The Ninety-Ninth Letter: Hospitality (Worth Saying Again)

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Dear Daughters,

I’ve noticed that there are two areas of normal life practice that I approach in significantly different ways than many of my friends.

One is stranger danger — this idea of seeing others as potential threats to my children.

The other is hospitality — the idea of welcoming others into our space.

They’re two sides of the same coin, as the cliche goes. Because hospitality applies to welcoming strangers in as well as friends. And if we are constantly in a defensive mode related to strangers, how can we ever welcome them in?

Recently it came up in conversation with a friend that she definitely doesn’t have folks into her home unless it is clean. And not just picked up a bit, but clean clean. Whether it’s family or friends or whathaveyou, she and her husband always clean if people are going to come over, even if they’re just stopping in quickly to pick something up.

I, too, understand the desire to present a clean house to others. I absolutely do. It’s why I make you pick up your toys before we have a planned gathering of friends.

But our house is never clean. Not in a thoroughly clean-clean sort of way. Your dad and I don’t make cleaning a priority, and we don’t plan to any time soon.

And not inviting others in is not an option for me.

Not only do we have folks regularly over to our house for meals and book discussions and I have friends in at least weekly to share a cup of tea or talk about our creative journeys, but we are also often opening our door to neighbors stopping by spontaneously for a chat–and then staying awhile.

Recently while we were preparing to host a group for a meal and theology discussion, I was just finishing up getting food together and standing before a sink of dirty dishes, knowing that there was a mess elsewhere in the house that needed to be dealt with. I heard one of you say that a neighbor and her two kids were at the door.

“Well, let her in!” I hollered from the kitchen.

So they came in, and I chatted while I finished washing dishes and putting dry ones away, and the green linoleum stayed sticky, and the only vacuuming that had happened in awhile had been done by the six year old.

But it didn’t matter.

We talked about preschool evaluations, buying organic food, Halloween candy, and she offered to take your astronaut costume back to our other neighbor who lent it to us. When she got ready to leave, one of her children wanted to stay and help with your puzzle instead of leaving. Which was fine with us, and he so he stayed.

Girls, that’s what neighbors do. We open the front door, even when we have a sink of dishes and a group of people arriving within the hour. We don’t pretend we’re not home. We don’t make excuses for why our homes aren’t clean.

We say, hey, y’all, welcome to real life! 

A messy house is the best way to make people feel welcome in your space.

Also, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: the Gospel doesn’t let you off the hook.

There’s nowhere that you can find in Scripture where God says, “Yeah, this care you must provide to the exile, widow, stranger among you? Don’t worry about doing that if your house isn’t clean. I totally understand messy houses. You’re off the hook.”

No, God says, welcome them to your mess.

Hospitality is about the mess.

If you are only welcoming others into a clean house, you are not welcoming them into real life.

I know a lot of people believe there is such thing as the “gift” of hospitality. People say that sort of thing to me, as if hospitality comes naturally to me. But this idea that some people are good at it and some people aren’t? I don’t see that in Scripture either. Hospitality in Scripture is the default of the people of God. There’s no choice.

And there are whole treatises and books written on how early Christians were known for their hospitality because it was so countercultural. The earliest inns and orphanages and hospitals were Christian people caring for people that the rest of the world thought were sketch. (Obviously, right? Look at the word “hospital.”)

We offer hospitality because God has offered us hospitality by welcoming us to the Table. There’s a reason some traditions call the bread of communion the “Host.”

I have said this so many times, girls, but every time I feel the urge to make an excuse for the state of our house, I know I need to hear the message again.

I am preaching to my own heart.

Because, even for me, the easy option is not to open the door. It’s what I would prefer. I am not an extrovert. I would rather not invite people over. I would rather just say “we should get together sometime” and leave it open and be noncommittal, rather than “how about coming over for tea at 10 am tomorrow?”

But if we’re not welcoming others in, well, there’s no other way to say it: we’re not welcoming Jesus in.

Love,

Your Momma

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The Eighty-Third Letter: The Stranger Is Jesus

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Dear Daughters,

I woke up this morning with the weight of a nightmare still hanging around me. I was glad it was nearly time to get out of bed because there was no sleeping to be had after that point. I had dreamt that one of you had gotten abducted out in front of our house. It was strange to watch the whole scene unfold in my dream, and as I woke I was determined to talk to you about stranger danger. I got out of bed, went to the bathroom, headed downstairs, squeezed a lemon into my water, and I was still thinking through the best way to approach the subject with you without making you afraid.

The thing is, I don’t want you to be afraid.

I don’t want you to think every person you don’t know might kidnap you.

I don’t want you to fear the stranger.

This whole stranger-danger thing? I’m just not convinced it’s a good way to raise you, even as my nightmare tapped into one of my own deepest fears–not being able to keep you safe.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being honest and forthright with you about the struggles of life in our broken world. In our house we talk about injustice and poverty and racism. But there’s always a pressure in my chest when I think about trying to talk to you about stranger danger.

