Boundaries

It may sound like hospitality is all about breaking down barriers, about opening all doors to welcome others in. While there is some truth to this, offering a hospitable environment involves creating safe, protected space for others. And strong boundaries are an essential element of any safe place.

True hospitality involves the creation and maintenance of holy and protected space, a space where visitors are safe and loved, a place where they can come to a clear and honest understanding of themselves through interaction with the host. It is a place where others can experience the presence of Christ through His representatives.

Jesus was the perfect host. He was able to welcome guests of all different sorts and yet was able to adjust his hospitality to perfectly meet their needs. Jesus’ hospitality was confrontational and transformational, but somehow he was also gentle. He was able to meet people right where they were. He was able to welcome them all into his presence without violating them, and they came away both comforted and confronted—forever changed.

Read the four Gospels to study the encounters that Jesus had with individuals. Let’s just mention a few of these encounters here. Jesus met a learned Pharisee named Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) and engaged him in a theological discussion. He challenged his presuppositions about Jesus’ identity and about the way God works in a life. At the end of the story, Nicodemus was one of the wealthy, influential men who took Jesus from the cross to bury Him. Nicodemus was forever changed by Jesus and passed his story on to the apostle John to be recorded in his Gospel. In the next chapter of John’s Gospel (John 4:26), Jesus encountered a woman who had been broken by life, used up by many men, abandoned by her neighbors. He reached out to her at a well, and spoke to her of “water”—a term she understood. Jesus confronted her with her sin and gave her hope for a new life and a transformed future.

The physician Luke recorded an account in his Gospel that involved a Pharisee named Simon and “sinful” woman (Luke 7:36-50). At the home of Simon the Pharisee, this woman came in and poured out an expensive vial of perfume to honor Jesus. In this act, she was likely pouring out her life savings. Simon, along with Jesus’ disciples, looked on with a critical spirit, and Jesus confronted them with their pride. In the same moment, He offered this broken woman the forgiveness and love she needed. He knew what both parties needed and offered it with wisdom, directness, and grace.

One of the biggest challenges to our hospitality, is that we aren’t like Jesus. We are broken in different ways that keep us from reaching out and welcoming others effectively. For some of us, our loneliness gets in the way. As we welcome others into our space, we find that our own needs are deep and we grasp at what they can offer us; thus, we are ineffective and unworthy as hosts. (People only come away from the encounter feeling used and manipulated.) For others of us, our pride gets in the way. We always have a program to push on our guests, and we think we know what they need—even before we’ve taken the time to listen; thus, we fail as hosts. (People only come away from the encounter feeling labeled as a “project,” not affirmed as a person.)

Our personal boundaries are inadequate because we are broken. We tend to be either like a “black hole” that pulls hard on those who enter our space, or we are like a “tornado,” unleashing our influence to force change in others, often to a destructive degree. In either case, we use our guests to meet our own needs—either filling the lonely void within or filling our need for personal accomplishment or conquest. In either case, we tend to manipulate our guests and fail to meet their real needs.

Jesus didn’t fail in either of these ways. He was complete in Himself through His relationship with the Father and the Spirit, and though He truly valued His friendships with people, he never used them to fill a void. His welcome was for the sake of the guest, not for the fulfillment of His own needs. Though Jesus brought himself fully into His encounters, He never forced change on His guests. He offered them His transforming friendship by being truly present for them, but it was up to them to stay or leave. He never manipulated His guests into action. He affirmed them where they were, opened up a transformational option, and then got out of the way.

Let’s end this discussion by looking at Jesus’ encounter a the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31). This man was truly moral and lived a good life. He came to Jesus wanting to discover what would truly please God and lead to eternal life. Jesus showed this man that loving God and his neighbor was the most important thing, and that all his possessions were getting in the way. But then Jesus stepped out of the way. This man was confronted with the truth and he truly understood the truth, but then he had to make the choice to sacrificially embrace the truth. And in this case, the man walked away. Jesus did no begging; He didn’t need this man’s company, nor did He need to succeed in transforming his life. Jesus was only true to Himself as God’s Son in the encounter.

We as God’s children can be healed by God’s grace to the point of being worthy, transformational hosts to those God brings across our paths. May we all seek such healing and, thus, become a source of blessing to those around us. May we all follow in the steps of Jesus.

