Hospitality and the Social Gospel

The last few post I’ve written have been building a path towards understanding what kind of people we must be for renewal to be a reality in the Western church. I want to remind us of the two borders that are holding the contents of our trail: peaceableness and justice. These are the foundational elements that help us structure our path so that it isn’t just a bunch of loose gravel being laid down with no purpose or order. With those as our outside borders, we can continue unpacking the contents that help make up the rock we are laying to complete our path, which has led us to the virtue of hospitality.

When some of us think of hospitality, the phrase “entertaining angels” comes to mind. Believe it or not, this idiom comes from the Bible. The book entitled Hebrews in the Bible says this in chapter 13, verse 2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Entertaining angels, hospitality, can refer to the practice of treating all guests, whether they’re sojourners, kings, or common folk, as if they were visiting angels.

There is a movie that was made about Dorothy Day in 1996 called “Entertaining Angels.” Day was a Catholic social activist starting in the early 1930’s, and was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which began by Day (also a journalist) starting a newspaper called Catholic Worker. In the first issue, it was clear that the Catholic Workers chief aim was to get the word out that the Catholic church was there to help those who have suffered the most in the heart of the Great Depression. A famous line from the first issue by Day says this: “…the Catholic Church has a social program… there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.”

This movement has been tagged in a negative way as a “social gospel,” meaning that they were “Christians” wanting to help the suffering without caring for their souls (sharing the gospel with them). I am not going to get into the theology of that argument for now, but I do want to use this analogy to build a case for hospitality.

When people seek to care socially for a stranger who is weak, suffering, poor, hungry, sick, or in some other kind of great need, we ought to be slow to write them off as merely activists with no care for souls. Scripture has many calls for hospitality that has been neglected by a vast majority of Christians who are too worried about being labeled a “social-gospel Christian.” May we be reminded briefly of our biblical call to social action, and that the gospel is thoroughly social and spiritual at the same time:

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” Hebrews 13:3.

“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” Galatians 2:10.

“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” Romans 12:13.

“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” 1 Peter 4:9.

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” Matthew 25:37-40.

We could go on and speak of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, the rich man giving all he has to the poor, and on and on. Entertaining angels, hospitality, is meeting physical needs. When you see a stranger, welcome her in; clothe him, feed her, help them find shelter. Many people take this call to hospitality and put their own spin on it, and they say, “I only help those who want help,” or “It’s not right helping someone if they are going to take advantage of the system,” or “I will only help them if they’re willing to listen to me preach the gospel to them.”

Let me be clear, the gospel is word ‘and’ deed. The gospel is never detached from doing justice ‘and’ preaching grace. If we are to help a stranger, we do not have to try and cram the gospel into their brains, for the gospel is also seen and heard in our deeds.

As far as the concern of giving to those who deserve it, Jesus is clear that we are to give to strangers often, even before we learn if they are “worthy” of our help. This passage from Matthew 25 is clear that it’s the stranger that we are called to be hospitable to, because Christ is present in the un-welcomed “alien” and the naked stranger.

But still, hospitality is a very controversial endeavor. How far do we go to help the stranger? When does the stranger stop being a stranger and become someone who is known? After the first time you help them? Second time? What makes a stranger “worthy” of our help? Is there a litmus test to find out? Does giving to someone who is not “worthy” of help make someone a social-gospelist, on the verge of breaking down the Capitalistic structure of our nation? Many Christians don’t agree on what hospitality is, even though Scripture, throughout the Old and the New Testament is very clear.

I didn’t site any Old Testament references above, but it is filled with commands for Israel to display the heart and character of God through being especially hospitable to widows, orphans, and aliens. In the New Testament, Jesus modeled hospitality to a ragamuffin band of social outcasts, spiritual rejects, and political losers. Jesus showed hospitality to all of us by entering into our vulnerability and suffering and giving us an invitation to feast at his table. He, a God who knows us, came close to us in our despair, and made Himself knowable, touchable, and shared His resources when we were totally unworthy candidates, who selfishly took advantage of the system.

The late Henri Nouwen says that hospitality is welcoming the stranger and allowing him to “lay aside his strangeness and become a friend… That’s what true hospitality is all about, to offer a safe place, where the stranger can become a friend.” Reaching Out, 66.

Hospitality allows one to belong before they believe or behave properly. In our religious systems we often require right belief and behavior before someone is ‘allowed’ to belong. This is not God’s idea, but man’s. When we were strangers and alienated from God, Christ came near and was hospitable to us. Before we believed in Him or behaved properly, He showed us that we belong with Him. God created space for us to belong with Him; that’s divine hospitality, and church renewal depends, in part, on the hospitality of the citizens of heaven. Belonging precedes “right” belief or “proper” behavior.

