Becoming a Friend: A ★★★★★ Book Review

The Catholic Church doesn’t start the canonization process until after a person dies, but if there were applications for living saints, Jean Vanier would be top of the list. He is the founder of L’Arche, a network of intentional communities providing hospitality and care for those with developmental disabilities. He resides in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he has lived with people with disabilities for the past fifty-three years, regarded them as his teacher. The author of more than 30 books, Vanier’s gift to the church (and to me) is in imparting a vision of ministry that is inclusive of those margins, without being paternalistic. L’Arche is not a charity in the sense that they ‘do for the disabled’ but a community of welcome where those with disabilities, and those who are able, find themselves bound together in friendship and community.

9781640600966We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together is vintage Vanier. The text of this book is drawn from talks Vanier gave at a retreat he led in 2008 for the community of Saint Martin in Nyahururu, Kenya (a community especially devoted to responding to Kenya’s HIV crisis). Vanier brings together scriptural reflections—especially on the life of Jesus— personal remembrances, and hard-won-wisdom on what it means to follow Jesus in being a friend to the poor and marginalized, facing our own fears and disabilities, and becoming more open toward the other.

The book is short but not what I’d call a quick read. It is only 138 pages and not overly complicated, but  I found myself reading and re-reading, reading slowly,  mulling over words and phrases, and underlining whole paragraphs. I will resist my urge to quote the whole book here, but here a few passages I found meaningful. The first passage discusses what it means to become friends with the poor, instead of just serving them from a place of privilege:

I can be generous:  I can volunteer to help someone living in an institution, or I can go into a slum area and listen to the people, or give them money. However, when I am generous, I hold the power. In my generosity, I give good things when I want. The initiative is mine. When I extend my generosity to you, I become superior. The equation changes, however when I become your friend. The generosity becomes a meeting point for the two of us, and the journey of friendship begins, When I become your friend, I become vulnerable with you. I listen to your story; I hear how much you have suffered: and you listen to my story. In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become a friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change (54-55).

On Spiritual growth:

If you read any books on the saints, you will discover that as one grows in spirituality, one feels less and less perfect. So, if you are feeling less and less perfect, it means you are getting closer to God! Those in religious life, when they entered the novitiate, had wings. After that, the wings were clipped and they began living in community, a life they found painful (65).

On the preferential option for the poor:

Those who are the most rejected must be respected. It is not a question of a preferential option for the poor. It is the fact that the Church is constitutioned by the presence of the poor. The poor are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security (72).

On vocation and calling:

Sometimes I am a bit concerned when we talk of vocations, making reference only to the priesthood or religious life for sisters. I believe in the priesthood and I believe in religious life, but I also believe in the vocations of people with disabilities. I believe in the vocation of hearts filled with love of people like Maimanu and Dorothy and many others. We each have a vocation. We are all called by God to grow in love and be a sign of tenderness to the world. Our vulnerable Jesus is calling us to grow in love (118).

Sometimes people speak romanticly about ‘the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled.’ Vanier has dedicated a lifetime to sharing life with the disabled in L’Arche and knows how difficult the journey can be. But he also knows the gift of love when we are open enough to share our lives with others. When he describes those with disabilities whom he calls friends, he describes what they have revealed about his own poverty of spirit and disability and ways they have spurred him on to greater love and humility. I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: Paraclete Press provided me with a copy of this book. I was not asked to write a positive review.

Sinners in the “ands of a hangry God”

Jesus was an angry guy. Nope, it wasn’t just that one time in the temple after he rode in a town and really needed a breakfast burrito. He was angry other times too. However, he didn’t get angry in the way we get angry, selfishly when things don’t go our way.  He got angry when the worship of God was misdirected and he got mad when he saw injustice. He really got upset, when people created obstacles to God.  As Sarah Sumner observes:

  Jesus is a friend of sinners. He’s an advocate for those who need to hear his loving call and realize that his love can make them clean. Jesus welcomes sinners to come home. It’s when people deny the fact that we ourselves are sinners that our dishonesty provokes the ire of God. (Angry Like Jesus, Fortress Press 2015, p11).

