Saturday, November 29, 2008

Beyond Walmart Hospitality

Reading Amy Oden's God's Welcome: Hospitality for a Gospel-Hungry World has led me to classify hospitality as a legitimate spiritual discipline for Christians and their communities. This volume offers a seasoned biblical, theological, and very readable reflection on the ancient and counter-cultural practice of opening our lives and our churches to strangers not because "radical hospitality" is the current gimmick for retooling stale churches, but because of who God is for us in Jesus Christ. Everyone yearns for God's welcome, and the need to belong and to to be "at home" is one of the most powerful of human hungers.

If we're not careful, we'll adopt what the author calls the "Walmart" brand of hospitality, the kind that only looks good. So the persistent theme of the book is a challenge to go beyond the easy, feel good hospitality of our retail culture. Even though most people probably appreciate the smiles and waves of greeters, good appearances alone don't endure in the pain and difficulty of life. God's hospitality in Jesus, is now and always connected to life in all of its fullness, its beauty and ugliness. Because God in Jesus gets in the mess of our lives with us, our hospitality is not just about being a pleasant person, but speaks to the depth and duration of our compassion. It's about welcoming people to a shared life and a common journey, not just to a building on a church campus.

Gospel welcome is not just another method, it's a life and a spirituality that transforms. Offering God's welcome is therefore a justice issue. Christians are responsible for fleshing out the welcome we have received. We too were once strangers and sojourners. At one time we were lost and unknown! Authentic hospitality often comes from those who have had a recent experience of being lost. These are the people who are new, strange, or unknown to a community. These are the folks who understand how important it is to create a space that is safe and free and welcoming.

Accordingly, one of the book's strengths is the excellent reflections on a variety of practices that foster a spirituality of hospitality. Some like "Saying Yes and Saying No: The Limits of Hospitality" focus on God's hospitality rather than on getting people to like us. Also included are study questions on each chapter for groups, teams, individuals, preachers and teachers.

Another example of a spiritual practice is "Getting Lost." Many churches are finding "mystery guests" to attend their church and give honest feedback of their experience of welcome. The better way, one which Oden suggests, is for church people to put themselves in situations where they are "lost." For example, go to a church for the first time sight unseen, experience being the guest, the one who is not in the know. Let it be a different denomination in a different locale or neighborhood. Let that experience teach you what guests appreciate as well as what they don't like. If hospitality teams practiced this regularly, perhaps the quality of our welcome would be deeper, wider, longer, and higher than that of Sam's Club! And more like God's welcome in Jesus.

The book is itself a welcome invitation to think more deeply about what makes Christian hospitality different. One of those characteristics is the quality of openness, acceptance, and welcome we practice with everyone, not just other Christians. That Christians are increasingly seen as intolerant, judgmental, and closed-minded provoked Oden, in part, to write this book. The church has made hospitality a buzz word of effectiveness, so Oden, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, has offered a timely piece challenging us to practice a spirituality of hospitality, informed by the Word made flesh.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Time Between and Revelation

Our 2008 Thanksgiving Day lands in the middle of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Christian year, and the first Sunday in Advent. I had the privilege of leading an adult study of Revelation to Chapelwood's Cornerstone Class these past seven weeks. The study was based on an actual reading and commentary on most of the book by chapter. The best study I know of is James Efird's book, Revelation for Today. It's both very readable, stays doggedly with the actual text and the community context of the Apocalypse. It's also a thorough debunking of Darby's fantastic interpretations which seems to reappear with every new generation.

I've enjoyed teaching this class and, along the way, have learned:
  • Revelation is a natural segway into Advent/Christmas, because it can foster a meaningful discussion of what God's coming among us looks like now and in the future, especially in a world racked by economic misfortune, trauma, war, violence, natural and human disasters.
  • Revelation is not as hard as we can make it out to be; but the metaphorical and picture language is challenging to church folks who equate the Darby chronology with Christian orthodoxy. It is interesting that western Christians read it this way- more metaphorically- for 1800 years, or until after the industrial revolution.
  • The core to me seems to be about worship of the one and only God who alone lives forever. That connects well with the commandments and defines what true faithfulness is.
  • A non-linear approach to the book is possible by staying with the genre. If you stay with the genre of apocalypse, the book reveals the origin, direction, and operation of evil, as well as the alternate reality of the Lamb and those who worship the Lamb. Again, the non-linear approach will raise the eyebrows of believism.
  • The Beast seems to be all about peace through war and violence, while the Lamb and his followers are told to endure (and not fight). The Jesus followers were not trusted by Jewish brothers since those following the way of Jesus refused to fight alongside them in the Jewish Revolts of 66-70 A.D.
  • The second coming of Jesus (rider called Faithful and True) is one (and not the only) image of the end; others are: the New heaven and earth, the New Jerusalem, the Judgment, the Wedding Feast, the fruit of the Tree of Life, etc.
  • John is and was right! Domitian died not long after the Revelation was written. Evil had its limited day, and the persecution lifted. Indeed, John was correct about what was "soon to happen, " with Christians living in a time without threat of persecution.
  • Then there's the stuff not found in the text of the Revelation: rapture and battle of Armageddon are good for starters. The antichrist is also absent from the text.
  1. If you believe that fear works, why do we have to be threatened in order to believe or repent?
  2. I've noticed how the word apocalypse is so negative and destructive in today's culture. How does Revelation speak to our world in the darkness of violence, chaos, and hopelessness?
  3. We say we believe that Christ will come again in the Prayer of Thanksgiving. What does that look like for you??