We need more Catholic Worker type movements within our churches. We need more Dorothy Day’s willing to be persecuted and called social-gospelists because they are passionate about being hospitable to those suffering, even unworthy sufferers, or maybe angels who are looking to be entertained.

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The Foolishness of Compassion

When many of us hear the word compassion we are filled with good feelings and thoughts of love and joy by the mention of it. We like to think of ourselves as compassionate people, after all who wouldn’t have compassion on a “poor” old man whose body has broken down, a malnourished child, a woman who has been sold into sex slavery, or a family on the streets.

The problem we have here is a semantic one. What Western Christianity understands compassion to be and what it has always truly meant are worlds apart. Compassion isn’t the same as having sad feelings for someone’s situation, or thoughts of pity for those who are poor or oppressed. Those thoughts are just that; thoughts of pity. This is not compassion. For many of us, when real opportunities of com-passion present themselves, we are too gripped by fear of loss and pain, or frozen by feelings of not being able to do anything about the situation, so we often never enter into compassion.

At the root of the word compassion are two Latin words, pati (with) and cum (to suffer); meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion happens when love intentionally moves you into the suffering and brokenness of others; it is to allow your love to meet someone’s worst moment. “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts… to be weak with those who are weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.” Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, 3-4.

Feelings and thoughts of sadness and pity is not compassion, however, they can be the beginnings of us moving into compassion.

This is fully seen and realized in the New Testament account of Jesus’ final week before he was crucified. Many people call the week before the crucifixion, “Passion Week.” We learn in the gospel narratives that Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, the very place where he would suffer intentionally, where he would move into our place of sin and brokenness, so that we would receive the fruits of his compassion; light shining out “of the darkness”, offering a divine presence in the midst of our brokenness. Maybe we should call the Holy week, “Compassion Week,” since his suffered was for our sake.

Thus, compassion is not a natural human virtue as is sometimes understood to be. If compassion were to be seen as a front and center virtue of the Christ follower’s life, we might begin to question the fruitfulness of compassion because of the cost it would place on our lives. A society governed by compassion may very well be seen as a foolish and weak society, and indeed, Christ was seen as foolish and weak. Nationalistic movements among Christianity have historically not cared for the weak or foolish within their societies, and view the call “to suffer with” as a death wish that destroys healthy progress in society.

Many people may even say or think to themselves, “Our world will not survive if compassion is a chief virtue.” This thinking would be especially true in a society like ours today, where our greatest ideals are to maximize our satisfaction and limit the amount of loss and pain we experience. We see this is in our business ventures, in start-up ministries/churches, in the way we pick neighborhoods to live in, how we choose to raise our children, in the laws we legislate, etc.

This is not all bad. In fact, much good comes out of limiting loss and pain, but in the process of longing for a better society, we forget that there is still suffering, and those who are on the margins of society likely do not have the ability to choose differently. In our pursuit of our own “right” to happiness, we have lost sight of those who have been robbed of theirs. Thus, on this side of redemption, compassion is a necessary and central virtue among God’s people.

We would do well to turn our ears on to the moment Jesus calls us to compassion: “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” Luke 6:36. This, in the context of real compassion, is a daunting call to sacrifice. This is a call to renewal within a “Christian” system that seeks to protect number oneself or one’s nation as “first” priority. This is a call that we ought not take too lightly.

As Jesus has first died to offer us life within these decaying bodies, he is now our example and leader in sacrificial living. Salvation for the Christ follower is not merely a cognitive belief that places them in the security of the heavenly realms with no earthly commitment to good. Salvation is a call to a whole new way of being human; a call to living out the upside down economy of God’s kingdom on earth; a call to be willing to lose it all for the sake of God’s kingdom being realized and embraced by those who are in darkness; a call to be the liturgy of the church and not merely partaking in liturgical acts.

To the Christ follower, Jesus’ life is not the exception, but the norm. My prayer is that Christ followers would begin to take seriously the implications of the life of Jesus and allow God’s Spirit, who lives in his people, to move them into compassion, not for approval’s sake, but for obedience’s sake. After all, Christ, our savior and leader, learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), and we are not exempt from this learning method. The renewal of the Western Church is dependent on the compassion of Christ followers. No compassion, no true renewal.

“In a poem entitled ‘The Good Samaritan,’ Mark Littleton captures the essence of compassion”:

Compassion.
The stoop of a listening father.
The touch and wink of a passing nurse.
The gnarled fingers of a grandmother steadying a swing.
The clench of a surgeons teeth as he begins his cut.
The open hand and pocketbook of a traveling Samaritan.
The dew of heaven on dry lips.
Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Prediger and Walsh, 221.

