On Hospitality, Joy, Andy Dufresne, and Open House Dinners

Gerhard Kittel said, “Strangeness produces mutual tension between natives and foreigners, but hospitality overcomes the tension and makes of the alien a friend.”

Strangeness. Though I think this word often receives negative press, to be “strange” is simply to be foreign. Unfamiliar. Uncomfortable. In the presence of strangeness, there is mutual tension. In other words, when two people or two parties are alien to one another, both feel a certain tension. Awkwardness. You know the situation. Two people meet. They exchange names and pleasantries. Perhaps they share where they currently live, where they are from, small talk about the weather or their families. But then the surface talk runs out. The well is dry… and there is tension. Even though there has been an introduction, they are still strange.

At this point, some have the boldness to ask another question. A deeper question. But to be honest, deeper questions require an uncommon courage.

Strangeness, on the other hand, often suits our culture well.

I believe this strangeness can be a hindrance to the celebration of wider and varied enjoyment.

To enjoy is simply to experience joy; to have joy burst forth. How on earth can we experience joy in the midst of strangeness? In the midst of tension and awkwardness?

Personally, I prefer joy to discomfort. I don’t think I’m alone in this preference. With regard to people, then, there are two options – one framed in the negative, the other in the positive. I can avoid awkwardness, or I can pursue a varied joy. Could it be that a great deal of our lifestyle is determined by our response to this choice? If we choose to avoid awkwardness, we will likely hold close our existing friendships and relationships, and we will experience joy. I honestly see nothing wrong with such a decision. But I also see potential, occasionally desirable, limits with such a decision.

The pursuit of varied joy will often include the pursuit of awkwardness in order to break through and, on the other side, find reward. If you can withstand the strangeness, that is.

Michael Horton, in his challenging book Ordinary (see that one-word review?) argues that quality relationships are not born in quality time – as our culture (read: Disney World) so often depicts – but rather in quantity time. A wealth of time spent together will often mean a depth and breadth of both common and uncommon experiences. Bonds will be forged in the crucible of everyday life, not the pocket-draining effort of a ten day vacation. Like Andy Dufresne’s love of geology, all it takes is pressure and time… (that and a big *** poster.)

If this is true, then the pursuit of varied joy through relationships will involve time. Loads of time. Awkward time. Loads of awkward time. Sounds like fun, right?

Take a moment to consider your best relationships. Your closest friendships. They may have been instituted or strengthened in a moment of quality time, but the truest depth has likely come because of a commitment to quantity time. You’ve likely done life together.

My wife and I set out this spring to pursue varied joy through relationships. I had read a blog post somewhere (my apologies to the blogger who deserves recognition, but because of my faulty memory will receive none) about a couple who chose to open their homes one night a week for a meal to any and all who might attend. The post was written after one year of meals, discussing the wide array of blessings, expected and unexpected. I was challenged by the story. I shared the information with m’lady and we decided to jump in. We devoted every Friday night this semester to an open house dinner.

It’s safe to say we invited over 600 people each week. It sounds overwhelming, but I knew better. Jesus shared a parable once of a dinner party (Luke 14:12-24). Widespread invitations were offered, but very few decided to attend. Obviously he was speaking of something much greater, but he chose the example of a dinner party because he understood human nature. Even at the offer of a good thing (I am severely biased at this assessment), people often have other things going on! I knew the crowds would be manageable.

Over 15 weeks, we hosted 13 dinners. (We skipped Good Friday and one other because of illness) We handed written invitations to neighbors, colleagues, church family. We emailed local folks who were beyond a short walk. We utilized facebook to invite the rest. We averaged 5-7 guests per week. Some weeks we had one. Some we had ten. Only one we had zero. (my vanity was challenged… what becomes of my fragile ego?!) Our family of six bolstered the overall meal size regardless! We served pasta each week – four rotating recipes throughout the semester to keep it interesting. We served bread & butter, and usually a mildly addictive dessert, coffee & water. Super simple. Honestly, not that expensive.

