Hospitality and Prayer
August 31, 2003
As I think more deeply lately about hospitality and as I ask myself whether or not I actually am a hospitable person, I see my desire, I see my dreams of openness, my excitement at living with Mike and Teri who share a vision for hospitality, I see the set aside room and extra place settings at the table. I simultaneously see my annoyance at disruptions, my flinching when the doorbell or phone rings, my selectivity in friendship and my possessiveness of time. Why this disconnect? How do my desires and dreams become more the reality? How do I, how do we, foster a spirit of welcome? A spirit of welcome deep in our individual hearts, at our dinner tables, and in our life together?
As we continue to inch open the doors of our hearts and our homes, we can’t help but notice what Henri Nouwen calls “the continuous state of emergency.” Our world believes itself to be and in many ways is in a continuous state of emergency. The needs are deep, the needs are immediate and if seen in the collective, the needs are overwhelming. Even if we close the doors all together, the state of emergency is still there. We may manage to ignore it by “out of sight out of mind,” but somewhere in the back of our minds we know it’s there.
But these last few months as we’ve studied, discussed and practiced both prayer and hospitality, I’ve been quite inspired and re-energized for the work and mission of the church.
Hospitality and prayer. How are they related? What would it look like to be both a prayerful and a hospitable people? What do they have to say to the “emergency” oriented world we live in? Both prayer and hospitality are concrete outworkings of the greatest commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.
There is an interesting phrase in Psalm 63 that reads “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard.” “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard.” I kind of wonder if this call to love God and love neighbor can be seen like that: one word spoken by God and heard as two separate things to our ears, hearts and lives. Loving God by loving neighbor; loving neighbor by loving God. Or in the language we are currently considering, prayer as hospitality and hospitality as prayer.
Both prayer and hospitality are open-handed activities.
Welcome is vulnerable. A hug allows in an embrace. Even a handshake requires an open hand. When you let someone into your home, you are extending trust whether it’s deserved or not. Something happens differently when someone walks over the threshold of your front door. There are levels of welcome and invitation, and the deeper allowed in, the more vulnerable.
Welcome in prayer and solitude can feel like the safest form of welcome because it is God you are letting in. These are the safest arms to be held in, no doubt. Paul invites us to extend that welcome to God at all times. He urges us to “pray without ceasing.” Nouwen argues that it’s not a call to the impossible task of engaging in formal prayer where are thoughts are focused exclusively on God in praise and worship, it’s more a welcoming of God into the ongoing monologue we are having with ourselves throughout the day, into our daydreams and mental wanderlust, our conversations with others. That God become a welcomed participant in all our mental and verbal meanderings in the day. Even to sit down with us to watch a movie or to surf the web.
Equally as important is the setting aside of time for prayer in solitude. This kind of prayer is like a date night with God. Special, set aside time for him alone. There’s something difficult about communicating why this is so important. Instead of the invitation to spend time alone with God in prayer and silence, it ends up sounding like an obligation. But it’s more about falling in love than about following rules. When one falls in love, no one needs to tell the couple to spend time together. But it’s also true that people fall in love BY spending time together.
But for many of us we may be way past the honeymoon stage in our relationship with Jesus, and now the setting aside of time is hard, the silence is deafening. But the good news is that Jesus is never done wooing us, never tired of the relationship, never eager to move on. He longs for our attention, affection, stories, worries, hopes, dreams, disappointments, bests and worsts of the day. I know the analogy of lover doesn’t work for everyone, but the truth is we are his bride, both me and we. To shift the analogy, he’s our loving father eager to hold us in his lap and hear about our day, share what’s in store, urge us on or just to hold us in silence until we rest in his peace. Being alone with God should not just be busyness with God instead of busyness with the world, as Nouwen says. At times it’s a place of uselessness that reminds us that it is God, not us, who ultimately feeds the hungry, comforts the lonely, heals the broken, welcomes the stranger.
With the discipline of prayer, when Jesus becomes more and more welcomed into the conversation of our thoughts, when time is set aside for openness to God in prayer and solitude, I believe we’ll feel freer to answer the doorbell, freer to be hospitable in heart and fact. We all know that the doorbell represents a decision-making moment for us these days. In guilt some of us feel like it’s a decision between hospitality and selfishness.
But maybe it’s more a decision between prayerful hospitality or hospitable prayer. Either way the door may be opened and either way the door may need to remain closed.