When you read the gospels, you discover that the Pharisees were at loggerheads with Jesus, and they are objects of his anger. Often Jesus butted heads with them just as he sat down to eat.

The Pharisees were annoyed at the type of people Jesus ate with. When Jesus called Matthew, one of his twelve disciples, he went to dinner at Matthew’s house and ‘many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” (Matthew 9:10-11). Jesus responds by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12-13).

I know we are used to a sanitized savior, but don’t you hear a little Son-of-God snippiness in Jesus’ response? Jesus didn’t like the Pharisees’ policy of exclusion.  Again he said,”The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. But wisdom is proved right by her deeds'”(Matthew 11:19).  And we can’t forget the reaction of the Pharisees when a woman of ill-repute anointed Jesus’ feet as he dined at one of their houses? (Luke 7:36-50).  Tax collectors. Prostitutes. Sinners. Jesus was in constant conflict with the religious establishment because of the type of people he chose to include.

The Kingdom of God is like a great banquet (Luke 14:15-24). When the guests that should be there didn’t come, the master sent invites the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame. When Jesus sat down at the table, he inaugurated a spirituality of radical inclusion. Those who had been excluded from the banquet found themselves sitting at the table with the Son of God. The only one’s left out the banquet were those who refused to join the feast.

With apologies to Jonathan Edwards (who got ousted from his Northampton congregation for making it more difficult for folks to join the church, receive communion and be baptized), we are not sinners in the hands of an Angry God, but we are in the ands of a hangry one. Dinner is served and Jesus is hungry. He looks towards heaven and thanks the Father for the meal he provided. We know we are with him, by who we are willing to include at the table (the ands):

  • the LGBTQ Community

and

  • Trump Supporters

and

  • Black Lives Matter

and

  • Law Enforcement

and

  • Liberal Social Justice Warrior Snowflakes

and

  • The NRA

and

  • White Nationalists

and

  • Undocumented Migrant Workers

and

  • Eco Feminists

and

  • New Agers

and

  • Evangelicals

and

  • Muslims

. . .and whoever else. We know we are with Him by who we are willing to include at the table. We are the ands because we are included!

Are some of these ‘ands’ difficult for you? I know I don’t feel like welcoming everybody. I  can get down right judgy. People with particular ideologies or personal histories are sometimes hard for me to love. I can them off. But when I do, I am not operating out of the Spirit of Christ. It is fear, or me feeling like I’m better than them. And yet the banquet is on and Jesus anger burns against those who would exclude others from the feast.

Painting by Sieger Kroder- Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors and Sinners

X is for Xenophilia (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:23, NIV)

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21, NIV)

Xenophobia is something we are all too familiar with: the fear and disdain for people not like us. It is the default stance of the internet troll and the reason for the uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims. It is codified in the practices of law enforcement in minority communities and the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people in our country. It is becoming our national immigration and foreign policy. It manifests itself as fear and hate or the desire for the other to keep their distance.

Xenophilia,  on the other hand, is the opposite: a love for foreign peoples, cultures, and customs.  In the Christian tradition, we call this welcoming the stranger. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) has a number of passages that talk about caring for foreigners, strangers and resident aliens dwelling in the land (cf. Deut. 14:29; 26:11-13, Lev. 19:10, 23:22, Zech. 7:8-10). There are also compelling examples within the narrative of hospitality and inclusion of strangers (i.e. Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18, Rahab, Ruth, etc).  The whole thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 was that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing, a priest to the nations to welcome them back into relationship with God. Christians can glean a lot about hospitality from the First Testament and Jewish practice.

However, our example par excellence of xenophilia is Jesus. I don’t want to be anachronistic. Jesus was a first century Jew and he came to the Jews. He didn’t welcome everybody in his lifetime. Still he demonstrated the stance of welcome in his friendship to tax collectors and sinners, the healing non-Jews (the Centurion’s servant, the Gerasene demoniac, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, etc), his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and teachings which challenged the exclusion of the Gentiles (i.e. Luke 4:20-30, the parable of Good Samaritan, etc.) His ultimate welcome of strangers came through the cross where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was torn down (Ephesians 2:14).

