I’ve had a pretty slow start to my reading year, but this weekend I finished two books that I had been reading for an embarrassingly long time (given what quick, easy reads they were). They were very different books on the surface – a Young Adult novel set in a dystopia where two tribes are at war with one another, and a Christian non-fiction book about courage. Yet they both spoke into something that has been buzzing around in my head for a couple of years now: hospitality.
What on earth do dystopian novels and courage have to do with hospitality? I’m glad you asked.
The novel was called Spark. It is the second in a trilogy by Alice Broadway of which I read the first, Ink last year (you definitely need to read Ink first, if you’re going to read them). The trilogy’s protagonist, a young girl called Leora, lives among a people who tattoo their bodies with every fact about themselves – They get a dot for each birthday, a mark for each achievement, and another for each crime or misdemeanour. Elsewhere in the land, though, beyond the forest, is a tribe Leora and her people call ‘the blanks’ – they don’t tattoo their skin, and thus are strange and fearsome to the ‘marked’. The two tribes have been at odds with one another for as long as anyone can remember, and now things are coming to a head…there’s going to be a war.
At the end of book one, Leora is sent as a spy into the blanks’ camp. She has discovered that her birth mother was actually a blank, though her father was marked. While most of the blanks are suspicious of her, some are willing to take a chance on her and take her into their homes, and others believe that she holds a special hope for them: being both blank and marked, perhaps she can heal the divisions between the two sides…or perhaps she can lead the blanks to victory over their oppressors.
It’s a good story, but the core of it, for me, is Leora’s awakening to the fact that the blanks aren’t the evil, warlike, fearsome beings she has been told all her life. They are ordinary people, just different. They have different customs, some of which she finds very strange, and the stories they tell about the origins of their tribes and the divisions between them are similar to Leora’s, but with significant twists (the goodies in Leora’s are the baddies in the blanks’, for instance). Yet they still eat and drink and hope and dream. They still live and laugh and love just like her family and friends at home. Maybe they’re not so very different after all…
The second book I finished was Take Heart, by Matt Chandler and David Roark (or rather ‘with’ David Roark, which is publishers’ code for ‘these are Matt’s ideas, but David put them on paper’). I was given a review copy of this book (and a pile of others) and wanted to read it because its theme is courage – which is the name of a conference I’m working on for a network of churches called Relational Mission. Courage is something God has spoken to them pretty clearly about, and it seems to be a theme in some other Christian circles at the moment, too.
To be honest, the bulk of the book wasn’t saying anything particularly new to me – it is addressed to those who are fearful about the rise of secularism and its threat to Christian values (particularly in the US, where the author lives and is a pastor). His central thesis is basically Jesus’ words in John 16:33 (though I don’t remember him actually quoting that verse in the book, maybe I missed it!):
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
When we have an accurate view of God and an understanding of history and the Bible, we don’t need to fear the loss of the privileged status we have enjoyed for so long. In fact, history shows us that Christianity tends to thrive and grow when it is marginalised; it becomes living and active, rather than passive and lazy, vital and personal rather than easy and cultural.
The book is good, and if you need some encouragement in that area, then it’s worth reading. I put it on the back burner, though, because I didn’t feel like it was telling me anything I didn’t already know. But a podcast interview with the author made me pick it up again.
In this podcast, one of the interviewers picked up on one of the chapters I hadn’t yet got to, and asked Matt what hospitality had to do with courage.
This pricked up my ears, because hospitality is another theme that has been running round my head for a couple of years, particularly in the context of breaking down barriers and reaching out to our neighbours outside the church. And this, it turned out, was Matt’s point.
As our culture gets more and more polarised between Christian and non-Christian, and indeed between left and right, rich and poor, black and white, the command to love our neighbours becomes particularly challenging. How do we love those who hate us? We must pray for them (Matthew 5:43-45) and, Matt argues, we must show them hospitality.
That doesn’t (necessarily) mean hosting elegant dinner parties, though it might, if that’s the way to speak their language, but it means creating space where they can enter your world – and you can enter theirs – and get to know each other, become friends, understand their motivations, their fears, their needs, their hopes and dreams, the stories they hold dear about their place in the world.
I’m sure by now you can see the connection with Spark. As Leora entered the world of the blanks and took time to listen with an open mind, to learn, to open her heart to people she had been taught to hate and fear, she came to understand them and even to love them.
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
Last year I read The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, the autobiography of this fantastically-named woman. Rosaria was as far from faith as you can imagine, and thought Christians were hate-filled bigots whom she wanted nothing to do with, until one pastor and his wife reached out and showed her radical hospitality. Through opening their home and their lives to her, listening to her, answering all her questions/challenges humbly and honestly, they slowly, slowly, over time, enabled her to open her mind and heart to exploring their faith, and eventually she gave her life to Jesus, even though it meant giving up everything she held dear.
Rosaria has just written another book, The Gospel Comes With A House Key, in which she explores the power – and necessity – of opening our homes and our lives to others. It’s at the top of my list of books to buy (hey, maybe I can buy a new book now I’ve finished two? (Just ignore the 30+ others on my TBR/being read pile…!)), but while I’m sure I’ll agree with much of it and find it challenging, I think what Spark has shown me is that often we will need to go into the other ‘tribe’s’ spaces at least as much as we need to invite them into ours.
Hospitality requires a measure of courage, yes – I definitely fear being taken advantage of, losing my alone time, having my things damaged, having my life disrupted – but at least in my own home I have a measure of control – I set the boundaries, the expectations, and the menu. Far more scary is the thought of entering other people’s spaces.
One of the clients at Foodbank who I’ve begun to build a relationship with had a ‘significant’ birthday last year. She informally invited me to her party, and I should have gone – I gave myself the excuse that she hadn’t ever told me the time, date or location, but I could have asked her for them. My real reason for not going was fear. I was afraid of being outside of my comfort zone, in a space where I knew no-one, and didn’t know the ‘rules’ – the expectations, the ways people would conduct themselves, even whether I was supposed to bring a bottle or not.
Hospitality isn’t just about making space for others in your home, it’s about making space for them in your heart. I can’t expect that lady from Foodbank to come to my home, let alone my church, if I’m too scared to go to hers. If I say I love her but refuse to go to the places or hang out with the people that are special to her, what kind of love is that?
Crossing the boundaries into other people’s lives and spaces is scary, it’s risky, but as Matt points out, it’s what Christians are commissioned to do:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (emphasis mine).
Jesus did it for us. We need to follow his example in this as in everything.