Always Ready for a Party

Authentic hospitality is one of the greatest human experiences. There is the literal hospitality of receiving and hosting a guest with a sense of delight and dignity and belonging. More importantly, there is the day-to-day openness to the experience of receiving and being received, the surprising delight that can arise in encounters that cause us to feel more authentically human and more authentically Christian. You just never know when a small foretaste of the heavenly wedding feast might unexpectedly manifest itself! But we easily miss the moment if we are not abiding in love and truth.

I’m currently in the midst of a 3-month sabbatical, and gratefully receiving the hospitality of Benedictine monks. The importance of hospitality is actually written into the Rule of Saint Benedict, that brief but adaptable treasure trove of wisdom that still inspires people of all faiths even 1,500 years after he wrote it. Benedict instructs his monks, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Some of my happiest memories of childhood are moments of hospitality. I was recently asked to reflect on experiences of wholeness in my story – when I most deeply felt a sense of delight, belonging, and justice. It was a challenging exercise at first! My story includes much deprivation and going it alone. But with prayer for illumination, my memories turned to my grandparents’ home, their joy and excitement at seeing me every time I arrived, the warm embrace, the twinkle in their eyes, the offering of food or drink or toys they knew that I enjoyed, the total sense of belonging and safety. Or I thought of Christmas gatherings with extended family – the laughter, the acceptance of everyone present, and the material and emotional abundance, the ache for the moment to last forever.

During my college seminary years, I met a few friends from the South, and came to appreciate their constant readiness to show hospitality to guests. It felt dignified and important to me, and became something I’ve valued over the years. Whether my years in communal living or my years in a rectory, I’ve relished the opportunities to show hospitality to guests. Planned gatherings are fun enough, but the best moments have been the unexpected parties. I’ve learned to ensure that I have a few things on hand to be up for the occasion. As I sometimes quip, I like my living space to be ready to go “From Zero to Party in 10 Minutes.” People have appreciated the gesture more than once.

Truthfully, though, I am still very much learning the height and breadth and depth of human hospitality. There are various versions of it, not all of them equally great. There have been times where my hospitality was more about projecting an image or feeling the pressure to perform, rather than simply “being with” the guests. There have been times where it was more about subtly grasping at my own unmet needs than about serving those I was hosting. And there is my frequent tendency to get disengaged, to check out of the present moment or withdraw emotionally into my own space of isolation – and then my connection with others is diminished or lost.

Speaking more universally, when it comes to hospitality of the heart, being open and receptive to unexpected “Jesus moments” with others, I cannot truthfully say that my heart is always ready. It’s one thing to think ahead and have a few items stocked up in the pantry. It is so much more challenging to abide in love and live wholeheartedly in the present moment.

Jesus was a human being who knew how to experience hospitality – how to receive it and how to give it. There is a great vulnerability in authentic hospitality, a tender willingness to enter into intimacy. We cannot give well if we have not learned how to receive. We don’t often ponder this point, but Jesus was quite willing to receive hospitality –from the very beginning.

God though he was, Jesus began his human existence in humility and obscurity, depending vulnerably on the tender care of his mother and foster father, taking in the delight and awe showed by so many guests at his birth: the shepherds, the magi, and the angels. He spent thirty of his thirty-three years learning how to receive. Even in his public ministry, he still allowed himself to be vulnerable and receive. I think of the woman with the alabaster jar in Luke 7 – weeping, kissing his feet, and anointing him with costly perfume. Jesus does not squirm or resist, as many of us probably would. I think of Jesus’ apparently frequent visits to Bethany, cultivating a deep friendship with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha – including a willing reception of their hospitality. He even goes there during Holy Week, shortly after his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Even on Holy Thursday, as he enters his “Hour” of suffering, Jesus reaches out to Peter, James, and John – asking them whether they would be with him in his sorrow. And of course, there is his belonging to and receiving from his heavenly Father, as Jesus regularly withdraws – not in isolation or disengagement – but into vulnerable and intimate relationship.

Drawing from that sense of joy and belonging and abundance, Jesus showed hospitality so beautifully. One of the strongest “accusations” against him was that he welcomed sinners and dined with them! Jesus attuned to people’s hearts, noticing the desire and the movement of the Holy Spirit there (or the hardness of heart and resistance!). When there was movement, he stopped and lingered and invited them into relationship. They felt seen by him. They felt understood by him. They felt welcomed and delighted in by him. They were loved as they were, and they also realized that he was committed to their well-being and wasn’t going to fudge or fake things in the relationship. I think here of the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, Matthew, and Peter (at so many moments!).

I have always cherished hospitality, and intuitively understood how central it is in the human experience. I have not always appreciated the invitation to vulnerability that is there, the call to give others access to my well-guarded heart, the call to be present and engaged, to be open to unexpected surprises, to notice what God is doing in the hearts of others, to appreciate their uniqueness and to accompany them step by step in becoming who they are (versus who I want them to be!). To the extent that I abide and stay open to hospitality, I truly get to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” – even now amidst this sojourn through a valley of tears. Such moments never last, but they are truly good – a promise and foretaste of the Day in which the joyful feasting we experience together will never end, but only become ever more delightful and more real.

