So, logically enough, the book I pulled from my "To Be Read" pile happened to be one called Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness, by Leslie Verner. As I set out on my determined, singleminded, self-indulging fall funk—I mean, *cough cough* my Saturday sabbath... *ahem* Okay, Lord, we both know You created me with a tendency toward introversion, and sometimes, I try way too hard to overcompensate, and then I make myself all whiny and resentful about it... I'm learning this whole boundaries-and-solitude, rhythms-and-life, sacrifice-and-self-care thing, okay? Really, I'm working on it.
Anyway. So I'm feeling especially worn and hollow yesterday, so I end up in my lawn chair in the back yard in the sunshine, with this book about hospitality and loneliness in my hand, already repining in my spirit about how I just need some time to be quiet and left alone, and maybe I don't ever actually want anything to do with another human being again—is that so wrong?
In spite of all the tired petulance in the world, or perhaps because of it, I opened up Verner's book and allowed her to begin to minister to me. And immediately, reading her opening pages, I felt myself beginning to ease into the familiar cadences of words I've said myself a thousand times.
Yeah, sure, call a socially awkward introvert into hospitality ministry at the biggest church in Brookings—very funny, Lord. It's like You do these things on purpose or something.
Hospitality, while still vibrant in some areas of the West, has mostly become a faded dream in a fast-paced society. Resurrecting this old-fashioned value has the power not only to satiate our personal loneliness, but also to enliven our faith communities, revitalize our neighborhoods, and transform our cities. The Bible clearly commands followers of God to welcome others, open our homes, and love our neighbors. 'Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling,' Peter urges the church in 1 Peter 4:9. Peter seems to use this as an answer to the previous verse: 'Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.' Love errs on the side of invitation." ~ Leslie Verner, Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness
We think we need to "go" somewhere to serve, like somewhere overseas, maybe somewhere exotic—or at least across the country, maybe to some inner-city slum "where the need is."
We tend to think of mission trips in terms of spending a week somewhere far from home and then "coming back changed," not coming face-to-face at the gas pump with the person we served in line at Harvest Table on Monday or Project Joy last Christmas.
The Samaritan didn't need to change roads to encounter God. He was walking his road, minding his business, when God brought someone into his path. And then he had a choice: notice and do something, or ignore and move along."
Along these lines, one of my all-time favorites says, "I don't want to go, but please invite me." Get it? This one might be my favorite because, as friend and local filmmaker Aaron Toronto says, "Humor is truth."
It's funny because it's true. Such a silly modern medium for the human condition, this meme. Yet, although it makes me laugh in recognition, it's one of the most painfully, plaintively honest heart cries I've ever read.
We like the idea of being invited, but we don't want to do the work of showing up. We're lonely because we'd rather be left alone. Our loneliness is the natural product of all the hard work we've put into creating a world where we can avoid everyone in it. We've done everything we can possibly devise to ensure we never have to interact with another living soul. That's the way we want it. We've done this very much on purpose. And now we're lonely.
We want to be able to connect with people, but we don't want to commit to actually doing it. We like having the option. If we do get together, it'll only be for a scheduled, allotted time slot, after which everyone will go away to their own homes again. We want to know what time we're expected to get there and how long we have to stay. We don't want to share, we don't want to mingle, we don't want to be around each other too much. Most of the complexity around our issue with loneliness is so few of us are willing to admit we don't actually care to do anything about it.
We know we're lonely, we know it's killing us, but we don't like doing the kinds of things that lead to un-loneliness. We know we're supposed to want to be a part of people's lives. We don't want people to think poorly of us, so we say we want to be a part of people's lives. Then we come up with all kinds of reasons to avoid each other. We make excuses, ignore invitations, get ourselves "too busy" so there's "no time." We go out of our way to explain, justify, and over-complicate, ferociously denying the embarrassment of admitting, "I don't want to spend time with you right now."
We do, but we don't. We're double-minded creatures. Our souls long to commune, and our flesh shrinks away.
Our schedules and tasks often barricade us from the intimacy and community we desire. Lack of time can make prioritizing people or bumping into acquaintances more of an annoyance than a gift... God pulls up our perfectionism, limited resources, pride, insecurities, reservations, awkwardness, and loneliness and clears the way for us to relate to one another on solid ground.
Hospitality is not for the called or gifted. It's not for the gregarious extroverts with huge houses and overflowing bank accounts. And it's not for the people with angelic children, respectable roommates, or perfect marriages. Contrary to those spiritual gift tests that catalog hospitality as a special talent, nowhere in the Bible is it named as such. Instead, hospitality is a command (see Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9). Hospitality is for everyone." ~ Verner
It hit me yesterday—the true lack of desire to be together, in our society. Not just the outer symptom of cultural loneliness, but the underlying cause: an overwhelming absence of want-to among most Americans.
