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Summer Reading Group: Hospitality and Embrace


This is the seventh post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the tentative reading/posting schedule here.

It’s been helpful for me to view Unclean from my context within a large public university and the little old building on a hill called Advent House, out of which much of my ministry life unfolds. In this particular chapter, Richard Beck’s focus on hospitality is particularly relevant to a house-based ministry, one some students come to with a desire for safety from “the world,” one that (intentionally or not) gives students an opportunity to primarily connect with fellow Adventists, and one that forever manages the tension of different “types” of Adventists living and/or hanging out with each other—trying desperately to make sense of those who have the same name but not all the same practice.

Beck would comfortably admit to each student that hospitality is hard and goes far beyond four walls. Nevertheless, the four walls of a Christian organization are a helpful place within which any of us can begin to better understand hospitality because the building speaks to many of the points Beck addresses—access, community, commitment to holiness and more.

Hospitality requires the will to embrace. Beck calls it “the communal starting point”—it must come before we start trying to define what it means to be welcoming or inclusive. Toward the end of the chapter, Beck says, “[Hospitality] is the deep psychological struggle…to make room for others within the boarders of my selfhood.” I have to want to make room—that’s the will to embrace. But still, what does embrace look like?

I’ll admit it. I want the black and white sort of clarity that comes with precise boundaries and notions of purity, and I want them even though I know they can lead to inappropriate exclusion. Perhaps my administrative eyes find it very hard to see a viable space beyond static regulations, one that can actually keep a system afloat. And most certainly, this desire to very clearly define “embrace” is a desire with which every organization wrestles. Which is why something else Beck discusses actually makes sense in my head—hospitality and embrace as individual pursuits.  In the somewhat misquoted words of Mahatma Gandhi, I must be the change I want to see in the world. This isn’t to say that I pursue the change independent of or isolated from others, but that I take personal responsibility for it.

While Beck doesn’t have any plain examples for how to make hospitality a reality (and I don’t blame him even though I want them), he does speak to certain things that get in the way of this open embrace, things such as our notions of boundaries, community, oneness, connection, and more. Beck makes an interesting statement that we need to be able to analyze our individual selves and through introspection, work out some of these presuppositions that cause us to establish exclusionary practices. He says this is a tension we have to work through in that because we’re flawed, we’ll never be able to really see everything in us. This is where the “will to embrace” comes in. Before we make any judgments, we “…give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them…”

I understand that but I’m not satisfied with it, and would suppose neither is Beck. If hospitality is a quintessential aspect of Christianity and if Christianity is rooted in Christ then Christians attempting to be hospitable will not rely on their individual reflective processes in order to sort through the ideas that are getting in the way of that willing embrace but will move to a much deeper, rigorous, and humbling position of asking the Holy Spirit to work out all those things; not just asking for them to be revealed but asking for transformation to take place and putting in the hours and years needed to see that change through.

In the midst of that and after any amount of transformation, consistently asking the Spirit to reveal to us what hospitality should look like is what I would consider another essential step because hospitality manifests itself in different ways. For example, the Spirit will enable us, if we are willing, to understand who truly is a “monster” (as Becks discuses) and the Spirit has the ability to help us understand to what degree we open our arms and to what degree we do some healthy self-protection or protection of other selves. There is a need for us to have a flexible notion of hospitality because there are times when picking up a hitchhiker is not the way to go just as there are times when we should open up our door, figuratively or literally, to someone. These are the sorts of details we can’t always discern with our own smarts.

Hospitality is rigorous and I want to believe that at some point we can truly be transformed into those who prioritize people over policy, aren’t living based on a fear of who people are, aren’t relying on speculations or generalities and are able to see the good and be the good regardless of what we see. But we’re limited and I struggle with Beck’s notions of our limitations, not because they’re false but because he doesn’t push us further to the work that I believe the Holy Spirit is able to do.

Now back to Advent House, a space that doesn’t actually belong to any of us—the students, chaplains or board members—yet is ours. It’s very easy within that space to assume unhealthy levels of ownership to a point of exclusion. So what should I tell the students? How can I help them develop the will to embrace? For the most part, they’ve grown up with the idea of tolerance and can appear accepting of anyone yet not fully make room for them. That work of securing human dignity “beyond all question or doubt” sounds good but is daunting, not only for the 19-year-old sophomore but also the 24-year-old graduate student.

There’s something in our brains that causes us, particularly when we’re in a space we call our own, to respond less to those who we don’t quickly consider as also having ownership. Were we meeting in a different classroom each week, the sense of ownership to the literal space would drastically decrease and there would be something else about our gathering time (like program flow) that defines who’s in and who’s out.

It’s important for us to really push the discussion on hospitality further to an acknowledgment of our need for divine aide in this process of developing a will to embrace, no matter what embrace may look like in the end. Perhaps the discussion of hospitality should be paired with one on selflessness and the abdication of control—alas, is that what Beck’s been saying all along?

Michaela Lawrence Jeffery is a pastor working in public campus ministry, daily challenged by the unexpected which often includes the grace of God.


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