Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Showing Up Big!

This past Christmas Eve, after battling cancer for several years, my father passed away.  He had been in hospice care for several months and while that usually means the one thing we'd rather not think or talk about, I would still say he "died well".  He died with very little pain and my mom, my sisters, his brothers, and me all close by.  His suffering is over and he's home.  It was my first experience loosing someone close to me though.  I had lost grandparents but for some reason I expected that.  No one expects to loose a parent, parents are supposed to live forever and never get old.  That being said, looking back, I sometimes wonder if the signs that the end was near weren't there all along.  Three or four days before he passed my dad and I had gone for a walk together and at one point he said to me, "I don't think I'm going to survive this."  It was the first time I had ever heard my dad talk this way and yet I think he said it because he knew it was true.  A day later we were at my sister's house for a dinner party and my dad had his place of honor right by the Christmas tree.  Through out the night people would sit and talk with him and at the end of the night people seemed to casually line up to say good by.  It was like my dad's farewell tour.  In the days that followed he would be slow to respond, confused about what was real and what wasn't, and he seemed to sort of detach himself from what was going on around him.  I.e. the person sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner with us and the person I was watching college football bowl games with was ceasing to be my dad.

I've often been told and even experienced how holy death can be.  As a pastor I've sat with people who are dying and it is a holy moment.  When my dad passed though, I remember thinking this should be a holy moment but not feeling like it was a holy moment.  I understood intellectually that he had died well and how much of a blessing that was but I just felt numb.  I've talked with others who have had a similar experience so I have little doubt, that while it caught me by surprise, that it's normal.  For me the holiness of death was yet to come.

Following my dad's death, the outpouring of love, support, and food was amazing.  People were showing up from all over at all hours of the day to love bomb us with whatever we could possibly need.  No one wanted us to be in want which for me is the essence of true hospitality.  Good hosts meet their guests where they are, how they are, and do everything they can to meet their needs.  That's how I felt and I remember commenting to my wife how unbelievable it was seeing how all our family and friends hosted us in our own home.  Then my wife said something I will never forget.  She said, "Your dad knew how to show up."  She was implying that people showed up for us because my dad had showed up for them.  She was right.  Throughout their life together, my mom and dad had always shown up for others and now others were showing up for us.  The hospitality of a loving community who shows up for you when your heart is broken is perhaps the holiest thing one can experience in the shadow of death and certainly was for me.  I miss my dad and wish I had more time with him but having so many people show up to celebrate his life and to take care of us was what my heart needed to begin healing.

Showing up is the essential act of hospitality and lies at the heart of the Christian faith.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was all about showing up for all people.  Whether he was calling the disciples, healing a paralyzed man, eating with tax collectors, resurrecting Lazarus, meeting a Samaritan woman at her well, dying on the cross, or saying Mary's name in the garden, Jesus was constantly showing up.  By showing up Jesus was able to offer radical hospitality to those who needed it and give them new life.  As the church we're called to continue the work of Jesus.  We do so when we show up and meet people where they are, how they are and offer them the same radical hospitality that Jesus first offered us.  In our divided culture where hospitality seems to be a forgotten art, the radical hospitality of Christ is essential to healing all of our divided and broken hearts.

Last fall, before my dad passed away, we met with my parent's pastor.  He also said something to me that I will never forget.  He said, "going through this will make you a better pastor."  Again, intellectually, I knew he was right but I couldn't conceive of what it looked like to be a better pastor because my dad died.  In January though, I started at a new church as senior pastor and recently I received a thank you card from a member whom I visited and prayed with in the hospital a few times a few months ago.  At the end of their note, the person said, "You showed up for me."  When I read that, I knew my parent's pastor was right.  Showing up is the act of hospitality that rummages through our lives and begins to heal them.  Our friends and family showed up for my dad before he died, they showed up for us after he died, and now I understand what it means to more authentically show up for others in their hurts and pain.  While I mourn the loss of my dad, I also celebrate his life by living my life the way he and Jesus did, by showing up.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Genuine Hospitality found in "A Thread of Truth"

To experience genuine hospitality in real life requires real people living authentic and faithful lives.  People who know as much about the brokenness of humanity as they do the fullness of God.  People who themselves have experienced genuine hospitality.  Perhaps the most profound way we experience hospitality is as the stranger, the other.  Whether it's learning the ropes at a new job, finding your place in a new church, breaking into a new circle of friends, adjusting to a new marriage, being assimilated into new family, moving into a new country or community, we all know the feeling of being a stranger, of being the other.  Even more significantly, if we all know the feeling of being a stranger, we also all know the feeling of being welcome or unwelcome as a stranger.  Both of which can inform how we welcome others.  The following reflection is an example of how, as strangers, as the other, we can, as host and guest, experience both unwelcome and welcome.  Furthermore, the following reflection shows how genuine hospitality and living authentic lives can bring the beginnings of healing and love to even the most contentious and hate-filled communities.  

