In the providence of God, I have moved pastoral callings from where I served in NC for the last eight years to Pilgrim Presbyterian Church in Martinsburg, WV. Many things are in flux right now, including this blog. I will hopefully begin transitioning all the content over to a new blog site that will look suspiciously like the current one. So, all you faithful readers, keep your eyes peeled for the up-and-coming “boat14wv”.
Do I “…see strangers as neighbors and neighbors as family of God“?
Do I “…recoil at reducing a person to a category or a label“?
Do I “…see God’s image reflected in the eyes of every human being on earth“?
Do I know that I am “…like meth addicts and sex-trade workers…,” …taking my “…own sin seriously – including the sin of selfishness and pride“?
Once I’m done asking myself these jack-hammer questions, I can move on to the second paragraph in the preface to Rosaria Butterfield’s most recent book The Gospel Comes with a a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World. Whew. But for a person that’s being honest with their heart’s default mode and their daily practices, that’s about the pace of the book from launch to landing.
In a sense, Dr. Butterfield’s book is a little like Aslan, good but not safe. But that’s kind of her point. If a life motivated by the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is safe and comfortable, then it is a life unfamiliar, in some very practical ways, with the God who entered the un-safe-ness of life under the sun in order to love and rescue the unwashed and the unworthy. So in her very narratival fashion, Dr. Butterfield walks her readers along the smooth and jagged edges of what it looks like to regularly open one’s home to neighbors, dogs (hers and the neighbors’), strangers, church members, grad students, at least one black snake, and a seemingly constant stream of children (the source of the aforementioned reptile). She draws the reader along with story after story of how regularly having people in the home opens up an expectation that no topic is off-limits. As she says, “We were – as we almost always are around here – a politically mixed group. Unbelieving neighbors and church members all together (p.120).” But this is all what we might expect if the people seated around our dinner tables reflected our neighborhood as often as it it did our hand-picked group of friends. As she says a little earlier, “The gospel creates community that welcomes others in… It isn’t always easy. It begins with recognizing people as your kin (p.86).”
Dr. Butterfield’s book excels in amazing ways at setting a vision for radically, ordinary hospitality and its transformative power for our post-Christian culture. Her closing list of “Imagine a world where…” is pure gold and worth typing up and putting on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. While she does get down to the practical and the nitty-gritty of what it looks like to practice radically ordinary hospitality (see her “The Nuts and Bolts and Beans and Rice” in the concluding chapter), this reviewer’s fear is that this vision of hospitality is so far from where most people live right now that folks won’t know where to start and, in turn, fail to do so. We all know that feeling well. You get up on Saturday morning determined to clean out the cluttered garage only to raise the door, see the mountain of undifferentiated stuff that has to be tackled, and then close the door in favor doing some other task your familiar with. So if I had to recommend a starting place, I would simply offer Dr. Butterfield’s wise words from her conclusion:
In married households it is vital that both husband and wife share a calling for hospitality and work together to establish a budget for time and food and people. Wives, let your husbands lead. Husbands, be sensitive to your wife’s energy level… the pace is set by the one who feels the most frail… [Hospitality] should make us stronger in Christ. If hospitality becomes a point of contention, something is wrong. Stop and reevaluate. Pray. Map out goals and values. Be a team.
Of course the ministry of hospitality isn’t simply practiced by married couples (something Dr. Butterfield says as well), nor will it look the same for all households. For instance, I have a single friend whose hospitality ministry looks like foster-parenting two children taken from a home due to the current opiate epidemic. I have another set of friends who are hosting an international exchange student; another set of friends who gave a lady a home during a period of time when her marriage was crumbling; and another set of friends who are slowly working their way through the church membership rolls and inviting a different family over each Lord’s Day. At the end of the day, Dr. Butterfield’s vision for practicing radically ordinary hospitality is as bold and bracing as it is alluring and refreshing. If Christ’s redeemed people began practicing and coordinating this kind of hospitality, then walls would crumble as our doors opened, and we would be able to “…put the hand of the hurting into the hand of the Savior (p.207).”
At the end of Tolkien’s Return of the King, Frodo is plagued by recurring fits of pain due to a wound he received from a Morgul blade back at the beginning of his quest to destroy the One Ring. The pain is like an evil visitor, one which Frodo can conceal well from everyone, with the exception of his dear friend and servant Samwise.
I have come to know that anniversaries of the death of loved ones are like that. That old wound is an evil visitor that assaults us sometimes unawares. Sometimes on schedule. Sometimes with a renewed vigor that undoes us. And many times this evil visitor is only noticed by the Samwises in our lives.
So today, on the 10th anniversary of our son Noah’s stillbirth, I feel the wretched pinch of that Morgul blade and remember my fellow grievers. As a friend, pastor, and fellow griever once told me, “We (who have lost a loved one) are members all of a fraternity we would never have wished access to but now have access to the hearts of those who suffer like we do.”
So today, no ordinary day, I reach out to those who have been blindsided by grief, whether fresh or well-weathered, and wish that your Samwise might be close at hand. Most importantly, you also must remember that there is One from whom you can’t go where He can’t follow. For if Christ took our nature into the grave only to rise again in resurrection glory, then he is the head of our fraternity of sufferers. For no one else is firstborn from the dead. The sting and shadow of death still clings to everything and everyone but Him. So my dear fellow sufferers, in the midst of your pain, cling to Him. And if you have no strength to cling to Him, ask Him to cling to you. That’s ok. That’s enough.
Tonight, I began reading Rosaria Butterfield’s new book on hospitality, “The Gospel Comes with a House Key”,
and I couldn’t get past the first chapter. But that’s just what her writing does.
