our cabin, exploring the contours of this small Pacific island. Again, I thought to myself, God will surely speak to me in the amazing beauty of this place!

As I paddled I was drawn towards a small outcropping of rocks. I got to the small barren island only to see and sense nothing profound at all. I explored around a corner. Still nothing. “Okay God, why am I here?” Nothing. Profound silence wasn’t what I had planned for.

Then I saw it. Well, I’d already seen it, but I realized why I was drawn to this rocky place. The tree. Out of one lone rock away from shore a scraggly coastal tree carved out its existence. “Why this tree?”, I wondered, expecting to have some special meaning become clear. “God, I’m ready to hear your voice,” I silently pled.

I pondered my options:
  • Is there meaning in the contrasts of this sight (life in barrenness)? Nope.
  • Is the mix of colors somehow significant (green amidst gray)? Nope.
  • Ah, is this a message about rootedness and faith, one of my favorite themes for spirituality? Nope.

I felt a desire to hop out of my kayak onto the rock itself to take a closer look. I scrambled closer, checking for some detail or mark to signal God’s voice. Still nothing.

This spiritual exercise began to feel more like what the poet in Ecclesiastes describes as “chasing after the wind.” We strive for wisdom and understanding only to find nothing. And we can conclude, as the poet summarizes, that all our searching is in fact “meaningless.” This is how I felt on that rock.

But then a thought struck me. A profound thought. WIthout words or even great clarity, I got the sense that my striving was the problem. I needed to stop trying so hard to find meaning or explain the profundity of everything I see and hear. I risked fabricating an experience of God without actually experiencing God. Our retreat guidelines came to my mind, so eloquently put: “Shut up and relax” (this phrase was actually printed on the guidelines for the retreat, not to be crass, but to communicate the imperative to slow down).

And then I received clarity as I sat in silence under this little tree that until then had only brought me confusion and frustration. While no audible voice of God came - and no, the bush didn’t start on fire! - I did sense this from God:

“Just enjoy this tree! Isn’t it a cool tree here on these rocks? It’s beautiful. I made it and I like it. Enjoy it with me. Just enjoy it with me.

I was looking for the voice of God. I was chasing a spiritual experience. And when I was ready to give up, it wasn’t a literal voice or a clear message with profound meaning for my life that I found. Instead, I encountered plain beauty - a tree and the simple presence of God.

(This story took place during a recent silent retreat on Pender Island, BC with the Mark Centre)

"Unforced rhythms of grace"

Christians tend to do a lot of stuff. As a former pastor and now educator at a Christian institution, I've experienced first hand the pressure to "get things done." As Jesus followers we have a clear mandate and we'd better get to it!

And so we try really hard to have a vibrant this or a thriving that. Between church participation and everyday life, faithfulness is busyness.

And it's really tiring. And if we're honest, unsustainable.

Two recent experiences have challenged this notion of busyness for me.

Pender Island, BC
First, I had the chance to attend a 3-day retreat on beautiful Pender Island put on by the Mark Centre. A focal point of the weekend was intentional times of rest and listening to God's voice. Times of silence and inactivity forced us to accept an alternative to busyness. I'll admit, it was challenging. I gravitate more naturally towards talk of God instead of talk with God. Yet in the midst of the silence and slowing down, I began to "learn the unforced rhythms of grace" as Eugene Peterson puts it. It was deeply refreshing.

Second, I attended a discussion with the authors of a book called The New Parish, in which we were led to consider ways in which Christians are called to engage their local spaces, seeking faithful presence in the details of everyday life. The theme of busyness came up several times, one presenter suggesting that busyness is a spiritual issue. Busyness, he suggested, hinders our innate need for relationship - connection to God and to others. Busyness, in this sense, is not a badge of faithfulness, but a barrier to it. As another presenter reminded, "we are human beings, not human doings."

As I navigate the many facets of my everyday life (spouse, parent, teacher, neighbor, etc...), it's easy to become consumed by busyness. But I think there is a better way, a necessary way. We need to stop trying so hard, instead making space to join the unforced rhytms of grace in our world.