Hospitality and prayer is not a delicate balance, it’s not a moment by moment discernment, an either / or. Both are part of the ongoing conversation with God. “Lord, I don’t want to go to the door. But do you want me to?” “That’s ok, it’s not about you fixing anyone anyway.” “Lord, I gotta answer the door.” “No you don’t; I’m the giver of life.” “Lord, should I open the door?” “Yes, I’m going to show you another picture of my face this morning.” Sometimes there’s no answer. Sometimes it’s clear; sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes he leaves it to us.
When people consider the work of the Sisters of Charity with the dying on the streets of Calcutta, there are generally two responses: I could never do that and they aren’t doing enough. But interestingly the whole world has noticed this work of useless hospitality. In their daily rhythm of prayer and hospitality, the gospel is being shared in an ongoing street theatre.
The other day the doorbell rang. A kairos moment. Pause. Deep breath. Open the door. Much to my surprise, there was the mailman with a very large package for me.
Openhandedness in hospitality leaves space to receive as well as to give. Sometimes we’re so quick to have something to give, to get it over with, that our hands are full and we miss the way that God wants to give to us. Or we keep the door closed missing the package that was waiting to be given to us.
I wonder if open handed welcome, empty handed welcome isn’t the metaphor for both prayer and hospitality. Openhandedness makes us welcoming to God and others in our prayer and prayerful in our hospitality. I believe openhandedness would make the distinction between the two less stark and more fluid, although at times they will take on very different forms, even throughout one particular day. There’s no recipe here, but discipline is required, or as Kyle Childress says, it takes “practice, practice, practice.” The natural posture of an upturned hand relaxed tends towards a fist. There is actually effort required for it to be opened. There is effort required to be openhanded towards God and to be openhanded towards others. It takes intentionality and date nights to nurture intimacy and ongoing dialogue with God, to learn when he wants you to respond to a need or a cry and when he wants you to step aside and remember it is he who wipes every tear and heals every wound.
Our lives, in the spirit of the greatest commandment, are an openhanded prayer to God and conversation with God. At times it includes other people; at times it excludes other people. But it’s always welcoming.
Several years ago during a burnout time, I took a personal retreat to the Redwoods Monastery. I needed to be “away” from life here at Sojourners. The nuns there pray together five times a day and one includes a 45 minute (I believe) time of silence. I was so grateful for the peace. “Away from” is what I desired in being there. I’m sure we’ve all felt that.
But I felt compelled during those times of silence before God to intercede on behalf of my brothers and sisters back home. As Nouwen phrased it, “I brought them into my solitude.” It helped break down the wall between “with” and “away.” When I returned, I brought with me, at least for a while, the peace of my communion with God into my relationships, because, I believe, I had brought my relationships with me into my communion with God.
Yes, it’s true that our world is in a constant state of emergency, but Jesus didn’t enter our world in an emergency room fashion. His unfolding of the rescue plan came 33 years after his arrival on the scene. Yes, at times he responded immediately to crises by healing or feeding or raising from the dead. Yes, his Sabbath time was interrupted by rescuing the sheep that had fallen into a well. Yes, his plan was a big and glorious one – the salvation of the whole world. But the life of Jesus was a lifelong conversation with his Father, a conversation that made it clear to him that Satan’s offer of quick and easy Lordship was mere temptation, a conversation that freed him to walk away from the crowds to solitude and to walk away from solitude back into the crowds, a conversation that showed him how to honor the Sabbath and to honor the exception, a conversation that allowed him to welcome the costly perfume that anointed him for his burial and did not go to the poor that day, a conversation that showed him how to embrace his father’s will in the midst of his desperate plea for mercy in the garden, and ultimately a conversation that led him to bring the very salvation of the world through the absurd and completely useless act of dying.
As you welcome a guest in your home, remember to pray for them and invite them to join into your daily household prayers and Sunday Sabbath times. You are inviting them into the ongoing conversation with Jesus and welcoming them to spend time with the true host in your home. Also, say “yes” yourself to Jesus’ invitation to spend one-on-one time with him, even when it sounds more like you are saying “no” to someone else’s request or your own preference. Honor your guests, your friend, the stranger, your Lord by ignoring the phone, or ignoring the dirty dish or the T.V. and really giving them the welcome of your heart in that moment. On the other hand, answer the phone, wash the dish, make up the bed, set an extra place-setting. Welcome both Jesus and neighbor in the form of the last minute interruption. Again, there is no recipe here. Ignore Matha’s running around and stay with Mary at Jesus’ feet. Learn from him. Make mistakes. Go back to him again. Walk with him through the day. Ask him to point out his way and direction. Share your hopes, dreams, sins, frustrations. Listen, talk, share, and most of all “welcome.”