Shaping communities

hands by Tim Marshall, unsplash.com

My intent today was to blog about the Christian practice of “shaping communities,” the subject of the ninth chapter, by Larry Rasmussen, in Practicing Our Faith.

I was going to write about “the perennial Christian strategy,” as Rasmussen calls it, “to gather the folks, break the bread, and tell the stories.”

I was going to say that my own particular expertise was not in how to shape such a community, but in how the Christian communities—of which I’ve been a part over the course of my lifetime—have shaped me.

I was going to write about the United church congregation in which my parents raised me, my memories of sitting on the floor at the feet of my Sunday School teacher, taking in the stories and lessons told with flannel graph Jesus.

I was going to write about coming to genuine faith there, about learning important Christian doctrines, about being confirmed, participating in the Lord’s Supper for the first time, and then learning to serve by teaching Sunday School classes, and writing skits to be performed by little ones during the Sunday service.

I was going to share my memories of the Pentecostal church I attended in university, where I heard apologetics and learned to study the Bible, and where I experienced the practice of Christian hospitality like I’d never seen it practiced before, when one particular family invited me to their home for a roast beef lunch on a Sunday after church (it was their habit to open their home in this way every week to university students who found themselves away from their own homes) and offered me a place to lay my head after the meal.

I was going to write about the little Christian and Missionary Alliance church my husband and I have called home for 30 years. I was going to tell you about the lifelong friendships I’ve made there, the mentoring, teaching, and counselling I’ve received, the support and help in raising my three children. I was going tell you about the hugs I get there every Sunday. I was going to reminisce about serving throughout all those years—in the nursery, or in Sunday School, or in Pioneer Girls, or Kidz Kamp or in the kitchen—even when I didn’t really want to, and how such service molded me and taught me things. And how I watched as my children also learned to serve and how proud of them I felt as I watched them learning sometimes hard but always character-forming lessons.

I was going to tell you about the fact that I study in a Baptist seminary, and work part-time in an evangelical Anglican one, and how both places offer community that is shaping me in other profoundly important ways.

But then I heard about the cold-blooded mass murder of so many families in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that happened yesterday. And my heart felt heavy. So I checked in, via Facebook, with a Muslim friend. And I saw comments on her profile there that made me realize that she feels about her mosque community the same way that I feel about the all of the Christian communities that have shaped and that continue to shape me.

And then I did the only thing I could think of to do: I dropped to my knees and I prayed for my friend, for her community, and for the victims. And I prayed for those who are growing up without the benefit of loving, shaping communities, for future perpetrators who are just waiting-in-the-wings, for those who struggle with mental illness, and for those whose anger and outrage and sense of injustice leads them to hate.

May God have mercy on us all.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 10 – This post is tenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

On discernment

forest paths by Jens Lelie, Unsplash

Our culture thinks it’s cool to be discerning, or at least, to be thought of that way.

Guidance on becoming discerning is everywhere. A recent article on Forbes.com counselled business leaders to seek discernment. News headlines pay homage to “discerning foodies” and “discerning shoppers” as well as “discerning investors” and “discerning audiences.” The lifestyle section of the newspaper offers horoscopes and advice columns for those who seek help in discerning how to live their lives.

Discernment for the Christian is different 

But for the Christian, discernment takes on another dimension, according to the essay by Frank Rogers Jr. titled “Discernment,” which is the eighth chapter of Practicing Our Faith. That’s because Christians believe that “God is present, hoping and urging, in the midst of all the situations of life.” In light of that, discernment becomes the practice “by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.”

The Apostle Paul teaches us in his first letter to the Corinthians that there are some things that come from God that can only be spiritually discerned. But, as Rogers points out, “The history of the church is littered with the stories of people who have claimed guidance from the Spirit when the prejudices of self-deception reigned instead.”

So, it was out of a desire to deepen the practice of spiritual discernment in my own life that I signed up for a course by that name at McMaster Divinity College. I wanted help not just with making wise decisions and choices, but with rightly understanding the on-going call of God in my day-to-day life.

One of the required texts for the course immediately challenged me that the process of spiritual discernment must begin and end in prayer, for as Henri Nouwen writes in Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, “the discipline of prayer and being in God’s presence … is the starting and ending place out of which guidance emerges.”

Practicing the discipline of prayer

Prayer has come easier at some times in my life than at others. And I realized that unless I found a way to make prayer more of a discipline, then I would always struggle with it.

