don’t be a stranger

Last week, Natalie brought home a book of academic geography (her background discipline) — Land of Strangers by Ash Amin.

I’ve only had the chance to glance at it so far. But it looks absolutely fascinating!

As far as I can work out, Amin’s case is that modern Western societies are deeply divided over the stranger.

On the one hand, we feel threatened by strangers.

Strangers evoke emotions from low-level anxiety all the way through to outright terror. In the globalised West, every stranger could be a serial killer or an identity thief — even a terrorist.

On the other hand, we desperately long to stay strangers.

We relish our anonymity. And are fiercely protective of our privacy. Note the public outcry every time Facebook changes its privacy settings — or is rumoured to be changing its settings.

(I still remember how offended I was when I went into the bank to perform some routine transaction only to have the teller wish me Happy Birthday. That is not the kind of relationship I want to have with my bank!)

And when we take steps to reclaim that sense of community we’re so nostalgic for (even if we’ve never actually experienced it), we simultaneously insulate ourselves from it.

So we leave the anonymity of the inner city for the imagined intimacy of a suburban neighbourhood. But then we ‘cocoon’ ourselves — gliding from our air-conditioned houses to our air-conditioned cars to our air- conditioned offices and back again without pausing to be neighbours to anyone.

But I’m not excited to read Land of Strangers primarily because of the light it promises to shed on many aspects of our society.

I’m excited to read it because I’m keen to know why I find it so hard to embrace what the Bible says about strangers.

Whether it’s the biblical insistence that God’s people are to welcome and care for the strangers in their midst — because we too have been/are strangers in a foreign land.

Or if it’s the summons to be true neighbours — not walking past someone in need as the priest and Levite did on the Jericho road but crossing boundaries of social acceptability at great personal cost (just as our Lord graciously did)…

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but tribalism reborn

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

They’re possibly the most famous of Jesus’ word. Surpassed only by the so-called Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”.

Together they frame the section of the Sermon on the Mount I want to reflect on today — Matthew 7.1-12 — the message of which, I’m convinced, is best summed up as Christianity – it’s anything but tribalism reborn!

This may not seem immediately obvious — particularly when we take a glance at Christian communities across the world and throughout time.

Very often, Christian groups seem to nurture the most toxic practices and mentalities associated with tribalism: narrow and partisan self-interest, groupthink, a defensive stance (or an imperalistic one — depending on how much of a cultural foothold they have) that results in exclusion and condemnation.

In the face of this, many people reject Christianity, craving instead something more inclusive, broader and less partisan.

And I can sympathise — some of my worst experiences of exclusion have been perpetrated by Christian groups (although that usually wasn’t their intention).

But for Jesus, not judging — or, rather, judging with the ‘measure’ of grace and charity rather than that of strict justice (verse 2) — and avoiding a hypocritical attitude of moral superiority (verses 3-5), somehow sits alongside the need to discern (ie. to judge):

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (verse 6)

Clearly, Jesus doesn’t want his followers to jump out of the frying pan of exclusionary and condemning judgementalism into the fire of indiscriminate inclusion and embrace.

Some things are too precious to hand over to some people. Judgement has a place.

To cut a long story short, the answer to the corrosive excesses of tribalism isn’t banning tribes and doing away with boundaries altogether. Rather, it’s finding ways to be a group with a joyful sense of belonging and unity in what we hold in common, yet without anxiously policing our boundaries.

How do we do that?

According to Jesus, it starts with recognising that our ‘tribe’ or group isn’t discrete and clearly defined — a self-sufficient little island in the sea of humanity.

To put it provocatively, genuine Christian community is incoherent.

It’s not explicable purely on its own terms. Instead, its coherence and very existence as a group depends entirely on the one Jesus urges us to actively entrust ourselves to — our loving Father in heaven (verses 7-11).

why hospitality is such a big deal in the New Testament

Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. (1 Tim 3.2-3)

A bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it. (Titus 1.7-9)

Does it surprise you that hospitality is right up there in the qualifications for ‘bishops’ (overseers)?

It’s not the only qualification of course. But it’s clearly a big deal. Big enough to make Paul’s list (when I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have made mine).

Why is hospitality such a big deal?

In her extremely helpful book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (pages 29-33), Christine D. Pohl attempts to explain its prominence in the New Testament.

To begin with, Pohl points to the overarching storyline of Old and New Testaments and observing how much emphasis is placed on the fact that God’s people either are or had once been strangers in need of hospitality and welcome.

In the Old Testament it’s encoded in constant reminders of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. In the New Testament it’s bound up with the pilgrim status of the church, which ‘is nothing if it is not an assembly of migrants, answerable finally to the law of another city’ — to use Rowan Williams’ memorable phrase (Why Study the Past, page 41).

