Hospitality Is Risky

There are good reasons that hospitality is difficult. It takes time and we’re all so busy. Doing, um, work. So we can buy things. Things we’re just as happy without. And so we can earn respect. The respect of the kind of people whose respect is earned that way.

Hospitality takes time, and hospitality is risky. You might get taken advantage of. Or you might be unwittingly facilitating someone’s self-destruction: there’s a time for offering someone a beer, and a time for resisting that impulse, and we don’t always know which is which. We risk getting it wrong.

I'm asking you to imagine that at the center of your life is the question, “What does this guest need?” Putting that question at the center doesn’t mean we will always know the right answer to that question. But to live in the space of that question – always having our radar up for where the need is, and going toward the need we discern – is a life of healing. The payback is the growing, softening heart.

The risks are worth it. Deep down, we humans don’t crave safety. What we ache for is acceptance, and acknowledgment of our worth. Therefore, embrace others as worthy guests, even if they don’t meet our needs. Even if they scare us. To embrace the worth in the other, even when their actions don’t meet our needs, is a radical notion. It might change your world into one in which you don't have to be smart or witty, deep or cultured, beautiful, young, healthy, enlightened, or handy. All you have to do is open the window of your heart and let the outer light in -- and let the inner light out. In that light, you can see and be seen; love and be loved.

It is revolutionary, risky, and world-rattling. Radical hospitality isn't safe or cozy. Commitment to radical hospitality is challenging. I want to be real with you about not only the good intention, but the skills, the emotional and social intelligence, that it takes to simultaneously maintain boundaries while tearing down walls.

Sometimes we’re up for making the initial opening, but aren’t equipped for the follow-through. I was struck by one example of a family whose heart was, or seemed to be, in the right place, but who just didn’t have the skills and resources to pull it off well.

Tanya and Tracey Thornbury of Montevido, Minnesota, were among the many Americans who, in August 2005, felt it was their duty to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Over the Internet the Thornburys made an offer to open their home to hurricane refugees. They were put in touch with Nicole Singleton, an impoverished 33-year-old single mother of six children, ranging from age 3 to 16, and Nicole’s mother, Dot. The Thornburys, with three children of their own, welcomed Nicole and her children into their home. Tanya Thornbury bought Nicole a bathrobe, pajamas, sandals, helped her find a fob, offered to help make financial decisions about the federal aid. The Thornburys accepted the doubling of their electricity costs and tripling of the natural gas bill. They were good and generous people.

Then problems arose. Nicole’s mother, Dot, refused to live by the rules of the house, allowed her grandchildren to watch violent, inappropriate movies in the presence of the Thornbury kids. The guests wanted to download rap and hip-hop music on the internet, and Tanya said no. Nicole had a boyfriend just released from prison that she was surreptitiously corresponding with – and she revealed to him her new address, which made the Thornburys nervous. Tensions and quarrels began. Six weeks after it began, the merger was over when the Singleton family moved to a donated house in Minneapolis.

From the Thornburys’ perspective, they felt keenly the sting of ingratitude. Tracey Thornbury vowed, “I won’t help anyone again for the rest of my life.” (from Robert Emmons, Thanks!)

Sometimes gifts bring joy. At other times they come with pride, and, the gifts can evoke envy, jealousy, and thus greed, and even hatred. Receiving a gift can place one in a position of inferiority – in which case resentment is be more likely than gratitude. Hospitality requires our humility. It also requires skills and tools.

Among the tools that might have been helpful for the Thornburys and Singletons is a covenant. With a neutral third-party facilitator to help them develop their covenant, they might have been able to clarify what to expect of each other and of themselves. Clarifying expectations at the beginning can be a huge component of creating the space within which hospitality can work.

Congregational life affords a way to sharpen our hospitality skills and habits. Before we're ready to welcome strangers into our individual homes, we can warm up the hospitality muscles by welcoming them more graciously into our collective home, our congregation.

Congregational hospitality may be a little easier in some ways, but it raises challenges of its own. Newcomers might be different from us. If we were to make them feel at home, they might, you know, actually, feel at home. And stay.

We would have to change to be hospitable – to meet their comfort needs. I might need to stretch the way I preach and pastor. They might connect better with different music in worship. They might have different ideas about child-rearing, or what should happen at a committee meeting. Hospitality is inconvenient. It will change us – and transformation is always inconvenient to the interests of the person that we were.

It’s also what we’re here for.