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Polarities

The spiritual life is often described as a journey or pilgrimage. Near the beginning of the journey, it is easy to assume that we will always move forward, getting stronger, deeper, and wiser every day, until we achieve maturity and a sanctity, of sorts. Oh, that this were true!

In time, we discover through experience that progress in the spiritual life is a struggle forward. With each two steps forward comes a step back, sometimes three steps back! The journey is hardly a straight line forward. And there are many reasons for the difficulties. Sometimes the problems are caused by a tough environment. Sometimes “friends” and family get in the way. Sometimes our detours are caused by brokenness within or just a lack of discipline. Often, it’s a tangled combination of many factors.

So let’s look at progress in the spiritual life through a different sort of lens. The spiritual life is all about reconciling broken relationships. It all starts with our relationship with God. He has done His part through the sacrificial gift of Christ. But our relationship with God is held back by our tendency to be afraid of God and unwilling to reach out to receive His gracious forgiveness. And when we do reach out, it is often just on our own terms. We ask Him to fulfill our desires whether what we ask for is good for us or not. As a result, our relationships with God are often mostly illusory. The God we worship is more a figment of our imagination than anything close to reality. And so we worship idols of our own making, not the God of grace and truth that He is. So as people, we are often caught between two poles—the pole of illusion (or idolatry) and the pole of true worship.

And there are other parallel polarities describing the other key relationships in our spiritual lives. One involves our relationships with other people. After the first man and woman sinned in Eden, one of the first consequences was shame and distrust between them. And now we all struggle between to poles of hostility and hospitality in our relationships with others. And what about our relationships with the world in which we live? It has become for most a resource to be plundered, not a sustaining, living environment to cherish. We are caught between the poles of exploitative production on the one hand and a dream of cooperative cultivation on the other. Below is a chart that illustrates these parallel polarities and adds other related ones.

Relationship with God

ILLUSION <—————————————————-> WORSHIP

Relationships with people

HOSTILITY<—————————————————> HOSPITALITY

Relationships with the world

PRODUCTION <————————————————-> CULTIVATION

The struggle within ourselves

PRIDE <———————————————————-> HUMILITY

DISRESPECT<—————————————————> RESPECT

LUST <———————————————————–> LOVE

FEAR <———————————————————–> COURAGE

POWER <———————————————————> RELINQUISHMENT

CONTROL <——————————————————> FAITH

BOREDOM <——————————————————> AWE

LONELINESS <—————————————————> SOLITUDE

DESIRE <———————————————————-> CONTENTMENT

I / IT <————————————————————> I / THOU

ENDS FOCUS <—————————————————-> MEANS FOCUS

In this life we are caught between many polarities, all interrelated in some sense. And as we move to the right on the interior polarities, we find ourselves moving toward the right in the relational ones. As we move to the right in our relationship with God, we will likely find ourselves moving toward the right in our other relationships and our attitudes, as well. And if we find ourselves especially broken in our human relationships, it will likely mean we are broken in our other relationships as well.

Our spiritual lives might be described as a whirlwind that is hopefully listing toward the right, toward growth and wholeness—toward shalom. And with the help of God’s constant presence through His Spirit, there is always hope. Much more could be said here, but perhaps this is best left to your own reflection.

I and Thou

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once wrote a book (I and Thou) that captured an important truth. He stands within a large stream of thinkers since the Enlightenment who recognize that we as thinking subjects do a great deal to shape the realities we perceive. In other words, we objectify (or mentally remake) the people or events or other objects of our experience based on the grid of perception that we’ve developed through culture, society, family, and experience.

Buber also recognized that it is likely that some of us see things more clearly than others. For many, the act of perception is equal to the act of objectification. When we see someone or something, we recreate it into something quite other than it actually is. We view it as an IT or a thing. Such objectification places our perspective at the center of our universe and allows us to see the world on our terms. It allows us to create a world where we can feel safe and in control. All of us struggle with this to some degree. It is part of being human. But for many of us, the perceptions we live by are nowhere near a true reality. For some, the misperception borders on madness. And in the extreme, it is certifiably so. In the end, objectifying our world is our attempt to play the role of “God” in it.

