Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Creating Hospitable Holidays

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group about hospitality. As we enter a season where many of us will either open our homes to others, or be the guests of others, it seems a good time to reflect on hospitality as a spiritual practice.

Christian hospitality is more than good manners. Whether we are the hosts or the guests, we should assume a posture of humility and vulnerability. This is likely more obvious if we are the guest in the home of another, but it should also be the case if we are hosting another in our home. As the host, we assume the posture of a servant. As Parker Palmer suggests, we let the stranger be a stranger. Even if our guests are family members, we allow them the space to simply be themselves.

Yet many times, family gatherings can turn into efforts at manipulation and domination, not expressions of love and humble service. If you have shared a meal with family or friends, and the topic of conversation has turned to what someone either at the table or absent from it has or hasn’t done or should or shouldn’t do, you know it is not an open or welcoming place to be. That is especially true if you are the target of another’s criticism or manipulation, but even if you are not the target, such conversation is uncomfortable and uncaring (although it may be couched as being for one’s own good).

St. Augustine said, “The human race is inquisitive about other people’s lives, but negligent to correct their own.” He says this because some seemed to have a prurient interest in the sexual excesses of his life prior to his conversion. When holiday gatherings become opportunities for interrogation and criticism about the lives of family members either present or absent, hospitality is nonexistent. This is true even if the inquisition is framed as loving care or concern.

Augustine goes on to say, “A brotherly person rejoices on my account when he approves me, but when he disapproves, he grieves on my behalf.” True grief on behalf of another does not manifest itself in manipulation and criticism. May we practice such hospitality this season that others feel comfortable and welcome in our presence. Let us rejoice and grieve with those with whom we share space, not criticize, manipulate or interrogate them. Let us make space for grace and love.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Demise of Humanity

Last night I was in the San Francisco International Airport, awaiting a flight back home. I witnessed something solemn and moving—a ceremony to honor a fallen Marine, whose body had been flown in on a commercial airline flight. A variety of people lined up at a window to watch as two fire trucks sprayed an arc of water over the top of the airplane as it taxied to the gate. We observed the flag-draped casket taken from the plane by a Marine Honor Guard and the family of the soldier gathered around each other and the casket. As we stood silently watching the ceremony, quiet and respectful, one woman stood by the window, also watching, but absorbed in a cell phone conversation. Her voice was the only sound in the area save the regular canned airport announcements that continued their unbroken cadence. As twenty or thirty people watched loss unfolding before them in silence, this woman continued her conversation, oblivious to the solemnity surrounding her.

Maybe I was more acutely aware of her intrusion because I had just come from Grace Cathedral, where I had walked their labyrinth and participated in a service of Evening Prayer before leaving for the airport. The experience of silence, reflection and worship was still fresh in me. What I recognized as I grieved with the soldier’s family and the larger human family that surrounded me at the window is that our efforts to multitask, our attempts to be more and more productive, rob us of our humanity. We, in our fast-paced Western society, don’t know how to stand still, shut up, take our phones out of our ears and acknowledge life and death going on right in front of us. We have become so robotic that we cannot pause to act like human beings.

At 9:00 p.m. San Francisco time, this same woman was sitting behind me at the gate talking business. I could tell she was returning from a convention, so Atlanta or somewhere in the southeast was home for her. Talking business at 9:00 p.m. is bad enough, but she was talking to someone 3 time zones later about the next day’s work.

St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” It seems to me that we strive to be less and less alive and instead choose to function more like robots, devoid of compassion, unaware or uncaring of the needs of others, and focused on productivity at all costs. Glory in our culture derives from greater productivity. But what glorifies God is when we are fully alive, attentive to all of life as it unfolds around us.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What We Worship

I am participating in a small group that is reading Advent Conspiracy. We are doing this study now so that we might prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday. The authors of the book note that the fastest growing religion in the world is consumerism. If that is true, and I believe it is, then Christmas has become consumerism’s biggest holiday.

I have often heard that we can determine what we worship by looking at our calendars and our checkbooks. I wonder how much time those of us who claim to follow Christ will spend preparing our hearts for the birth of Jesus versus how much time we will spend making lists, scouring ads and shopping from now until December 25. Our time and our money will indicate the object of our worship.

It is no easy task to leave behind the idolatry of consumerism. I don’t claim to be successful at it. But I recognize that what fills my time fills my heart, and I hope to make a change in what fills my time between now and December 25. If my heart is full of the trappings of consumerism, then I am like the Bethlehem inn, with no room in which Jesus can be born.

Every Advent brings the opportunity to clean out the things that clutter my heart to make room for the birth of Jesus. As we approach the season of Advent, it is not too early to choose well what we will worship. I pray to choose well for myself, and to allow space for grace when I fail to choose the One Who comes to bring life.