Is That You, Jesus?

Why do so many Christians resist welcoming the Syrian refugees? I am baffled by this. Embracing the stranger is an essential Christian teaching. You might say that hospitality is in the Christian DNA. (A few supporting texts: here and here and here.)

I am a Protestant who has learned to appreciate her sisters and brothers who practice the contemplative Catholic traditions. I have often experienced Benedictine hospitality. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, all guests are to be received like Christ.

Hospitality is not a naive “feel-good” enterprise. Hospitality demands something of us. To begin, we must manage our fear of the stranger. As someone who has been harmed by strangers in my past, I have had to work at developing a hospitable heart.

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Backpacks & Blessings

Do you remember the feeling of the first day of school? A notebook full of fresh pages. A sharpened pencil. A backpack without crumbs or crumpled flyers. Nothing forgotten or undone. Not a single mistake yet!

Last Sunday I preached at a church on the cusp of a new school year. The congregation had collected school supplies and backpacks. They were blessing the items before donating them to two local elementary schools. The children also brought their backpacks to church that Sunday. At the blessing time, more than a dozen children and youth came forward, each with a backpack. The chancel area was full of color and texture. Three lay leaders offered eloquent and heartfelt prayers: for children and teachers, for safety and wellbeing, for the process of teaching and learning.

When it was over, a long-time member of the church stood up to continue the service. Unscripted, she spoke with emotion: “I remember when there wasn’t a single child in this church.” She was an older white woman, wearing a beautiful dress that a Nigerian friend had made for her. To me, she symbolized welcome, and there was no mistaking the blessings that had returned to her because of her welcoming spirit. Her feelings of joy spilled out in tears in a moment of grace.

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Hospitality Makes A Happy Heart

My husband and I have been Air Bnb hosts for more than a year. In addition to providing income, hosting brings emotional rewards. It feels good to offer hospitality to people who need a place to stay. (I’ve blogged about hospitality in relationship to ministry here and here and here.)

This summer Doug and I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the hospitality equation. During our recent house/dog-sitting escapade in Norway, we took a 4-day trip to Oslo. To economize, I booked a whole flat on Air Bnb. The access to a kitchen meant we could pack picnic lunches and cook our own suppers, rather than rely on restaurants. We made a long list of sites to see. We even watched film versions of plays by Ibsen, Norway’s famous playwright.

The first rule of traveling is that life does not go as planned. Not only was the weather dreary and rainy, but Doug got sick on the day we arrived — the kind of sick that keeps a person very close to the bathroom. It’s dispiriting to spend a long-anticipated holiday under rain and clouds, especially while the person you love is miserable. It’s like watching a sidewalk list of gaily chalked plans wash away in the rain. There goes the happy face — dissolved into a smear of yellow chalk. And you can’t even complain because you’re not the one who’s sick.

The Kon-Tiki Museum.

The Kon-Tiki Museum.

Still, on the second day — with Doug’s encouragement — I left him behind, borrowed my host’s umbrella, and ventured into Oslo on my own. There were many moments when I almost turned around. It’s not that fun to be alone in a strange, overwhelming place in a pounding rain. Not only did the wind threaten to turn my umbrella inside out, but most signs were in Norwegian only. I struggled to decipher the bus and subway maps. I kept on, determined to return with a story worth telling, at the least. Eventually I found my way to the peninsula housing the Fram Museum (polar exploration ships) and the Kon-Tiki Museum. After that I took the bus to the Ibsen Museum, and the subway home.

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Signs vs. Sidewalk: Which Speaks Louder?

I was walking through an unfamiliar residential neighborhood to get some exercise, going at a good clip when I was brought to a sudden halt because the sidewalk disappeared. A certain establishment had not installed sidewalks along its considerable property line. The name of the establishment? “Health Network.” I could not continue my healthy walk past the Health Network, but had to turn around.

Sometimes I think this is what the church must seem like to people outside the church — an establishment that says one thing on its sign, and another thing by its behavior.

I know churches that say “Welcome” on their sign, but good luck finding a door that will open. Some churches unlock only a few of their many doors, even on a Sunday morning.

I know churches that proclaim “All Are Welcome” on their sign, but heaven help the young lesbian couple that walks in, hand in hand.

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Indiscriminate Tastes

Everyone likes to eat. What do you like to eat? On Sunday I’m preaching the Acts 10 text, about Peter’s vision, and so I’m pondering food choices. In the text, Peter, a law-abiding Jew, encounters a Roman named Cornelius and dreams of a sheet filled with food that he considers to be unclean. In the dream, God tells Peter: “Get up Peter, Kill and Eat.” Understandably, Peter recoils. The action recurs three times.

It strikes me that food is not just something to think about. Food is something to partake of. Recently I’ve experienced food a bit differently from normal. I just spent ten days traveling in the UK, and I did my share of eating! I began my travels in Ayr (west coast of Scotland), as a guest, sharing meals with my host family. Then I traveled to Edinburgh where I talked about pilgrimage based on my book, and stayed at a lovely hotel, like a tourist. Then off to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne (east coast of England), to practice being a pilgrim.