So one of the practices I’ve incorporated this semester is that of the Daily Examen. The Examen is an exercise developed by Ignatius of Loyola, who lived from 1491 to 1556. It’s essentially just a technique that helps to focus your prayers at the end of the day, such that you learn to better detect God’s presence in the day just over, and to anticipate God’s presence in the day to come.

It typically involves five steps, and need only take about five minutes. My course text book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert, outlines the steps as follows:

  1. Give thanks for all God’s gifts and benefits: Jesus, you have been present today throughout our world … I rejoice in …”
  1. Ask for light: Be near now. Let us look together at my day. Let me see through your loving eyes …”
  1. Review the day: thoughts, words, deeds, desires, consolations, desolations*: When did I listen to your voice today? When did I resist listening to you today?”
  1. Express gratitude, sorrow, and purpose of amendment: Jesus, everything is gift from you. I give you thanks and praise for the gifts of today … I ask your healing in … I ask your forgiveness and mercy for …”
  1. Ask for the graces you desire for tomorrow: Jesus, continue to be present with me in my life each day …”

I don’t pray it perfectly.

Sometimes I forget one step or another, and sometimes I forget to pray the Examen altogether. But when I have taken the time to pray in this way, I’ve found it to be helpful.

I like to read in bed each night before sleep, and I try to remember to pray the Examen once I’ve put my book down for the evening, but before I turn out my light. (Praying with my light on helps to ensure I don’t fall asleep in the middle of my prayers.)

Just beginning my night time prayers with, “Jesus, you have been present everywhere in our world today and you have been present in my life …” focuses my thoughts and causes me to feel gratitude for his presence. That sentence has been a powerful reminder to me of God’s goodness and grace—daily to our world and to me.

And then when I reflect on my day, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, I’m reminded again and again that He has been with me. I see Him more clearly when I pause to take the time to reflect in this way. Confessing my failings during the course of the day through this exercise also relieves my conscience, and helps me to fall asleep; it helps me to resolve to do better, to be more attentive to signs of Him “tomorrow.”

I’ve found that reliving my day in my mind—step by step—in a conscious effort to look for evidence of His presence and help has not only made me more aware of Jesus in my life, it has made me more alert to his image in others.

It has also given me a deeper sense of contentment, gratitude, and yes, joy, as I go about my days. That has been a surprising but welcome by-product of the exercise and of my quest to deepen my practice of spiritual discernment.

*

* Note: according to Rogers, “Feelings of consolation are those that give rise to life, love, peace, joy, creativity, and communion. … Feelings of desolation are those that give rise to despair, confusion, alienation, destructiveness, and discord.”

Practicing My Faith, Part 9 – This post is ninth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

The power of testimony

Hymn book photo by Kelly Sikkema

We’d teased that she was the Energizer bunny; she just kept going and going. An athlete in her younger years, she overcame a fall and broken ribs at 97, and two more falls—due to congestive heart failure resulting in a fractured hip and collar bone—at 101. Then, in November, just after her 102nd birthday, another fall, and another broken hip, which led to a long period of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

Two weeks ago, the hospital said they’d done all they could for her, and maybe she’d be more comfortable at home. So, we moved her back to her lovely retirement community. In spite of better food (she’d found the hospital’s pureed options insulting) and familiar surroundings, she has made it clear that no, thank you very much, she really isn’t very hungry or thirsty.

On Friday morning, her nurse called to say that she isn’t taking in enough food or fluid to sustain her. Later that day, the doctor signed the necessary forms to admit my mother-in-law to palliative care.

When my husband and I sat with her on Friday afternoon, we began our visit by communicating in the only way we’ve really been able to communicate over the past number of months—by writing on an erasable white board. We reminded her that she has much to look forward to: she is headed for eternity, where she will be reunited with loved ones. We listed them by name. She shrugged.

But then we thought we’d try her “Pocket Talker” (sound amplifier) again; she had been refusing even that while in hospital. This time, she allowed us to put on her head phones. I held the microphone close to my mouth and spoke into it directly, trying to engage her, asking her questions that might provoke happy memories. What was her favourite game as a girl? Who was her best friend in high school? Again and again she just mumbled, “I don’t remember.”

