I have spent the last three nights in a hotel. There is nothing unusual in that; many Americans spend many nights in hotels. When we drive down the interstates, we are aware there are hotels all over the place. The exit of the interstate I took must have had nine hotels within a mile. And it is not a big city. But it is a busy interstate.
Maybe it is because I never stayed in hotels when I was growing up. When one spends one’s youth on a dairy farm, one never gets very far from home. Besides, interstates did not exist in my earliest years. I know young people would be surprised to read in Genesis that God did not create the interstate system! I honestly don’t remember the first time I stayed in a hotel. And of course, that means I have no clue where I was the first time that happened.
To me hotels are interesting places. Much of the time, the license plates of the cars in the parking lot are not from the state where the hotel is located. So most of us who park in the hotel parking lot are strangers to the place and strangers to the others who are going to be our hotel-mates for the night. When you check in, you might spy two or three others who are going to share your building for the night. But for the most part, you do not even see the others.
A hotel stay is temporary. So temporarily I know that the place has been prepared for me. And if I stay more than one night, I know that I will leave in the morning and mysteriously someone appears in my room, makes the bed, etc. and vanishes. In fact, I realize every person who works for the hotel is there to serve me! I still don’t quite know how to deal with this. I know I grew up learning I was supposed to take care of myself, be independent, and don’t expect others to do things for you. A hotel turns that assumption upside down.
I never thought about it, but it occurs to me that hotels are a metaphor for life on this earth. To remind you, a metaphor is taking one known experience to describe another experience that may be unknown. So when I say that a hotel is a metaphor for life, I am counting on you understanding what it means to stay in a hotel. If you have no idea what a hotel is, then you are not going to “get” the metaphor.
Let’s pursue the metaphor. Hotels are for transients, that is, hotels are where those passing through choose to stay. As indicated, our residence is temporary. We do not “settle in.” I want to take seriously this aspect of the hotel as metaphor. It challenges my “home mentality.” My home mentality assumes that I do have a home. It assumes that the home is mine (after all, I bought it and pay the mortgage!). It assumes not only stability, but can foster the near-illusion of forever.
The home mentality tempts us to think that life is ours; it is not transitory and not temporary. Usually in my home, I know everybody. Seldom is there a stranger and seldom do I have to deal with strange things. The hotel metaphor suggests that life and our world teems with strangeness. The home mentality seldom encounters “otherness,” and therefore flirts with a sense of unreality about our world.
So spiritually speaking, what does this hotel metaphor teach us? The first thing it teaches is actually a reminder. It reminds me that life is not forever, that even though I have a home, it is not my home forever. From this I learn that it is ok to “settle in” my home. I can put pictures on the wall, etc. But I cannot “settle in” to life’s march toward death.
A second thing the hotel metaphor teaches me is that most of life is lived in the midst of strangers. My recent experience made that clear to me. I don’t think I knew any other person in the hotel, but of course, I saw very few of the other guests. Such is truly the case in real life. Again, it is easy to come under the influence of the illusion that I know most of the people in life and they are not strangers to me. Especially this is true if I live in a small town or have worked in a relatively small place or in a place for a long time. Then most of the elements of strangeness have seemingly disappeared.
However, I believe the hotel metaphor should be taken seriously. I am skeptical that I know fully any other person. I don’t even think I fully know myself. Our world really is a hotel. At one level, we are all strangers to each other and to ourselves. We are living temporary, transitory lives.
Spiritually speaking, what is there to make of this? Only one thing, I suggest. We make meaning. For me the whole spiritual story of God, of God’s love, of God’s creative love for each one of us, and God’s hope that each one of us can mimic the best we can that love for each other (strange as we may be) is the key. This meaning is not a given with our genetic DNA. We have to learn the story. We have to be willing to live the story. We have to choose to love the story with all our hotel-mates with whom we find ourselves temporarily sharing a place in this world.
If we can do that, then maybe we will eventually find a home. Oh, I don’t think that is a palatial place in the sky. I think it is a “place” with God and with all the others who finally turn out not to be strangers, but are transformed by love and grace into our housemates.