October 28, 2011
The Hospitality of OpennessHospitality has been on our minds here at Strangely Dim this month, and I'm guessing it's been on some of your minds recently too. Especially with Halloween coming, and with it the pressure to figure out what candy will make you the most popular house on the block (which is really what it's all about, right--being the most popular??). Here's a little tip that might help us all out in our attempts to be hospitable (as people in general--as Christa explained so well for us--and as candy-passer-outers): Open your door.
Open, in fact, is what I might name my year (as Likewise author Tamara Park likes to do)--a year that's been full of me thinking about--and experiencing--hospitality. The concept of opening captures for me the essence of hospitality: open ears ready to listen to others; open eyes that notice and truly see others; an open heart ready to respond to others with compassion, grace and truth; an openness about who I am that enables others to be authentic as well.
But hospitality and openness, I'm learning more and more, don't just apply to our relationships with others; they're also an important piece in our relationship with God. Our bestselling booklet, My Heart--Christ's Home, gives a picture of this. Dave's new booklet, The Parable of the Unexpected Guest, offers an even more specific look at hospitality to Jesus. In the past month or so, a Sara Groves song titled "Open My Hands" has been particularly powerful for me in this arena. Part of the chorus, which has become a sort of daily declaration for me, says
I will open my hands, open my heartI officially "opened my heart" to Jesus when I was five, so I suppose that's when my hospitality to him began. But there have been many moments and days since when the so-called door to my heart has been partway closed to what he has for me--or sometimes cracked open only enough for the smallest sliver of light to shine in.
Groves's song points out in the verses that pain, thirst, rain are no measure of God's faithfulness to us, and that he withholds no good thing from us. It reminds me how much hospitality is an intentional stance we choose to take toward God, much like standing by a physical door that we've just flung wide open in welcome to someone on the other side. I need to choose each day to be open to whatever he brings, open to his leading, open to the ways he's nudging me to respond to the parts of my day that aren't from him but rather come as a result of the fallen, broken, sinful state of the world.
This is hard. Especially for control freaks like me who hold every piece of our lives with a death grip. (Beware when you shake hands with us. We have been known to crush a few fingers accidentally with our strong hands.) I have, however, through the Spirit's work, felt a slow loosening of my clenched fingers, a small widening of the crack in the doorway. Just in time for him to show me another, even harder, aspect of hospitality: being open to his timing and the ways he works.
It's one thing to start to be open to the events that might happen in a day--an unexpected phone call from a friend in pain, a delayed flight, a new project in an already full workday. It's a whole other thing to be open to the "speed" at which God works in me--a pace that seems neither efficient nor necessary from my limited, finite perspective (as in, OK God, I know it took me six or seven years to adjust to living in the Chicago suburbs, but I am totally ready to move to Cambodia and do aftercare with victims of sex-trafficking if that's where you want me. Should I book my flight now?). But being patient, trusting in God's timing, welcoming his seemingly slow pace and the opportunities it gives us to reflect, process, adjust and grow at a rate we can handle are all part of having a hospitable heart for God.
Being open not just to what God is doing but also to how and when he works is really hard. My "emphatic yes" can easily and often turn into a nod that's so slow it's hard to tell if I'm actually nodding or if I'm just doing a little T'ai chi at my desk. But here's something else I'm learning about God and hospitality: though we don't know what situation, circumstance, risk, calling or time frame will be waiting for us when we swing open the door and say yes to his work and ways, we do know who we're welcoming: "him who fulfills all his promises, who holds out for you nothing but good, and who wants for himself nothing more than to share his goodness with you" (Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands). Maybe Nouwen was thinking of James's words: "Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession" (1:17-18 NLT). Hospitality to God means welcoming--intentionally, daily--One who is good and absolutely trustworthy. One who gave up his life out of hospitality to us, that we might be welcomed in to his family. And One who waits eagerly for us to say yes so that he can transform us more and more into the image of his Son.