A light comes on

“Well, let’s see if you remember this,” I said, and I started to sing Jesus Loves Me. It took just those three words sung for the light to come on in her eyes, and soon she was singing along.

With that kind of success, I invited her to sing another song with me, In the Garden. And then, How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace, and The Old Rugged Cross. Next we recited The Lord’s Prayer, The Apostles’ Creed, and the Twenty-Third Psalm. She spoke them all in the loudest, clearest voice I’d heard from her in a while.

I reached for the hymn book on her night stand and began flipping pages, looking for anything even vaguely familiar, giving silent thanks for all those years of hymn singing in church where I’d learned to make my voice follow the direction of the notes on the page, and to hold some notes longer than others. O God, Our Help in Ages Past;  Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise;  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee;  Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God, Almighty;  Come, Thou Almighty King; and Be Still My Soul.  We three sang them all, me holding the mic millimetres away from my lips so she could hear, Doug chiming in with whatever he remembered, both of us amazed by how much she recalled.

“Aren’t you getting tired of hearing my sorry voice?” I asked her.

“No, don’t stop,” she commanded. “I love it.” And so we sang some more.

After we’d been singing about an hour, it was clear she needed to rest. So we kissed her and said our good-byes. But I sensed a peace and contentment in her that hadn’t been there when we’d first arrived.

The dimensions of Christian testimony

At home that evening, I read Thomas Hoyt Jr.’s essay, “Testimony,” composing chapter 7 of Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.  In it, Hoyt describes Christian testimony as “a deeply shared practice,” in which “people speak truthfully about what they have experienced and seen.” Hoyt further describes song as “one of the most precious forms of the practice of testimony.”

“Christian testimony has two dimensions,” Hoyt writes concluding his chapter. “One is testimony to the church and the world, where witnesses tell others about the action of God. The other is testimony to where witnesses tell God the truth about themselves and others.”

It was then that the penny dropped. Through our singing that afternoon, we had been reminding one another of the truths of God, even as we reinforced them in our own hearts and minds. We had simultaneously been singing the truth of our own sins, failures, and frailties to God, while expressing our trust in His inestimable mercy, saving grace, and love for us.

No wonder she seemed at peace. No wonder that we felt it too.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 8  – This post is eighth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Sabbath keeping

Candle by Zander Bederi

I remember the school children, running through the narrow avenues and alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem. Happy, but quietly so. Hurrying to get home for Shabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest, which begins at sundown each Friday and ends at sundown the following day.

It was early on a Friday afternoon in the winter of 2005 when I saw them, when the streets began to exhale people. School children were the first to collect—like autumn leaves—along those narrow stones worn smooth. But soon, the labyrinthine paths were filled and flowing as restaurants and businesses closed up shop, blowing their owners and workers out of doors. They too scurried, but purposefully; all those people, generations, moving with purpose.

And then, just as suddenly, a hush, as the rushing bodies seemed to disappear, having been inhaled again into their hidden homes.

Later, as I sat in our hotel’s candle-lit dining room, surrounded by tables filled with families wearing their best, I listened as our host prayed, welcoming the Sabbath. I watched as he raised a cup of wine, sang a blessing, then blessed and broke sweet bread.

And I felt envy.

The gift of Sabbath

Ushering in the day of rest in an atmosphere of thanksgiving festive and reverent—with food and family, prayers and candles—struck me as a gift. And I couldn’t help but reflect on the contrast with how I carried out my own practice during a weekly day of rest and worship, which often began with the stress of trying to corral everyone to get to church on time and more often than not included catching up on one or more tasks that somehow just didn’t get accomplished during the week: groceries or laundry, budgeting or completing that not-quite-finished project for a client. The contrast deepened as I walked the silent streets of Jerusalem the next day and saw how the entire city had ground to a very visible halt. I realized: Shabbat is a gift the Jewish people have received from God, but also one that through their faithful practice of honouring the Sabbath—from generation to generation across thousands of years—they have embraced completely.

It is a gift, according to Dorothy C. Bass, writing in the sixth chapter of Practicing Our Faith, in an essay entitled, “Keeping Sabbath.” 

“For time-starved contemporary people, the practice of Sabbath keeping may be a gift just waiting to be unwrapped, a confirmation that we are not without help in shaping the renewing ways of life for which we long,” Bass writes.

The renewing ways of life. Whose life couldn’t do with a little more renewal?