Spiritual Bypass

This summer marked the 15th anniversary of the animated film Cars. The movie breathed life and personality into dozens of vehicles, including the cocky and arrogant young racecar Lightning McQueen, who unexpectedly gets stranded in the rusted and rundown town of Radiator Springs. Initially seeing no value in this long-forgotten place, he undergoes a deep conversion and learns many life lessons. He also comes to appreciate the story of the town, once great, then sliding into decline with the introduction of the I-40 bypass. Whereas travelers along Route 66 used to take their time to linger and enjoy this scenic stopping point, these days they just zoom on by along the bypass.

As many of you know, I am currently going through a few trainings for pastoral ministry to God’s beloved children experiencing unwanted behaviors or addictions. In them, I’ve come across a strikingly similar metaphor, encapsulated in the term “spiritual bypass.”

Spiritual bypass happens when you or I use our spirituality as a way of avoiding difficult experiences or undesirable emotions. In the name of being spiritual, we can actually evade and avoid the most difficult aspects of discipleship! When we do so, our bodies and souls suffer in much the same way as the town of Radiator Springs. Through chronic neglect, little by little, things begin to crack and crumble. The more this decay happens, the more we prefer to avoid, and the more alluring spiritual bypass becomes. And so the vicious cycle continues.

You can see how these cracks offer fertile soil for the weeds and rotten fruits of addictions. But addictions are only one of many such weeds. The great spiritual authors over the centuries remind us that sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, drunkenness, etc.) can actually be less serious than envy, passive aggression, gossip, self-righteousness, or pride. Think of the story of the repentant tax collector versus the proud Pharisee (“thank God I’m not like _______”). Think of the story of the younger son and older son in Luke 15. Both are far from the heart of their father; both are avoiding his love; both are miserable.

Spiritual bypass often gets woven into the very fabric of our families and our church communities. For example, we from the upper Midwest are notorious for being “nice” – and thinking ourselves kind. Niceness is not the same as kindness! Niceness avoids conflict. Niceness pretends not to be angry. Niceness does not know how to sit with sadness, but tries to minimize or fix or anesthetize the pain of the situation. Kindness, by contrast, can be intense and messy. It takes great inner strength just to be with someone who feels deeply sad, angry, or ashamed.

In my personal journey, the Lord has definitely been inviting me and teaching me how to stay present in the face of awkward or painful situations. Historically, I did one of two things. Most of the time, I got small, hid my true self, or took the “nice” path out and compromised things that were deeply important. Occasionally I powered up, perhaps shifting my tone or raising my voice, perhaps making a subtly shaming comment that shifted the burden onto the other person. I regret those moments and the damage they caused.

But I am learning to be patient with myself as God works repairs in my heart. Healing and recovery is incredibly hard work. It’s tempting (like Lightning McQueen) to think I can re-pave the neglected and damaged street in a short time. It takes much patience and consistency – not to mention much help and encouragement from true friends. After nearly five years of diligent work walking my own healing path, I am beginning to discover that I can stay present and stay my true self even in challenging situations – without taking the bypass. Every inch of reclaimed pavement is worth celebrating.

I simply wasn’t capable for a long time because I was bypassing my own heart – including neglected streets that were crumbling in sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame. If present interactions caused me to begin feeling those things, it made sense that I would react instinctively and either flee or fight. God made us with survival instincts and defensive capacity.  For a time, we probably need these defenses. We may need, for a season, to be in a state of spiritual bypass. We can’t face everything all at once. We’re not ready until we are ready.

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. So sings the psalmist. After years of preparing my heart, the Lord gently and kindly showed me how very much sadness and loneliness I had stored up. For me, the experience of coming out of spiritual bypass has been amazing, intense, and painful all at the same time. Sister Miriam James Heidland compares the experience with someone coming in from the cold with frostbite. To be in one’s heart and feeling again is both good and intense.

My prayer life has definitely shifted amidst this process. It is more tender and vulnerable, more about a love relationship with the Father, and more about receiving again and again all that I need. Ironically, I pray far more consistently. It’s less and less of a “should.” I simply need it. I need prayer. I need Jesus. I need the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And I desire all these things. I ache for them. I long to see the face of the Father. That, for me, has been the very best part about ceasing spiritual bypass. Returning to my place of heartache also opens up the freedom and capacity for my heart to ache for God. It renews and deepens faith, hope, and love.

Perhaps the best discovery of all has been to realize the stunning beauty of the human heart – my own heart and that of others. Yes, there is sin there. Yes, it’s a mess. AND we are beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, “very good” in his own image and likeness. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the town from the bypass. You have to slow down and spend time there. Then it captivates you. The beauty God has poured into the human heart is absolutely stunning – if we are willing to abide there amidst the mess.

I invite you to consider your own journey of following Jesus. In what ways do you take the bypass? Does it feel easier to avoid anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, or shame? How do you react when others around you feel or express those? How do they experience you? Do they feel safe and find it easy to open up to you about the deep things of their heart? Why or why not?

Does it feel easier to “say prayers” to open up in a tender and vulnerable relationship? Do you let yourself feel the ache of longing and desiring without yet fully possessing?

Jesus reminds us that the road is wide and easy that leads us to destruction. Taking the spiritual bypass is so appealing because it is wide and easy while pretending to be deeply spiritual. Engaging our story in the town that is our heart involves a dying and rising.

Above all else Jesus commands us to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Yes, we may need to use the bypass for a time in our life, especially if we do not have the support and the resources to face the hard work that will be involved. But so long as we stay on the bypass, there are parts of our heart that are not being consecrated to the Lord, and therefore not receiving his blessing.

Wholehearted discipleship is certainly challenging! But it is worth it. You and I are worth it.