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Essence of Spirituality

When John Wesley wanted what the Moravians had, he identified perhaps the most basic element in human spirituality: the yearning for something more. The peace of Moravian faith Wesley witnessed for himself amidst the trauma of a terrifying storm at sea. While he was panic-stricken, the Moravians were singing hymns. St. Teresa of Avila was known to have prayed, "O God, I don't love you. I don't even want to love you. But I want to want to love you."

There are often moments when we are confronted with the true spiritual reality of our lives: we want for ourselves what we see in others. A friend and colleague seems tremendously in the zone every time I see her. So centered, focused, prophetic, possessed by a mission that is undeniably authentic and obvious. What can I do but admire that!

There is no silver bullet of spiritual health. No matter where we are or where we've been, I believe all we've got to work with is our longing for more of God. And the honesty, like St. Teresa, not to call it love. The willingness to be a beginner is the enduring foundation of the Christian spiritual life, and in the end, our wanting to learn, not how far we've come, is what's most important.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert Emmons is a masterpiece for anyone interested in their own spiritual health. I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Emmons in a 2007 lecture in Houston. If you ever doubted the role of gratitude in healthy spirituality and human wholeness, then this book is for you. Actually, this volume is a must read for our own well being, especially as we offer spiritual care to others.

Emmons maintains that gratitude not only is good for those who practice it, but also, motivates us to do good. It seems that gratitude is "in season" right now; however, within everyone is what the author believes is a "set point" for happiness. Practicing gratitude can increase a person's capacity for happiness significantly. The paradigm of the book is that gratitude and happiness fulfill and complete each other. The happiness/gratitude cycle includes both enjoying and recognizing good gifts, good intentions. "Everything looks better when it is seen as a gift," Chesterton stated. So if we can see life and the constituent parts of life as a gift, we are well on the way to living at a deeper, more fulfilling, level.

Because the psychology of gratitude has impressive research behind it, it is not a new happy-ology, or the latest in the power of positive thinking. The counting of blessings counters the adaptation humans have to whatever is good in our lives. Like guinea pigs on a treadmill, we adapt to life as we have it and even life as we want it sometimes. It's true that some of us are naturally more grateful. What the disciplines (psychologists will call them interventions) of gratitude do is to raise our set point for gratitude and happiness, while also dealing with real barriers to gratitude, such as daily hassles, entitlement, or trauma.

The researchers never maintain that a gratitude practice is magical, nor is it easy. It is simply a powerful tool and resource for health, and in my opinion, spirituality. The keeping of a daily gratitude journal for 30 days, for example, impacts depressive symptoms for six months! A one-time "gratitude visit" can have the same impact for 30 days!

I recommend this book, or even Emmons' Words of Gratitude, a lighter read. Or check out the latest from

Saturday, November 15, 2008

You Make Me Want to be a Better Person!

We hear too much about being accountable, which seems always to address the letter of the law. A variety of covenant groups meet to report on the presence or absence of specifically Christian practices of the members. Church hierarchies ask clergy to self report an inventory of bodies and bucks that will be used in assessing the effectiveness of the self-same clergy. Sort of a built-in conflict of interest there, don't ya think?

Whereas the behaviors, practices, fruits, or numbers can be used as a measure, accountability's style of relationship is more transactional, and it runs on power over to define what success is. Everything depends on who decides what constitutes accountability. The bare minimum is neatly laid out. Those always touting accountability are what Charles Dickens would call the "grad grinds;" they inhabit a place in the food chain and status quo of institutions.

Loyalty, or being counted on, is much different. It deals with the relational aspects of motivation and why I would want to change in the first place. Being counted on addresses the whole person and not just a slot on an organizational ladder. The core of loyalty is transformational.

The best leaders are transformational, and free others- a separate universe from those whose only real authority is title or organizational control. When we are loyal, we want to do our best, not just because of institutional goals, but because we have the backs of those with whom we're serving. We become more than servants- we become friends! We want to do our best. We become our own best person, not because we have to, but because we will it.

"You make me want to be a better person," Jack Nicholson told Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets. And that, I believe, IS as good as it gets!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Clergy Wind-Up Toys

Do you remember the era of wind-up toys? Every June, our family would gather at my grandfather's home for his birthday. He would share his collection of wind-up toys for the adults and children to enjoy. I think my Dad, who also collected these things reveled in this time as much as we kids did. As we matured, we made fun of company yes men who went to work with their brief cases and had, we imagined, a huge key in their back that, when wound-up, made them all look and act the same way.

Bureaucracies like church structures live in a bubble and see only a part of the world. For the sake of self-preservation, we block out what we don't want to see, feel, and engage. The effect is to numb any pain with the addictions or the drugs of choice the organization offers: recognition, promotion, rewards, status, reputation, success. The theme becomes clergy heroics 101 or minister show-and-tell.

And so, well intentioned folks say things like "These numbers reflect souls, and that's why numbers are so important." No, numbers are important. Period. The system likes numbers. Period. But number reporting is only one small measure of accountability, if that. Call it what it is: reporting numbers.

More reflective self awareness and honesty would admit that we regularly censor ourselves and others for the sake of the institution. We wonder why young adults are not interested in joining their allegiance to such an order? They see reality- they took the other pill, Neo. They see us very differently than we see ourselves. Maybe they see the great disconnect between what we say is important (people's pain, mission in the world) and what we really value (looking good and organizational maintenance).

A sabbath from year-end reports? A one time Jubilee?? That would be too easy, make far too much sense. It could only be done if you truly value something above those reports. I guess we haven't found what that something is. Or just don't see the disconnect.

Addictive organizations and those that serve them are not generally reflective, do not see the disconnects between corporate speak and what or whom is really valued, thrive on control, and lurch from crisis to crisis. They heroically jump to do good without first applying the check of first doing no harm.

Oldies but Goodies