Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Risk of Hospitality

I’m not a risk taker. I don’t buy lottery tickets. I don’t run for political office. I don’t engage in extraordinary life threatening activities. I don’t carry a gun. I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I don’t cheat on my income tax or lie to customs officers. I don’t speed - well, hardly ever. Like I said, I’m not a risk taker. I follow the rules. The most dangerous thing I do is teach. But that’s a subject for another day.

I don’t take risks because I don’t have to. I follow the rules because the rules are made by people like me to protect people like me.

My mother once said that I led a “charmed life” - by which she meant, I think, that things always seemed to work out. She was right. I am educated, financially stable (as much as anyone can be these days), successful, white. Sure, I have setbacks, but they tend to be minor and manageable. They serve to remind me that I'm not God and, more and more these days, that I'm getting older.

It’s not all Hollywood and happy endings, but the reality of my life is unbelievably easier than the reality of the lives of billions of people on this planet. And it's not because I'm somehow better than other people - more virtuous or closer to God. The fact is, I don’t need to offer a bribe in order to secure medical help for myself or a loved one. I don’t need to choose between acting within the confines of a Judeo-Christian morality OR having enough food to eat. I don’t need to lie, cheat, steal, or kill in order to make it through the day. And if I should choose to lie, cheat, steal or kill, it’s not about survival but about justifying a self centeredness that wants to get ahead – to be seen as being “better”, wealthier, more powerful, stronger. A step above those around me.

No, I’ve never had to chip away a fragment of my integrity for a piece of bread, or surrender my good conscience for a night’s sleep. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t or that somehow I’m immune from the sordid, risky actions of the desperate. I haven’t sold my soul for a bowl of soup, because I’ve never been THAT hungry.

I’m comfortable and content. And I – or at least people like me – continue to make and enforce the rules – rules that make sure that the game doesn’t change.

Sure, I can see injustices, and I can speak against them, but at the end of the day I'm still well fed, comfortable and secure. And to be honest, I'm thankful for that. I don't want to be tested. I really don't want God to ask me to give all that up. I might try to convince myself - and you - that IF it should come down to it, I'd be willing to give up anything and everything if it's God who's asking. If I know for sure that it's God and I know for sure that he's asking me to give everything up. When I read the story of the Rich Young Ruler, I tell myself that I wouldn't have gone away sad from that encounter. That I would have done just what Jesus asked - sold everything I have, given the money to the poor and joined Jesus' ragtag band. But the truth is, I'm hiding in the crowd, head down, hoping that Jesus doesn't put me on the spot. I'm certainly not going to do anything so foolish as to march right up to him and ask him what he wants me to do! I'm not going to rock the boat or draw attention to myself. I'm too busy leading my charmed life and justifying myself.

As I write this, I realize that it probably sounds a bit like self-flagellation. Why beat myself up like this? It's not my fault that I'm privileged. And for sure I can think of lots of people who have more to give up - or hold onto - than I do. But that's not really the point.

Where I'm going with this has more to do with my attitude toward those whose reality is far different than mine - those who have to take risks, and make choices, and do things that are shameful. If God calls us into the community of believers - to be brothers and sisters with men and women from all walks and classes of life - the challenge is to adjust my attitude so that I can form good, healthy relationships across all kinds of barriers. I think what is missing in my life - and may I be so bold as to suggest that it may be missing in the lives of many of us? - is a real understanding of the biblical principle of hospitality.

When we are willing to take the risk of hospitality, we extend favour to another - not because they deserve it but because they need it and simply because we have the capacity to meet that need, whatever it may be. And when we do it out of our love for Christ and obedience to his command that we ought to love our neighbours as we love ourselves - no questions asked - maybe that's what evangelism looks like. Hospitality isn't just getting together with friends and family over a meal. It's denying ourselves - even to the point of laying down our lives - so that we can bring the blessing of community to those in our path. I can't help thinking that our faith would have a whole lot more credibility if we become a community that learns to take the risk of hospitality - no strings attached.

I've just watched the movie, Les Miserables. There's a scene at the very beginning when Jean Valjean, a newly released convict, comes into town and is settling in for the night on a park bench. An old woman tells him to ask for hospitality at a nearby home - the home of a Bishop Myriel. Valjean is amazed that the Bishop will welcome him to his table and provide a bed for the night and he reiterates that he is a convict. He says to the Bishop, "how do you know that I'm not a murderer?". Bishop Myriel replies that "we will have to trust one another." As it turns out, Valjean steals the silverware and disappears in the middle of the night, only to be arrested and brought back to have his identity confirmed by Bishop Myriel. Much to Valjean's amazement, however, the Bishop corroborates his story that the silverware was a gift. And thus Valjean is released from custody and Bishop Myriel tells Valjean that he has purchased his soul. He must change his ways. And he does. It's a wonderful and inspirational story of redemption, rooted in the hospitality of Bishop Myriel. What if we all extended that kind of grace - and redemptive redirection - to the scoundrels in our lives?

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