So open up, people, open up! Doors and hearts and bulk bags of candy (if you want). And while I don't know who or what will be on the other side of your door on Monday (princesses? ninjas ready to attack--read: whine--if you don't have candy they like? pirates and bumblebees?), when I let Nouwen's and James's words settle in to me, opening myself wider and wider to God's work and timing doesn't seem quite so scary.
October 13, 2011
The Unexpected Guest
About six months ago someone moved in with me and my husband. He's not really the ideal guest. In fact, his presence is quite disruptive to our lives. He's short, sort of bald and kind of chubby. He's very demanding and not very productive. Basically he just eats, sleeps and lays around a lot. He doesn't pick up after himself, do laundry or put away his dirty dishes. He tends to whine when he doesn't get his way. He's all about his own needs. And I don't think he's going anywhere anytime soon.
When we had our first child back in May, we knew that it would mean some big changes. Everyone warned us. "You'll never go out again." "You won't feel rested for the next twenty years." "You'll never have your own life."
My friend and colleague David Zimmerman recently wrote a booklet for IVP titled The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. In it we hear the story of a woman who gets an unexpected visit from Jesus, a house guest who has this off-putting way of just hanging around all the time, poking his nose into things, asking questions and generally wanting to have input on every area of her life.
Extending true hospitality to Jesus means allowing his agenda to change my agenda, digging through and cleaning out the junk, and opening myself to the risky proposition that he will likely require more of me than I'd ever thought I'd want to give. Through the experience of having my son, I'm learning that extending hospitality to Jesus often happens through extending hospitality to people. And people are real life, baby. Wiping bums, cleaning spit-up or staying home with a sick, cranky boy instead of going out for a night with friends is just so much grittier, so much less romantic than sitting in my prayer closet, quietly assuring Jesus I've cleared out a room somewhere in the back of my heart where he can crash for a while.
As much as I'm training our new little bundle of joy, he's really training me. Dirty diapers are the crowbars God is using to pry open my neatly buttoned-up life. And those training sessions are helping me move from showing hospitality here and there to being a hospitable person, open to loving and serving each one who crosses my path. For as Mother Teresa says, "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise."
Continue reading "The Unexpected Guest"
Time to Say Goodbye
It was my great privilege and joy five years ago to say hello to IVP and all of the remarkable people who work here. I had just finished grad school, and landing a job here was truly the answer to many prayers and the fulfillment of a dream.
Since then I've enjoyed the blessing and great privilege of working with numerous excellent colleagues, making meaningful friendships, and working on books by people who seem to be writing what I personally would love to write about--but who are infinitely more qualified to do so. Many of the books that have been published in my time here have had an enormous impact on me, and I thought it would be fun to revisit a few of those now--in no particular order.
I remember thinking as I read Rob Moll's book The Art of Dying that our culture sees death and aging very much as final acts of failure--and living in such a way as to avoid them is at best folly. I will always remember this book for changing the way I think about living and dying--about how they are not two separate "stages," but are actually part of a continuum. Knowing this requires us to reorient ourselves so that eternity is in view, a perspective which shifts us from fear of death to embracing life in such a way that living and dying retain their purpose and power. This has implications for issues surrounding abortion and euthanasia as well as for vocation and growing older. You must read this book.
I found Andy Marin's book Love Is an Orientation to be such an act of courage and love that I could not help but be drawn in by it. In fact, more than any other, Marin's book drew me into a world where theory and practice meet on real, and often difficult, ground. His book made it easier for Christians--particularly evangelicals--and the gay community to mutually admit their difficulties with one another and make tangible steps toward understanding, reconciliation and healing. I'd say that it's groundbreaking, but that doesn't even come close to the impact Andy's work has had on countless people. A classic example of the command to "go and do."
Julie Clawson's Everyday Justice and May Elise Cannon's Social Justice Handbook together are two of my favorite resources for engaging in the work of social justice in practical ways for everyday life. The truly wonderful thing about these books is that they make it clear that what we do with our resources (all of them) doesn't merely impact us as individuals or families; the authors illuminate ways in which the global community is hurt and helped by the actions of only a few. I may be alone in this, but I've always seen these books as a collaborative pairing, and I've used them as such. Everyday Justice is full of everyday examples and wonderful narrative; Social Justice Handbook is packed with resources and suggestions to help us engage in numerous aspects of justice work at multiple levels.
