Word of the Week

Today I'm beginning a new blog series called, "Good for Your Soul" Many of you have commented to me how much you've enjoyed reading the posts particularly in the category, Caring for the Soul. So I thought that it would be great to devote a series on the next several Thursdays to practices I've noticed in myself (and others) that are life-giving.

First up, hospitality.

Hospitality: it's such a buzz word in Christian circles along with its counterpoint words like: "Let's fellowship with each other?" "Let's break bread" and "Let us welcome the stranger." These phrases sounds so holy, don't they?

But, it's so much more rare to actually practice them.

We meet each other in public spaces. We keep our homes private. Nobody stumbles to coffee pots in their pajamas anymore while hosts unashamedly show off their messy refrigerators to offer their guests the creme and sugar.

But, in making these choices, we miss out on so much. We miss out on each other.

Both on what it means to receive as guest and what it means to also receive as host.

During my third year of seminary, I served a United Methodist parish as their student associate pastor. It was a lovely little church set in low country of Eastern North Carolina. I worked under a senior minister with serious standards for his students. Pastor Jerry would tell me, "You must love people to be in the church. You must really know them." (Some great advice for all pastors, I believe!).

As part of my training and because I commuted on the weekends an hour and half to work, Pastor Jerry arranged for me home stays every Saturday night. Each week I'd be hosted by a different family in the church. We'd share a meal on Saturday, Sunday morning and sometime even Sunday after church too!

Intern and Pastor Jerry cira 2005

When I first heard this news, I felt intimidated, of course. My internship ran the entire school year. That would be a lot of homes! And a lot of moving around! Plus I'm allergic to cats. And, what if I entered a place where I felt uncomfortable? So many questions ran through my mind.

While there were some unique experiences, overall it was one of the best trainings for ministry I ever received. I got to know a congregation so well in a short period of time. I learned what made people excited. I learned what made people anxious. I learned what they really thought of the sermon I preached the week before!

For one year, I lived, ate and sat in my pajamas alongside members of my church. And I experienced that some of the best, most life-giving conversations happen in the home-- a place where everyone is relaxed enough to begin to talk about what matters to them the most . . . especially later at night.

What instruction for  how to learn to be a guest!

But now that I'm a "grown-up" in my own home and have a not-as-nomadic life than I did during our Virginia/ Oklahoma years, I'm beginning to think again about the gifts of hospitality from the new lens of host.IMG_7221

When Kevin and I bought our current house in October, we knew there was space in it we didn't technically need. We could have bought a smaller condo in the city and done just fine. But we decided on our house because we wanted to be intentional about our practice of hospitality. Though we'd always considered ourselves the kind of people open to guests before (with a really cool visitors book I might add), we wanted to take it up a notch. We wanted our house to be a place that brought comfort, peace and joy to those who needed it. We wanted to be open to whoever needed a place to stay.

Seven months in, I have to say, hospitality has been one of the greatest gifts of this season. Hotel Hagan is up and running with steam!

And this is what I know: being a host is full of gifts of its own.

For when anyone stays with us, they leave a piece of themselves behind.  And when they leave, it's a joy to think of dear ones reclining on our couch or making themselves a salad at our counter. Or telling stories over cups of tea or laughing without end while sitting on the floor. What memories have been made in our new space already! Memories that fill our walls with echoes of joy.

Most of all, I'm all the better because a guest stays with us. Each guest reminds that I'm not alone. I belong to a community.

So let not all of our weekly meals be filled with take-out and grabbing a Powerbar on the run. Let us not always stay in a hotel because it's easier. Let us not be afraid to wash more dishes and do extra loads of laundry.

Our souls will thank us. God just might show up on our doorstep.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 2 John 1:12

Waiting for our friend to come home from prison and start a new life with us is not unlike waiting for a new family member to come home from the hospital.

Neaners, José Israel Garcia, former leader of a Mexican gang, will step out of the automated gates of a Washington State "correctional complex" in nine months (at the time of this writing). But we've been preparing our lives and home to receive him for nearly five years now.

"I'm comin' home, babyboy," he says to me through the overpriced collect call from the sterile prison yard. "I can't believe it."

He's said this for the last two years. I've tried to remind him we have plenty of time, not to get too anxious. Everything will be ready for him, I assure, when the time comes.

"You don't understand," Neaners tells me, and his voice gets serious. "Time's different for us in here. For you, maybe a year is a long time. For us, who've been confined for years and years, that's right around the corner."

We like to think time is a measurable, objective thing. We track it with the hands of clocks and control it with the small cells of calendars.

But waiting shows us how separate we really are from each other, the ones who prepare to receive from the one who aches to be received.

I saw this play out several years ago, when I took Neaners' daughter to visit her daddy in prison for the first time. They'd never met before. Adelita, age five, stepped into a solitary confinement visiting booth with me and saw her father's tattooed face through the bullet-proof glass.

She took to him right away. She knelt on the chair I pulled up beside me and held the heavy black receiver out in front of her mouth like a microphone, leaning her forehead nearly to the glass as she sang her daddy songs when she ran out of things to say.

These were some of the sweetest hours, the most joyful, in our many years of waiting—which are, frankly, getting harder.