It hit me how this lack of desire is the single most un-Christlike thing about us.
And we're okay with it.
We acknowledge our isolation, make allowances for it, make jokes about it, concede "that's just the way people are," and never bother to contend with the appallingly critical heart of sin, encapsulated in our distance from one another.
I sat down with Verner's book yesterday afternoon, planning to journal through some questions like "Is it really a problem if I just don't want to spend that much time with people?" Before I could even put pen to paper, I saw God coming to look for Adam and Eve in the Garden, calling out, "Where are you?" as soon as they hid from Him. I saw Jesus Christ leaving the comforts of heaven to come join us on this rolling ball of bitterness and corruption we call the world, saying, "Come," "Follow Me," and "Abide in Me," in answer to our sin.
God comes to spend time with us. Do we come to each other? Do we come looking for one another when we pull away?
In all ways that are anything less than the ways of Christ, we are sinners. And nothing is less like Christ than our insistence on being left alone.
This pushing off from one another is a direct outworking of our pushing off from God in Eden. Generation after generation, deeper and deeper, we keep twisting the knife in His heart. This is just as true in the Church as elsewhere in our isolated, suicidal society. Except we in the Church should know better.
I'm preaching to myself here, too, you know; my heart is just as duplicitous as yours. I want to know and be known; I also want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, and I want to be the one who controls my decisions about how I spend my time. We're really good at disguising our motives. We can shine with altruism all the while we're calculating our escape plans. We want to care, it's just... [fill in the blank].
So we "try harder" to "show that we care," when it's the heart that needs to change—not the behaviors. The behaviors come out of the heart, and as long as our hearts are shut off, our behaviors will be a shallow betrayal... an insultingly well-intentioned shroud. We can go through the motions til kingdom come and only rub more salt in the wound of open, bleeding loneliness—or, on second thought, we can ask God to give us His heart for togetherness.
Oh, that's a gut-wrenching ask. Most of us won't pray that prayer. We don't want what it'll mean for our lives. Inconveniences, annoyances, interruptions, unpredictabilities, needs, requests, messes, differences, disagreements, noise, involvement, sacrifice, demands on time, awkward conversations... We're already uncomfortable with all the effort it takes to deal with people. Why on earth would we ask God for more of that?
Maybe we're not enough like Christ yet to appreciate how much He embraces and enjoys that.
What do we find when we blow past our limits? I wish I could say I immediately found a bedrock of grace, strength, and love. I wish I could say that I always found kind words and compassion. But often what I find when I exceed my own limits in order to follow God's way is a new awareness of how selfish and prideful I am." ~ Verner
That's where God keeps bringing me back, on this road of walking with Jesus. I just want to enjoy people the way He does. We are so complex, fascinating, and beautiful—I want to take more time to appreciate us.
Easy to say, when I'm sitting by myself in a lawn chair in the back yard in the sunshine with a book, filling my soul in solitude... basking away on a warm, fall day, with no interference or distractions.
And yet, it's in the "lonely places" (Luke 5:16) the power of the Lord fills up the readiness for the crowds. A life of open invitation is a life of rhythms and reliance on God. Sabbath dances in tandem with the Lord's delight of eternal hospitality. "God regenerates us with the Spirit's power so we can keep nourishing one another with our presence" (Verner).
As if it wasn't bad enough, having an author take so many words out of my mouth and throw them back in my face, Verner goes a step further toward the end and actually starts reading my mind:
I sometimes wonder if God has different expectations for introverts and extroverts when it comes to hospitality. When do personality profiles, labels, and tests like the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs become a crutch? When are they a life-giving practice, leading us to become healthier, fuller, more neighborly people?"
Jesus never told people not to bother Him or acted resentful. He was willing to stop, listen, touch, and pay attention to the people who approached Him. The time He spent alone with God fueled the time He spent with people, but He also knew that hiding away wouldn't fulfill His mission to embody the kingdom on earth...
But what kinds of boundaries should we have to avoid hospitality fatigue and burnout? ... Although we can use boundaries as excuses not to love the difficult people in our lives, it's comforting to know that even Jesus had social limits... When our acts of service turn to badges of honor, it's time to take a break. When we resent our guests or feel drained rather than filled after we host, it's time to reassess the source of our service...
In my experience, I need fewer boundaries and more courage. Cultivating our inner life can calibrate us to God's plans. When we reserve space for prayer, listening, Bible reading, communal worship, and connecting with God in sabbath, solitude, and creativity, God gives us wisdom about which activities to cut and which ones to keep. Listening and love help us gauge the fine line between selfishness and self-care." ~ Verner
By His mercy,