Word of the Week

Discovering Joy: Day 2- Joe Hensley

[If you missed Joe's previous two posts on "Waiting with Hope" and "Love That Groans" check them out!]

 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:17-19

 Hospitals are inherently disorienting places, even though the people who work in them try hard to offer “hospitality.” My wife, Sarah, and our unborn son spent five days in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia after fetal surgery to address my son’s spina bifida birth defect (see December 8th post). For a few minutes, our baby was exposed to the world then put back into the uterus for what we hoped would be another three months. I can only imagine that it was disorienting for him. It was definitely disorienting for Sarah to be so completely vulnerable. We had to trust a lot of extremely qualified and very nice strangers. We were totally out of our element.

Our medical team insisted we stay in the area for at least a few weeks for monitoring before traveling back to North Carolina. After leaving the hospital, we had planned to stay in the local Ronald McDonald House (www.rmhc.org), but there was no room in the inn. Our backup plan was not a barn out back, thankfully, but another nonprofit, “Hosts for Hospitals.” (www.hostsforhospitals.org) This organization finds hosts in the Philly area for people who have to travel there for medical treatment. Our hosts, Steven and Ellyn, were in their sixties, empty nesters with a lovely spare room in their suburban home. They were devout Jews and fascinated to be hosting Sarah and her Episcopal priest husband. Their trust was amazing, as we only spoke to them twice by phone before showing up on their doorstep. We planned to stay maybe a few nights until Ronald McDonald House had room.

A few nights became three weeks. Steven and Ellyn encouraged us to stay, and Ronald McDonald stayed full. Although HfH had told us to be responsible for our own food, Ellyn insisted on cooking. She said it was because they kept kosher and did not want us to have to worry about using the right dishes. I think she just enjoyed hosting. Sarah was on bed rest, and Ellyn prepared a tray for her. The second night we were there, Sarah had some disconcerting pains during dinner, and Ellyn calmly wrapped up our bagels so we could take them to the hospital. When we came home a few hours later, they were waiting up to make sure we were okay.

I told Steven and Ellyn they had taken literally the Torah’s commandment to care for and love the stranger. Sarah and I were sojourners who had left our home and other children to visit this foreign place. In the midst of waiting, we discovered the joy of receiving literal “hospital-ity.” In contrast to the disorientation of the hospital, the care and healing we experienced in a stranger’s home was re-orienting. The welcome we received helped us get our bearings. It became a sabbath time, even sharing Shabbat dinner with our hosts each Friday night. In between my care giving tasks for Sarah, I delighted in finding flowers at the farmer’s market for the dinner table. During those weeks, we finally took some deep breaths after weeks of anxiousness. We were never totally at rest (Sarah was recovering from major surgery after all) but we were comfortably uncomfortable.

Advent is a season of disorientation and hospitality. Joseph and the pregnant Mary wander to Bethlehem, even as Mary offers room in her body for the baby Jesus. We open our doors to family and friends, maybe even strangers (the new significant other of an old relative perhaps), who have traveled far from home. Their presence is an occasion for joy but also makes us a bit uneasy. As we anticipate the birth of Christ in us, we encounter our own inner needy folk, asking for directions and care. We are both strangers and hosts, vulnerable and welcoming, disoriented and grounded. One of Advent’s gifts is a sense of Sabbath comfort that reorients us as we uncomfortably wait.

Let us pray:

O God, as we wait for Christ this Advent season, help us to open the doors of our hearts to welcome you. Give us the grace to joyfully accept the welcome of others, that together we might find rest in each other’s hospitality. Help us to love the needy ones within us as well as the strangers we meet as we try to find the way. Amen.

JoeHensleyThe Reverend Joseph (Joe) H. Hensley, Jr. works as a full-time priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and three children (ages 11, 6, and 2). This Advent he is waiting for God to help him laugh (again!