You are welcome

“You are welcome.”

Those precious words communicated perfectly my experience in the West African country of Ghana. As an American I am accustomed to traveling to places where it’s clear that I’m not exactly welcome. But not in Ghana. With smiles on their faces and invitations in their hearts, it was a wonderful feeling and an unforgettable time. I was welcome.

I come from a culture where these words mean very little. “You’re welcome” is the obligatory response to the words “thank you.” Good form. Good manners. It has less to do with the heart, and more to do with maintaining an image of politeness. But in Ghana, the words didn’t feel like a vain repetition; it was real. I really was welcome.

The Scriptures call this hospitality.

We live in an increasingly fragmented world. Mother Teresa described loneliness as the leprosy of the masses, and she’s right. People are wandering, alone, and more isolated than ever.

It’s a perfect time to rediscover the ancient Christian practice of hospitality. Hands on, reaching out, arms wide, homes open – especially on the lookout for the vulnerable, the weak, the foreigner, the stranger. My culture has not taught me such a practice.

Technically hospitality is defined by a kind and generous reception toward guests, but I love how it comes out in Greek: “love of strangers.” Love. The early disciples embraced this full-throttle. It meant to welcome people into your life, your schedule, and space, offering food, shelter, provisions, and protection. For a follower of Jesus hospitality went well beyond the superficial; it was holistic. We care for people and share with people in spirit, soul, and body. We give ourselves for the sake of those who could never pay us back.

Ironically, hospitality morphed over the centuries. It went from being a ministry of mercy to becoming the sometimes twisted practice of entertaining the powerful who had the means to make it worth your while. The hospitality industry would become the collection of the well-connected and the wealthy, because this is who could pay the bill. You are welcome.

The needy and the stranger, of course, were then further marginalized. It’s part of the curse of the impoverished. On the outside they seem to have so little to offer. You are not welcome.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past couple weeks. While eating at a Japanese steakhouse (where you sit at a table with other people) I struck up a conversation with a foreign student in the country for a two-week training session at a hospital. With a strong language barrier, but wanting to keep the conversation going, I did what any normal person would do: I invited him to come experience a hot donut at Krispy Kreme for dessert. Much to my surprise he accepted the offer and jumped in our minivan. After eating the best donuts of his life, I wrote my phone number on a glazed-soiled napkin and explained that my Puerto Rican wife would be delighted to cook some authentic Spanish cuisine for him. “You are welcome in our home.”

This was his fifth trip to the United States, and he explained that he has never been invited to a donut shop or a meal or a home, outside of his professional obligations. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with us. But two days later I received a call from my friend, “Can I still come to your house?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Who would have known that my Japanese friend loved children? (And we have plenty of them to go around.) Who would have guessed how much my children would enjoy playing with my Japanese friend? Who would have imagined how enjoyable it would be to share meals, watch a movie, speak prayers, play games, and talk family with a new friend.

The key word here is with. It’s a delicious word. It’s a potent word. Some things have no cure but being with. Some problems have no answer but presence. Churches lose their way when they drift into the streams of institutionalization where they confuse doing things for people and doing things with people. What would happen if we reclaimed this ancient habit of loving strangers again?

It’s amazing to watch how hospitality turns the ordinary into the sacred. Why? Because it’s a sign. A reenactment of something deeper.

Who is the stranger? Anyone who finds themself disconnected. Out of place. Disoriented in time and space. You’ll find them on playgrounds. Or walking between classes. At the English language institute. Sitting in cubicles. Passing the time at a library. Maybe even looking out the window in the apartment next door.

I’m thinking about what we’re doing in our little community this week. We call it a Bring Weekend, because it’s all about presence, with-ness. I wonder how many people would jump at the chance to spend the morning or afternoon with a person that invited them into their world and into their life and into their faith family. Come to church. Join me for a meal. No, I’m serious. You are welcome.

I’m thinking about how Jesus taught us to throw parties for the people nobody else invites. To invite the people who could never pay us back. To notice the people nobody else acknowledges. Recognizing that the response is in their hands, but the invitation is in ours. Perhaps most people will turn down the invitation, but that’s not the point.

