Tag Archives: hospitality

I Remember Why


Thanks to Scott Griessel (creatista.com)
for the Wild Goose photo!

Those of you who know me already understand that I do not blend well in my chosen profession. I don’t mind suits, but prefer comfortable shirts and jeans. I am mystified by the necktie. I just don’t get purpose of it other than as a target for food falling from the fork. And I will never be mistaken for a banker.

And in fact it is that mismatch that first led me into ministry. I had a clear sense that if there was room for somebody like me in the church, then maybe there would be others who would see that there was also room for them. While I have by and large experienced that there has been room for someone like me, it has not often been unconditional room. More than once I have been offered tentative acceptance, accompanied with the message that the acceptance would be heartier if my hair were shorter or if my beard were trimmed or if for some reason I would just wear a damn necktie. And through the years I have seen churches who proclaim their desire for younger people in their midst, but too often they wanted younger people who love organ music, old hymns, long sermons, and Sunday dress-ups. In other words, if those younger people would change who they were, they would be truly welcome.

                So I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when the very first words spoken at The Wild Goose Festival were “Welcome home.” I steeled myself for the coming “but.” Welcome home, but you should really change this or that about yourself to truly fit in. But there was no but there. In fact, The Wild Goose Festival was one of the few times, especially for religious or spiritual gatherings, where I blended in! There you could see hair of every length on every gender, and beards from the most meticulous hipster style to the grandest, bushiest Duck Dynasty masterpiece. And I found myself comfortably in the middle of everything. Wild Goose was indeed the kind of home that the church has not been very good at creating. If I had a sense that there was room in Christ’s family for people like me, they found their way to Wild Goose.

                And that welcome is the one thing I really want to bring back from Wild Goose. I want to create a community where you can bring your doubts and hard questions and questionable language or dress and find your place at the table. The festival reminded why I got into this game in the first place, and it is past time to make it happen. The United Church of Christ says, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” The Goose is challenging us to make good on that claim.


Meddling in Policy and Politics

ImageWe seem to live in an era where we in the US are ever ready to protect our own God-given (we believe) rights. To stand our ground, so to speak. We are vehemently ready to safeguard our own rights, but not so much someone else’s. In these past few weeks where we have seen the SCOTUS gut the Voting Rights Act, the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, and even Paula Deen’s almost inexcusable gaff of exposing the mangy underbelly of racism in our society everyone is feeling imperiled and embattled: the majority culture, the minority culture, and the vast center that just wishes we could stop talking about all these uncomfortable issues and get back to watching Jeopardy. And it makes trying to talk about (much less trying to enact) hospitality a tough sell indeed. So I’ve been trying to think of things we can do to nudge us all a closer to caring more about our neighbors whoever they are, whatever color they are, whatever accent they speak with, whatever headscarf or hoodie or necktie they choose to wear.

  1. I will never use the “N” word, and I will make sure that anyone using it around me knows I think it is unacceptable. Not for political correctness, but because I cannot imagine how that epithet ever builds another person up. It is almost always destructive.

  2. A gun used in a killing should always be confiscated and destroyed. Even if it was justifiable, even in self-defense, if it was used to kill a human being that gun should be removed from society. If it deemed that the killing was not illegal, the gun’s owner still caused a death and should have to forfeit that firearm. They can get another one if they desire. But a gun used in a killing should be gone.

  3. As long as I’m meddling about the 2nd Amendment, can we work toward a consensus that my right bear arms never trumps another person’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? I’m not saying that we can’t ever own guns, but our technology is such that I don’t think we necessarily have right to own every kind of arms.

  4. Can we create a society where even if you think what I said in #3 is the looniest thing you’ve ever heard, you can still sit down and drink a cup of coffee with me? All I’m asking is that we somehow are as ready to see each other as neighbors as enemies.

I was watching an old episode of “Cadfael” recently where a minstrel is being chased by a mob accusing him of murder. He runs into the church, right up the main aisle, grabs the cloth on the altar and cries for sanctuary. The brothers intercede themselves between the minstrel and the mob, offering him their safety and protection.

That’s exactly what I see the Urban Abbey doing. When someone is being pursued by mobs of anger, violence, prejudice, and fear they find sanctuary in our midst. We ponder, practice, and offer different ways of existing in our culture and community. We are the people ready to intercede on behalf of peace, healing, and unconditional justice and love. We want to be the place that nurtures these kind of crazy ideas, ideas that can change the world.

