Yep — here we go again… the royal “we”, in this case, picking up pen and paper (keyboard and screen, if you prefer) and giving the brain some space to process whatever clutter is there.
Last year on Memorial Day, I was taking some final pictures of our home in Illinois. Ordinary Spouse and the girls had already moved to Laurelville. I had one more week of work at Argonne before following them. This was the final picture of our house:
The Plainfield Patch reports that the home was occupied by a family of eight, and that everyone (including the family dog) got out safely, so that is good news. (I don’t have any additional information on the family. We sold the house to a corporation which rented it out.) There are some additional pictures, all taken by contributors to Plainfield Patch.
Ordinary Spouse and I have some mixed emotions. We really weren’t too upset in general, but we were slightly stunned, saddened by some small things*, and very thankful that we sold the house, rather than becoming landlords.
* We put a fair amount of time into painting the outside, installing hardwood floors in our living room, and tending the flower beds. Those things came to mind when we saw the pictures.
What a difference a year makes, yes?
My congregation, Scottdale Mennonite Church, is participating in The Twelve Scriptures Project, part of an effort by Mennonite Church USA to encourage christian formation within the denomination. Participating congregations are reflecting on biblical stories and scriptures that have been influential, individually or corporately. When our pastor asked me if whether I had a scripture to share, I didn’t even need time to think. I chose Matthew 25.31-46.
This morning, I shared the sermon at our congregation, and my family transferred our membership from Lombard Mennonite Church to our new church home. (Quite the day!) Here are my words from this morning.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of an invitation she received to preach at a church in Alabama. She asked the priest,
What do you want me to talk about?
“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” he answered. It was as if he had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to do was figure out how I stayed as close to that reality as I could, and then find some way to talk about it that helped my listeners figure out those same things for themselves.
I find it somewhat surprising how much I’ve looked forward to sharing this morning. I think I’ve experienced something like what she describes. Our congregation is in the process of reflecting on scriptures that have been formational or meaningful in our lives. When Conrad asked if I had a scripture to share, it was as if he had said, “Come tell us what is saving your life now. What does your life depend on?” Answering that question this morning will be, I hope, like sharing good news. I hope you will be encouraged, and I invite you to also reflect on scriptures that are meaningful in your own life or meaningful to our congregation as a whole.
The other reason I’m glad to share this morning is that Laurie and I are asking to transfer our membership today from Lombard Mennonite Church in Illinois to Scottdale. I figure you should know something about me before that happens…
Let me begin, just briefly, by saying what I won’t be discussing this morning. As you heard, I’ve chosen the story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. When I was younger, the aspects of this story that deal with judgment concerned me. I worried about heaven and hell, and whether I was a sheep or a goat. And though that isn’t the case now, and though that might be an interesting discussion (why do I not worry anymore), we’ll leave that for another time. Ok – with that out of the way…
For nearly all my life, I anticipated a career in science. Those of you who know my father won’t be surprised by this. He was a biology professor from the time he left school until he retired a few years ago. And I expected that I would follow a similar path. After finishing school in 2002, I began working in X-ray science, doing exactly what I was trained to do. It was work I liked; it was work that I did well.
But a couple of things, related to each other, were haunting me, slowly pushing me in a new direction and eventually leading to our move to Laurelville one year ago.
The first was the sense that my career and my faith just weren’t communicating with each other. Now I’ve been asked whether I felt conflicted working at a U.S. government lab. The answer is ‘no’. Not really. I wasn’t doing weapons research or anything like that. The things I worked on were mostly connected to biology and medicine and had useful, beneficial end results. No – my faith and career weren’t in opposition to each other; they just didn’t interact much at all.
I describe it this way…
Every morning, the “gate” on my home – really the garage door, but we’ll call it a ‘gate’ for the sake of the story – the gate went up, I spent twenty minutes on the interstate, I exited the interstate, and drove through another gate – the gate of the laboratory where I worked. In the evenings, I made the journey in reverse. It was all very clean and sterile, living life in these two “gated” communities. All I ever saw was white, suburban, middle-class America. It was as if nothing else existed. I didn’t think that my life looked much different from the lives of my colleagues; and I couldn’t see that my life reflected a commitment to being a disciple of Jesus.