Jesus, too, taught that the regular day of abstaining from work is a gift. The gospel of Mark records him as saying that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

A weekly day of rest set apart from the wearying labours of our lives was our Creator’s intention for humankind from the beginning. The Sabbath was made for us, and given to us.

But for a gift to be enjoyed it must be received. In the case of keeping the Sabbath, it’s not enough to receive it on some sort of intellectual level; to enjoy its sweetness and benefits it must also be practiced.

Deepening Sabbath practice

And yet, “Christians cannot keep Sabbath as Jews do,” Bass writes. “We know God most fully not through the perpetual covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai but through Jesus Christ. … In an authentically Christian form of Sabbath keeping, we may affirm the grateful relationship to the Creator that Jews celebrate each Sabbath, and we may share the joyful liberation from drudgery first experienced by the slaves who left Egypt. But we add to these celebrations our weekly festival for the source of our greatest joy: Christ’s victory over the powers of death. For Christians, this victory makes of each weekly day of rest and worship a celebration of Easter.”

My own practice of Sabbath-keeping pales in comparison to what I experienced in Jerusalem. I gather with fellow believers for an hour or two on Sunday mornings to worship, fellowship, learn, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Sunday afternoons my husband and I have long enjoyed the tradition of taking a “Sabbath nap.” But I’ve also frequently taken advantage of Sundays to get a little bit of work accomplished and justified doing so in my own mind thinking, “The Sabbath was made for me, not me for the Sabbath.”

This exercise I’ve embarked on, however—of exploring and deepening Christian practices in my life—is making me think that I’m cheating myself by not giving myself over more fully to honouring that one day as a day of rest each week. It’s not about uncovering new reasons to feel guilty or new goals to be conquered. It’s about more fully receiving the gifts that God has for those who embrace a life of seeking relationship with Him.

Recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort on Sundays to avoid my computer with its many technological temptations. It has felt freeing and I’ve liked it.

So tonight, when the sun sinks below the horizon, I think I just might light a candle and say my own prayer of thanksgiving to God for giving us this gift, and then I’ll welcome Sabbath.

*

How about you? Do you take a regular day of rest? What sort of boundaries do you observe around it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and invite you to leave a comment.

Practicing My Faith, Part 7 – This post is seventh in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

What’s saying “yes” and “no” got to do with it?

Neon yes sign

As I was getting ready for church on Sunday, I heard my husband singing through the bathroom door. He was singing loudly, which is unusual for my him; Doug rarely sings loudly unless he’s doing Elvis impersonations.

His song of choice on this particular morning wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” but an old, old Christian hymn, one I haven’t heard sung in years. I don’t know from where in his subconscious this song suddenly surfaced, but I couldn’t help singing along:

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            No turning back. No turning back.

That song has been a brain worm in my mind ever since, perhaps because it dawned on me that its simple, repetitive words are an example of the next Christian practice I have been reflecting on from the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. And that practice is: saying yes and saying no.

Through the words of this song, my husband was affirming that at one point in his own history he said “yes” to Jesus. He has said “no” to walking away from Christ ever since.

Chapter 5: Saying yes and saying no by M. Shawn Copeland

It struck me as odd, though, the first time I heard of the premise of the fifth chapter in this book through which I am thinking and blogging my way. How could saying yes or saying no possibly be considered a Christian practice? Everybody says yes and no. But as Copeland makes clear in her essay, “Saying yes and saying no are companions in the process constituting a whole and holy life.”

She writes:

“If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intended for us, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God.”

Every yes means a related no or series of noes. They go together—like marshmallows and chocolate on graham crackers. Every turning away  from one thing is a turning toward another.

When a couple says yes to marriage, they are also saying no to intimate relationships with anyone other than each other. When a person says yes to church on Sunday morning, they must by default say no to sports or the gym or shopping or any number of other activities during that particular time each week. When a student says no to preparing for an upcoming exam they are likely saying yes to a poor result.

My first big yes

The first big yes of my Christian life was a yes to God Himself, when as an adolescent, I sensed He wanted me for His own. I couldn’t really comprehend why He would want me; I felt unworthy of His desire. And yet, I have a clear and vivid memory of saying yes to Him one night as I prayed alone in my bedroom.

That first big yes to God was followed by countless other, smaller yesses, to things that I thought would add up to a life that would please Him. But it also led to countless noes as I refused things I thought would take me in a direction that would lead me away from Him.