My graduate studies immersed me in the history of global Christianity, and since Mark Noll was a professor of mine I've always looked forward to having his books come across my desk. Noll's Clouds of Witnesses, which he cowrote with Carolyn Nystrom, relates the stories of Christians throughout history and around the world whom few of us would ever have encountered in the average Sunday school classroom. My view of Christianity and the world was broadened and deepened through reading the stories of Pandita Ramabai, Shi Meiyu, Sundar Singh and many others whose activism, martyrdom, imprisonment and courage in the face of persecution brings a renewed sense of conviction and respect to my faith.
There are many, many more books that I could mention--among them Margot Starbuck's Unsqueezed and Kent Annan's Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle--which similarly made an impact on me. But I also want to add something else especially for my friends and colleagues here at IVP.
One of my favorite poems is Rainer Maria Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo," the last line of which has been with me since I first read it in a college poetry class (translation: quite a while ago). The speaker has encountered an object, a broken bust of Apollo, and is so moved by the force of its inner brilliance, its grace, that he cannot walk away and remain the same. The injunction at the end of the poem is stated so suddenly as to be forceful--"you must change your life." I've always interpreted this last line of Rilke's poem positively. Without doubt, my colleagues here, my friends, the powerful work of our authors and the message of our books have all made this same impact on me. I leave here a better person in every way because of knowing each of you.
October 10, 2011
A Countryman Without a Country: Farewell to Christa
I remember the time when Lisa Rieck and Christa Countryman shot around the corner into my office. They made me a little nervous, standing there together, blocking my exit, with that conspiratorial gleam in their eyes. I wondered what they wanted and hazarded a guess to myself: I wonder if Lisa has recruited Christa to write for Strangely Dim . . .
That wasn't it. They both wanted to get involved with an organization run by an author-friend of mine. So I set them up with him, then I recruited Christa myself.
Now Christa is leaving us, after five years at IVP and two-and-a-half years at Strangely Dim. She took a great position writing and editing for Opportunity International, a Christian microfinancing enterprise based just around the corner from us. This is a natural next step for Christa, as she's had a heart for the developing world forever. Her seasonal jewelry sales to benefit an orphanage in Kenya have been a fixture on the IVP calendar for almost her entire tenure here, and her first job for IVP was helping to organize the bookstore at the 2006 Urbana Student Missions Convention. When we decided to write about hospitality during the month of October, her first impulse was to contact Matt Soerens, author of Welcoming the Stranger, to write a guest-post about immigration as a matter of Christian hospitality. She is, as they say, a global Christian par excellence. Add to that her skills both as a writer and as an editor, and you have a clear win-win for Christa and Opportunity International. Win-loss, on the other hand, for Christa and IVP.
Here are some links to some of my favorite Christa posts. I'm grateful to Christa for introducing me to Battlestar Galactica and Florence + the Machine, and I'm hopeful for the work ahead of her at OI. But before they get her, let's show her some love as she heads out the IVP door, folks.
October 7, 2011
Welcoming the Stranger: Matt Soerens on Hospitality
As is appropriate during "Hospitality Month" at Strangely Dim, we welcome Matthew Soerens as our guest-blogger for this post. Matthew is the coauthor, with Jenny Hwang, of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (IVP, 2009). He serves as the U.S. Church Training Specialist with World Relief. He blogs on a regular basis at UnDocumented.tv. -----------------------------------------------------------------------
In recent years, God has been teaching me that this Martha Stewart-inspired ideal misses the heart of the biblical command to "practice hospitality" (Romans 12:13). Real hospitality, if we look to the etymology of the word, is loving strangers (from the Greek xenophilia). There's nothing wrong with entertaining friends and family, of course, but doing so doesn't necessarily touch the heart of hospitality. "If you do good to those who are good to you," Jesus asks his disciples, "what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that" (Luke 6:33). Christ's call is to go beyond the obvious, to welcome those who are strangers--in fact, even those who are enemies (Luke 6:35). When we host a banquet, Jesus tells us, "do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors" but rather "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Luke 14:12-13).
