March 24, 2016

Two-Way Hospitality

We were late to the church we were visiting after we’d made a wrong turn. While my husband took the children to children’s worship, I stood in the back of the sanctuary, singing hymns along with the congregation. And when the time came to greet each other, I moved to a row, shook hands with someone on the end, and asked, “Do you mind moving over? Then my husband can easily join me in a bit.”

“No.” She shook her head soberly, “This is our seat. We like sitting here.” She gestured toward the center of the row. “You can sit there.” And so I did, wondering if she was as shocked by my brazenness as I was by hers.

Recently, my family moved to a new state, and so displaced, we are looking for a new church family. Because my history is rich in denominations, we’ve visited a variety of churches. And as I’ve visited, I’ve tried to approach each experience as if I am visiting the home of a friend of a friend. What’s good? What’s quirky?

I try not to ask, “What’s bad?” but there are some deal-breakers. (Not that I’m comfortable with the language of “deal-breaker” in describing Christ’s beloved.) But my five-year-old has been participating in the Lord’s Supper (which she calls “The Feast”) since last Maundy Thursday, and so we cannot become members of a church that would exclude her from Communion. That’s a deal-breaker.

Was having to scooch toward the center of a very long row, when the folks on the end could have easily moved over a deal-breaker?

I’ve heard stories from friends with noisy infants, standing in the back of the sanctuary, receiving the look all parents recognize, the look that says, “We have a perfectly good nursery for your baby and you should put her there right now.” For some of these parents, that’s a deal-breaker. They want to be part of a church that welcomes their baby, even when she isn’t cute, even when she’s bawling and gassy.

One of my children once made a loud noise during worship, a noise more appropriate for a bathroom than a sanctuary, and my older friend behind us laughed and laughed. “I needed that,” she said. “I needed to laugh. That was a gift of God!” Noisy, flatulent infants remind us of the incarnation, remind us of our bodies that are so good, so wonderfully functional, that God himself became a squalling, gassy baby. Welcoming all bodies—of babies, parents who are late, people with disabilities, people who look different from us, this is a way for us to embody the mysterious incarnation in our own not-so-small way.

So let me rephrase my question: is the lack of incarnational hospitality a deal-breaker?

But I don’t want to carry a list of deal-breakers, I want to practice hospitality as a guest. I want to approach new congregations remembering that I don’t know their history, I don’t know their pain, I don’t know if it’s an unusually bad sermon because the pastor was praying with a parishioner in hospice the night before. I don’t know. And even the one who loves her seat so much she won’t move for a guest, I wonder about her. I remember some couples from my former congregation. I remember how, because of Jane’s back, she would have a special chair reserved for her each Sunday. That was her place, reserved for her, and I was always sad when her place was empty.

I remember serving as a lector, looking out at the congregation and knowing the faces of each person, in their place, like a family around a dinner table. At my house, I always sit at the east side of the kitchen table. Is this so different? That’s my place. I don’t want anyone else to sit there. In fact, if someone were to sit there, I would be uncomfortable. I might ask them to move.

So is the real deal that God is calling us to change?

The Psalmist reminds us that “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24). So really, it’s not my kitchen table. And it’s not my seat or my pew. (I haven’t yet visited a congregation that still rents pew boxes!) It’s God’s seat, God’s pew box. It’s God’s table, as we’re reminded each time we have The Feast together: “The gifts of God for the people of God.” And this table extends beyond its dimensions. The table extends to each of us, all the way to our seats. The table extends into my (God’s) own home, my (God’s) kitchen table, reminding me of God’s love and generosity and how it may be poured out through me.

As I ponder this, I am moved to confession. I consider the time I did not move from my God’s couch for a guest. I exhale, ashamed of my own immaturity, of the log in my own eye.

But God is gracious, and God continues to model hospitality. And the Spirit still guides me, even when I forget to whom the world, this table, this chair, belongs—even when we believe the myth that there is not enough of anything, especially convenient seats in church.

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence lives with her husband and two children in the western suburbs of Chicago. She serves as the associate pastor for spiritual formation at the Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, where she preaches and leads formation and discipleship programming for children and adults. Joy holds a M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary and MCS from Regent College (Vancouver). She’s always on the lookout for new and old ways to tell God’s story as well as wild foods she can feed her family and friends. She has written for many organizations, including Christianity Today International.