You are welcome.

Disciples are people who open their hearts. And their homes. And their vehicles. You are welcome.

They shares meals. They make time. The create connection space. You are welcome.

They look around a room and notice. They find the disconnected and connect. They show up for church early and they leave church late. Because they wash people’s feet with their presence. They are fully there. They speak like citizens of Ghana.

You are welcome.

Can you imagine what would happen if we reintroduced our culture to this other-worldy practice of heart-birthed hospitality? I wonder who God has placed in your life? I wonder what “strangers” are living in your neighborhood. I wonder what kind of divine appointments Father has arranged to walk into your path this week. If you’ll have eyes to see. And a mouth to speak.

You are welcome.

We’re all strangers. Ever since the Garden we’ve been wandering, longing for the place where we finally belong. We know something’s off. We know we don’t quite fit. The Scriptures explain the problem: it’s our sin. Sin always separates. Sin always isolates. Then comes Jesus, the ultimate lover of the ultimate strangers. He reaches the unreached and touches the untouched, and ultimately sacrifices the unthinkable to open a way for the undeserving to have a place. With him. Emmanuel. God with us. Do you hear his voice?

You are welcome.

Now go and do likewise.

 

Want to read more? Click here for more thoughts from Mike Patz on hospitality. Or click here for thoughts on hospitality and evangelism from Desiring God.

Indian observations … under-promise, over-deliver

Photo credit http://www.trekearth.com

In just a few weeks we will have our beloved Indian justice-working, slave-freeing missionary Sam with us in Gainesville. To start to prepare our hearts, I thought it might be good to post my initial reaction to my trip to India back in January:

India.  An under-promising, over-delivering Church.

You need to know what a great work is being accomplished in India.  I am so used to American pastors and ministries overstating their ministries and exaggerating their results.  It’s the marketing mentality, and I get it. Our culture is inundated with advertisers.  But something beautiful happens whenever I meet people that seem to under-promise and then over-deliver.  That is the case with the work in India with missionary Sam.

I felt this at our first stop at an orphanage we provided for rescued children.  The home itself was beautiful.  The children were adorable. God’s presence was tangible.

But I expected all of that.  What I did not expect was to find out this home is right in the middle of a region where there are no churches or Christian influence.  I came to find out the home is more than an orphanage; it is also a church plant.  The director is more than a children’s director; he and his wife are also pastors.  Church planters in a region where Christians are severely persecuted.  In fact, they are very much in touch with the fact that they will likely give their lives for the cause of Jesus.*  Stunning devotion.  They just asked for nothing but prayer.  It was a very sobering train ride out of that area.

As we moved on to the second home I noticed that this facility was attached to a church as well.  So I struck up a conversation with missionary Sam and asked him if this is always the case, and the answer was yes.  In fact, as we described what we do with microchurches he informed me that they have several thousand microchurches connected to the work they are doing.  As we moved from city to city it became increasingly clear that their work has been exceptionally fruitful.

I mention all of this to report what is happening, but also to stir our hearts. Not once did they ask me for money.  Not once did they parade their results to solicit more support than we have given them.  Had I not been there we would have assumed that their main deal is rescuing a few children whenever they can.  But missionary Sam explained to me that they believe deeply in the power of the Church – against whom the gates of hell will not prevail.

That’s enough for now.  Just a quick discipleship challenge to all of us to follow their lead and:

1 – Embrace humility. Under-promise.  Over-deliver. This is a hallmark of a great leader.

2 – Recognize God has one plan for this fallen planet: Church. Let’s be who we are.

3 – Pray for our brothers and sisters who experience danger first-hand.

*Note: Since our trip in January, this leader was indeed attacked and injured for the cause of Christ. The home was endangered and the future looked uncertain. Thankfully, Missionary Sam responded and the group was secured and restored.

Those poor killer whales

Those poor killer whales.

A while back disaster struck when another trainer was killed by one of the beautiful killer whales in the famous aquatic theme park. After the tragedy people went crazy, the show was suspended, and the theme park world went solemn.

