The Hospitable God
On the window ledge above our sink, leaning against a tiny beeswax candle, is a notecard on which is written some notes I scrawled down during a weekend retreat at Laity Lodge many years ago. The guest lecturer that week was Duke theology professor, Norman Wirzba. You may know Wirzba from his books Food & Faith or The Living Sabbath, or you may not know him at all. He is the sort of writer who spends more time on his craft than on the selling of his craft. His newest book, This Sacred Life, a Christmas gift from Nate, is sitting on another window ledge near me, waiting until I finish Eula Bliss’s Having and Being Had. The quote above the sink is not a direct one from one of his books, but has elements of all of them, in particular Way of Love—which, if a theological tome is not your cup of tea, you might start reading there.
The tiny letters on the tiny notecard read like this:
H O S P I T A L I T Y
Making room for the other.
Welcoming the other into your life.
Nurturing the life of the other.
Liberating the other into their life.
Those words have spent the last five years making their home in my heart. As we opened our doors to friends in our small group or for premarital counseling or to fill our two extra bedrooms or to simply sit on our couch to cry or pray, those words would prepare my heart for the work of hospitality. I love beauty and will never turn down the chance to set a beautiful meal, well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing, before another human. But at the heart of hospitality is not visual beauty but spiritual beauty. These reminders from Wirzba have become that for me: a beautiful spiritual truth of how to practice the Jesus-way in hospitality. Namely, it’s not about how I feel about opening our doors, it’s about what the other knows as they leave our doors.
I could write copious words about this (though why would I when Wirzba already has and so you should read him, not me), but what I have never thought much of until recent months is that in order to do any of the above, one has fully enter into that same hospitality offered by Jesus for themselves. This should not shock me and yet it does. Every single time I’ve caught an upward glance at that notecard the last two months, I think to myself: How do I see the Spirit practicing this with me?
Last year’s most read article in the NY Times was “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” The piece made the rounds thousands of times and it was the shot heard round the collectively sad world. We finally had a word for this general malaise we all shared: languishing. Whenever anyone would ask me how I was doing after that, the word came to mind whether I used it or not and we commiserated together. Naming is power and sharing that power with our neighbors is even more powerful. Fortunately for us, the NY Times gave us something to do with all that newly discovered pent up power: “The Other Side of Languishing is Flourishing. Here’s How to Get There,” followed by “seven simple steps to get you thriving again.”
Who knew it would be so simple? Seven easy steps to stop feeling like a beached whale on a deserted arctic island in the middle of the coldest winter in a thousand years? Sign me up.
. . .
Before I stepped over the threshold into my forties, here were the things I thought would be difficult about my second half of life: aging, menopause, childlessness. I believed the most difficult things would be my changing body and our unchanging family.
What I did not expect to be so difficult in my forties was friendships. I have always made friends easily and found them even more easily. I tend to hold my cards close and take a bit of time to warm up to others enough to share my own vulnerability, but making space for theirs has hardly ever been difficult for me. But turning 40 in the Year of The Pandemic after a cross-country move in a fraught political climate without the mixed blessings of playdates and parental commiseration has been a gutting realization that friendships do not come easily any longer. I’m afraid to mention most of what I care about to new friends—and even some of our olds ones—because even deep friendships have broken over less in recent years. I don’t know if that’s what languishing looks like for you, but that’s what it’s looked like for me.
It’s felt like holding my breath for two whole years.
Over the past few months, I’ve been asking myself one fairly simple question: What do you want to do?
It seems that somewhere along the way, whether in my attempt to show hospitality to others or desire to build friendships or fear of languishing, I didn’t only stop doing what I wanted to do, I became almost afraid of it. Maybe that sounds silly to many of you, especially those of you more given to indulgence than asceticism, but that’s my struggle. I choose complete inertia over movement toward joy or despair. To feel one or the other feels dangerous to me, as though to dip my toe in either is to give myself over to it entirely.
What I am learning, though, is that I have not entered into the hospitality of Jesus toward me. I have not stepped into the room he has made for me, allowed myself to feel the welcome of being in his abundant life, let myself be nurtured by him, and then released into living the life he has for me, even if it is a different life than the one he has for another.
Sometimes Jesus welcomes me to despair because he knows I will find my only good in him. Sometimes he welcomes me to joy because he knows he is its only source. Sometimes he nurtures me in one friendship and not another. Sometimes he releases me into something someone else would never choose for themselves. Sometimes he withholds what I would choose for myself because he has something different, not necessarily better, but just different.
What does it mean to liberated into my life? This life? Not the life I would have chosen for myself fifteen or twenty years ago, or even five or two years ago? What does it mean to stand in the way of his joy for me today, not the joy I once wished it would be or might wish again for it to be? What does it mean to bring all my sadness to him, even the sadness I can barely give words to? What does it mean that what feels like languishing to me is merely more space for companionship with him?
In my pre-pandemic, pre-cross-country move, pre-fraught-election year self, our door was always open and the sound of people at our table was common. I always cooked more than enough and our candles burned down low often. I miss those days. I’m not complaining. I’m simply stating the fact of what is. But in these days, whenever I glance at that notecard, I think of Jesus doing that for me and it helps. It helps.