Ping Pong Theology

 Image               My dad played a wicked game of ping pong. He had incredible patience. He would watch the ball come to his end of the table, take its bounce and then wait until the ball had dropped below the level of the table. Then he would caress the ball with a scooping motion, in so doing applying an amazing amount of English. The ball would come looping back at me, taking what seemed like a lackadaisical pace. It would bounce on my side of the table, and I would already be in place for where the ball would be on completion of its bounce. Except for that English. Instead of going where it was supposed to go, the ball would ricochet at crazy angle, and if possible pick up speed like it had just engaged warp drive. It never went where you thought, and I never, ever beat my dad at ping pong.

                That was frustrating to be sure, but Dad never gloated. OK, maybe he grinned pretty widely, but he never did an end zone dance. In fact, most of the time he was gracious enough to keep me coming back. He always had a tip to offer. He was happy to help me (or anyone he was playing) play better. I never got good enough to beat him but I always had fun playing.

                Now I know ping pong is a thin analogy for the spiritual life. But what catches my attention here is not the game itself, but the way my dad played it. He never played down to my level (at least obviously) but he never made me feel bad for playing. How many times have you had an encounter or a spiritual conversation when you felt like you were being talked down to? Or how many times have you walked away feeling like you never want to play that game again? Somehow we have to figure out how to play our own game but in a way that makes others want to keep playing.

                And that is what the Urban Abbey is all about. I my own self am looking for a place (metaphorically) where I can explore ideas about God and the world and the Spirit where I don’t have to translate the language to make it acceptable. I don’t want to hear about the blood of Jesus washing me whiter than snow. I don’t want to argue over the parts of the Bible I just can’t buy. I want to be able to ask questions about who wrote it and why and not just that God said it so quit quibbling. I want to hear about Humanity and not just Man. And if you don’t agree with me, that’s OK, too. Can we ask the questions we are both asking and not get bogged down over the stuff we see differently? Can we find a game we can play even if we don’t play it the same way but so that we both want to keep playing? Even if it is just ping pong. And at the Urban Abbey wants to be that kind of metaphorical place: a safe place to ask deep questions and be honest about who we are, and a sacred place where we can connect with each other and with a Spirit that is more than us.

Trusting the Universe

  Image              My dad used to tell me stories of his college days when he hitchhiked from North Dakota to Indiana where he went to school. He met lots of people and had adventures (pretty mild by some standards), and only once had any trouble. One truck driver pulled a gun out after Dad had hopped in, but it was just to establish the situation. The trucker had been mugged by another hitchhiker recently and he didn’t want it to happen again, but he also did not want to stop picking up riders! By the time I was in college, those halcyon days were gone. In the early 1980’s hitchhiking was no longer a safe way to travel the country, in fact it was deemed dangerous.  Somehow one of the lessons we learned in the 20th Century was that we could no longer trust strangers.

                A couple of months ago I got to introduce my friends Christy and Aodh Og to my family at Scottsdale Congregational UCC. Professionally, this pair goes by the name “Four Shillings Short”  (http://4shillingsshort.com/bio.html) and they are world class musicians. They also describe themselves as gypsies. They travel around the country in their van, receiving the hospitality of strangers. Sometimes they stay with people they know, at least a little bit, like my spouse and me. Often, though, all they know about their hosts is a comment on their email sign-up page that says “room available.” Christy  and Aodh Og still live off of the hospitality often of strangers.

                When I asked them about staying with strangers, they talked quite eloquently about learning to trust the universe. They not only believe that if you put positive energy out into the universe it will bring it back to you, they live it out every day. They challenge the assumptions of our culture about mistrust and fear.  In fact, when Aodh Og broke his leg recently, this ad hoc community of fans and practically strangers (connected across the country via email) responding with real compassion and generosity. Thousands of dollars came in for the hospital bills, from people who really knew nothing of Four Shillings Short except their music and maybe a brief conversation at a concert. In their perspective, the universe cared for them and provided for them. The kindness and love of people, even strangers, was the way the universe accomplished this. Even as I write this, I feel the shutters of my mind and heart closing down and the question rising up, “Really?” Does life really function this way?

                And yet here is extensive if anecdotal evidence that it does. And the Urban Abbey (and its foundation on the path of Hospitality) places its belief that this is the way God wants the universe to work. We will operate by belief until we have clear and convincing evidence otherwise and likely for a good while even after that. Because if the world doesn’t work that way, maybe we can help it change. Just a little bit.

                In what situation might you be willing to trust the benevolence of the universe? How might you try that?

Real, Deep, and Ordinary Hospitality

I recognized the older gentleman when he walked into the coffee shop. He smiled warmly and greeted a number of people in the shop. I hadn’t met him, but I knew who he was and I wondered if he was for real. I worked up the courage to walk over and introduce myself ( I am by nature an introvert and meeting new people is hard for me, much less meeting someone like this).