Please note, the following reflection is not mine but belongs to Reese Fullerton, and is a true story.  Fullerton is a professional facilitator, trainer and mediator.  He works to bring people together who have a variety of perspectives and roles in areas of environment, water and land use, education, health, and community development.  Fullerton's goal is to assist people in finding solutions to issues facing the public, local, state or federal decision makers.*  Fullerton's reflection appears and is taken from Wayne Muller's book A life of being, having, and doing enough and is entitled:  "A Thread of Truth"** 

When I was with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, I worked with a team studying the dynamics and responses to busing and school desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky.  We interviewed everyone who had anything to do with the experience.

On the day I went to interview individual students - both African American and white - who were attending a previously all-white high school, the teacher who was coordinating my time sent me, to my surprise, not individuals one at a time, but a group of twelve white students.  I had already prepared my questions, but instead I asked them about their experience in the past and what had changed with busing and desegregation.  The answers were very clear:  Everything before was fine; now it was awful.  The description of the African American students was horrific - dumb, smelly, rude, uneducated, the n-word, as bad as you could possibly imagine.  One sophomore girl was particularly caustic in her hateful, racist comments and seemed to enjoy using every moment of her time to set the record straight about these terrible "lowlifes."

The mood in the room had reached a near-fever pitch, when a knock on the door was followed by my next group to be interviewed - twelve African American students.  The hush in the room was instant and palpable.  The white students all got up to leave; I said, "No, you can stay, please sit down," which they did.  I then proceeded to ask the newly arrived students the exact same questions I had asked the white students.

The stark reality of the answers - we had no books last year, our school was filled with litter and everything was broken, our teachers were not like the teachers here, the cafeteria was awful - corroborated the answers of the white students.  Except that instead of racial stereotypes, here was the very tender, human side of these new, grateful students.

I realized there was a stifled noise to my left.  I looked over and saw the sophomore girl - the same one who had been so filled with hate - crying, tears streaming down her cheeks.  She stood up and said there was something she needed to say.  Between her deep sobs, she told the African American students what she had just been saying about them - everything, word for word.  Everyone in the room started to engage in the conversation, with much of the support given to the sophomore girl coming from the African American students.

The discussion turned rigorously honest, courageous, and real, and it forever changed the hearts of each one of us.  It was enough to meet each other and tell the truth, to hear each others' stories, enough to learn how profoundly we are all so undeniably connected.  When the teacher came to reclaim her students, they sent her away, so they could continue talking until they felt they had reached a point where they were done, for now.  When they walked out to face the rest of their world, they walked out together.

Genuine hospitality rarely takes the form we expect, as evidenced by Reese Fullerton's experience.  He had gone into the classroom expecting to interview white and African Students about their experience with desegregation and instead witnessed what we can only call a form of abundant life.   I would have loved to have known what the sophomore girl was feeling as she left the classroom that day, having received support and been shown hospitality by the African American students.  The same students for which she had so much hate, the opposite of hospitality, as she entered the classroom earlier.  The humanity, including hers, on display both before and after the African American students entered the classroom, was the trigger that led to the girl's turning and the groups healing.  When we turn from our fragile and flawed view of the world and reorient ourselves towards the glorious vision of abundance God intends for all of creation, we begin to experience the hospitality of God's saving and redeeming work.  Work that gives us hope as it heals and welcomes us into abundant life.  Genuine hospitality is only possible when we engage real people living real lives.  That's why hospitality is such hard, messy, never-ending and thankless work.  Human beings are hard, messy, never-ending projects!  Fortunately, the work of love and mercy, of evangelism and justice, is work we do in partnership with God.  Work first modeled and shaped by Jesus Christ.  Work that is nurtured by the Holy Spirit in and through people of faith.  That's why we, if we're not known for anything else, should be known by our hospitality.  Imagine if every where we went, the people we encountered expected us to welcome them with Christ's love.  That's the glorious vision of God and it can only play out in real life, through the lives of real people.  

