Last month I talked about getting my face out of a book and learning to welcome the person standing in front of me. It’s been an adventure (and generally fun) to pay attention to the person standing in line with me and the person knocking on my door. (I’m still working on the telemarketer trying to make a living by calling me!)
The next step is “welcoming the stranger.” Not often listed as a spiritual discipline, this practice was one Jesus emphasized by how he welcomed all kinds of people and identified with them: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me… when you did it for the least of these, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:31-35, CEV). Such welcoming is tangible and helpful, even offering them a cup of cold water (Matthew 10:40-42; see also Matthew 18:5 and John 13:20).
Who are our strangers? People appear to us as strangers for different reasons but they usually fit into one of these categories:
Outcasts. A person’s past didn’t disqualify him or her from being welcomed by Jesus. While most rabbis threw stones at lepers, Jesus welcomed them (Matthew 8:1-4). He touched the untouchables.
Wrong-doers. The immoral past of the Samaritan woman did not disqualify her either. In fact, Jesus went out of his way to extend himself: he had to go through Samaria (John 4:4). He welcomed this person who was also a stranger ethnically and gender-wise. He should not have had a conversation with any woman in public but he not only did so but also invited her to enter into a deepened relationship with God.
Anyone who isn’t like me. When we see or meet people who differ from us politically, ethnically or theologically, a little “ping” may go off in our head that says, Ooh, Different. Step back. I wonder what Jesus’ disciple, Simon the zealot, thought when Jesus healed and then praised the faith of a Roman centurion. Simon would have viewed the centurion as a prime candidate for assassination.
A stranger may just be someone of a different economic class. In a church full of homeowners, an apartment dweller often feels like a stranger. A disabled person is a stranger in the midst of fitness buffs as is a non-reader among well-read folks. Military kids or missionary kids, parolees or drug rehab graduates may all qualify as strangers among those without that type of experience.
Anyone we’re tempted to exclude and ignore. Strangers are often people in power-down positions: “children as opposed to adults, women as opposed to men, minority races as opposed to majority races, the poor as opposed to middle-class, the middle-class as opposed to rich, lower-paid workers as opposed to highly paid workers, less educated as opposed to more educated, blue-collar workers as opposed to professionals.” The elderly are easily overlooked. When my quiet 80-year-old mother-in-law came to visit, our other dinner guests never engaged her in conversation. I wept later to think of the many times I had neglected to speak to an older person.
Or we may avoid pushy people, people who talk too long about themselves, those who scream and pout for what they feel they deserve, know-it-alls, or people who let their kids run wild. In any “us versus them” situation, “them” are the strangers.
The shocking thing about Jesus is that he did not merely tolerate such different people. Jesus offered himself to them in self-giving love. I am able to do this only when I ask Jesus to reach out to others through me.
Excerpted from Invitation to the Jesus Life, ch 5. ©Jan Johnson
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Who are the “strangers” in your life?
What might be some small step you might take in welcoming one of them?
I am by nature a high introvert. Given my preference, I’d sit in a comfy spot reading a book for the rest of my life. But the second part of the Great Commandment tells me to love my neighbor (Matt 22:39). A “neighbor” is a person who is “nigh” (near) me, which might be the bank teller depositing my checks, the dejected teen boarding the airplane ahead of me, the beaming father holding his 6-month-old in the Home Depot line—or the person who wants my attention when I’m completely absorbed in my book. So I have simplified the second part of the Great Commandment to: What would it look like to love the person in front of me for the next 10 seconds?
To “love” the person in front of me does not mean I necessarily feel warm and fuzzy toward them, or that it’s my job to make them feel good (even worse, to like me). “Love” is simply engaging my will for another person’s good. So I often ask God, What does “love” look like here? Most often it involves being friendly or kind or helping someone out. Quite often such welcoming is no big deal.
My friend was in line to speak to a collection agent (so nobody in that line was happy). His previous experiences with the clerk were not pleasant so it was tempting to numb out and just “get through it.” But when he noticed that the gentleman in front of him didn’t speak English well which clearly annoyed the clerk, my friend quietly stepped in and helped translate for the man. It eased the situation considerably.
Some would say my friend did this because he is an extrovert, and that may be part of it. But more than that, he’s very intentional about welcoming people into his life (as is my husband). When he says “How are you?” to me, he waits for a real answer. I’m having to get used to that, since I’m eager to get down to business and address the matter at hand. What I liked best about my friend’s interchange in the line was that he lightened the load not only for the gentleman but also for the clerk who had been so brusque with him. He loved both people in front of him.
Indeed, the person in front of me that I might struggle to welcome might be someone who repeats himself a lot or who tries to convince me of a so-called biblical idea that I don’t think is in Scripture. I most often forget that the person in front of me really matters when I’m distracted by my own dilemmas or trying to make a decision. So the prayer becomes: Show me what it would look like to love the person in front of me for the next 10 minutes. And God usually shows me what to do.