Hospitality is job one. This being human is a guest house.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Radical Hospitality."
See also:
Part 1: This Being Human is a Guest House
Part 2: Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Hospitality


This Week's Prayer

“For the sun and the dawn, which we did not create; for the moon and the evening, which we did not make; for food which we plant but cannot grow; for friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy; for this gathered company, which welcomes us as we are from wherever we have come; for all our free churches that keep us human and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth, and love; for all things which come to us as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves, gifts of life and love and friendship: we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.” (Richard Fewkes, SLT #515)
Dear Grace – all gifts we do not earn or deserve,

Our hearts and thoughts are with the people of France, where at least 127 are dead and hundreds injured after a coordinated series of attacks Friday night. We know that evil dwells in every human heart, and we pray for peace, for wisdom to find ways to end the despair that is the root of the despicable, and for the courage to commit to building a world of liberté, egalité, and fraternité for all.

This week we remembered armistice day, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 97 years ago. The price of peace is vigilant attention to justice. Let our hearts be ready to pay the ongoing price for armistice – now, at our own 11th hour.

We remember and prayerfully recommit to helping to end such tragedies as:
  • suicide bombs in Beirut – and elsewhere;
  • genocide in Burundi – and elsewhere;
  • arduous, dangerous, and often fatal journeys for refugees from Syria – and elsewhere;
  • torture in China – and elsewhere;
  • female genital mutilation in Kenya – and elsewhere;
We pray for strength and courage to be agents of love and justice that overcomes such evils.

We know that we have grounds for hope.
  • We celebrate the end of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone.
  • We celebrate the free elections in Myanmar, and the peaceful transfer of power from the military junta, showing us that peace and democracy can, at last, prevail.
  • While we are saddened at racial hatred manifesting at the University of Missouri, we celebrate the empowerment of black athletes to effect change.
Our lives are filled with blessings not earned or deserved. Let the gifts we have received flow back from us in a river of compassion.


Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Hospitality

If you are brand new to Unitarian Universalism, bring your hospitality. If you have been a member of one of our congregations for sixty years, you have a special responsibility to demonstrate hospitality for the newer folk.

Radical hospitality goes beyond coffee and donuts and a greeter at the door. It is an orientation of our being that sees everyone as a valued guest.

In Luke, Jesus says: when we are to have a dinner, do not invite your friends or the rich folk.
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14: 12-14)
Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. We are here to serve.

I was at a talk once by Sharon Salzberg. She's a spiritual leader and teacher who, in the course of her training and travels, has had occasion to spend a fair amount of time with the Dalai Lama. They’ve gotten to know each other. She spoke of how the Dalai Lama seems to have an almost-magical radar for suffering – and he goes to it. Once, she said, she had had an accident and broken her leg, and was attending an event on crutches and cast. She reported that the room was full of a hundred or two people gnoshing and talking. The Dalai Lama entered, paused just a moment, then made his way straight to her. He was drawn as if by a magnet to wherever the need for care was greatest. So with a room full of various dignitaries and spiritual leaders, he went right to where the injury was. He held her in the embrace of his gentle attention, and said, “What happened?”

Hospitality is responding to the need. It can start with seeing a coffee cup that needs refilling. In its radical form, hospitality goes to the greatest needs. So Jesus, being the radical he was, told us that it’s not about tending to your friends, tending to the wealthy who can help you get or remain wealthy. It’s about the the poor, the crippled, the blind, the hurt, the outcast.

Go to the need. Go to be with it in care. Love the stranger into the family of belonging.

This is a radically anti-consumerist approach to congregational life. On the consumerist model, the members of a congregation are essentially customers. They pay a percentage of their income – and get a product, a service, in return. They get to see a nice show on Sunday morning, nice classes for the kids, a minister to talk to when you’re troubled. Fee for service. The radical hospitality perspective is completely opposite. The building and grounds legally belong to the membership, but spiritually a congregation belongs not to its present members. It belongs to those who aren’t members – not yet, and maybe never will be – but who need it.

Our message to visitors, first-time or any-time, is: We belong to you. Maybe you only need us for one day, one hour. Or maybe for a couple weeks. Or maybe for the rest of your life. Doesn’t matter. We belong to you. One way of putting that is to say, the church is not ours, it is God’s. Another way is to say, we are not here for our own self-interests. There is something beyond, or deeper, or higher, or wider, than gratification of our own passing impulses. There is a love not encapsulated within our own tastes and pleasures, and we are here to serve love.

In a manner of speaking, it is a fee for service deal after all -- only, the service we're talking about is not the service you get. It's the service you give, the service we give which your financial contribution helps enable this congregation to offer to others.

To get ourselves into that welcoming state of being requires making time, making space, slowing down, and listening to one another. Listening is a healing art. There are books you can read, seminars and trainings you can go to, skills to build for the practice of the healing art of listening. And they’re great. For right now, though, I just want to ask you simply breathe into those words for a moment:

Listening is a healing art.

Do you feel the opening, the spaciousness that comes from that orientation?