Pohl then identifies three aspects of early Christian life that converged to make hospitality central:

  • The ongoing tussle in the early church over precisely who was to benefit from the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel through Jesus. Who you extended hospitality to (or accepted hospitality from) gave a very concrete answer to this question.
  • The way the initial spread of the message about Jesus depended on travelling Christians — whether itinerant evangelists, ‘economic’ migrants who took the message with them or believers fleeing persecution.
  • The importance of the family household as the typical context for Christian gatherings.

For Pohl, then, hospitality is a big deal because of the interplay between the theological identity of God’s people and the particular circumstances (at once theological and cultural) the early Christians found themselves in.

If she’s right, then I wonder where that leaves hospitality today?

3 reasons missional hospitality is so challenging

1. We have to assume that strangers will be present in our community.

This means we can’t just preach to the converted. We have to embrace the assumption that Paul seems to make in 1 Corinthians 14 — non-Christians will be present.

So we have to embrace accessibility (the expected presence of unbelievers is a big part of why Paul puts a priority on prophecy relative to tongues).

This must go ‘all the way down’ — from our preaching and public prayer to our conversations over coffee.

Tim Keller has some great advice about implementing this. Like not assuming everyone you’re talking with automatically believes or feels comfortable with core gospel truths such as, ‘Jesus died to bear God’s wrath’.

It’s not that Keller thinks you have to make the complete argument every time you mention anything controversial (or potentially controversial). Just that it won’t kill you — and will probably benefit you — to acknowledge that some may think or feel differently.

2. Many of us have got this middle class respectability thing going on.

This can stops us opening our homes or lives to people without substantial preparation.

Maybe it’s just me, but my knee-jerk reaction to having someone over is to rush around cleaning up first. This often prevents me making spontaneous invites.

I think this can apply to our shared spiritual home and life too. Why do we always want to present a sanitised version to visitors (such as with a classic ‘guest service’)?

This is not an argument against regular church cleaning, maintenance or working bees. Nor against doing these things with a view to making people feel comfortable when they turn up.

It’s about our willingness to visibly not have it all together — something that’s among the first things we confess about ourselves when we call ourselves Christian, right?

3. We live in an age of scandal.

What we do with our personal lives and bodies will often be intensely scrutinised. For good reason.

Child Protection legislation — and the broader pressure for Christian people (especially leaders) to be ‘above reproach’ — exists because slipping up in this area is so terrible and tragic.

And we mustn’t assume we’re immune. Sadly, the distance between sinning and not sinning is often measured in units of opportunity and means.

Yet we long to share of ourselves, displaying hospitality and welcome along the lines laid out in (say) Hebrews 13 — where the believers shared their possessions, homes, and lives with each other and with strangers.

And we should act on this longing. But, as we do, we must take special care that ‘the marriage bed [is] kept undefiled’.

We’ve got to work out how to be promiscuous with our money but not with our bodies (as Tim Keller puts it).

why missional engagement needs hospitality

I think it’s fair to say that many churches and Christian groups recognise that we need to get past an embattled ‘fortress’ mentality in relation to contemporary culture.

No doubt there’s lots more to say about this. Especially about how this recognition should be underwritten theologically.

(In fact, I hope we can spend a bit of time this year working through what difference it would make to place our doctrine of church decisively in the context of mission — and to anchor this in an adequate doctrine of the Spirit.)

But for the moment I’d like to flag one place where I think it’s possible to get stuck as we seek to move beyond the Fellowship As Fortress approach.

You see, we can realise that it’s not valid to cut ourselves off from our culture — flat out rejecting what we feel is evil in it and setting up parallel institutions to ‘sanctify’ what we’re happier with.

And we can embrace the call to missional engagement in word and loving service. Perhaps establishing our fellowships as ‘mission bases’, sort of spiritual pit-stops where we resource and refuel ourselves for the task.

But we can still end up a long way from the biblical ideal — and prove deeply ineffective while we’re at it!

The missing ingredient is hospitality. Hospitality together with mission. Or, better, as an integral part of mission.

Look at how Christine Pohl puts it in her fabulous book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (pp 159-160; you can watch her sum up the major themes of her work HERE):

Congregations committed to ministering to people in need sometimes overlook their own greatest resource — the fellowship of believers … Churches have generally done better with offering food programmes and providing clothing closets than with welcoming into worship people significantly different from their congregations. Because we are unaware of the significance of our friendship and fellowship, our best resources often remain inaccessible to strangers.

If find this so challenging.