And I’ll sound a little preachy on this point, but it’s because of Jesus.

The narrative of scripture reinforces that idea that the stranger is Jesus. From the old Testament story of Abraham welcoming the angels, to Jesus talking about himself being served when we clothe the poor, visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, it seems to me that the vocation of Christians is to love even in the face of potential dangers. That when we welcome those who are other, those who are different, those who are most in need of hope, we welcome Jesus.

I’m convinced this is not a metaphor.

Today in Sunday school, we talked about the last chapter of Luke, the resurrection appearances of Jesus, including one of my favorite narratives of all of the Gospels: the road to Emmaus. There is such richness to the story, which reads like a parable because it is so full of meaning. The two disciples are met by Jesus on a 7-mile journey, but they don’t recognize him as the risen Christ. Still, he walks along with them. Jesus asks them why they are sad and discouraged, and they respond with surprise,

"Are you the only stranger 
in Jerusalem who has not heard...?"

Are you the only stranger…?

Today, when I read this passage aloud, I heard this line differently than I have in the past. I heard the irony of the question.

Because, of course, Jesus is the stranger.

And then a few verses later comes the revelation of his true identity. How, how is it revealed?

Girls, it is only because the disciples have insisted on being hospitable to the disguised Jesus! They insist on him staying with them because it is late, they welcome the stranger, and then they let the stranger be the one who breaks the bread.

They let the stranger become the host.

They let the stranger offer something to them.

And the stranger is revealed as Jesus in one miraculous moment of bread-breaking. That means bread-sharing, girls.

A shared table. With a stranger.

The choir sang a rendition of O Holy Night today in church as part of the cantata. The line

Chains shall he break, 
for the slave is our brother

gets me every time.

It’s so radical because the slave is the complete other, right? Someone at the bottom, oppressed, at the mercy of captors. It is a good reminder that someone we would recognize as completely other than us is our sister. That the vulnerable is our brother. That the poor is our sister. That the broken and abandoned and lost is our brother. That the lonely is our sister.

That the stranger is our brother.

The stranger.

Jesus is our brother.

Jesus is the stranger.

You know what else is a refrain of scripture, right up there alongside the stranger being Jesus? The command to fear not.

Fear not.

And get this, Jesus had to say that to his disciples, his friends, even when they did recognize him. Because he was showing up in ways they didn’t expect.

Think about that for a minute.

 

Truly, He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

So, yeah.

I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of love, rather than fear.

I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of kindness, rather than distance.

Girls, I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of welcome and hospitality, rather than avoiding the stranger.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Ninth Letter: Am I Sheltering You?

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Dear Daughters,

Sometimes I worry that I am sheltering you too much.

Okay, actually, I worry about this a lot.

You really got bothered by the Ghost of Christmas Future in the Mickey Mouse version of A Christmas Carol this last Advent. The Mickey Mouse version. Your dad and I did not see that coming. But, of course, it’s about dying as well as greed, hostility, selfishness, and callousness, and you take those things to heart.

Because you are sensitive souls. Especially the eldest.

Sometimes I worry that you are sensitive because I am protecting you from Bad Things. Because you don’t know how the world “is.”

I look around at my community and it looks pretty homogeneous, and so even though we make an effort to buy books for you with diverse protagonists, and we even ask others to buy them for you, I still think sometimes, Am I sheltering you too much?

Yesterday, after we marched with our small town to remind others and ourselves that we stand for equality and that there is still work to be done, I talked to you about Martin Luther King, Jr.

I started out by talking out about how we are all children of God, created in the image of God. This you understood. This you embraced. Because this you know.

But then I told you that there are some people who don’t believe this, and that before I was born, there was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who helped us to see how unfair it was to treat people differently because they looked different from us. He was a preacher and people listened to him. But not everyone was happy with what he was saying. People said bad things and did bad things.

As your eyes welled up with tears, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. You cannot wrap your brain around someone being mistreated because she looks different than you do. You get sad when you see sadness. You cry when I cry, even if you don’t know why. I know this about you, and I saw it in your eyes, but it was important to me that you knew the truth of this story.

Still, I didn’t know how much truth to tell. When you asked if Dr. King was still alive, I told you he was not. You wanted to know what happened, and so I told you.

This was too much truth, and I could see it in your expression as you processed, in the change in your breathing. You got nervous.

I switched gears and talked about Old Testament prophets instead. And we talked about people in the Bible who died because others got upset when they preached truth, when they preached the message that God needed us to hear.

I kept circling around to the message that we are all children of God, how important it is to remember that we are all created in God’s image. This seemed like the thing to focus on. It’s also on my mind because of a Desmond Tutu book I’m reading.

But your little brain was still working, and despite your insistence that you were okay, those blue eyes were filled with tears.

