I grew up in the south. That might be a shocker for some of you. But I was born in Chattanooga, TN and raised in Northwest Georgia, although people are sometimes suspect because of my lack of an accent (I intentionally use a y’all from time to time to assuage the naysayers). But I have very unique lenses from which to talk about my Southern heritage after having lived in the Midwest and Southwest. I even remember when my wife and I were preparing to move above the Mason-Dixon line and there was actual anxiety regarding how “cold” the Yankees might be. Honestly I think that is all derived from the fact that everyone is actually cold for eight months out of the year and don’t want to come outside. But after having lived in these multiple regions, can I make a case that perhaps Southern Hospitality is as hospitable as we have always thought? Going further, can I make a case that perhaps none of us have any idea what hospitality truly is?
Hospitality is a unique concept.We all like to think of ourselves as being hospitable; after all, it is a Christian concept. The thing that has given me the greatest lens through which to see this is the hospitality industry…truly. Every time I stay in a hotel these days I think about all the work that happens after my departure (you can’t help but think about this with four kids). I also have friends that run airbnb’s and I get exhausted thinking about all the work that goes into maintaining their facilities. The people who run these facilities put their lives on hold in order to provide an experience for someone else so that the other feels at home; like they belong. And we call this the hospitality industry. Believe it or not Jesus had something to say about what Christian hospitality would feel like from our perspective, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” – Luke 14:26-27 You don’t see how that refers to hospitality…?
The thing that makes airbnb’s or hotels successful in terms of hospitality is that all of their effort is focused on the experience of the other. We as churches or youth groups could possibly learn a thing or two about this. When people come through our doors we expect them to adjust to our schedule, our routine, our style, our sense, our/my/we/me…and yet Jesus says unless you put aside your own concerns, your own way of doing things, even your own sense of family and life that you cannot be His disciple. Now there will be things that will be distinctly Christian that we invite people to learn as they walk along with us (Creeds, Communion, Baptism, Salvation, etc.). But there are a lot of things that should probably be set aside or even left in the dust so that we can actually learn what it means to be hospitable. And it all starts with being willing to look in the mirror and ask if the actions I live out each week draw people to Christ or make it seem like this club is even more exclusive. May we start to practice radical hospitality today at the expense of ourselves for the sake of the other.
Lately I feel as if I am surrounded by noise. And I’m not talking about the loud rambling oilfield trucks that plague our suburban streets. I’m not even referencing the fact that there are four kids in my house who must all have inside voice issues. I’m actually making reference to the multitude of voices in our world today that feel the need to make sure that they are heard, they are understood, they are perceived as being right and that they solicit change. It’s exhausting. It doesn’t matter on which side of which issue someone is speaking about it all has begun to blend together and just become noise…and I’m afraid I have even been guilty of adding to the noise. And so today I say to you and to me…’shhhhhhh’.
Often when I am plagued with some seeming societal ill I try to look to the testimony of Jesus to see how best to address what is going on around me. There are a couple of interactions that Jesus has in the gospels that have always perplexed me. It comes after Jesus has spoken some very unpopular/polarizing words and it doesn’t go over so well (I’m sure none of us can relate to that as of late). The first is in Luke at the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth, “They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” – Luke 4:29-30 The other instance takes place in John 8 after Jesus is forced to stand in the way of the religious elite on behalf of a woman caught in adultery and then speaks about His being sent by the Father. “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” – John 8:59 Notice what it doesn’t say here, “Jesus kept arguing the point with his opponents until they were forced to concede and admit defeat.” No, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. He realizes the crowd will no longer listen, has gotten past the point of listening and so He walks through their midst. Jesus just steps away.
Of course Jesus doesn’t walk away and have a pity party. No, Jesus gets back to doing what He does best…enacting the Kingdom of God. In Luke He begins casting out unclean spirits and in John He heals a blind man. Jesus realizes that His argument is best made in enacting that which He is speaking about. There is no greater defense of one’s position than positive Kingdom action that will at once pull you away from pointless arguments and eventually silence your naysayers. Jesus knew this and trusted His work to it. Why? Because He knew the value of silence and He trusted the mission. Here as well we must seek to model Christ of whom we read these words just a short time later in Luke, “ But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” – Luke 5:16 Maybe we need to pull away from the noise. Maybe we need to withdraw. We certainly don’t need to add to it. Maybe it’s time for a little more shhhhh and a lot more action for the Kingdom.
I can’t recall if I ever went through this phase or not. But I know with certainty that this was definitely a phase my now 9-yr-old went through. Some form of disciplinary action would take place in our home and all of a sudden it was too much for him to handle and he would declare to all within earshot that he was running away. Now he never really made it past the backyard. And there was never really any long-term planning involved other than grabbing one or two favorite toys, but the spirit of the action was understood. At some point though either my wife or I one would beckon him back in the house and all would be restored again.
It reminds me of the parable I was able to share this last week a couple of times. A son runs away from home after wishing for the inheritance he would receive upon his father’s death i.e. wishing his father dead (sounds like a dramatic running away story to me). He waste the inheritance on wild living and then ends up in a very desperate situation and finally comes to his senses and heads home. Here’s where the writer picks it up, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” – Luke 15:20. And we love reading about this reconciliation but I’ve always thought that perhaps there could have been more. I can’t help but think about the older brother watching the father while the son was still in the distant country. Everyday as he would head into the fields he more than likely would see his father on the front porch staring into the distance. He knew his father’s heart was breaking and yet he just kept busy…doing what he thought his father wanted him to do. When in all truthfulness the father just wanted the younger son home. Had the older brother truly understood his role in reflecting his father’s heart he would have gone to the distant country, found his younger brother and told him, “It’s okay to come home.”
I look at the church today and I wonder which older brother we are reflecting. Are we busy about what we think is the father’s business? Or are we actively pursuing the younger brother or sister and telling them “It’s okay to come home”? Are our churches truly a place where the lost know, “It’s okay to come home?” Are we creating environments and programs to suit our own needs or do we truly reflect the heart of the father reaching out to the runaway son/daughter and telling them, “It’s okay to come home?”
My son was probably never in the backyard for more than an hour in his attempts at running away. But I like to think he knows that at the end of the day regardless of how long he stays out, how far he strays away, or how much he thinks he has failed us that it’s okay to come home. May the same be said for us when we think about those who aren’t home yet with our heavenly Father.