All along the way, I did something I don’t usually do: I took pictures of my meals. I kept thinking, “Doug would love this!” So as a way to share the experience with my husband later, I snapped pictures. Which part of me was trying to preserve those memories — the tourist me, or the pilgrim me?

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Pilgrim Hospitality

Pictures of the Incredible Scottish RevGals!

I have just returned from a pilgrimage to the UK where I was on the receiving end of so much hospitality! I led a 3-day conference called The Pilgrim Way for 18 clergywomen in Edinburgh, Scotland. The woman who originally envisioned this international event, and organized it, was Julie Woods. She took care of “all the things.” How inspiring to see her idea give birth to an event, years in the making! Here Julie and I are, in front of the priory ruins on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which was a follow-on from the conference.

Rev. Julie Woods, right.

Rev. Julie Woods (right) Rev. Ruth Everhart (left) on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

To back up a bit, I arrived in Scotland a few days early in order to get over jet lag, and was hosted by Liz Crumlish at her home in Ayr, on the western coast. Liz was the first Church of Scotland clergywoman to attend a RevGal Big Event cruise almost a decade ago, and it was her enthusiasm that persuaded more Scottish clergywomen to cross the pond year by year. I chose a picture of Liz laughing because she is always laughing. (more…)

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Superhost! What if Guests Reviewed a Church Like an AirBnb

airbnb-superhostHospitality is important to me. I grew up in a home where it was common to have guests for dinner, even though we were a family of seven without a formal dining room. Simply getting everyone around the table could be a squeeze, but I don’t remember a person ever complaining. We were happy to sit down to my mother’s good cooking and the clink of bowls passing. I grew up knowing that to host an unexpected guest you simply added water to the soup, or corn muffins to the menu. I thought everyone hosted other people in this way.

Pastoring a church is essentially the practice of hospitality. People are looking for something when they come to church, even if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for. And that’s great. That’s perfect! Nobody has to have anything figured out before they walk in the door of a church. They just need to be ready to receive. The people who are already there should spring up to (metaphorically) squeeze the extra chair at the table and stir up a batch of corn muffins, to provide whatever’s needed.

Christians believe that Jesus wants us to be hospitable. The theme is undeniable in scripture. Jesus was frequently a guest and once, pivotally, a host. He was the guest at many tables such as that of Mary and Martha, and other random “sinners” like us. He was the host at a particular table, the one that defies our comprehension, where he served the meal the church has named after him, “The Lord’s Supper.”

Plus there are the stories Jesus told, which so frequently feature dinner parties and banquets. The Jesus we meet in scripture liked to sit at a table where the bowls clinked as they passed, and the wineglasses were refilled.

Done right, the practice of ministry instills in us simple habits of hospitality: providing enough bulletins and hymnals for all, assuring the presence of empty pews and parking spaces, and generating a culture that’s ready to greet and chat and offer a cup of coffee, if it’s welcome. Churches thrive on hospitality, but it occurs to me that these practices are not rewarded very visibly, or assessed very honestly.

I can’t help but contrast that to my experience as an AirBnb host. For the second year I have been awarded the title: Superhost! People have asked me why we do it. Why do we have strangers stay with us? Is it even a bit dangerous? (To answer, I’ve blogged about AirBnb before.)

One answer is that it’s a way to earn a little extra money when you live in an area like DC, with high housing costs. But besides the income, I like the idea of making the world just a little more hospitable. I especially enjoy having people stay with us more than a night or two. If they’re here for a while, they’re probably in some sort of job transition. We can make that process just a bit easier. Our house is not especially large or beautiful, but it is a place of welcome. Would you like a cup of tea? A conversation? Or simply the promise of coffee in the morning as you face yet another day?

Let’s face it, these guests could choose to stay in a rent-by-the-week place instead, somewhere with a private entrance and their own TV to drown out the rest of the world. What do we offer that’s beyond those conveniences?

Increasingly I think it’s this: Simple human connection. As our interest in our cell phones reveals, we all crave connection.

I will ask a guest: “How was your day?” And I will listen to the answer. Because a day isn’t done until you’ve told someone about it. No guest has to talk, but if they want to, I as host will listen. This is not a hardship for me.

At the heart of the AirBnb process is a system of references. This is how total strangers can feel comfortable, rather than vulnerable. The references assure both host and guest of something quite basic: that we are just regular people who have/need a bed. There is no further agenda. This is a safe place. All shall be well.

I wish churches had the safeguard of a reference system. Hospitable churches could be designated “Superhosts.” Guests who visit could post a reference, an honest one. Potential guests could read and think: I could try this place. Or maybe: Nope! Not this one!

The post-Easter season is a good time for churches to honestly assess how they did with the basics of hospitality. How would their Easter guests fill out a review? Not just about parking spaces, but about the atmosphere as they walked through the door? Was the culture in that place a culture of hospitality?

As disciples we know that hospitality is basic to the life of faith. How might we lift up that value and quantify it for today’s connection-craving world? I envision some sort of “AirChurch” system of verifiability, with a focus on hospitality and a way to quantify success or failure through actual experience.