That’s when I realized it. It is scary to you that people have died because they believe we are all children of God. It is scary because you believe we are all children of God. Because your dad and I believe we are all children of God.

I checked again to see if you were okay because you have this habit of trying to be brave. You say things like, “I’m fine, but my eyes are just watering,” when you are not fooling anyone. Your heart is so sensitive.

You asked to be excused from the table, and you went into your room to play.

A few minutes later, you began to sob. Loudly. You came out of your room, sobbing. Sobbing. Sobbing.

I sat down on the big gray chair in the living room to hold you, to offer comfort, knowing what it is like myself to be overwhelmed with emotion at the pain of the world. I asked you if you were afraid, and you told me, No.

“Just sad,” you said.

Just sad.

This morning, awake at 4 am with insomnia, I began to think again about whether you are too sheltered from the bad of the world.

The thing is, on a lighter note, it’s hard for me to get too worked up that you find Disney bad guys scary because you haven’t yet been made numb to the archvillain cartoon type. The fact that you haven’t been exposed to the bad guys means you also haven’t been overly exposed to the “good” guys, the princes saving the princesses, or the princesses themselves, which are to some degree just as dangerous, given the concerns they introduce regarding self-image, cultural biases, and understandings of what happily-ever-after love looks like. So I don’t care that you find caricatured scary dudes scary. The fact that you’re sheltered in your media exposure is fine with me.

But what about real life?

Well, I know that your dad and I have gotten a lot of things wrong in the last four years of “real life” parenting. I know that our faith calls us to love more, be more vulnerable, live less selfishly, speak truth more openly–and to teach you to do the same. We often fail at this. Over and over and over again, we fail. We are aware of these failings most days, and I hope we continue to challenge ourselves to live more faithfully to our callings.

But when it comes to sheltering you, to worrying about whether you’re exposed to enough “bad” things, well, I think I need to let this worry go.

For example, not many two- and four-year-olds have attended, in the last six months, their town’s first gay pride festival and picnic, witnessed their mother heading to the polls–twice, actually, given that the first time I went our precinct had run out of paper ballots–attended a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth fundraiser where we heard about state environmental and political concerns, and marched in an MLK day parade sponsored by our NAACP.

That’s real life, girls.

When you ask questions about people watering their lawns, we talk about water supply issues in Africa. (I’m not above a little indoctrination.) We talk with you about the great work your grandpa is doing with ex-convicts in Pennsylvania, and how he studies the Bible alongside inmates and visits those who don’t have friends or family members to visit them. When you talk about Christmas presents and Santa, we talk about the least fortunate. We make you sort your belongings and give things away on St. Nicholas Day. When we collect items for a Christmas Share-the-Joy family in our community, we talk about how there are very real people living in our neighborhoods who don’t have enough food to have a Christmas dinner, who don’t have fun things like brightly colored toothbrushes and yummy watermelon fluoride-free toothpaste. You walked with your preschool class to the food bank on Main Street and took a tour.

And the truth is, it’s not all words. You have been exposed to people who are different from us, but I work really hard, even when my heart isn’t in it, to not let you know that they are different from us.

We have friends and acquaintances with a variety of incomes, but we treat them all the same. We have shared our table with folks on fixed incomes and government assistance, who otherwise eat in soup kitchens, and we share our table with college professors. We try to treat them all the same. You have shared your goldfish and your sandbox with neighborhood children who don’t have milk in their homes to eat with their breakfast cereal, and you’ve shared your sandbox with children of dual-income earning parents. I try to teach you to treat them all the same.

When there are shady characters passing us on the street, and I have that stirring of fear so enculturated into me, that distrust of the stranger, it is important to me that you see me greet them with a friendly “Hello.” I refuse to teach you stranger danger, because I do not think that is the gospel message. (Many of my mom friends disagree with me on this. But we disagree on a lot of things. Like princess movies.)

All of that to say, when I read the Gospels, especially the words of Jesus, I know that we have miles to go before we are loving our neighbors as ourselves. I know that there is work to be done inside these four walls, and there is work to be done in our neighborhood, and there is work to be done in our city, our state, and our country. There is a lot of work to be done. I could be loving better, offering more hospitality, making more deliberate strides toward repairing the divisions I see in this world. We have not yet done enough.

Still, I do not think you are sensitive because you are sheltered, because you haven’t been exposed to enough bad things, because your world is curated and protective and safe. No, quite honestly, I think you are sensitive because I am sensitive. A lot of it is genetic.

But to the extent that it isn’t genetic, I want to affirm your sensitivities, your quickness to feel the pain of others, and not unwittingly numb it out of you by overexposure. I want to affirm your sensitive soul because it shows me you are on the road to compassion, journeying toward a heart breaking over the suffering of this world, toward an awareness that this world is not the way God intended it to be, toward a vocation to love.

And that is right where you should be.

Love,

Your Momma