What Will It Take to Change the World?

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Recently, I stood among a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know.  I was there for a memorial service.  A few short months ago, a fellow colleague received the kind of news that no one wants to hear.  In a matter of weeks, she was gone.  Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful.  This one was.  And I’ll state from the outset why I believe it was: the collective experience of both joy and sorrow.

I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time.  This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be.  It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience.  It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry.  It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling.  No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion.  It is this:

Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.

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I think I’ve always known this.  It just crystallized for me through this experience.  After all, I have watched with awe the privilege I have to walk into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and enter with them into their pain.  The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament.  Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.

It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the news, or even from afar.  It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal.  It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison.  Shared human experiences of grief will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy.  And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity.  Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge.  A single tear from a singular small little Who in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.

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If I need to say this a different way, I’ll do it: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand.  It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those whom are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people.  Conversely, the heart can grow and expand.  The Grinch never went back to his isolation.  Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal.  It was full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:

Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebration and participation with food and drink has the power to change the world.

And if I need to be demonstrative, I will: Hospitality cannot happen from afar; sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed; it alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity.  It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.

This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:

Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?

The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective.  Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint.  In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with.  Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous.  It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.

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What’s more, Jesus wept.  He cried in public with strangers.  For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed.  After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table.  God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.

Public policy and even public theology are necessary and important.  Yet, unless policies and theologies and philosophies are buttressed with a foundation of basic human respect and dignity that has been borne of lived experience with strangers, those policies, philosophies, and even theologies have the power to denigrate and destroy rather than build-up and support.

The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right among a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawaken image-bearing humanity.  She stated, “All that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake [lessen] our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.”

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The Apostle John put it this way: “We love because he [Christ] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Don’t think for a minute that crying with strangers is an easy thing for me.  Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do.  Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I have come to allow and embrace those tears.

We now know that the act of crying produces endorphins which is the body’s way of bringing emotional comfort.  When we apply that understanding to a collective group of people sharing tears together, we end up with a communal sense of solidarity and succor.

Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world.  Yet, this occurs only if we show up.  Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present.  He showed up, and salvation happened.

Christian Hospitality

            Because the end of all things is near, we must have our wits about us and have a determined focus on prayer, love, and hospitality (1 Peter 4:7-11).  The word “hospitality” is literally “love of the stranger.”  In other words, we invite another into our home that we do not know very well, and befriend them.  This is what Jesus did for us.  Through sin and disobedience, humanity became estranged from God – we were on the outside.  But because of God’s great love, he sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, to come a dwell among us.  Jesus invited us into the life of God.  He is now standing at the door and knocking, and we are to invite Jesus in (Revelation 3:20).  Jesus has so closely identified with his people that when we invite others into our homes and lives, we are inviting Jesus in. 
            Inviting another person into our lives, into our homes and our hearts will cost us time and effort.  So, we must practice it without grumbling.  In an ideal world we always receive something back for our work of hospitality – an invitation from the other person, or, at least, a simple thank you.  But that does not always happen, and it cannot be the driving reason why we practice hospitality.  Hospitality must be a work of love that comes from a heart that has been touched by the hospitality of God.  Our earthly hospitality is to be a form of saying “thank you” to God for his great grace to us.  Complaining comes when we expect to receive and don’t get it.  If you receive another person as though he were Christ himself, you will not complain but will rejoice in your service.  But if we do not receive another into our lives as if he/she were Christ, we will not receive Christ either because Jesus said “whoever receives you, receives me” (Matthew 10:40).
            In ancient Christianity, a concrete expression of love to other believers in Jesus was providing food and shelter for Christians traveling throughout the Roman Empire.  Many times the traveling strangers were itinerant evangelists spreading the message of the gospel from place to place (3 John).  At other times, believers were deprived of some of their basic necessities due to the occasional waves of persecution that broke out. They were often poor and needy because of their situation of being different; the townspeople were not typically hospitable.  So, Christians had to rely on the love and hospitality of those believers they could connect with who had the means to help.
            Hospitality, then, was an important means of providing love to fellow Christians.  Paul made it clear to the Roman Christians:  Share with God’s people who are in need.  Practice hospitality (Romans 12:13).  One of the qualifications for church leadership is that they are hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2).  Our default mode as Christians is to invite each other into our lives.  It is to happen by opening both our homes and opening our hearts to one another.
            There is a great need for hospitality in our world.  Many Americans’ circle of friends is shrinking.  According to one study the number of people who said they had no one to talk to about important matters has more than doubled in the past 10 years.  32 million Americans now live alone (which is 28% of all households).  Hospitality cuts both ways for us.  We are to invite the lonely into our hearts and homes; and, the lonely are to invite others into their hearts and homes, instead of waiting for somebody to just show up.
            Food is to hospitality what weightlifting is to bodybuilders; you really need food, meals, and the sharing that goes with it in order to experience genuine hospitality that makes a difference in another’s life.  In biblical times, eating a meal together was a sacred affair.  To have another person in your house, sitting around your table, communicated much more than simply providing food.  It communicated acceptance, care, and friendship.  This is why the Pharisees and teachers of the law had such difficulty with Jesus eating with ‘sinners;’ by eating with outsiders Jesus was clearly communicating his love and acceptance of such persons.
            I want us to think the thought that our dining room tables are little mission stations.  When my wife and I were new believers, there was a Christian couple who often had us into their home.  Both of us had grown up in families where we had experienced some unhealthy ways of relating.  Here we were, not really knowing what a Christian family should look like.  Through hospitality, eating together and sharing around the table, we began to learn how a family dedicated to Christ lives.  We learned life lessons that we probably could not have learned in any other way.
            When we think about our world, it can be a sad place.  Can people of different races live in peace?  Can Democrats find common ground with Republicans?  Can a Christian family carry on a civil friendship with a gay or lesbian couple down the street?  Can people who are very different from each other get along?  The early church did.  And they did it without all the stuff we have – sanctuaries, church buildings, programs.  Those early believers did it through the message of the cross, and the simplest tool of the home.  Not everyone can serve on the foreign mission field, or serve in a professional ministry position; but each one of us can be hospitable.  Something happens at a dinner table that does not happen in a church sanctuary.  In church we see the backs of heads – around the table you see faces.  In church you hear the preacher – around the table everyone has a voice.  A church service is on the clock – around the table we have time to talk.  Hospitality, inviting others into our hearts and homes, opens the door to true community.


            Jesus, on the night that he enjoying a meal with his disciples, said: “Take and eat.  This is my body given for you.”  One of the things Jesus meant by that statement is that eating and ingesting the elements of bread and wine, serve as a very tangible way of understanding what life is to be like.  We are to take Jesus into the depths of our lives; we are to ingest him, that is, to engage in a very close and intimate relationship with him to the degree that the two of us cannot ever be separated.  The same is to be true of our relationship with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church.  We are to do life together.  We are to enjoy eating and drinking together.  We are to share with each other not only our resources, but our hearts. Let your heart and your home be open today.