Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making Strangers into Friends

A post by Michelle Thorne

A few years ago I took a spiritual gifts test for a seminary class and was absolutely blown away by the results. Voluntary poverty. Yes, that’s right. Voluntary poverty somehow beat everything else out for the number one spot. Not something that I had ever expected or even believed about myself. Perhaps the gifts assessment was more an assessment of where I want to be, or where I felt I should be, but it definitely was not how I was living currently.

I was reminded of this result recently as I was reading a book by Henri Nouwen, entitled Reaching Out. In it, he writes, “It is indeed the paradox of hospitality that poverty makes a good host. Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend” (73). This statement resonated with me so deeply that I am still chewing on it. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.

The prophet Jonah was called to preach impending destruction to the people of Nineveh. Already disgruntled about his mission, when his message prompts the people to repent and God decides instead to spare the city, Jonah becomes angry: ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (Jonah 4:1-3)

Why is Jonah so upset? Who or what is Jonah defending by his anger? Jonah is having a difficult time accepting that God could show grace and mercy to such cruel people like the Assyrians (whose capital was Nineveh). It is almost as if this mercy were an imperfection, a weakness, which Jonah notices in God’s character. Because the Assyrians were the enemies of his people, Jonah’s pride and defensive stance of his nation and people provoke him to this rather offensive position against the Assyrians. Jonah’s response is dramatic - he would rather die than accept a God who is abundantly compassionate and the forgiveness and pardon this God offers to the city of Nineveh. Jonah is full of pride, self-righteousness, and a spirit willing to revel in the peoples’ annihilation. He lacks the poverty necessary (that of an open and empty spirit) to convert his enemies into friends.

If we are honest with ourselves, we too are often quite like Jonah. We divide the people in this world and our relationships between good and bad, friends and enemies, strangers and neighbors. Furthermore, we, especially in the United States, are often so full that we too lack the poverty to convert strangers into friends. As long as we are filled to the brim with our pride, our material attachments, our selfish thoughts, our idolization of nation, our prejudice and discrimination (based on gender, sexual orientation, race, citizenship, religion, etc.) we lack the ability to show real hospitality to others.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This same poverty of spirit that Jesus mentioned is exactly what Jonah lacked. Poverty of spirit means that we know that our place at the table of grace is a gift from God. Poverty of spirit means that God’s grace has opened our hearts to see other people as God sees them, with dignity and value. Poverty of spirit means that we approach others as equals, not with feelings of superiority or entitlement or with a paternalistic attitude.

We are at a time in our nation’s history, where our superabundance has been called into question. We have begun to feel the repercussions of our greed and our selfishness. Wrong though it may be, we believe that the easy way out of our crisis is to retreat, to close the doors, and to blame the stranger. Wrong though it may be, we clutch our fists and raise our arms to defend our space from the multiple enemies that have come uninvited and undeservedly to pollute our nation with their culture, religion, and accents.

What would it look like to say, “Welcome!” instead of fiercely guarding our “high ground”? What would it look like to offer real hospitality, to let my house be your house, my difficulties be your difficulties, and my celebrations your celebrations? What would it look like to have nothing to defend, but everything to give? What would it look like to really share life together?

During this Lent, let us covenant to empty ourselves, so that with a poverty of spirit we may be able to be more hospitable to the immigrants among us, each as a nation, as congregations, as families, and as individuals. May we always be about the business of converting strangers into friends!!

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