Jesus, I believe, was like my friend. Jesus taught people: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Jesus laid aside deep grief over John the Baptist’s death to pay attention to the crowd in front of him (Matt 14:13-14).This is the essence of hospitality: welcoming the person in front of me:
We pay attention to others, inviting them to be at home with us as they unfold themselves before us (as God invites us). Then we wait for them to be able to do that. To merely welcome another, to make a place for them is one of the most life-giving and life-receiving things a human being can do. Hospitality is not limited to inviting others to eat with us or stay in our home. While cleaning, bed-making and food preparation are valuable gifts to offer others, the core idea of hospitality is being open and vulnerable to another person (Invitation to the Jesus Life, p. 70).
The more I welcome people into my life, the more I find life to be an engaging adventure in God’s company.
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What “signals” do you send that indicate to another person that they are welcome? That they are unwelcome?
It is 4:30 am and, unless you are in the car before 5:15, the chance of making your 6:45 time at the gym will be slim to none. Instead of an unhurried date with your own soul, you listen to a podcast through your car speakers while sitting in morning traffic. The gym is packed with others just like you, hoping to fool their bodies into thinking they have an active lifestyle and that the scale might just indicate as much. Hair still wet from the post-workout shower you swear and honk your way to work, barely squeezing into the last available spot at the last available pay parking lot at the last available pre-late moment before being driven into the wilderness that is your day at a desk.
9:30 pm. Children are wrestled away from pixel-glow and sound byte stew and chased to their rooms. You’d make love but the idea of finding yet more energy is repugnant to people already half asleep, already planning the next day, even before you can catch up with this one. You kiss your partner, roll the other way, and, in what seems like moments later, hear your phone alarm telling you it’s time to start all over again.
* * *
Abba Antony sat in his cell. The day was shimmering hot and the desert air was punctuated by a concoction of dust, bugs, and the generally parched life that survives among the softly breathing stones of a lazy earth. In his cell it is dark and smells putrid, like too many days without even a fresh breeze to drive out the stale desert. It is the aroma of thought.
He sits with his back against the wall on a stone shaped perfectly to his buttocks, where he spends countless hours simply being Antony. On the other wall is a small ledge built of stray stone and debris that acts as an altar. To one side are the last fragments of his meager meal, unleavened bread, now hard and brittle, like the hands that broke it.
He owns a shredded, tattered copy of the Gospels, a few small candles, an embarrassingly threadbare cloak and the deep ecstasies afforded an old mystic of silent prayer. He had not seen another soul for over two weeks, not since the last colloquy of seekers had come from the towns for spiritual counsel, a service he rendered as often as was needed.
The rest of the time, he prayed in the broad, spacious silence of the Egyptian desert.
* * *
If you are like me, your life is the former but your soul longs for the latter. And, unless your name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, you have not lived much of your life alone. Nor have you experienced much in the way of solitude. None of us have in fact.
When the sun sinks low in the evening sky is the time shadows are most insistent, pronounced, surprising. It gives the impression that the world is somehow larger than the sum of its parts. We are the solid matter behind the suggestions of our own shadows. Without our physical presence, nothing appears. Yet, conversely, without shadows we are but ghosts. There is no substance from which is cast forward any proof of our existence.
We live among ghosts and shadows. Before our structures of commerce, built of hollow bones and the featureless droning of our money-lust, lived taller souls. Antony of Egypt. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Julian of Norwich. Bernard de Clairvaux. Mechthild of Magdeburg. John of the Cross. Thomas Merton. They were those whose smallness cast forward agreatness – holy mustard seeds dwarfing the hungry world around them. And their shadows have not been silent. Nor have they been still.
If we are to become greater than our shadows would suggest, we would be wise to envelope ourselves in the calming grey shade of saints who have soaked up enough light that they shield us from God’s glory that would immolate us in our tepid, backward lives. These luminaries shine out “like shook foil” (thank you Gerard Manley Hopkins) even as Moses’ face shone after gazing into the great abyss that is the face of I Am. We, too, can do the same.
* * *
How? How do two scenarios so utterly different find commonality? How do the prismic lives of these great saints enter our own ashen experience of contemporary chaos? Is it possible for the ascetic, unitive consciousness of Antony to become our own? Can he who had no wife and children, no mortgage or debt, no rush hour anxiety or job insecurities to deal with speak into our lives? How do such ancient voices, so removed from the modern experience of shameless hurry, find their place within us?
Right, neither do I.
Instead, I offer a frightening consideration: those who long for the nourishing desert silence must be willing to live there first. For, in the desert is found the abundant life, the a priori life, of those least satisfied with anything less; with nothing more. In other words, what Antony and his ilk would tell us is that, to be as still and unshakably unified as they, we cannot simply use them as therapeutic platitudes to shield us from the worst of our game.