* Taken from www.strategicengagement.net/who-we-are-2.  Click to learn more about Reese.
**  Reflection taken from Wayne Muller, "A life of being, having, and doing enough" (New York, New York: Three Rivers Press ©2010) 38-39

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Pure Dignity in a Garden Center

"That was God right there!"  The way she said it, the smile on her face, the excitement and aww in her voice, you would think she just met God walking down the street.  And in a way that's exactly what happened.  She was in a garden center and a woman of Mexican descent, perhaps mistaking her for an employee, walked up and began to ask her questions.  They had a nice conversation and then went their separate ways.  They ran into each other again at the check out counter and like old friends, talked some more before saying goodbye and really going their separate ways .

On the surface this sounds like it could, and should, be a typical encounter anywhere.  Under the surface though, this woman had a deep struggle with prejudice and she realized the morning after her encounter, that by welcoming the woman of Mexican descent she met in the garden center, she was in fact welcoming Jesus himself.  Consequently, by welcoming Jesus, she too experienced God's welcome in her own life, and in a profound way too.

In our current sociopolitical climate, her experience is unfortunately more the exception than the rule.  In a time where we hear stories of white people calling the police on people of color for sitting in a Starbucks or for taking part in a college tour or for simply wanting to have a bar-b-q, the thick fog of prejudice and racism in our country is all around us.  Experiences like hers should provide a ray, even if it's a pinpoint, of light.  We should be longing to hear stories like hers and yet despite even the smallest ray of light, we struggle to see or to hear through the fog.  I remember a conversation with a colleague not long after Donald Trump was elected president.  We were talking about racism and how many white people were surprised that this polarizing and charged issue was all of sudden being talked about so freely and frequently in our country.  In response my colleague, who is a wise man, made the comment and I'm paraphrasing, "White people thought racism went away because we weren't talking about it anymore, but if you're a person a color you know racism never went away.  It's always been there under the surface."  His point was that for white people racism was an "out of sight, out of mind" issue.  If the institutions of our country like the media, the government, the schools, or even the church weren't talking about racism, racism didn't exist.  However, if you are a person of color, racism has permeated your life for as long as you can remember.  Imagine the conversations around your dinner table.  You're having your favorite meal and if you're a white family, your conversation might be around family, sports, what your day was like, maybe even the weather, but race and racism is rarely something you think, never mind talk, about.  It was one of those "it causes nothing but trouble so we don't talk about it" issues.  If you're a person of color though, while you might chat about things like sports and family, race and racism are never far from your mind and are probably common theme in your conversations as a result.  When you're in the majority you are privileged not to have to worry about race and racism because your dignity, your humanity, is ensured by whatever structures or systems are in place.  If you're a person of color, ensuring your dignity and humanity is a daily fight.  Human dignity though, isn't a human construct like many systems and structures, but rather a product of being a child of God, created in the image of God.  True dignity reflects the goodness and abundant life of God's intended order.  An intended order built on wholeness, both individually and especially, collectively.  We won't know true dignity though, regardless of our race, until we're willing to welcome the 'other' as God welcomes us.

There's a story in the book of Acts about the Apostle Peter praying on the roof of Simon's house in Joppa when he gets hungry.  Apparently while food was being prepared, Peter fell into a trance and saw a large sheet being lowered down by its four corners.  Within the sheet were all sorts of animals.  A voice then speaks, commanding Peter to get up and to kill and eat the animals.  Peter, being a good Jew and therefore familiar with Jewish Law knew that to kill and eat these animals would be a violation of the Law.  Something he couldn't and wouldn't do.  So, despite being told three times that "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (vs. 15), Peter demonstrated his signature stubbornness by refusing to "kill and eat" the animals God was providing.  He was more concerned with purity and cleanliness which pervaded the Jewish Law.  As a result the sheet and animals were suddenly taken away, up to heaven, and Peter is left struggling with what he just saw.

We find out not too long after this from Peter himself talking to Gentile converts, that the purpose of his vision was for God to show him that he shouldn't call anyone profane or unclean.  Peter is speaking to the belief many Jews held that only they were God's chosen people and therefore couldn't associate with Gentiles because they were, according to Jewish Law, profane and unclean.  Meaning in their eyes, Jews saw themselves as superior to Gentiles because they were the covenantal people who were given the Law, that if followed, would keep them clean and pure.  However, Peter learns, ironically through the Gentile converts, that he shouldn't call anyone profane or unclean.  From Peter's perspective it appears that God is changing the game and yet if Peter's vision is to be taken seriously, just the opposite is true.  That God in fact never intended for the Jews to be the only chosen people of God.  That God's abundant life realized through Christ was never intended to be just for the Jews but rather for all people.  God showing Peter that he should not call anyone unclean or profane is a profound reminder of Genesis 1 when God created humanity in His image and saw that it was "very good" (1:31).

