After I finished reading The Imitation of Christ, I was going to jump straight in and start the next of my books for spiritual formation (The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr, if you were keeping track). But my church is currently working through Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase. So far we have covered two of the five practices, and those have given me so many thoughts buzzing around my brain that I decided to pause Richard Rohr for a few weeks until we get to the end of this.
I have found that each practice is very broad. Usually the book chapter covers one aspect, the preacher talks about something slightly different, my small group (never known for keeping firmly to a topic) has a discussion about some other part of it, and by then my own thoughts have gone somewhere else entirely.
So I warn you that what you are about to read may or may not bear any relation to the actual book, and quite possibly won't reflect what is going on at my church. In fact I will try not to write anything that suggests what my church should be doing, because that doesn't belong here at all. I'm simply pulling a bunch of buzzing thoughts out of my head and sending them off into the world instead.
The first practice, then, is Radical Hospitality.
It seems to me that this is pretty well summed up by Jesus' words in his famous Sermon on the Mount:
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:46-47 NIV)
We are all generally good at showing hospitality to those we are comfortable with - our own people. Or if we're not, we can think of ways to be better at it. The radical bit is finding ways to meet people we don't know and aren't comfortable with.
|John Salmon / All Saints Church, Bracknell Road, Ascot, Berks - Wall painting *|
There are two main ways that can happen. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. The guy is walking along the road, and there in his path is a wounded man, a stranger. He has a choice. Does he stop and get involved? Or does he move on and leave him to his own people?
Sometimes unexpected people just turn up in our lives, and we have to make an instant decision about how we treat them. I guess we can make it a little more likely that that happens, and we can make it more likely that we will treat them with love when they do. But this first way requires someone to come into my space, for me to engage with them on my terms. These encounters can lead to a complete change of direction - I know of a couple who ended up starting a drug rehab centre because they welcomed one addict into their home. But merely waiting for people to turn up can be an excuse not to do anything, too. It can be easy to assume we would be hospitable, without ever having to put it into practice.
So the other way is to seek out people who are different to us, by going into different places. This time, we are not the Good Samaritan who gets a choice whether to engage. We risk being the person who needs help. That's a lot more scary.
Robert Schnase writes
It's easier to welcome the stranger than to become the stranger. We feel vulnerable... Becoming the stranger in another person's space requires humility.
We may (hopefully) not get beaten up, but even being a little bit out of our comfort zone means we have to rely on other people to tell us how things work, convey the unspoken cultural rules, and make us feel welcome in their space, on their terms. My discomfort at that idea must be similar to the discomfort many people feel about stepping into a church - which I am so used to, that I forget that there is any kind of barrier at all. So, I am trying to think about how to get out of the "Christian space" and into other places.
My final thought about hospitality is that it takes time. It reminds me of a sermon I heard several years ago about leaving margins in our lives. We just can't engage with people if our lives are packed wall-to-wall, can we? We need a few spaces around the edges to stop and properly see those who are around us. And both the church and our whole culture are rather allergic to blank spaces. Can that change?
* I searched Wikimedia Commons for a Good Samaritan painting, and I just had to use this one because of the man walking past with his nose in a book - that would be me. Every time.