I have been reading again some excerpts from Martin Marty’s writings. Many of you know I like the kinds of things Marty has written now for nearly sixty years. What Marty writes about all things religious is great in and of it. But he quotes so many interesting people and this adds spice to the mix.
It was in one such piece that I encountered another friend of mine, the late Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who came to this country. He was one of the early, popular writers on spirituality. He was one of those writers who helped me begin to read and appreciate spirituality. One of my favorite times was the occasion when I hosted Henri for a couple days where I used to teach.
The words Marty gleaned from Nouwen have to do with hospitality. As I understand it, hospitality gets at the heart of discipleship. Listen to Nouwen’s words. “When hostility is converted into hospitality, then fearful strangers become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them.” I find that opening line arresting: when hostility is converted into hospitality… The verb is an active verb. I or you are the ones who can convert hostility! I suppose God could do it, too. But in Nouwen’s words, we humans have the task or opportunity.
How would we go about this kind of converting? Perhaps, the simplest way is not meeting hostility with more hostility. In words I have used elsewhere, I suggest we might respond to hostility instead of react to it. Usually, reacting is leveraging my power to get even or, even, win. But if I respond, I have a much wider range of possibilities….like converting hostility into hospitality. Nouwen tells us what might happen.
Fearful strangers can become guests. At one level, this seems unbelievable. And sometimes it might not work. But that does not mean it is unbelievable. Why should we expect this to succeed every single time? Nothing else I do that matters succeeds every time either! What if it succeeds only some of the time? That certainly makes it worth doing.
If a fearful stranger becomes a guest, then we can see (and appreciate) the promise the formerly hostile stranger carried within himself or herself all along. Instead of a punch, we get peace.
Nouwen has one more thought that I value. If we do the converting of hostility into hospitality, “then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the newfound unity.” You and I know what it means to be both a host and a guest. Both words are nothing more than the poles of a relationship. In some sense, they are roles. For example, if you come to my house, let’s call you guest and I will be the host. If I visit your place, the roles reverse.
But you and I are the same people. Our friendship will be the same whoever’s house we have entered. That is what hospitality does: it invites the other into our place. On a big scale, this is exactly how I understand God at work in our world.
I see God continuously inviting each of us into relationship---befriending us. God wants us even when we are hostile. Why? Love. Routinely, God converts hostility into hospitality by loving us. As disciples, we are called to do no less.