The objective was to take the emphasis OFF the food and put it ON the people. We have no desire to impress people with the cleanliness of our home (four young kids?), or even our prowess in the kitchen. But we had every desire to get to know more people, expecting to find varied joy in relationships.

I am a pastor. My wife is a college professor. Our guests, at times, included friends, neighbors, colleagues, and students. Oh, and children – many children. Fifty-eight individuals stepped inside our home this semester, most for the first time, many more than once. People who would never normally sit down together shared laughter and conversation around our dining room table, which reasonably seats 10. We have another little kiddo table right next to it that seats 5-6 young ones. As the weather turned, we enjoyed each other outside. Evenings ran from 6pm (except that one time someone showed up at 5:57?) until 8:30-9. Because we used many disposable items (my apologies to the sustainability crowd), the house was often relatively tidy and the kiddos in bed by 9:20.

I give the details to say that it’s not as difficult as you might think.

The decision to host meals was a decision to pursue the awkwardness of pushing through basic conversation to get to something better. From assumption to understanding. From strangeness to friendship. At the very least, we pursued the awkwardness because we believe people are better off knowing each other, existing in community rather than as a collection of lonely strangers. Conversations almost always started on the surface, but after three hours at a table, we were pressed to find something more.

The dinners are a stepping stone between quality time and quantity time. Dinner is an ordinary event. Open house dinner is an ordinary event done in an extraordinary way. Weekly open house dinner is an invitation to quantity time for any who are also seeking varied joy in relationships.

My thoughts on hospitality have changed. In former days, I believed hospitality was about putting on the finest exterior and inviting people to look on. Fancy food. Sparkling home. Perfect behavior. I have come to realize that hospitality is not so much about the veneer, instead venturing to the core, the actual substance of relationships. Hospitality is engaging the strangeness in order to find relationship, pushing through the awkwardness to allow oft-messy quantity time to trump the elusive perfection of quality time.

For the past 3+ months, we’ve sought to be a vehicle of hospitality. I would do it again in a heartbeat. (We likely will after a summer of R&R!) To some, and understandably so, I know this would seem like crawling through a river of “less-than-palatable-contents”. But I believe you come out clean on the other side.

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Just How Personal?

Every once in a while, it might be good to ask ourselves why we use particular phrases. For that matter, we should also ask whether it is a good idea to continue using them. For the sake of discussion, I’d like to propose laying to rest the “personal relationship with Jesus.” Before you gather the lynch mob, please allow me to explain.

I understand the phrase. I’ve used the phrase. As time has passed, though, I’ve come to see possible issues with just tossing the phrase to the masses without qualification.

To clarify, I love the “relationship with Jesus.” Without question. By grace through faith, the relationship with Jesus is the key matter of every individual’s life. We will all one day stand before the Lord to answer the question he posed to his friends long ago, “Who do you  say I am?” It is my hope, my prayer, that countless saints will stand before the Savior with submissive, adoring hearts and declare him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. The relationship is critical.

My issue, then, lies with the personal aspect.

A quick search of the term online yields an expected definition. “Of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else.” Scanning the results of the search uncovers additional insight to our cultural understanding and application of the word. I found other terms and ideas in the website bylines… private, user-centric, “maintained for personal use”. Personal ads for companionship seem to frequent the list. Again, none of these terms or ideas are unexpected from the search. After all, it’s personal.

But now apply them to the Christian faith.

Particular.

Private.

User-centric.

Maintained for personal use.

SWM seeking savior who will carry through sand.

These terms don’t line up with the biblical description of a relationship with Jesus. Communal. Christ-centric. Other-centric. Maintained for God’s use. Following his footsteps rather than asking him to follow me around and pick me up in the midst of mine. Submission to the Creator of the universe according to his terms, for his purposes, for his glory alone for all eternity.

The more personal the relationship, the more likely the person has injected their own personality into the equation. The trouble with injecting a faith relationship with boatloads of personality is that our personalities are all fatally flawed. It’s a lethal injection.

