PAY IT FORWARD
1:31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
2:25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
IT STARTS WITH GRATITUDE
The first two chapters of Genesis contain two separate creation stories. They were written out of different traditions and conflict on many details. But they share the desire to explain our place in the world, our relationship with God and the ways we have lost what God intended. The first narrative Genesis 1:1-2:4a tells the familiar story of the days of creation and describes a God that desires good for us. Everything humans needed for life was provided—- land, waters, sky, sun, moon, plants, animals, fish in the sea—- before humans were created. This God provides all that is necessary for life and at the end of his labors announces: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
In the second creation story (Genesis 2:4b- 25) much the same point is made. In this version, God recognized the human need for relationship— “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Besides the physical needs of life, humans need to be connected. And, just as important, connected without value judgments –” And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” These prototypical humans could accept each other as they were created—vulnerable, different from one another and dependent upon their God for their very lives.
Unfortunately, in real life, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to accept ourselves in such a way. Vulnerability is more often viewed as weakness. Differences become ways to measure, rank and divide people. And we easily forget that we had nothing to do with where we were born, what color we are or, especially in the American middle class, how well off we are. We seek to justify the advantages of our lives and tend to act entitled rather than grateful. Internally and behaviorally we are far more likely to point to our hard work and perseverance rather than the enormous advantages we were born with.
Think of the creation stories as God being the ultimate good host. In real life, a good host or hostess seeks to provide for the comfort of her guest. I remember going to an Airbnb in Texas and being amazed at the details our hostess thought of to ensure our comfort. She thought of things we didn’t know we might need. The Genesis narrative describes us as the recipients of an exceptionally gracious hostess. Life and the means to maintain life are gifts. None of us can lay claim to a disproportionate share of these gifts because they were created for all of us. We would be rude and disrespectful of our hostess, as well as the other people in the Air B&B had we eaten most of the food or sought to control the bedrooms.
Our faith claim is that kindness and hospitality emerge naturally out of the experience of kindness and hospitality. Or more simply, the experience of being loved engenders loving. It certainly does not guarantee it, but it is a lot more likely. That flow, however, is blocked if we do not acknowledge what we have received. The creation stories serve to remind us how much we have been given. (It is God who has made us and not we ourselves.) We can not explain the gifts, and certainly not the allocation of them, but we can acknowledge what we have been given. We can start with gratitude.
Our capacity to be hospitable begins with our ability to accept hospitality. All too often we make our faith about us and what we ‘should do’ rather than about God and what we have received. We are usually more comfortable offering care than acknowledging the ways we have received care. Focusing upon service is actually easier than focusing upon gratitude. We have a whole lot more control over what we do and what we offer than what we are given and what we receive. But, ultimately, service is unsustainable unless we first learn to receive. And worse unless we have experienced receiving, our giving runs the risk of being misplaced and/or condescending.
PLAY IT FORWARD
In order to practice hospitality we must realize that hospitality is a spiritual discipline. But like all spiritual disciplines, some are much more gifted in their application than others. That said, all of us are capable of the basics. We will be more hospitable if we are intentional, if we follow the examples of hospitality given to us and if we practice the skills that hospitality requires.
In terms of intentionality, the passage in Leviticus sets the bar very high. Loving your neighbor as yourself is hard but loving the alien as yourself is harder still. In FIRL our conversation went almost immediately to Haitians at the border and what was our responsibility? Both groups wondered if a political leader could actually govern by Christian principles. Could any political leader be this welcoming?
But whether or not we are able, Jesus consistently welcomed. His care did not depend upon how he was received. Ultimately, Jesus felt safe enough with God that he could freely give his life on behalf of loving. “Forgive them for they know not what they do” is not something most of us are capable of saying when we feel under threat, much less being harmed. From this point of view, even if the argument is that immigrants are ‘free loading or dangerous’, these ‘facts’ do not mitigate our responsibility to be welcoming. I can promise you that hospitality can and will be abused. But at least as I understand the gospel, the scales are tipped toward taking that risk. The how is another question and the politics yet another but we are called into constant, sleep depriving, discernment when we try to balance our own needs (personal and national) with those of others. We have a direction but we do not have an answer.
In real life, jumping to the big national issues can distract us from the daily mindfulness required of hospitality. I asked the groups to identify times they had felt unwelcome. Betty Cousar told us about her early days as a deacon and an elder. She was one of the first women to serve in these roles. Some of the men did not know what to do with her and she was literally asked: “What’s it like being a woman trying to do a man’s job?” Another man said almost every week after she became an elder: “You’re looking more elderly every day.” I am not going to assume that either of these men had ill intent. They very likely would say they were teasing or joking. They would almost certainly say they did not intend to be unwelcoming, but good intentions do not change the fact that neither were welcoming. If you can take the time to remember the discomfort of feeling unwelcome, you have a very good starting point. You will be more cautious. You are more likely to be aware that ordinary language and humor can take an unexpected turn. This mindfulness is difficult, and not always possible. But again, it is a direction to follow if we desire to be welcoming.
Welcoming requires mindfulness of the needs of the recipient. We must try to walk in their shoes long enough to be able to imagine how we might make them feel more welcome. That is not an easy task and in real life is sometimes impossible. We discussed how visiting a Sunday school class in our church can feel like going to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. No matter how invitational, a newcomer can not know the connections and the stories of people who have met together for years. In real life welcoming comes in increments, requires experience and a willingness to see the world through the eyes of others.
The theological concept of the incarnation–the Word made flesh—is the claim that God has not only walked in our shoes, she has lived in our skin. It is both the promise and the example that allow us to be welcoming. Our job is to pay it forward.
I will close with a quote that Lynn Evans shared with us:
“Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help eachother. No matter how difficult it is…Life is good when you are happy; but much better when others are happy because of you.” (Pope Francis) LET IT BE SO.