While the story of Peter's struggle with accepting Gentiles as being clean and worthy of God's acceptance and love isn't explicitly an indictment of racism, implicitly his struggle isn't any different than the woman's struggle with prejudice earlier.  Their struggle is one of identity, belonging, and purpose.  The fear is that if we accept the 'other'...if we 'welcome' the 'other'...somehow we'll loose our sense of who we are, where we belong, and how we are to be.  I could imagine Peter having a similar struggle.  The irony however, is that by welcoming the 'other' we actually gain a fuller sense of identity, belonging, and purpose.  In a word, we gain a fuller sense of wholeness.  And that's what 'gospel hospitality' is all about:  Experiencing abundant life in God!  The invitation then, that God made to Peter to "kill and eat" is the same invitation God is making us.  As graphic and as uncomfortable as it is, seeing the 'other' as clean and sacred is essential to killing the fog of our personal prejudice and the systemic racism that is currently enveloping our country.  God's welcome means welcoming others as children of God, created in the image of God.  Hospitality is the open door to dignity and wholeness for all people.

The story I shared with you at the beginning is a true story.  The woman struggling with prejudice shared her story with me recently on a Sunday morning.  I encouraged her to share her story with the congregation that same Sunday, which she did.  The response was pure joy and thanksgiving for her and for God.  Like the Gentile converts bringing clarity to Peter's world, people of other races, cultures, and ethnicities can do the same for our worlds too.  Clarity that opens our hearts to mind to God's intended order and intended dignity for all things.  All it takes is a little hospitality in a gardening center or wherever you might be.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Towels, Forks, & a Well-Trained Cat

We recently returned from a family vacation in California during part of which we stayed with some close friends, and you could tell they had prepared for our visit.  The beds were clean and freshly made, there were clean towels folded neatly by the bed, and in the bathroom several small details had been paid attention to like extra tooth brushes, different soap options, etc.  We might consider these to be superficial, even expected preparations but they were simply the tip of the iceberg.  My wife has a long list of allergies including pet dandruff and our friends have a cat.  A well trained cat mind you.  They have trained their cat to give high fives, follow certain commands, and use the toilet instead of a litter box.  Yes, you read right, their cat uses the toilet and it just happened to be the toilet in the bathroom we were using.  So, they retrained their cat to use a different bathroom so my wife as it was put many times during our stay "wouldn't die".  Perhaps an overreaction but consider the time and energy that went into retraining the cat just to make sure my wife was comfortable and as healthy as possible.  If that's not enough, our friends even bought the laundry detergent they knew we used that was scentless and hypoallergenic so we could do laundry and again make sure my wife "wouldn't die".  If you've ever wondered what authentic hospitality looks like, this is it.  True hospitality goes beyond the tip of the iceberg to what's beneath by removing all doubt and making it clear to us that "we belong here".

Amy Oden describes this kind of hospitality as "gospel hospitality" which she defines as "God's welcome into abundant life, into God's own life."  Gospel hospitality is often the kind of hospitality that surprises us, that comforts us, that renews us, and that ultimately allows us to just be.  In a world ravaged by injustice, inequality, violence, and racism, gospel hospitality is the kind of hospitality that is missing and yet desperately needed.

In the book of Genesis, chapter 18, there is a story about a man named Abraham.  Abraham was probably a wealthy and educated man, originally from the Sumerian city of Ur.  Most importantly though, Abraham was the first of the patriarchs in the Old Testament as well as the founding father of three of the world's major religious traditions:  Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  God had instructed Abraham to move to Canaan, the land God promised to give him and his offspring who would be more numerous than the grains of sand on the beach or the stars in the sky.  As Abraham's story unfolds you get the sense that he isn't completely convinced of God's promise, after all he and his wife Sarah don't have any children and it appears that Sarah is incapable of having children.  They relocate though, to a place called Mamre.  Mamre was an unremarkable place in Canaan that was probably nothing more than a small grove of trees.  While at Mamre though, Abraham and his wife Sarah have a remarkable experience when they welcome three strangers.  Abraham saw the strangers walking by while he was standing outside his tent watching the world go by and he ran out and practically begged them to stay.  He served them cakes made from the best flower, a calf who was good and tender, as well as curds and milk.  He also provided them with a spot in the shade to rest and water to wash their feet.  While the strangers ate they asked about Sarah (who was in the tent listening intently) and proclaim that they will return and when they do Abraham and Sarah will have a son.  Abraham and Sarah, who are well beyond child bearing years and yet had desperately wanted a son, had a hard time believing they were going to be parents.  In fact, Sarah laughs from behind the tent door.  One of the strangers though says, "Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?"