We change our game to find their life.
* * *
Louise and Warren used to own two cars, one each for work. They generally parked their camper truck and small boat on one side of their triple-car driveway that fronted a 3500 square foot Tudor style home in the gentrified, shiny part of town. His work with a large software company, combined with her consulting business typically brought in a healthy six figures.
Now, Louise hosts whomever comes to the door of their communal home, bracing their days with warm fire and hot soup, a blanket and conversation. It is Warren’s turn to act as community vicar and offer morning prayers. Filling the simple living room, looking not unlike the common area of a large hermitage, were a host of icons, a candled prayer station, four kneelers, and a prominent Communion table that doubled as a dinner board.
They invested all they had in this new little community. Once they sought to find a faith sufficient to uphold their life. Now, they seek a life sufficient to indemnify their deepening faith. They live their lives hidden in the safety of holy shadows, cast long and still by those whose silent voices speak the loudest.
Someone who recently saw the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings asked me how a good God could drown the Egyptian soldiers in the sea. Here are a few thoughts that came to me.
Our rabbis taught, “When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”Read More Post a comment (0)
October 1981. I was _____ years old, a touring musician, forty pounds overweight, an alcoholic, and a chain smoker. And I was a newly converted follower of Jesus. I sat in a little evangelical church in Calgary, Alberta with fellow musician and touring buddy, Trent (pseudonym). I was blissfully happy, possessing a kind of post-pothead perma-grin that caused some to smile, others to pull their children closer. It was my first time in church for many years. Allow me to recount my first impressions.
“I should’ve showered first.”
“These people all kind of look the same. But happy.”
“Wow, husbands and wives are holding hands…in public.” But, for our purposes here-
“This ‘praise band’ is kinda hokey. But man, these people love to sing.”
Thus began my education in congregational music.Read More Post a comment (0)
How… might we begin to develop our ability to read the Bible more Christocentrically—that is, as a book that speaks everywhere to us of Christ?
First, it is essential that we develop the skills of attentiveness outlined in chapter ten and have some experience of using those skills in our reading of the Gospels. Until we have learned, at a deep level, to discern and respond to the presence of Christ in the Gospel narratives (where he is most conspicuously present), we will always struggle to identify how, say, Leviticus or Job might be revealing Christ.Read More Post a comment (0)
If one could point to a distressing pendulum swing in our culture, deadly to spiritual growth, it would be the meteoric rise of tribalism. It’s a kind of mob mentality that is more interested in self-preservation than actual family expansion. It is the pursuit of control through brand-specific convincing rather than the compassion of conversion.
Merriam-Webster defines tribalism as “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group.” In other words, to be best at tribal mentality is to scorn (or worse) those outside one’s tribe. Exclusivism becomes valuable currency in such a paradigm. The freedom offered by true grace becomes a dangerous liability.
More distressing still is the fact that it is nothing new. It has been a human proclivity all along. It’s the “my god’s bigger than yours” syndrome. My king’s mightier than yours. My clan’s greater than yours. My bloodline’s purer than yours. My kids are smarter than yours. My abs are tighter than yours. My crayons last longer than yours.Read More Post a comment (4)
I recently blogged about accepting people as they are. I received many appreciative emails, especially about this line: Expectations are the early stages of resentment. I also received some good questions. Here are my responses.
I have been praying for the Persecuted Church for over 30 years. I receive prayer points from several organizations working to bring the light of Christ to areas where the Church is the bruised reed and dimly burning wick of Isaiah 42:3. Over the years, I have heard of many miracles and answered prayers; I have also seen a shift in the tactics of Satan. In the 1980s and 90s, the Church in Communist lands dominated the prayer lists. Now, Muslim nations top the list of places of intense persecution for God’s people.
It is with great sorrow that I read about the kidnapping of the Chibok girls from their school in Nigeria by Boko Haran over a year ago. In pain, I continue to read about the hundreds of women and children who have been recently rescued by the Nigerian army: women who have seen their husbands killed and their children scattered. Woman who have been forced at gun point to convert to Islam and marry Boko Haram fighters. Women traumatized at levels I cannot even imagine, their homes and families devastated. All over the world, as I sit at home warm and well-fed, children are denied education, men refused jobs or jailed simply because they seek to follow Christ, women live in fear that relatives will discover their faith and kill them.Read More Post a comment (0)
Some of us have an “inner judge” who notices when others don’t do what we think they should do. Maybe they’re not doing their “fair share” or not following through as promised or they’re promoting political policies that we dislike. What do we do with that “inner judge”? I’m on a learning curve of accepting people as they are. (I’m mindful that your journey might be different—that of speaking up—but I think this will still make sense!)
Here’s what my progress has looked like so far: I’m part of a group that highly values accepting others as they are, but I’ve noticed that group members aren’t very welcoming toward a certain person in the group who might be described as “socially disabled.”Read More Post a comment (0)