This man was legend in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I was living. His story was one that said that we human beings can make actual, real choices to make the world better. Years before I met him, this man began receiving threatening phone calls: menacing, vile, and unrelenting. This man was at the time the cantor of one of the local synagogues. The caller was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. But instead of returning hate for hate, this man began returning love. For every call of hate, he returned on of love. He was just as unrelenting as his adversary. Eventually, almost miraculously, it got through. The menacing caller was not well, physically or emotionally. One time he called and did not threaten, he asked. He asked, how can you keep saying you love me when all I’ve ever done is threaten you?

This man in the coffee shop did more than just make compassionate phone calls. The caller recanted his devotion to the KKK. Because of his failing health he lost his place to live. He had no family, no friends, and now was alienated from a group not known for their tolerance of defectors. So this gentleman I wanted to meet (and his wife, it should be said) invited this other man whose whole life had been steeped in hatred, they invited him into their home. They loved him and introduced him to a whole new way of living, which he followed until he died.

That was the story I knew, and so I wanted to know the man. Could he be real? He was very real, and not in any larger-than-life sense. He was as human and flawed, and searching in life as any of us, as I was. But that is what makes all the more compelling for me. This flawed, genuine man offered someone who hated him love instead of hate. It gives me no excuse that I can’t do this. It is not the extraordinary humans who change the world. It is the ordinary ones.

This man’s name is Michael Weisser, and a book was written about his experience (“Not By the Sword” by Kathryn Watterson, Northeastern Press, 1995). I learned that Michael is gentle man for whom love is an ordinary, everyday way of living. He welcomed me and my wife into his circle of friendship and we are both grateful for that.

Saint Benedict said that hospitality is welcoming everyone as if they were Christ. Michael would use different words, but he is one of the best practitioners of hospitality I have met. Someone has asked me how we learn to be hospitable in this violent, hateful world. I only have a couple of thoughts about that. One is that it is an exercise of trust: trusting that deep down the world is a good place and somehow or another God’s love (of whatever brand or denomination) will be there for us. The other is simply this: just do it. Make the choice that today I will not hate, I will not let fear determine my actions. Hospitality is not superhuman. It is the best of human.

Hospitality: the Foundation of the Urban Abbey

ImageHospitality is the heart of the Urban Abbey. Not your everyday, greet you at the door with a big smile kind of hospitality. I mean the kind of hospitality that lets you know you have come home even if you’ve never been there before, even if you’ve never experienced home as a good place before. You know that YOU are welcomed, through and through, that the world is a better place because you are there sort of welcome. Not the “we’re glad you’re here but we wished you would have worn a tie” kind of welcome. Urban Abbey hospitality is the kind that looks you in the eye and sighs, “God, it is good you are here.”

Popular religion has been built upon a consumer mentality. People shop for churches like they shop for cars or coffee shops. We are conditioned to consider what we get out of it: a warm greeting, a good message (whatever that means), a nice place for the kids to play. Being a part of the Urban Abbey asks us to turn that value on its head. Deep hospitality is not about what experience we might receive. Hospitality has us asking, “how can I serve you, what can I give to this other person?” It asks us to think of somebody else first, to be open to their needs, their feelings, their deepest questions.

Hospitality is not an industry, regardless of what the career counselors say. It is not something we do because eventually we will get paid for it. Too many churches talk about hospitality in this way: “if we learn to be friendly at the door, to smile warmly offer a free gift to visitors then maybe we’ll get more members.” That’s not hospitality. It is bribery and lots of folks can smell it a mile away. It’s still essentially concerned about us, not them.

Some scholars who study early Christianity say that is was deep hospitality that helped them grow. There is a lot of evidence that says the early movement was a not a wealthy one. Jesus’ message seemed to particularly attract those who were already struggling in life.  It was a movement of predominantly poor people. Yet those looking in from the outside noticed that no matter how poor any of them was, not one was going without. They took care of each other, deeply, lovingly, and generously. They might be poor in the real world, but they were rich in Christ’s world.

So our first step in creating an Urban Abbey is a step away from the question, “what will I get out of this?” and a step toward “What can I offer someone else to make this a better world.” As I’m writing this, the news outlets are filled with scraps of updates coming out of Boston. This has been a week of heightened fear, suspicion, and anger. It is exactly this kind of world that needs places and people that are safe and sacred. It is a foundation-shaking challenge to live deeply hospitably in this kind of world. But I also believe it is one of the only ways that the world will change: one deep welcome at a time.