I also toy with a related idea: What if church members could be AirBnb hosts and funnel the money directly to their churches? Wouldn’t that be a beautiful way to tithe and support a congregation? I think Jesus would approve. In this day when churches need income streams, the idea seems timely.

If you’re interested in these ideas, email me or leave a comment. I’d love to pursue this.

Oh, and I meant to ask: Would you like coffee in the morning? Or are you a tea drinker?

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For Unto Us a Child is Born

We sat in the cosy balcony of the historic church, surrounded by children with their parents. In front of us a brother and sister got on their knees and used the balcony’s ledge to fill out their children’s bulletins. Beside me a boy of about 12 never stopped reading a thick book, except to lift his head when the choir sang a resounding “Alleluia” and the strings of the chamber orchestra struck heavenly chords. And squarely in my line of vision sat a young teenage girl with her dad, the girl’s head tilted onto his shoulder, and his head tilted onto hers, so the two heads formed a diamond.

For unto us a child is born. A son is given.

On this third Sunday of Advent, my husband and I attended Leesburg Presbyterian Church for worship. The sanctuary choir and a chamber orchestra performed Bach’s Cantata #142, led by Music Director Terry Sisk. Glorious.

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Ministering to People with Special Needs

Today’s Ask the Matriarch column at RevGalBlogPals addresses some logistical issues of ministering to people with special needs, especially when they live in a group home situation without family members present in church. A few matriarchs, including me, responded from our experience.

How about you? Is your church dealing with similar issues? I encourage you to click over and join the conversation. If you’re a clergywoman and don’t know about RevGalBlogPals, check it out — a world of resources and collegiality awaits you!

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Hospitality: What the Church Can Learn from Air Bnb

airbnbI’m a Presbyterian pastor who often talks about hospitality, sometimes in relation to one of my other passions, which is uncluttering. Last spring my husband and I took the practice of hospitality to a new level when we became Air Bnb hosts. Air Bnb is part of the sharing economy.

Many people are curious about the experience of hosting. Why would we want to open up our home to complete strangers? I’ll readily say that the propelling reason was to create an income stream. Writing is rewarding in many ways, but not financially. But like many things a person does for economic reasons, we discovered other benefits. Being hosts made us feel better about staying in a larger-than-we-need house with unused bedrooms.

We welcomed our first guest last May — he stayed for a couple of weeks during a job transition. Since then many of our guests have been doctoral students, often from other countries. Only a few of our guests have been from the United States. I speculate that is due to our preoccupation with personal privacy. I have found it quite interesting to learn to navigate boundaries while there are strangers in the house. Usually it comes down to basic cleanliness, civility, and communication.

We have found some unexpected benefits to being an Air BnB Host (besides having become more regular about cleaning our bathrooms!).

For instance, we have discovered how quickly strangers can become friends. A chat at the kitchen table over a pot of tea is always pleasant. We have met guests who share our interests in many things: milkweed, the Chesapeake Bay, Buddhism, neuroscience, cats, new technology, the Shenandoah, the Civil War, organic cooking. Conversation has never lagged. At other times we have zero conversation with the guest, which is also fine.

We have the added pleasure of being a support to young people who are transitioning to the area. One young woman — upon hearing that I could squeeze her into a busy calendar — cried out: Why are you being so nice to me? I chuckled and said: Because once I was your age, relocating to a city where I didn’t know a soul. Upon reflection, I would say that this is the best part of being an Air Bnb host: paying hospitality forward. In a world that seems increasingly violent and full of tension, it feels good to add just a few drops of hospitality to the mix, and to ease someone’s burden.

We have also been guests a couple of times. When traveling we prefer Air BnB to “regular” B&Bs because they’re less costly, mainly because Air Bnb hosts don’t provide breakfast, only coffee and tea. A typical B&B provides a sumptuous breakfast and I don’t need the expense or calories every day. (Vacation model vs. Daily model)

As we’ve gone along, we’ve added a few rules. We have clarified the issue of friends staying overnight, for example. We ask overnight friends of guests to be registered, for security reasons. Recently I specified that no firearms are allowed in our home. I am fine with letting the rules evolve as we go. Also, I understand that there are regulatory/legal issues in some places; it is not my purpose to respond to those. I am only sharing my personal experience here.

If you read my blog, you know that I like to make comparisons to the church. Here are some Airbnb learnings that may have applications to how we do church:

~ Guests have different needs and it is possible to adjust to those if the host pays attention.

~ A clean, uncluttered environment says: I am ready for your arrival.

~ Effective hospitality requires rules, which evolve naturally from the situation and its needs.

~ Hospitality is often sweeter when it’s unexpected, meaning last-minute or after being caught in a surprise deluge. In fact, “crises” provide an opening to give and receive a gracious presence.

~ Sometimes hospitality is absolutely silent.

~ Hospitality is good for the host as well as the guest.

~ Most people like cats.

~ Perhaps most important, people have a very basic need to belong. And that need is not going away in our digitally connected world. Check out the video below. It introduces the new logo, which I agree has some unfortunate anatomical resonances. But that aside, what’s your reaction?

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