That first afternoon, I would take the receiver from her eventually. I’d talk with Neaners for maybe fifteen minutes. And Adelita sat and hummed, played with the ties in her pigtails.

Then: “Oh, I want to tell you something!” she’d suddenly interrupt.

“What’s that, Mamas?” Neaners turned from me and smiled at his daughter, who now crawled back up and took the receiver. She knelt up on the small counter space and put her other hand to the glass:

“I love you, Daddy!"

This was her first afternoon near him. And she adored him. She was more playful, alive, trusting, loving, in this solitary confinement booth than I’d ever seen her at her aunt’s house where I’d pick her up and visit her, TV drone and dogs barking in the background. She was at home in her father’s presence.

Neaners dropped his face into his elbow, laughing and overwhelmed by how his daughter so fully received him. His shoulders shook.

“When are you coming home, Daddy?” Adelita asked.

Neaners’ smile didn’t drop, but we had shifted key.

“Um . . . three years, baby”

“Goooood! In three days, you can come to my kindergarten open house!”

I saw Neaners’ eyes pool. She did not fully grasp the time between them, the waiting that was wider than the glass. The open house, even, wasn’t for two more weeks.

So Neaners took the opportunity to do what fathers do, and started to teach his daughter to count, together. “Uno . . . dos . . . tres . . .” His long, tattooed fingers landed one at a time on his side of the glass, waiting each time for her tiny fingers to press against his, counting with him, in rhythm. “You’ll be in first grade . . . then second grade . . . then third grade . . . and then I’ll be home.”

Thinking about Advent, waiting for God, I see Neaners and his daughter counting time together, fingers aligned on opposite sides of what divides their worlds. For me, it is an image of joy within difficulty, presence amidst absence, a taste of the Here while sitting in a bleak space of Not Yet.

It might be like a parent finding the fingers of the infant against the stretched skin of the mother’s belly. The pressing back and forth.

Waiting will feel different on both sides. We might not really understand the time between us and the one who comes. But we can sing through the thin divide, maybe learn a shared language, a rhythm.

Let us pray:

God, help us to wait together this day with all our neighbors. Bring us the joy of sweet community as we anticipate the joy of your birth Jesus. Amen.

ChrisHokeChris Hoke is a lay pastor among inmates and gang members at Tierra Nueva, an ecumenical ministry in Northwest Washington State's Skagit Valley. He is working on a book about this work in largely hidden places, WANTED, due out on HarperOne in 2015. This Advent, Chris is hoping that the work of "re-entry" (welcoming prisoners back into society) would be a growing theme for the Church in the Advent seasons to come.

[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!

We talk a good talk in the church about the Christian virtue of hospitality. It has become in many circles a practice that you just can't say you aren't interested in. Sure, I welcome my neighbors in, we say. Sure, I have an extra bed at my house. Sure, you can come over for dinner. Saying these things rolls off our tongue as easily as "Jesus loves you." Yet, in our there's a Wal-Mart around the corner neighborhoods, just walk to 7-11 if you need something existence, do we really get to know our friend called hospitality? Do we really understand how to make ourselves vulnerable to one another in our giving and receiving?

If I am on an out-of-town trip to visit a friend and have a need of an item or I want a special snack, what do I do? I either leave before or during the visit to purchase from the nearest variety story what my heart desires. Or, if I don't have a car, I keep the same plan but find a ride. In both instances, it's a mostly independent activity.

This week, the pastoral life has taken me to the campus of St. John's College in Collegeville, Minnesota. It's a place housing a Benedictine monastery, a school for women and men, the famous St. John's Bible, acres and acres of well-preserved and kept land. I'm a guest at the Collegeville institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research-- an outreach program of the monetary. I'm here learning how to become a better communicator of the written word.

When I arrived yesterday after a 90 mile van ride from the Minneapolis airport, my first impression of this state new to me alongside with 11 other pastors along with a scholar in residence, Richard Lischer and a writing tutor, Sari Fordham, was: "This place is in the middle of nowhere!"

And, I didn't have a car. I felt trapped.  There would be no runs to CVS for left at home essentials or late night snacks of my choice. A whole week in the middle of the land of thousand lakes? Where was the nearest Target?

But, to the staff of Collegeville Institute hospitality is no joke.  If you know anything about the Benedictine order of brothers, you know they take the virtue of welcome very seriously.

Before I had too much time to worry about my non-existent toothpaste, we were informed during Monday night orientation of the commissary open to us free of charge. Everything we might need by way of personal products could be found. If we didn't see what we needed, we were instructed to let the staff know so that they could find it for us. Then, we were told about the kitchen, fully stocked with every kind of juice, soda, cereal, snack that you could even imagine. And, if there was a particular food that would make us particularly happy, we'd find a tablet on the refrigerator to make our request. They promised to have it to us within 24 hours.

Sometimes I think, we city folk, busy folk, "I'll take care of me" folk, aren't able to allow the wells of hospitality's waters to seep in bless our days because we think we have no need of such. Modern life's love of self-sufficiency have put us all in auto pilot.

I'm glad to be spending a week in here where every morning when I can drink the Almond Milk I requested for my cereal then brush my teeth with the toothpaste I did not buy, so to remember God's gift of welcome. It's a gift I can't buy or earn. Being at Collegeville is teaching me how to recieve.