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  As readers of the story we know in advance that the strangers are really God in disguise and God's question becomes the essence of both the story and of gospel hospitality.  God asks Abraham, Sarah, and us to consider if there is anything beyond the love and power of God.  Is there anything that could separate us from God or leave God feeling as though we are imposing on Him in anyway?   God's question to Abraham and Sarah invite us to see and to hear God as a God of welcome, of hospitality, which is why the story of Abraham at Mamre is the story of hospitality in the Bible.  The story of Abraham at Mamre reminds us of who God is, of who we are supposed to be, and even gives us markers to keep us on track.  If you've ever gone hiking you may remember trails that were marked with different colors.  Each color representing a different trail and as long as you continued to see the same color, you knew you were on the right trail.  Much like following markers on a trail, the story of Abraham at Mamre has all the markers of hospitality.  Amy Oden describes the markers as:  Readiness (Abraham being outside the tent watching the world go by), Risk (Abraham running out and begging complete strangers to come rest and have a meal at his tent), Repentance (Abraham and Sarah turning and believing that they would in fact have a son), and Recognition (Abraham and Sarah eventually realizing it was God they were hosting and in turn realizing it was God hosting them by promising them a son).  As you may have noticed, some of these markers occur later but as long as we're continuing to see these markers we know we are on the right track.

The markers of hospitality also reminds us that hospitality works both ways.  It renews the lives of both the guest and the host, reminding them that they do in fact "belong here", whether that be Canaan, our friend's house, or wherever you might find belonging.  The absence of this kind of hospitality in the world is a tragedy because as Amy Oden says, "Gospel hospitality has always been at the heart of the Christian life.  God's welcome to every creature is a biblical proclamation and is the good news that we preach."  When we were staying with our friends in California they were ready for us which meant that once we arrived a space of belonging and renewal was created.  I remember at one point early on in our time with them they told us to essentially feel free to rummage through their cupboards to find what we need.  That's gospel hospitality in a nutshell.  Think about the trust and intimacy involved in giving someone permission to rummage through your cupboards.  Think about the comfort and freedom it gives the person rummaging!  It's risky sure, but it's also a great metaphor for the gospel.  By inviting us to rummage through their cupboards our friends are saying there are no secrets between us and that we are not an imposition.  In other words, both host and guest are welcome as they are without judgment.  That's how God welcomes us too.  We are not an imposition to God because nothing is too wonderful for God!

As Christ-followers we need to hear this because unlike Abraham, inviting others to rummage through our cupboards is something the church struggles with a great deal.  It isn't our secrets as much as it our propriety that prevents us from welcoming others freely and without judgment.  The church needs to learn how to welcome people as God welcomes us, freely and without judgment, reminding them that they are not an imposition to God nor the church.  That they in fact belong here. I feel very strongly that the church, if it can embrace and cultivate gospel hospitality, can lead the charge in healing our world.

Starting the week I invite you to check out my new podcast on hospitality:  Rummaging through the Cupboards - A Podcast on Hospitality in an Inhospitable World.  The podcast will involve interviews with professional and experienced people from different walks of life talking about hospitality, how they have experienced the markers of hospitality, and the impact it has had on their lives and the communities they are a part of.  The interviews will also contain ideas, resources, and experiences you can draw from and use in your own context.  My first two guests will be Barbara Wilson, Director of Collaboration & Community Partnerships for the Presbytery of Chicago, and Amy Oden, Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality at Saint Paul School of Theology of Oklahoma City University & Wesley Theological Seminary.  So, come check it out...we'll make sure you have extra towels but feel free to find the forks yourself.  After all you're not truly welcome unless you can rummage through cupboards!

Quotes & markers of hospitality taken from:  Amy Oden, “God’s Welcome: Hospitality for a Gospel-Hungry World (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) pgs. 11 & 17-27