It’s easy to look back on my life and see where my various yesses and noes led me. But “learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a lifelong project,” observes Copeland.

So, what might it mean to deepen my Christian practice of saying yes and saying no right now, at this point in my life? That’s been the question occupying my thoughts these past few days.

But I’d like to hear from you, reading friend. What have been your biggest yesses and noes? Are there any you would change if you had them to do all over again?

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Practicing My Faith, Part 6 – This post is sixth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

 

 

A new way to think about home economics

Globe photo by Kyle Glenn Unsplash

Just reading the words, “Household Economics,” which compose the title and focus of the fourth chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, conjured up memories of my grade 7/8 Home Economics teacher, Miss Precious. (Yes, that was really her name.) With her beehive hairdo (she had one) her pince-nez glasses (those too) and her stern face, she was, for many reasons, unforgettable. I was one of her favourites: my mother had taught me well; to cook simple things and to sew, and by my parents’ strong example and good teaching I had already absorbed a lesson or two about managing limited resources.

So when I picked up the “Household Economics” essay by Sharon Daloz Parks, I admit I felt just the teensiest bit smug; this is one area of Christian practice in which the lessons of my lifetime have come a little easier. My husband and I are at a stage of life where we can breathe a bit; our children are educated and launched, our home is paid for, we have no debt. We may not have accumulated as much as some people we know, we’re driving a 13-year-old car, and the kitchen needs a renovation that may never happen. However, we’ve always managed to prioritize charitable giving in the belief that our giving was really just giving back from out of the abundance that God had given to us. As we look behind us at a lifetime of managing our household in the ways that we have, we feel good about what that has all added up to. We also know we’ve made some mistakes. But we are content. We are in a good place, and we are grateful.

Thinking bigger

But the “household” that Parks writes about is much bigger than just what goes on within the four walls of our private abode. She does begin there, noting that “Our households are anchoring places where, over time, we craft the practices by which we prosper or fail to prosper.”

“Like the words ecumenical and ecology, economics is rooted in the Greek word oikos, meaning household, and signifies the management of the household—arranging what is necessary for well-being,” she explains. “Good economics practice—positive ways of exchanging goods and services—is about the well-being, the livelihood, of the whole household.”

That’s where she begins. But she doesn’t end there. Rather, Parks points out that every one of us is a member of a “planetary commons.” In other words, we all share a communal household—planet Earth—and we also have a duty to manage the resources of this much, much larger household to the benefit, the well-being, of all its inhabitants.

And suddenly, I realized, chagrined, that I had no reason to feel self-satisfied.

I’ve been to the developing world. I’ve travelled its deeply rutted roads, and seen its hungry children. I’ve visited its hospitals and schools and wrestled with the inequities I’ve been confronted with between the lives of people there and our living standards here in the developed world. I’ve learned about injustice, because I’ve seen it firsthand. I know it exists, and I know that unless I’m actively taking even small steps in my life to counteract it, then I am, by default, contributing to it. If my personal household is flourishing, but our planetary household is not, I still have work to do.

So if I want to deepen my Christian practice in this area—and as I’ve meditated on this subject I realize that I do—then I need to think more about where and how I allocate my spending dollars. I need to do the hard work of researching where the goods I buy come from, and how they are produced. I need to be willing to pay the higher costs of fair-trade products. And I need to do a better job here in my own private household of adopting practices that mean better care for the planet, not only because it’s the one household that we all share, but also because it’s the only home we’ve got.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 5 – This post is fifth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Practicing hospitality

Please come in sign

It’s been a harsh winter here in southern Ontario, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to practice our winter driving skills. In the midst of a snowstorm, drivers know it’s best to ease up on the accelerator. Slowing down and keeping both hands on the wheel has a way of making you hyper vigilant, more aware of what’s going on around you and your responses to it. It helps you stay in your lane, on the road, and out of trouble.

Similarly, I’m learning that there’s value in slowing my life down, taking time to intentionally reflect on my Christian practice. I can be so task-focused, that I neglect to really live in the moment. But I’m discovering that thinking deliberately about how  I’m practicing my faith each day is causing me to see things in life—important things—that I might be neglecting, areas where I can do better if only I’m willing to challenge myself.