But there are also those who have learned to forgo this tendency to objectify what they perceive. Such people have the humility to allow the objects of their perceptions to break through unabashedly as a THOU rather than an IT. Such people are affected and shaped more deeply by the world and people around them. They feel empathy and compassion to a far deeper level, because they really do see people and really do hear people. They are transformed and shaped by the people and events around them rather than merely seeing what they want to see and making everything they see over into their own image. They have relinquished the role of God in their world. These are the hospitable souls, and their relationships are characterized by I/THOU, not by I/IT. They allow space for others to enter into their world, affirming and valuing the THOU, and growing through the association.

The I and THOU person must relinquish some control over the world, which is an act of faith in itself. Such a person must have a solid sense of self in order to maintain healthy boundaries and keep from being obliterated by visitors who might push their way in. How might this conversion from seeing and treating others as ITs to treating them as THOUs affect our relationships?

  • In relating to God, it will mean a shift from illusory petitions and demands to true worship and honest prayer, leading to communion.
  • In relating to other people, it will mean a shift from hostile or manipulative domination to generous hospitality, leading to community.
  • In relating to the rest of the world, it will mean a shift from seeing the world as commodity source to recognizing it as a living environment, leading to cooperative cultivation.

Such a shift will change us from being proud to being humble, from grasping to giving, from shouting to listening, from claiming godhood to embracing creaturehood. Is not such a conversion what we are called to? Jesus said:

“‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

“If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it” (Luke 17:33).

In the Beginning

In the beginning . . .
God created a beautiful world and filled it with plants and creatures, great and small. He created a man to care for it, and then a woman to complete the man—together a creation in God’s image. They were naked, but without shame; there was nothing to hide. They lived in harmony with each other, with the other creatures, with their environment, and with their Maker. Harmony, peace, hospitality were the operative words.

But then the people betrayed the trust God had placed in them, failing to keep the one boundary laid on them by their Maker. The man and woman ate the forbidden fruit and, in so doing, became afraid of God and hid from Him. Then the man turned to blame the woman. And the woman turned to blame the serpent. And God slaughtered a living creature to provide clothing to cover the new-found nakedness and shame of the people. He banished them from their perfect environment in Eden, and thorns sprang up to separate people from the life-sustaining earth. The new operative words were conflict, separation, hostility.

You can find all this woven into the account of Genesis, chapters 1-3, how a world of hospitality became a world of hostility. Selfishness became the human mode of operation, and thorns became the sign.

  • And now, in this broken place, people mostly come to God to wheedle what they can out of Him. Prayer becomes a means to beg for the fulfillment of desires, a magic incantation of sorts. Good deeds become a means to manipulate God to action on our behalf, instead of being an act of love. And so we objectify God as a mere Thing, as an idol, and fail to know him as the just and loving Friend He is.
  • And our relationships with other people are twisted in a parallel manner. We come to people mostly for what we can wheedle out of them. Acts of kindness and love often become acts of manipulation, given only in hopes of receiving in return. And so we objectify our fellow humans as things to be used for our benefit. Relationships are chosen with this in mind, not in response from a call from God or out of true generosity. We use others as a ladder upward or as a resource to gain power, wealth, and pleasure at inordinate levels.
  • Our relationship with the rest of creation has also been compromised. We come to other creatures, both plant and animal, and view them only as a means to power, wealth, and fulfillment. And as we use, and often misuse, them, we destroy the commons granted to all. We destroy the environments that they, and we, depend upon for life, and violate a good world that God created and loves.
  • In all this, we have lost our identity. In seeking to become God in our world, in becoming the objectifier of all things, we have become separated from our very selves. Our identity as children of God has been lost as we try to become God. And as we treat God, people, and the creatures in our care as mere things, we become just an isolated thing ourselves. We are alone and lost.

It is in this broken world that God injected Himself once again in the Person of the Christ. He taught us with word and deed how to love others with unselfish hospitality. And in His death and resurrection, He offered us a means of rediscovering a proper, loving relationship with our Maker. And through His Spirit, He offers us His ever-present grace and power. Through this transformed relationship with God through Christ, we can begin the lifelong struggle to transform the twisted relationships in all areas of our lives, and ourselves be transformed in the process. We can learn again how to treat people as God’s people, as brothers and sisters, and the rest of creation as God’s good creation. The operative word can again be hospitality. And in the process, we can by grace learn that by losing ourselves, we truly find ourselves again in the end.