The call to compassion, to suffer with others, is not a call to induce suffering in your life, but a call to courageously stand, sit, walk, or crawl with those whose lives are fragile, broken, in tragedy, emotionally distraught, hopeless, diseased… you get the point. Christ came to us in our death moment, we are called to presence ourselves to others in their death moments.

Slow Church and Church Growth: What is a Successful Church?

This thing called ‘our flesh,’ or others would call it ‘the natural mind,’ has been culturally conditioned to believe that our forms and methods about how to build the Church are more important than God’s forms and methods. Now of course, none of us say this outright, rather we do what is comfortable and familiar to us to the point of doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, believing this is God’s form or method, but really it’s culture that has shaped how we do it, and what it looks like. Driven by our egos and a desire to self-preserve, we often lead ourselves while saying we are following Jesus. Our desires reveal what we really want though, and we can see it in the dominant model of building and growing churches.

What’s silently tragic about this, is that we inevitably begin to care for ourselves, or our tribe first, and we quickly become ethnically, nationally, culturally, and socially divided. It has been called the homogenous unit principle by some. This idea that churches grow faster and more conversions happen when people are lead by those who are ethnically, nationally, cultural, and socially similar. This is a church growth model that has been rejected by many leaders, at least in theory, but as we look at the way their churches are still being structured, this principle is winning the day.

Again, it’s a good intentioned self-preservation, that slowly erodes our ability to see other forms that God may want for his Church. This type of self-preservation always leads to the dehumanization and oppression of those who aren’t like us. We have anesthetized ourselves from the reality that we could actually be deceived in our understanding, and prove the social theory of the false consensus effect: the tendency for humans to over estimate the degree in which everyone agrees with us.

Chris Smith and John Pattison are co-authors of the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. This book indirectly answers the question of what it looks like to be successful as a church, as Chris and John unfold a new kingdom ethos for being the Church, present and rooted in a particular place. In the opening chapter they address the danger of our culture’s commitment to individualism (which plays into the false consensus effect):

“In the Western world where individualism reigns supreme, there is unfamiliarity, awkwardness and even slowness in our calling to live as a community of God’s people. We are so accustomed to living and acting as autonomous individuals that the idea of being God’s people in the world can be tough to wrap our heads around. Being God’s people is messy at best. We are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. It can seem more practical and convenient (and even considerate!) to keep to ourselves and minimize the risk that we’ll get entangled in the lives of others. And yet, as much as we are formed by Western individualism, and though we have allowed that individualism to shape the way we read Scripture, our calling in Christ is to community, to a life shared with others in a local gathering that is an expression of Christ’s body in our particular place. The people of God become a sort of demonstration plot for what God intends for all humanity and all creation.”

Our preoccupation with the question of how to build the church, what a successful church looks like, or how to build something large and significant for God, has led many of us away from the simple truth that Jesus will and is building his Church through a display people (a family). Jesus didn’t write scripture, he was Scripture, and he left us not with books, but with a community, a gathering of new creation family members.

We desperately need God to restore to us the simplicity and power of our faith in Jesus, a faith that rests in God’s sovereignty and believes that if we gather around the person of Jesus, God will grow the Church together as a new family in new and fresh ways.

Later in their book, Smith and Pattison clarify a core ethos of what “Slow Church” is: “Slow Church is rooted in the natural, human and spiritual cultures of a particular place. It is a distinctively local expression of the global body of Christ. ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood’ (Jn 1:14 The Message).”

Pastor, missionary, theologian, and author, Lesslie Newbigin, has written extensively on the nature and mission of the Church, and reminds us that the emphasis in scripture is not on church growth, that’s God’s job. The emphasis is on faithfulness. Jesus says in Luke 18:8, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Will the Son of Man find faith in the Western church, or will he find sophisticated forms and methods that have become clubs with members who are more pre-occupied with running a good business, than being faithful. We have to keep asking ourselves, have we worshiped the form of church more than we worship the one who formed the Church? Have we been more impressed with church growth models and large churches that offer everything and do it with perfection and creativity, more than we are impressed with faithful living among a local community? What really makes a successful church? Is a slow growth model that is rooted in the patient ways of Jesus, committed to building a neighborhood parish to care for the least, the last, and the lost even worth it? Is it possible for a church to be more concerned about being present in the neighborhood they’ve been planted than in growing numerically so it can become financially self-sustainable in our Western church model? This is my prayer.