It’s like the old story of the person driving through a thick fog, and as they approach a bridge over a steep-banked river someone steps out of the fog and fires a flare gun right at them. Furious, they get out of their vehicle and begin to confront the audacious guy with the flare gun only to find out that the bridge was out ahead. The flare gun guy was trying to stop their car and save them from plunging to a cold, watery demise.
So I get to these lines and it’s like Rosaria just ricocheted a flare off the roof of my car.
Who else knows that the sin that will undo me is my own, not my neighbor’s, no matter how big my neighbor’s sin may appear?… Here’s the thing about soothing yourself with self-delusion: no one buys it but you. (p. 19)
I stop, put my head on the steering wheel, and have to catch my breath. And while I’m catching my breath and working up the courage to go on to chapter 2, I am going to stop and thank my Heavenly Father for friends like Rosaria. A good friend always has their flare gun ready.
I’ve been doing some reading recently pertaining to counseling and the “cure of souls”, and I keep running into the idea that the same problems we’re facing today are the same ones humanity has always faced. This jumps off the page and smacks me in the face when I read books that are hundreds of years old. This might become more apparent in our modern conversations if our chronological snobbery wasn’t so deeply rooted. But we know who we are and scoff at who they were. We think we are so much smarter, wiser, clever, etc. today than the smartest of the smart from, for instance, the 1600’s. With our more developed understanding of how our biology affects our thinking and emotions, what could a pastor from the 1600’s teach us?
How about this?
And pride also, with a desire of liberty, makes men think it to be a diminishing of greatness and freedom either to be curbed, or to curb ourselves. We love to be absolute and independent; but this, as it brought ruin upon our nature in Adam, so it will upon our persons. Men, as Luther was wont to say, are born with a pope in their belly, though are loath to give an account, although it be to themselves, their wills are, instead of a kingdom to them, mens mihi pro regno [my mind for the kingdom]. –Richard Sibbes, The Soul’s Conflict with Itself
Notice how the author skewers the impulses common to all of us. There are those of us who hate controls from outside of us, “…to be curbed…”. We say, “I will not lay down my rights for the sake of another. For that would be to give away my freedom, to submit to tyranny, and diminish me as a human.” But there are also those of us who hate to exercise control on the inside, “…to curb ourselves.” On this end we say, “I will not lay aside this thing inside that feels so right. For that would be to deny myself this freedom that I desire, to submit to tyranny, and diminish me as a human.”
Someone might object that this is just common sense. “Of course pride is a problem for everyone. Thank you so much for that, Captain Obvious.” But what does it say about us if we’re so proud of our intellectual accomplishments as a culture and yet forget, for all practical purposes, the common sense that by-gone eras practiced so much better? Maybe the author above didn’t know anything about chemical imbalances in the brain or PTSD. But I think he might be able to take us to school on the basics of what it means to be human, to deal honestly with our own hearts, to be willing to lay aside one’s rights in service of others. I know this author has been taking me to school.
In the wake the recent mass shooting, I find myself silently judging all the jeremiads hammered out on keyboards and then slung out into the middle of the information superhighway. This silent judgment is then swiftly followed by my own internal chastisement, “Oh yeah, Mr. Judgy-Judge McJudge-Pants? And how are you contributing to a solution, sitting there sipping your re-heated coffee in the comforts of your first-world surroundings?” And I think of all the suggestions people of both high and low positions have made and they all seem somewhat reasonable but ultimately not satisfying for a variety of reasons.
“No more AR-15’s. Period.”
“Better mental health screenings for gun-purchasers.”
“Get the right judges on SCOTUS.”
“Since all mass shooters are male, no more guns for male civilians.”
Ok… I made up that last one. But a couple days have gone by and I think I have an action item we could all implement. Pray for God to put bad disciples in your life. Like one of my seminary profs said, “We all want good disciples. We all want someone who hangs on all of our words and immediately puts our advice into practice. We all love someone who thinks we are right about almost everything and tries to convince others that we are right. But no one wants someone who listens to our advice and pretty much does the opposite.” Boy oh boy, he was right. I don’t want a disciple who bores me with inane babble about stuff that only three people in the world care about. I don’t want someone as a disciple who ignores my advice, is lazy, is stubbornly foolish, who chews with their mouth open, or has bad body odor.
But if I only pursue the good disciples, it’s more about my comfort and my satisfaction, not love for my fellow human. But if we learn to love bad disciples, then we might have to sacrifice something that we would get no return on. Learning to love bad disciples might require us to change. Learning to love bad disciples might help us know the mind of Christ better.
Maybe learning to love a bad disciple is how we get upstream with the next mass-shooter and save the next 17 victims. Maybe it isn’t. But getting credit for changing a life and preventing a future mass shooting isn’t the point either. There will be no metrics attached to this action-item that some statistician somewhere can track. No political body could ever point to something on the books and take credit for it. This kind of action won’t make it into your newsfeed on Facebook. But it’s what’s best for the outcast who feels alone. It’s what’s best for the family who doesn’t know what to do with their brooding child. It’s what is best for our communities where all sorts of people feel alienated with no real friends.
So let’s learn to pursue that awkward high-schooler we notice at church. Ask them to lunch on a regular basis. Ask that 18 year-old sitting by themselves on their phone if they could come over to help you change the oil in your car or help you rake your leaves. Ask them questions and listen. Wade through the awkward silences. Endure the extensive talk about the latest thing they’re into. Resist the urge to correct them right out of the gate. Our first job is to listen and know them. Pray for them (and their parent(s)!). At the end of the day, we might not make a long-term friend or get much gratitude for our time and effort, but we will become an embodiment of our Lord who “…sets the lonely in families…” (Ps. 68.6).
Check out this book on Goodreads: Poetry: ESV Reader’s Bible Volume III https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33615932-poetry