Jesus' commands sound pretty radical in our American culture. We teach our kids to be afraid of strangers--and while it is prudent to protect children, many of us carry this "stranger danger" mentality into adulthood. If an unknown person showed up at the door of a typical American home late at night, I imagine most people would be more likely to call the police than to offer them a guest room. By welcoming in a stranger, though, Jesus told his disciples that they were welcoming him--and that by turning away the stranger, they had turned him away also (Matthew 25:35). Scripture also juxtaposes the idea that strangers are a threat with the idea that by welcoming strangers, "some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). Maybe the stranger to whom we extend God's compassion might end up blessing us more than we could imagine.
That's been the experience of many churches in the United States. Our society as a whole increasingly seems to favor xenophobia (the fear of strangers) to xenophilia (the love of strangers). In contrast, as immigrants arrive from various countries, some churches have sought to extend welcome. These immigrant strangers have become, in the words of Asbury Theological Seminary President Tim Tennent, "the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America," as immigrant congregations fuel the fastest growth in American evangelicalism. That growth is happening despite that fact that most churches have yet to recognize the opportunity presented by the arrival of immigrants to their communities. In fact, the results of the Faith Communities Today survey suggest that just one in ten evangelical churches has any ministry oriented toward immigrants.
The arrival of immigrants to the United States gives American churches--and the society that we influence--the opportunity to put into practice the biblical value of hospitality. As we do, we can expect to see God bless the church in this country through these potential angels-in-disguise.
Posted by Christa Countryman at 8:42 AM
October 4, 2011
Hospitality: It's Not Just for Dinner Parties AnymoreOctober is hospitality month--at least here at Strangely Dim. In various posts (including a guest blogger or two) we'll be exploring the notion of hospitality from all angles.
When I think about hospitality, what usually comes to mind is a dinner party at someone else's house, where I benefit from another person's generosity by enjoying their delicious food and company. They do all the work. I reap all the benefits. Or I think of friends in Kenya who, despite meager resources, treated me and my friends like family when we visited, in part by giving us delicious food to eat. I think we can all agree that this is a pretty selfish, minimalist understanding of hospitality.
Many spiritual gift and personality assessments tend to assume that hospitality is the particular gift of a special class of people. The sad result of seeing hospitality as something that only some people possess as a divinely bestowed character trait is the polarizing of our understanding of it: some people have hospitality, others receive it. If one is not naturally inclined to be hospitable, then there's no reason to pretend, because "that's not how God made me."
Perhaps like many others, then, I have only rarely thought of hospitality as anything like a discipline, a verb, a gift from one person to another, a Christian duty--all of which are categories under which hospitality should fall. I think we can all see the striking difference here: one understanding of hospitality is selfish; the others are markedly less so. The beautiful thing about hospitality as a discipline, when all of the polarization is done away with, is that it starts to look a lot less like an obligation, compulsion, mandate or opportunism, and begins to look much more like love.
For me, the most astounding biblical example of hospitality is that of Christ's incarnation. Not only did this gift require the hospitality of Mary and Joseph as they welcomed Jesus into their home as part of their family, but it opened the door for all of humanity to draw near to God in renewed relationship to him. God, in his love, graciously gave his most precious gift to humankind so that we could know him better, draw near to him and enjoy his presence. Sacrifice, hospitality, love--all together.
If hospitality is like love, then every encounter with another person is an opportunity to give it
Examples of unhospitality:
Examples of hospitality:
I think most of us can relate to these examples, because if we're honest, we've been at the receiving and giving end of at least some of them. In fact, all of these examples are from actual events that I've either observed or been directly involved in. I'm not saying practicing hospitality is easy. In fact, it's sometimes the last thing that crosses my mind (in a traffic jam, when I'm late for work . . . as an example). But it's something to shoot for as we all navigate this world together. Thankfully, we have an expert in hospitality to help us along the way. I think he might simply say, "Go, and do likewise."