Last Sunday I began a three part series based on the book Reaching Out, by Henri Nouwen. Henri Nouwen was a well-known psychologist, teacher, author, and Roman Catholic priest. After a successful career as a teacher and author in the area of Christian Spirituality, that took him many places around the world, Nouwen settled into life as a member of Daybreak, one of the L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier. Daybreak is in Richmond Hill, and since his death in 1996, Toronto has become one of the major centres for the study of Nouwen’s writing, which includes over 40 books.
Reaching Out is one of Nouwen’s earlier works, published in 1975, and is still a best seller. Nouwen wrote about three movements in our spiritual lives. Last week I talked about the movement from loneliness to solitude. That movement involves accepting a degree of separateness, aloneness, as a human reality. It also involves the idea that each person is unique, and individual, and carries with them a certain mystery- there is no one just like them. If we are uncomfortable, or unwilling to be alone with ourselves, then we may never actually discover who we really are. We may never see ourselves the way God sees us.
We might think about a continuum or line with polar opposites on either end. At different times of our lives, we are more or less comfortable with ourselves, and then it is more possible to be alone, to be in solitude, without being overwhelmed with loneliness. If we are able to get to know ourselves, and value ourselves as beloved, unique children of God, then as Nouwen wrote, “our changing relationship to ourself can be brought to fruition in an ever-changing relationship to our fellow human beings”.
This makes sense to me. As I am more able to accept and love myself, and be comfortable in my own skin, and with my own inner life, I am less encumbered with anxiety, and fear of judgement. I feel less compelled to compare myself to others. If I am looking at myself with softer eyes, with something closer to the way God sees me, I am freed to look at others more for who they really are, and less as strangers who may pose a threat to my well-being, or self-image.
I am on call this week at the hospital while the staff chaplain is on vacation. On Friday afternoon I was called in to visit with a woman who is dying. Two things happened on that trip to the hospital that for me, seem to be about how I am learning about the second movement in Nouwen’s book, from Hostility to Hospitality.
The first thing I noticed was that when I came on to the hospital ward that had asked for a chaplain to come and visit a patient, the staff basically ignored me for 5 minutes while I stood at the nurse’s station. Twenty minutes before this, I had been at home, lounging in a t-shirt and shorts when the call came, and had quickly cleaned up, dressed up, and rushed to the hospital. Part of me felt like I was doing them a favour, and I was feeling a little annoyed. When I did get someone’s attention, and they were bringing me to meet the patient, I started to look around and see how many very ill people were being cared for by a small staff, and realized I might not be the first priority. I needed a little humbling, to get over myself, in order to see how things were for these people.
The second learning moment was that when I did get to the room to see the patient, she was not all that interested in conversation. She seemed happy to hold my hand, and nodded her head when talked with her, and when I made a prayer- but did not seem to want to speak. But her room-mate really wanted to talk! Each time I asked the one lady a question, the room-mate would call out the answer from the other side of the curtain dividing the room. At first I just wanted her to be quiet, so I could connect with the person I had been asked to see. And then I figured it out. I told the room-mate that I would like to come over and visit with her next, and she said that would be lovely, and she stopped interrupting. I sat in silence for a few minutes holding the first lady’s hand, and then left a note for her family to say that I’d been there. Then I went to the other side of the room to have a visit with the other lady, who was quite lovely to chat with, and who was also very ill, and feeling lonely and afraid. So rather than having one frustrating, interrupted visit, I had opportunities to meet two people where they were, just the way they are.
Those experiences reminded me of the video I want to show you this morning, which was made a couple of years ago by an American hospital called the Cleveland Clinic. It is moving and beautiful piece, that gives a glimpse inside people’s hearts.
The Cleveland Clinic video
Our first Bible reading this morning, from the Book of Hebrews, contained the advice that we should “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. “ This advice is also a reference to the high value peoples of the ancient world placed on opening your home, and offering hospitality to travellers. The Jewish people’s ancestors were nomadic, and lived by a code that insisted that you must always offer care to strangers, bearing in mind that there could be a time when you would depend upon the same generosity of spirit. There is a story about Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people, in which they offer the hospitality of their home to three strangers, who turn out to be messengers from God, who bring them the news that Sarah will become pregnant and bear a son who will be the first in a long line of descendants, who eventually become the nation of Israel.
Our second reading was about two followers of Jesus in the hours after the first Good Friday. They were witness to Jesus’ dying on the cross, but have now left Jerusalem, and are travelling on the road to Emmaus. They meet a mysterious stranger, who engages them in conversation about what they have experienced in Jerusalem. At the end of the day’s journey, they invite the stranger to join them for a meal.
“Stay and have supper with us. It’s nearly evening; the day is done.” So he went in with them. And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him. And then he disappeared.”
This story of an appearance of the resurrected Jesus can also be a parable for us of the possibility that when we open up a hospitable space in our hearts, in our lives, that transforming things can happen. The risk, and the promise of hospitality is important for us not only as individuals, but as a faith community- can we imagine being open to people who are very different from us- without harbouring a quiet hope that they will learn our ways- and how to fit in with “us”?
I am not picking on Trinity in particular– most congregations are just not very good at going beyond friendly to being truly hospitable. We are at our best with people who are most like us. The irony, the problem is that most people are not like us, in the sense that they do not value being here in church the way we do. If our mission is to reach people with the message of God’s love, we need other strategies than to wait for them to appear here on Sunday morning.
For a couple of months now I have been involved in discussion about a new experimental form or ministry, that Trinity has been invited to host. Trinity United Church is part of Halton Presbytery, which includes 36 congregations in Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga, Milton, and the area around those communities. The Mission Development Officer of the Presbytery has gathered grant money together, that can be used to pay the costs of a half time minister, who would have an office at Trinity, but whose focus would not be on our congregation, but on people moving into the new housing developments north of Dundas Road.
The North Oakville Satellite Ministry will also be looking for ways to meet, and build relationships with people who do not, and maybe never have, gone to church. Jim Greer and Liz McLean are with me on the support committee for this new ministry, and we are also actively seeking to have representatives from the Munns and Palermo, and Glen Abbey congregations, whose churches are actually closer to the focus area than Trinity. (We could also use a couple more people from Trinity to be on this committee. You will hear more about this in coming months.)
Jim and Liz have both been great members of the support committee, and have contributed good thoughts as we develop a sense of our mission. One of the tasks we have been working on is something like a job description for this new ministry position. That’s hard to do, because this is a new experiment.
At one of our meetings, we began to talk about what qualities we would like to see in the person who takes on this challenge. Liz wrote an amazing list, which we have adopted, because it so wonderfully captures the spirit of what we feel God is calling for. I want to read some of the qualities to you now, because they fit so well with the topic of moving from hostility to hospitality.
We are looking for a person with these kind of qualities:
1)Ability to listen and honour others life stories and experiences, even if they contradict their own experience and ways of knowing.
2)Ability to see the inherent worth and dignity in people of different genders, sexual orientations and lifestyles, and help guide them to greater peace, joy and knowledge of God’s work in their lives.
3)Someone who is more interested in conversation than conversion.
4)Someone who wants to serve the needs of the community using Christ’s example of radical welcome and generosity, who wants to genuinely be a part of the community and not above it.
5)Someone who encourages safe space, openness and support among church members regardless of topic.
Liz listed 5 more, but I think you can get the idea. Amen