Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Faith Works 12-9-06
Jeff Gill

Hospitality is Hard Work

Most religious traditions see hospitality as a gift, a talent that noteveryone has.

Martha and Mary had it between them in the Christian Gospels. Islam hasa strong tradition going back to Abraham and Bedouin culture ofwelcoming the guest, even the stranger. Judaism sets out an empty chairfor Elijah if he makes it to the Passover meal with your family, but theunexpected guest has a claim on that seat.

Certainly the season of Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem, aplace where they have family history, but no living roots, makes usthink about the ones who have no place to stay in our own community,wherever they come from and wherever they are journeying. The Letter tothe Hebrews hints that "some have entertained angels unawares," and thatspirit is lively among Christians and many others that sees thesojourner as a vehicle for God's grace.

Not necessarily for them, but for us. Being a "pilgrim people" has atheme familiar to most faith traditions, but generally those who aredispossessed and lost in this world's deserts are victims of sin andbrokenness. God does not want anyone to be lost, but we have a chance toembody God's love in the encounter with those who are cast aside.

How do we react? Do we turn aside, sneer in contempt, snarl in anger atthese reminders of how fragile comfort and security are, let alone life?Wanting to turn away from the indigent and homeless isn't surprising,seeing how we tend to make use of nursing homes and hospitals to keepage and illness on the edge of life and at least a long corridor orelevator ride away from everyday life.

Or do we see our brother and sister in those folk, and try to find a wayto help without enabling, assist without condescending? Like our ownpossible sibling, who needs a little help, but just like that brother orcousin or grandchild (you've got one, I know) they don't really want tolisten to advice or guidance right off from you, you who have "gottenall the breaks." When family members don't graciously accept help, youcan imagine the task of helping, caring, assisting, has a ragged side toit.

Hospitality is a gift. Not everyone has it, nor every community. Somepeople can take a can of mushroom soup and the bottom of the wilteddrawer in the fridge and make a houseful feel at home without fuss, andsome of us can't make guests feel comfortable even with a caterer tohelp.

Our town now has dredged up a little reputation, desirable to some, ofbeing inhospitable. We've become too welcoming, is the observation, witha reaction trotting through the legislative process right now.

Many of you know I have some horses in this derby, and know which whitehorse I'd rather ride on. But my Boss rides a donkey, and reminds me,especially this time of year, that it isn't about winning or losing.(See also Ephesians 6:12.)

What does seem worth pointing out, in the context of this column, is aradical observation that I hope you'll reflect on. I mean this calmly,but with absolute grim concern. If we start legislating undesireables around the mapboard in the Game ofLife, then churches are next.

Right before I moved to Licking County in 1989, I worked with a newchurch start effort outside of Indianapolis. The denomination bought,market price, a useful intersection's worth of acres, and filed with thetownship for the permits to build a place of worship.

It took fifteen months of negotiations to get the permits, and only atthe cost of promising not to give out any food, host foster care agencyprograms, or offer any feeding programs of any sort at all, even forsenior citizens. Oh, and no weekday child care.Some of us started to wonder if we really wanted to build a church underall those restrictions. At least we got permission for a preschool inthe end.

That trend, which was news to me in 1989, is now quite widespread. Usezoning and other legal devices to make sure that churches only do whatthe secular world thinks they're supposed to do, which is do your sillylittle worship thing on Sunday, have choir practice during the week, gohome, shut up, and pay taxes.

So when I say - Churches are next - I really mean it. If you can't stopus religious people from feeding and housing and rehabilitating andtraining and 12-stepping and educating people who don't quite lookright, why not zone them out to the city's edge?

Wait, they're trying that one in Texas and California.

Or we can just go along with the idea that we're just for Sunday and anhour (or two, for the charismatics), and keep the doors shut for theweek.But what's to be done with those who have the gift of hospitality? Guess they'll have to learn to keep that light under a bushel, too.

I'll try to be more cheerful next week approaching Christmas. Maybe. But remember: Churches are next.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around centralOhio; he's also the current board president for the Licking CountyCoalition for Housing (donations can be made at him what you want for Christmas at