Before we get to Calvary. Jesus dines with his disciples in an upper room. It was Passover, and they were in Jerusalem. These were Jesus’ disciples for three years of ministry. The guys he spent most of his time with. Friends. And yet there was a stranger in their midst. Someone who dipped bread and ate with Jesus, but in his heart, he was neither friend no follower. The stranger Jesus welcomed and called a friend, The friend who gives strange kisses in the garden.

On the same evening, Jesus offered up a missional prayer, that God would unite, sanctify and send his disciples out into the world (John 17). He didn’t just pray for them but for the ones he didn’t even know yet, who would respond to God’s message of welcome.

When they arrived to arrest him, a disciple cut off an ear of someone in the arresting party. Jesus healed the stranger.

How does hospitality, the welcome of strangers and xenophilia, shape your spiritual journey?  How can we follow the example of Christ (and the biblical tradition) in caring for strangers disconnected from basic relationships and security? Theologian Krister Stendhal wrote, “wherever, whenever, however, the kingdom manifest itself, it is welcome” (cited in Christine Pohl’s Making Room, Eerdmans, 1999).

We are at a good news moment in the Gospel story, why we call this Friday good. Let us seek to extend Christ’s welcome of strangers to the world too accustomed to fearmongering and hate. It is time to demonstrate the love of Christ to all those not like us. 

Hospitable Grace: a book review and recommendation

Paraclete Hospitality My exploration of the Christian practice of hospitality changed the trajectory of my life. My exposure to hospitality came when I read Christine Pohl’s book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Before that I had no concept about what it meant to welcome and love people on the margins. From my church experience, all I knew about hospitality as a Christian practice is that involved bad coffee, saying, ‘hi’ on Sunday morning and forcing people to wear name tags. What I discovered was a robust vision of welcoming the stranger drawn from the Bible and the monastic tradition. Pohl demonstrated convincingly the need to recover the richness of the tradition, the way hospitality operated on the margins and gave sage advice as to how to practice it. I also read Daniel Homan, OSB and Lonni Collins Pratt’s Radical Hospitality which drew heavily on the rule of St. Benedict. Less than a year after first exploring the theme, I found myself living in community in inner city Atlanta seeking to love my neighbors and neighborhood and put hospitality into practice. I was able to share the love of God with people, by welcoming them into my life.

The Paraclete Book of Hospitality is a small but thoughtful volume which treats this theme. If you want to learn about hospitality as a Christian practice, one of the best place to start is the Benedictines. Paraclete Press, a Benedictine publishing house staffed by the membership of an ecumenical Christian community, The Community of Jesus, has produced a short book to help people explore hospitality and ‘deepen their lives with Christ.’ Drawn from their experience as a community in offering hospitality, the wisdom of the Rule, and generously peppered with quotations of Paraclete’s many fine books which treat the theme, this book inspires and gives practical advice about how to live more welcoming lives.

There are stories here about how the simple act of welcoming, or offering something special touched someone’s heart in a special way. there are also ideas, and practical advice about incorporating the rhythms of hospitality in your daily life. There is advice about meals, seasons, prayer for enemies and people we find difficult to welcome. The many quotations, scriptures and passages of the Rule of St. Benedict (and other communityrules) invite reflection on how we can incorporate hospitality into daily life.

My Hospitality Shero, Christine Pohl says of this book, “Grace-filled, wise, beautifully written and practical, this book welcomes readers into the life-giving practice of hospitality. It’s a treasure!” I couldn’t agree more and warmly commend this to any one who wants to discover (or rediscover) this practice. This book brought me back to my first encounter with this Christian practice and got me to reflect anew on the ways I can be more welcoming with those around me and the context I currently find myself in. We who are recipients of God’s hospitality in Christ Jesus need to grow in extending welcoming love for others. This book is helpful toward that end.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.