Throughout that time of searching and longing for something more, some coherence, something that would tie the loose ends together, I compared myself to my father. Why was he comfortable with his career? How was he able to make the connection between science and faith? He spent forty years in science. Why was I having such difficulties? I quote Barbara Brown Taylor again…
No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those [who are] wise about the spiritual life suggests the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.
I was fully familiar with her thoughts before we left Illinois. Should I have continued my searching there? I think it’s a valid question, but I don’t know that I’ll ever have an answer. I just get to live with the question.
The other thing that has shaped my life in the last number of years is doubt. Perhaps it’s the analytical side of my brain; maybe it’s the post-modern generation I’m a part of; I’m sure it has a little bit to do with the theological question of pain (why does a good God allow bad things) – whatever it is, doubt is an ever-present part of faith for me. This doesn’t bother me – not any more. I’m comfortable with the mixture of the two. But it does form the ways I experience God. I’m drawn to the prophets wrestling with God; I find comfort in the story of Job who asks question after question – and all he gets are questions in return. I’m inspired (and not discouraged) when I hear about the struggles of a person like Mother Teresa, who experienced a “dark night” for more than half her life.
We often think of our relationship with God as a vertical encounter. We meet God in prayer or in worship. And although that is true for me, as well, the connection is fuzzy. Do I hear God? Or do I just hear the blood rushing in my ears? How shall I find God? Where do I seek?
Let’s return to this morning’s scripture. Jesus says to the people on his right, “I was hungry; you gave me food. I was thirsty; you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger; you welcomed me. I was naked; I was sick; I was in prison. You took care of me.” And the people at Jesus’ right hand are saying, “When did we see you?” I can imagine myself in their position. Maybe they’re frustrated. Some of them are thinking that there has been a mistake “When? When did we see you? We looked and looked. We prayed; we never heard you…” “My friends – just as you did these things for my family, you have done them for me.”
The service to Jesus that is described here – these acts of hospitality – this is what I learned at Laurelville when I worked here 20 years ago. In the midst of my faith and doubt, this is how I still most fully experience God – in the midst of these horizontal relationships with others. This is why I chose Matthew 25 as this morning’s scripture, and this is why we moved here last year.
Ok – that’s enough about my story. Let’s talk about hospitality.
Luke records the story of two folks walking along a road one evening, trying to understand the senseless killing of their teacher at the hands of those in power. A stranger walks up, asks what they’re talking about, and they respond with incredulity. “Haven’t you heard about Jesus?”
Well – you probably know the story. Evidently, the stranger had heard about Jesus, because he explains to them how things really are. The two people reach their destination, and the stranger is going to go on. But it’s getting dark, and the roads aren’t safe, and they insist that he come in and stay for the night because that’s the hospitable thing to do. The stranger accepts their offer.
They sit down to the evening meal; they ask their wise guest to say the blessing; and their eyes are opened to Jesus sitting with them. And then he’s gone.
Now tell me – who is the guest in this story? And who is the host? Who is in need? Who provides for those needs? Hospitality creates a safe space where guests may enter and be authentically themselves, and in that space to encounter and be transformed by God. True hospitality allows for this role reversal. When we welcome the stranger among us, do we create the space where this role reversal can happen? Are we willing to yield to the guest, and are we willing to receive, instead of being the one who gives?
Speaking of receiving, instead of giving – our culture privileges independence and self-sufficiency. Disciples of Jesus, however, need to acknowledge our weaknesses and our interdependence on one another. We cannot extend hospitality, we cannot be good hosts, without also being good guests.
Imagine this scene – I’m sure you’ve witnessed it. One person offers something to another person. It could be a gift, some food, some money, some time… And the second person says, “No – it’s too much. Too much of hassle. Too generous. Too… whatever. I couldn’t accept it.”
Yes. Yes you could. And I could. We could receive humbly, graciously, thankfully. You can be the guest – acknowledging that we are all strangers, sojourners in this life, as the writer of Hebrews tells us.