What would it take, I wonder, to equip Christians to welcome into our fellowships — and to be with — people who aren’t necessarily like us?

mission: hospitable

…to be hospitable is to let oneself be overtaken [surprendre], to be ready to not be ready, if such is possible, to let oneself be overtaken, to not even let oneself to be overtaken, to be surprised, in a fashion almost violent … precisely where one is not ready to receive — and not only not yet ready but not ready, unprepared in a mode that is not even that of the “not yet”.

— Jacques Derrida, ‘Hostipitality’ [sic] (in Acts of Religion, p 361)

A full exegesis of Derrida’s take on hospitality will have to wait for another day. (Dan recently did a cracker of a job on the allied theme of friendship.)

For the moment, I want to isolate the profound insight concealed here. Derrida seems to be pursuing a definition of hospitality that won’t get turned inside-out and become its opposite (becoming degraded into that corrosive power play in which I position myself as the host — the one who is ‘at home’ and holds all the cards — and, in doing so, subtly downgrade you as my guest).

It’s worth dwelling on the difference between true and false hospitality. Here are some of my preliminary thoughts about what would ‘count’ as the genuine article for Christians:

  1. The whole experience draws people deeper into relationship rather than being simply a self-indulgent end in itself.
  2. The food (and the service, etc) doesn’t draw attention to itself — either by being too flashy or too cringy — because we know that Jesus has freed us from needing to impress or ‘prove ourselves’ by how well we perform.
  3. It manifests care for our guests — e.g., in safe and hygienic food handling as well as in showing loving attention to our guests’ potential sensitivities (dietary, cultural, etc).
  4. From go to woe, it breaks down boundaries (whether ethnic or socio-economic) — and, in doing so, speaks of how God’s grace in Jesus differs from both religion and irreligion.

How would you extend the list?

what if hospitality is the key to reading (and applying) the Bible?

Have you ever stared at a Magic Eye picture for ages before it’s resolved and you can see the image inside the pattern?

Or looked up at the stars searching out the relationships modern astronomers have discerned and clothed with ancient mythological names — Orion’s belt, Hercules, Andromeda?

You have?

Well, you know the moment just before everything resolves — where you know that there must be some sense, some coherence, but it’s hovering tantalisingly out of reach?

That’s how I feel about hospitality right now.

I feel like I’m close to a break-through. Close to seeing how hospitality may provide a key to reading the whole Bible. How it may in fact be the central interest and goal that draws together the various threads of the Christian story — of God’s own story.

Of course, it’s all tangled up with the practical question Christine D. Pohl raises in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (p 150) — ‘If we use hospitality as a lens through which to examine our homes, churches, jobs, schools, health care, and politics, might we see them differently?’

(This is especially true because, for some months now, I’ve been working on some resources to help local churches harness hospitality to better connect with their communities in mission and service.)

Like I said, I’m not there yet. If there’s a break-through coming, it’s still waiting in the wings.

But stay tuned! Because I’ll have something for you — irrespective of whether or not the pieces all fall into place…

hospitality is mission

Jesus’ actions at the dinner table remind us that hospitality is mission and mission is hospitality.

Mission is essentially about relationships — inviting people into relationship with us and with God. Relationship is nowhere more tangibly demonstrated than at the table.

(Simon Holt, ‘A Cook’s Confessions’, Zadok Perspectives #62, 1998/1999)

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I have a new job!

I’m still loving working with the Christian Union at La Trobe 3 days/week. And now, to complement this, I’ve got the chance to help develop some resources leveraging hospitality for Christian mission and service. It’s really very exciting — and a timely challenge to put some of my reflections about becoming churches of irresistible influence directly into the service of Christian people faithfully striving to glorify God and love their communities.

A Mexican fiesta -- to share!

At the moment, I’m in the idea-generation phase. So I’m mainly brainstorming and reading widely. In particular, I’ve been dwelling on the what, why and how of Christian hospitality:

  • I’m exploring the possibility of adapting Miroslav Volf’s ‘phenomenology of embrace’ — in which he (perhaps whimsically) analyses a hug into four stages — to focus my thinking about what hospitality is.
  • In terms of the why of hospitality, Luke 14 and 15 is exerting a tremendous gravitational pull on my thinking (so much so, in fact, that I’m starting to entertain some slightly outrageous ideas about the window Jesus’ dinner-table behaviour and conversation opens up into his quite startling reworking of the Jewish understanding of God).
  • And I’m also trying to work out the best way to frame some ‘how to’ resources about hospitality when the people I’m pitching to probably have a lot more experience than I do in actually extending hospitality (but maybe just need a little bit of help directing it outwards towards mission and service).

So I’d love it if you could take a moment to comment and tell me what’s stimulated you in your wrestling with the what, why and how of Christian hospitality. For example, I know I need to rent and watch the movie Babette’s Feast