Go to the need, go to the other, the stranger, the visitor, the guest. Ask, “what happened?” – or just “how are you?” “What is your quest?” – and listen. That’s giving the gift of hospitality.

What we get in return is that hospitality to others helps make ourselves whole, free from the self-preoccupation and narcissism that flesh is heir to. Hospitality asks, “May I know you better and break down my judgment and categorization of you so that my tight little heart stretches a bit?” In the stretching we make room for the deep longing of our hearts, to build and live in a world where no one is excluded, where all are heard, where no one’s tears go unnoticed.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Radical Hospitality."
See also
Part 1: This Being Human is a Guest House
Part 3: Hospitality is Risky


This Being Human Is a Guest House

"This being human is a guest house." I love that line. It’s from the 13th-century Persian Sufi Muslim poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Here's his poem:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy. A depression. A meanness. A momentary awareness.
They come, these unexpected visitors.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought. The shame. The malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. (adapted from a translation by Coleman Barks)
Rumi is telling us: living means being a house for guests. Visitors come. Our job – our only job – is to be a good host.

At any given time, wherever you are, the space around you is a house. You’re the host for whatever enters yours space. Some of the visitors are pleasant – charming even. Others might seem obnoxious. Rumi’s examples are feelings.

Be welcoming and hospitable when joy arrives. I don’t always do that. How about you? I’m too busy to pay her any attention. Or I’m so distracted I don’t notice her in the distance headed my direction, and I don't unlock the door, turn on the vacancy sign, and get some cookies in the oven with a wafting aroma to entice her in. So all I get is a glance at my closed front door as she passes by. Or she does come into the parlor, but I don’t relax and enjoy my ebullient guest: I don’t en-joy. Maybe I think my house – my life, my being – is too shabby an accommodation for such an exalted guest. If I subtly or secretly believe I don’t deserve a grand visitor, I probably won’t be very good at making her feel comfortable.

Be welcoming and hospitable when sadness arrives. I don’t always do that, either. You? I don’t want sadness moping around the place in his drab gray overcoat, out of season and out of fashion. I offer coffee – whatever stimulant is at hand – and I fish for a compliment: “How is that coffee?” I ask. He says, “meh.” I don’t need this, I think. “Maybe you’d be more comfortable at an accommodation down the road,” I say.

Or anger comes knocking. When anger comes for a visit, I find it hard to maintain a good host's balance. A good host is interested and engaged, but not too interested -- attentive while also self-defined, comfortable in his own skin, nonanxious. Anger storms in the door, marches over to the thermostat and turns up the heat. I might try ignoring her -- pretending that it's not getting hot. If another guest were to ask, "Is it getting hot in here?” I'd say “No, not at all. I’m not hot.” That's not being attentive to the reality. Or, alternatively, I might try indulging her. If she asks to change the soft background music to some raucous station, I say "Fine.” If she then asks to turn the volume way up, I say, "Yes, yes.” I join her is some arm-waving, head-banging dance of wrath. You know that dance? That's not being self-defined and nonanxious. Good hosts know not to ignore the spoiled children guests, and know not to indulge them either.

This being human is a guest house. The essential skill – the one skill that sums up everything important in life – is hospitality: the skill of knowing how to be attentive and interested and engaged while also not indulging. It’s being a nonanxious presence: Fully present, yet without taking on the anxiety or reactivity of your guest. What our guests most need is our gracious, calm attention.

This being human is a guest house. My job – really, ultimately, my only job – and yours, too, as best you’re able – is hospitality to whoever comes. Hospitality to the visiting emotions prepares us for hospitality to experience generally -- any experience, including the hospitality to other people.

At Community UU, this month we're exploring hospitality in our Journey Group. That’s where the real growth and deepening is slowly nurtured.

"Radical hospitality” means hospitality that goes to the root, hospitality that transforms everything we do, hospitality as Job One -- and as the foundation of every other job. The radical goes beyond social norms. Radical hospitality goes beyond social norms to love others into the family of belonging. Radical hospitality is a spiritual practice, and spiritual practices need a group. Your individual work to be hospitable supports and strengthens our collective, congregational practice of hospitality, and the shared collective practice supports and strengthens the individual hospitality you carry with you out into all aspects of your life. My Job One – what I believe is your Job One – is also our Job One. Every time a congregation of religious liberals gathers, it gathers to practice, to teach by example and to learn, the gentle art of hospitality -- what William Schulz calls the fragile art, when he says the mission of our faith is
"to teach the fragile art of hospitality; to revere both the critical mind and the generous heart; to prove that diversity need not mean divisiveness; and to witness to all that we must hold the whole world in our hands." (SLT #459)
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Radical Hospitality"
See also
Part 2: Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Hospitality
Part 3: Hospitality is Risky