It has been helpful for me to remember this during the past year – to remember that we are all strangers. The question I try to ask each day – some days with more success than others – is, “What will Jesus look like today?” Many days it is obvious to me. Guests are constantly arriving at Laurelville, and it’s usually a joy to extend hospitality to them. Even when it’s not, I find that I’m transformed by the encounter, if I’m open and receptive to the possibility of encountering Jesus in these strangers.
But some days Jesus shows up in the faces of those I work with or live with. And to be honest, those encounters may be more joyful, or they may be more difficult. What does it mean for me to extend hospitality to my co-worker, or my wife, or one of my children? Am I sensitive to their needs? Am I receptive to the gifts they bring?
And what if look in the mirror and find that the person looking back is a stranger? What if I don’t like what I see? Are we hospitable to ourselves? What would that hospitality look like?
Laurie suggested to me that hospitality to ourselves and to those closest to us might come in the form of time. I think this is right. For ourselves, we honor the Sabbath. We rest. For others, we set aside our distractions and invest in their lives.
You know – our time, our lives are limited. In some sense, we are always dying. When we extend hospitality, we die to ourselves. Our life is given away, given as an offering, an offering to Jesus, who comes to us as the stranger.
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, my sisters or brothers, you did it to me.
The Ordinary Family has another major change coming! My frequent blog readers know that hospitality is an important part of my faith. It is one of the things that brought our family to Laurelville. Well – a new opportunity to learn and practice hospitality has opened up. Even though we have only been at Laurelville for a year, we have decided to make another transition.
I’m excited to announce that beginning in May, the Ordinary Family will be moving to Seattle, and I’ll be a barista at Starbucks!
My time at Laurelville has prepared me for this important work. I’ll have Jesus’ words in mind as I interact with the “least of these”, offering them a warm welcome and a grande, nonfat, no whip, extra hot, salted caramel mocha:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
– Matthew 25.35 (NRSV)
And by living and working so close to Starbucks’ HQ, I’ll be able to learn from some of the best.
Coffee and scones. Community and hospitality. Starbucks and Anabaptists. Peas in a pod, don’t you think?
Stay tuned for many blog updates from “Hospitality Central”!
The National Aviary is America’s only independent indoor nonprofit zoo dedicated exclusively to birds. Located in West Park on Pittsburgh’s historic North Side, the National Aviary’s diverse collection comprises more than 600 birds representing more than 200 species from around the world, many of them threatened or endangered in the wild.
When the ordinary family moved from Illinois, we lamented moving away from the Morton Arboretum, especially since we had just renewed our membership for two years. But members enjoy reciprocal privileges from other gardens around the United States – among them, the National Aviary. Yesterday, the Rainbow House of Learning took a field trip to the aviary.
What a wonderful trip for a bunch of bird lovers: five hours of exhibits, shows and bird feedings! I took nearly 250 photos, but you don’t have to see them all…
These birds greeted us when we arrived (and sent us on our way at the end of the day).
After the flamingo story time, we visited the wetlands exhibit for the show at feeding time. (We enjoyed the show so much that we went again in the afternoon.) As part of the show, visitors are invited to help feed the birds – a big highlight. Some of the birds of the wetlands…
We had the chance to see another feeding in the rainforest exhibit, although I missed most of it. (More on that later.) But again, beautiful birds were plentiful.
I was especially excited to see the fairy bluebird. Of the non-North American birds, it’s the only one that I’ve seen in its native environment.
The girls looked forward to our visit to the lorikeet exhibit, knowing that they’d have a chance to feed these pretty birds.
I just got distracted by the roll of toilet paper.
Is spring in the air?
In the rainforest and then again in the wetlands, we encountered some birds that were feeling rather… um… “frisky”. First, the male Great Argus wanted to demonstrate to the female just how great he was…
I took this little video of the ongoing efforts of the male to impress the female. In the process, I missed the feeding of the rest of the rainforest birds (you can hear that in the background).
Toward the end of the video, you can hear a woman say to her daughter…
You know what that bird’s doing? It’s showing off. It’s saying, “Look how beautiful I am. Don’t you want to be my friend?”
I’d have to say that he wants to be “more than friends”.
Later on in the wetlands, the wattled curassow started doing the same thing. We liked the wattled curassow, because he provided some fun pictures.