The terms of a relationship with Christ are spelled out in the Scriptures. The Bible. The Word of God. The terms are completely external to ourselves. They are not entry points for negotiation, they are terms to which we must surrender. The first step is waving the white flag. There is no room for personality in the terms of the relationship. Obviously there is plenty of room for the expression of personality within the boundaries of the relationship, but on a paper diagram, this is secondary.

Perhaps a more useful term might be a biblical relationship with Jesus.

Why quibble over words? Does this really matter?

Consider one of the current diagnoses plaguing the church today: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. According to this diagnosis, God is one to whom we turn in order to do good (moralistic) and feel good (therapeutic), but we want him to stay out of our business (Deism). MTD is an unsatisfactory picture of God. His ultimate aim is not simply that we do good & feel good while he remains a cosmic spectator. His aim is surrender. Jesus, God in flesh, came to live a perfect life on our behalf, die a sacrificial death for our sin, and come intimately into our very hearts to bring the gift of life. This comes by surrender. Total and unconditional. Our doing good comes by his grace & the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Our feeling good is the result of the joy and peace we find in knowing and being known, in trial and triumph, by the One responsible for knitting together our very souls. The Lord remains transcendent (above creation – which, if left alone, leads to Deism), but he is also immanent (in creation – which, if left alone, leads to  God who is experienced and defined by our feelings).

Is it possible that MTD has gained prominence, not because it is the exclusive explicit message of the church (I don’t often hear God specifically presented this way – though maybe I’m wrong!), but because the primary message of the church has been an invitation to a personal relationship, delivered to a culture that believes truth is subjective? After all, if I could design my own, personal God, he would probably look a lot like the God of MTD.

Relativism presents a unique challenge to the gospel, because the biblical terms of surrender are the same for every human who has ever lived: often simplified as 1) repent of sin (sin as defined by God, not by our opinions) and 2) trust in Jesus (the Jesus revealed in the Scriptures, not by the media or even by many of his followers). Surrender. This is why Christians are a community. We are all recipients of the same grace. On the same terms. With the same God. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

Somewhere along the way, some folks thought this communal expression of faith in Jesus became too dogmatic. Too traditional. Too corporately expressed. The personal touch was lost. Christians sought to be part of the group rather than knowing Jesus intimately through personal surrender. So Christians did what Christians do, particularly American Christians. Rather than stopping the pendulum, they swung it hard in another direction. (The beautiful thing about a pendulum is that you can swing in  360 degrees of possibility… the frustrating fun is waiting to apprehend the next direction) The focal point became the personal relationship. Going to church isn’t enough. The faith of your family isn’t enough. It’s got to be personal. Let’s talk about Christianity in terms of the personal relationship.

The heart of the expression is correct. The over-application in the midst of cultural relativism, I believe, has been harmful.

Couple the seemingly exclusive use of the term (how often have you heard someone invite a non-believer to join the covenant community of faith?) with our cultural excitement for individuality, and you have a taste of the current nature of the personal relationship: My Jesus. My faith. My relationship. Our me culture distorts the biblical relationship by way of lethal injection.

I know what the Bible says, but my Jesus wouldn’t say that…

My relationship with God is different…

It is the opinion of this redeemed sinner that if we simply toss the personal relationship to the masses without qualification – particularly in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-everything society – we are asking every individual to come to individualized terms of what it means to know Jesus. We remove the Word of God as the authoritative source of truth, and we lead many to believe that their drive-thru, have-it-your-way relationship with God is OK.

As one who will be held to account for my stewardship of the good news, I think about issues such as these. I long for the pendulum to stop, for balance to remain. When I step to the pulpit, I pray that I might present the relationship as biblically given as though God’s Word is actually authoritative. Yes, that means talking about the holiness of God and the reality that sin is deserving of eternal judgment, clarifying that the personal aspect looks like personal surrender – not personal terms, extending the invitation without reservation to be part of the covenant community of sinners on level ground, to walk together in faith and humility under the Lordship of another who is far more deserving of the sovereignty he boasts.