What it’s about

It’s not about striving for some unrealistic ideal of perfection. And it’s not about trying to earn God’s favour; no matter how far short I may fall in my efforts to live a life that honors my Jesus, I know that He loves me, and that His grace is more than enough to make up for my failings and weaknesses. What it is about is wanting to live my best life, recognizing that the time we are given to do so is limited and short. It is about turning the practices of my day-to-day life into acts of worship.

Still, I admit that my heart sank a bit when I turned to the next chapter in Practicing Our Faith and realized that it focused on hospitality.

Don’t get me wrong; I love to bring people together in my home, to sit around a table for good conversation and nourishing food. But I realized in reading Ana Maria Pineda’s chapter—the third in the book edited by Dorothy C. Bass—that Christian hospitality focuses on welcoming the stranger. And that’s not only something I’m not very good at, it’s also something at which I’ve not tried very hard to improve.

I’m an introvert, and I’m naturally shy around strangers. It’s hard for me to reach out to people I don’t know. I have neighbours I’ve lived beside for years—I’m ashamed to say—with whom I regularly exchange pleasantries, gifts at Christmas, and to whom I’ve sent the occasional meal when I learned they were struggling. But we’ve never been in each other’s homes. I’ve defaulted to what’s easy and comfortable and been content with allowing things to remain as they are.

“Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger,” writes Ana Maria Pineda. But, she also writes, “In the traditions shaped by the Bible, offering hospitality is a moral imperative.”

Welcoming strangers

Jesus himself emphasized the importance of welcoming strangers. The gospel of Matthew (chapter 25: 34-35) records him teaching in a parable that at the end of time, “The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In other words, Jesus is saying, when we welcome strangers, we welcome him.

A journalist and writer friend of mine who passed away suddenly a couple of years ago was a master at welcoming strangers; that was clear at her funeral—one the largest I have ever attended. People came from near and far—literally from around the globe—to attend. Debra Fieguth lived in a university town, and she and her husband welcomed international students into their home for meals and conversation weekly for years. In her book, The Door Is Open: Glimpses of Hospitality in the Kingdom of God, Debra writes that North American Christianity lacks hospitality and then diagnoses the problem: “We cocoon ourselves in our own homes or families or churches, forgetting to share what we have—including our time—with others.”

As I’ve thought about hospitality, I’ve thought about Debra, and about what it means to welcome strangers. And it occurred to me that I am surrounded by strangers as I ride the train and subway three days each week during my commute into and out of the heart of Toronto. But in my desire to productively use that time, I’ve been cocooning—ear buds in as I listen to podcasts, or head down looking at my cell phone as I scroll through headlines, articles, and news feeds.

An open heart as an open door

“Could hospitality be as much a matter of welcoming strangers into my heart  as into my home?” I wondered. And could I start to be more welcoming, cultivating a willingness to share my time by simply keeping my head up, with eyes and ears open during those commutes?

Last week, I thought I’d try. My first encounter with a stranger on my first commuting day happened early; it was still dark when I stood on the platform of the train station waiting for the train to arrive. A petite young woman with long brown hair and a gold knit toque pulled down low over her forehead cupped her travel mug in both hands and sipped its contents. I told her it smelled good, her coffee, and it really did on that frigid morning. She smiled and told me her boyfriend had made it for her. That was all it took to open up a friendly conversation until we boarded the train and I lost sight of her.

But disembarking from the train, I saw her again, and wished her a good day. She returned my wishes. It was such a small exchange, but it occurred to me that my commute had felt a little warmer that day; I hoped hers had too.

For the next couple of days, I continued to leave my cell phone with its many enticements tucked out of sight, and had several other, brief, and seemingly inconsequential encounters with people unknown to me. There was the sniffling, middle-aged woman on the train who clearly needed a tissue, so I offered one; the tall, bearded young man struggling with a suitcase and several bags at the bottom of the subway stairs who obviously needed a helping hand, and the woman who slipped and took a tumble at the bottom of a staircase on the way in to the subway station. When I helped her up, she brushed herself off, embarrassed. In answer to my query, she assured me she was fine, but thanked me for asking nonetheless.

In the grand scheme of things perhaps none of those encounters will really count for much, but I’m certain that none of them would have happened had my eyes and ears been closed to the world. Emerging from the confines of a cocoon, I’m learning, takes both effort and time. And for me, it also takes some courage. I’m hoping that with practice, it might come more easily.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 4 – This post is fourth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.