And then some fun video…
The birds gifted me with good luck…
I made a new friend. I tried to get his picture while he was on my shoulder, but Ordinary Spouse got a better one…
Of course, when you take 250 photos, you’re going to get some duds. At the aviary, many of them happened when I tried to capture images of feeding birds in flight…
There was a negative review on Google+ complaining that the aviary was “gross” and had a “predictable smell”, to which I respond, “Get outside much? Ah – no. You have a coat and tie.” My review would be very enthusiastically positive.
Finally, what makes this the “National” Aviary? It is the largest aviary in the country and was given the “National” designation by congress in 1993. Although the designation doesn’t come with any funding, it does make fund-raising easier. (The effort to become the National Aviary was modeled on Baltimore’s successful campaign to have their aquarium recognized in a similar fashion more than a decade earlier.)
- Keel-billed toucan
- American flamingo
- Steller’s sea eagle
- Bald eagle
- Hadada ibis
- White-tailed trogon
- Blue-bellied roller
- Roseate spoonbill
- Brown pelican
- Golden conure
- Wattled curassow
- Hyacinth macaw
- Great Argus
- Fairy bluebird
- Victoria crowned pigeon
- Common grackle
- Inca tern
Throughout this year, I’ve been reflecting on how I experience the practices Barbara Brown Taylor outlines in her book, An Altar in the World. Since my family moved to Laurelville in May, this has felt very natural to me. It’s easy to forget that I chose the book for my family’s book club before our new life at Laurelville was even on the radar screen.
In chapter five, Taylor describes the practice of being disoriented or getting lost… or (if one takes the idea to the extreme) failing. She asserts…
Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure.
There were a quite a few points of connection for me in this chapter. I immediately recalled how my father and I enjoy hopping in his truck and trying to get lost. We grab a Gazetteer and set off to explore new roads…
We still tell the story of the wrong turn – the downhill gravel road, that turned to a dirt road, that gradually became too washed out and narrow to continue on. We didn’t have room to turn around, so we had to back up. But in the process, we managed to poke a stick into the side of one of the tires. Luckily, we had a spare. Too bad one of the bolts was rusted tight. Luckily, we were able to shear it off. Too bad we were out of gas. Luckily we could make it to the nearest station on fumes. Too bad the owner only accepted cash. Luckily Dad had $2. We eventually made it home.
Taylor also relates how a medical emergency can be a type of “getting lost” – a time when you have to rely on someone else to provide your care. In that regard, I recall my two DVT hospitalizations. Like Taylor, I always felt safe and loved. Maybe it was divine; maybe it was youthful delusions of invulnerability. Whatever it was, it continues to shape me.
Perhaps the most tangible example of “lost” in my mind now is our move to Laurelville. It is not entirely clear to me: Was I lost in Chicago suburbs, trying to fit into a life that didn’t quite work out for me? Or is this new life in the Laurel Highlands an attempt to get lost, to break out of an area of comfort? I don’t know the answer to this, but I value the sense of being “vulnerable to this moment”, as the book describes it.
Sometimes I get so wrapped up in Taylor’s stories that I have trouble explaining the bigger picture. While I might agree that a certain practice is valuable, I’ll have trouble saying why. So I’ve been reflecting a bit on “getting lost”…
I’ve already mentioned the idea of being “vulnerable to [the] moment”. While it isn’t quite the same as valuing the moment, it is a step in that direction. Learning to value time and place is an (the?) underlying theme of the entire book.
“Getting lost” also reminds us that we aren’t in charge here. We aren’t God. A healthy dose of humility is a good thing.
And “getting lost” helps orient us throughout life. Hebrews 11 talks about lost people in this way…
They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
We can (and will) debate what a “heavenly country” might look like, but it is clear that there is searching to be done. The practice of getting lost reminds us of this.
One final thought: “lost” may be a matter of perspective. A recent post by Trevor Scott Barton in the God’s Politics blog touched on this:
Human eccentrics move in a seemingly aimless way… Their movements make them seem like wanderers to other human beings with finite views. They don’t wander aimlessly, though. They revolve around a different center.
And in the Beatitudes, Jesus demonstrates that things in the Kingdom of Heaven are not judged in the usual way:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Go get yourself lost.