But do you know what comes to my mind? Because I’ve seen the show and I’ve encountered the splash firsthand. I just can’t shake this feeling that that whale was never meant to swim circles inside pools made by men. That glorious creature was made to roam the oceans whose builder and maker is God.

Theme parks aren’t big enough for whales.

And this world isn’t big enough for your soul.

Continue reading “Those poor killer whales”

Dare you to pray this prayer

I’ve been particularly stirred by the life of John Wesley in recent weeks, and found myself praying one of his prayers this morning. Here is my modified version of it:

Lord Jesus, because you have received me into your house, because you have called me your own, because you have made me your child, I will not stand upon terms. Impose upon me what conditions you please, write down your own articles, command me what you will, put me to anything you see as good; let me come under your roof, let me be your servant, and spare not to command me; I will no longer be my own. Make me what you will, Lord, and set me where you will. I trust you. I put myself wholly into your hands; put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or trodden under foot for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily resign all to your name and your pleasure. For your love is better than life.

It would be hard for me to overstate the impact of the man who prayed that prayer. If the United States had produced a Wesley, many have argued slavery would have been abolished without a civil war. He and his tribe went head to head against the darkness of his day and made a dent: slavery, prison abuse, widespread drunkenness, lack of education for peasants, the poor health of the lower class, child labor.

What was their fuel? According to Wesley, the soul-melting experience of the “righteousness that comes by faith”. The mind-bending realization that he was in – not because of his moral record, but because of Jesus’. The experienced love of Father. See, when you’ve really been amazed by grace, you want to be used by grace.

Your life will follow your prayers.

I dare you to pray that one.

Sugar-high happiness (journal excerpt)

By request, this is an excerpt I read from my journal last weekend.  Read it like I wrote it, unedited.

Everybody has their native sin – something that seems to be part of who they are. Add to that a culture of self-worship, sliding standards, and personal happiness as the ultimate pursuit and we have a perfect recipe for cultural deception.  God gets made out to be the bad guy when he forbids things we are so sure will make us happy.  They feel so natural.  We are so easily deceived.  Like my three-year old daughter that throws a temper tantrum when she cannot have cookies for dinner, we object to God’s righteous, eternal standards.

But everybody disagrees with God somewhere. Every person. Every family. Every culture. Every epoch.

The question is one of wisdom.  Will we be wise enough to humble ourselves and agree with God? Will we be smart enough to recognize that he sees something around the eternal corner that we do not see ourselves? Will we not realize that God wants us happy even more than we do?  But his long-range mind sees things we do not.

We want quick-fix, sugar-rush happiness. He sees eternal weight of glory.

The message of Scripture is this: play it out.  Live to please yourself, live for your personal happiness – it’s an experiment in futility.  Destined for disappointment.

Be smarter than that. Be wiser. Be more forward-thinking.

Sin is not just evil; it’s stupid.

Our idols are like middle school boyfriends: they lie to us.  Sin lies. It over-promises and under-delivers.  It is an expert marketer, but completely untrustworthy.

Yet I’m a sucker. I believe the hype.  Everybody believes the hype – it just has to be the right hype. Wise is the man who learns what hype he falls for.  We are so prone to judge people for being gullible in areas we don’t fall for.  But we all fall.  Moral stupidity is part of our fallen condition.

Good thing we have a wise savior.

Solomon nailed it: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10)

The story I tell myself

I was speaking with a young couple on the verge of getting married and the subject of my marriage came up. The more I talked about the marriage I have experienced – and the wife I enjoy – the more grateful I became. My final assessment was, I am so blessed it’s crazy.

As I walked away from the conversation I began to think about how rose-colored my glasses seemed to be in that moment.  Was I really being honest?  Was I setting this couple up for disillusionment when they don’t feel that reality I described?  God knows how many difficult seasons these 17 years of marriage have endured .  Some of that has been basic life tribulation.  Much of that has been my sin. A microscopic amount has been my wife’s sin. 🙂  During many seasons of difficulty I’ve not been so positive.

So why was I walking away from this conversation with such joy?

Continue reading “The story I tell myself”