Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tuesday is for Nesting: upside-down hospitality

Brian's been gone a couple days, visiting our boy in Washington.  As it would happen, Monday morning brought more inches of snow.  Mid-day a man knocked on our door.  Through the front window I could see his large, bundled, unfamiliar figure.  He was dressed for the weather -- sweats, stocking cap, dark blue unzipped coat.

After I unlocked the front door, I noticed the shovel he held in one hand.

"Do you need someone to shovel your driveway, ma'am?"

I noticed he was missing several teeth on one side of his mouth.  He seemed a little bit tottery there on the porch, shovel dangling mid-air.

"No, thank you."  I told him. "I have a nineteen-year-old son I'm trying to motivate to do it."  Emphasis on nineteen-year-old.  In the house with me right now.

He replied a courteous comment, teetered out the door, down the unshoveled walk.  Swinging the door closed, I remembered I had some cash in my wallet.  And that I'd just the other day lifted a half-hearted prayer for ideas of how to bless our reclusive neighbors.

Back through the front door, then the porch door, calling to his retreating figure, "How much do you charge?"

"Whatever you can afford, ma'am."

"OK, I'd like you to shovel."

"I'll go all the way back, then."  And he set to it.

Inside the house again, I paced a bit, watching through the dining room window the top of his hat bobbing up and down with the scraping of the shovel.  Then Edith Schaeffer came to me.  Not her exactly, more her words in The Art of Homemaking:
"There was a railroad running through town, Grove City, where Fran was a pastor after he graduated from Seminary.  Often hobos or tramps - rather derelict-looking older men, unshaven and ragged of clothing, who travelled by riding on the bottom of freight cars...came to our back door, asking, 'Cup of coffee, ma'am, and maybe some bread?'...I would get out a tray, put the kettle on, and look in the fridge for some left-over soup. Into a small pan would go the soup, with the gas on under it. I would cut bread, enough for two big sandwiches (not too thin, he'll be hungry_ and wonder what sort of a home he had when we he was a little boy -- and wonder who he is, or whether maybe he is an angel in disguise!
There are many people whom you may care for in a variety of ways. But as we are speaking about food, let us remember to prepare it beautifully for each person...among friends and guests of all sorts; but also for strangers, who can do nothing in return for you, who seem truly to be 'the least of these'."
We no longer have the opportunity to entertain railway hobos, do we?  Today, at least, I have this toothless guy shoveling in my driveway.  And a batch of my sister-in-law's moist banana-nut muffins, a half a cup of hot coffee left in the pot. And, miracle of miracles, a bit of cash left in my wallet.

I sent Drew out with the offering.  Maybe feeling compassion, maybe feeling convicted, my son told him he'd get the rest of the driveway.  The stocking-capped shoveler promised to return the coffee-mug. That he was off to buy himself some "cancer sticks".

I hope I made Mrs. Schaeffer proud. While I'd been placing a muffin in a zippered baggie, trying to talk myself into this plan, I had the clear thought:  Jesus is standing out there in your driveway. Give him two. I really don't understand the theology of this.  It certainly felt a bit risky to show welcome to a tottering foreigner (Russian, Drew wondered?) While he and I conferenced our plan of hospitality in the kitchen, I asked him, How often do we have the opportunity to bless the stranger?  How can we pass this up?

This is a curious lesson in hospitality I've learned over the years.  Sometimes the art of hospitality requires a willingness to be the receiver rather than the giver. We learned this truth in the devastating summer of 2006, when neighbor and stranger welcomed us into their flood-strewn homes to help muck out.  The humility it took for them to allow us into their personal belongings scattered and mud-covered.  Their ability to welcome help, a grand act of upside-down hospitality.  I'll never forget the woman unable to enter her front door, choosing instead to sit, staring blankly through the windshield of her car, seemingly paralyzed.  We bent through the window, asking her to welcome us into the mess of her home.  She was ashamed and could not do it.  My own home was not damaged, but I recognized that shame all the same.

May we be humble enough to welcome hospitality in all its forms.

May it be so.
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