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The good news of what God is doing in our world rings out most clearly and resonantly in the places of lack, loss, failure, and weakness. After all, God has always had a way with the wilderness and seems committed not just to forgiving sins, but also to cultivating life in desert places. Yet, I must confess that most months I’d rather tell you stories about the flowers than the sand or the heat. I’m tempted to tell you only the “good” stories or stories of “success.” But some of you remind me that you want to hear the “hard” stories, too. You want to visit the wilderness and I suspect that it’s because you know that God is hiding there, too, and is less obscured where confidence cannot venture. So, this month I’m taking a chance and writing this story long held close to my heart for fear of sharing.
One night over a year ago, shortly before evening prayer, Mason became a part of our household and moved into our hospitality room. It had been a long time since he had had shelter and we were enthusiastic (and scared) about sharing life with him in the way of hospitality and community. Our household, both families, had committed ourselves to the practice of hospitality in whatever way God was leading, but this was our first time welcoming a brother or sister into our hospitality room for a long-term stay. Mason had finally had enough and was eagerly pursuing his sobriety after a three day stay in rehab. He was also working on getting his identification and important documents gathered up in order to better support himself. For several months, Mason made us glad to be practicing hospitality, even if occasional messes, cigarette butts, and a faucet left on overnight tried our patience.
But one night broke that relationship in ways that we couldn’t immediately figure out how to repair. It was a night filled with a relapse, broken promises and broken glass, frantic phone calls, a few threats and hurtful lies, and a set of stitches. A couple of us took Mason to a hotel while the community broke its schedule to begin praying earnestly for wisdom and grace. There in the parking lot of a hotel two miles away and across a river from our home, we argued. I vented my disappointment into the April cool night and asked Mason if he was sorry. He wouldn’t—maybe couldn’t—say it and I still don’t know precisely why I wanted to hear it or what I thought it would accomplish. Mason didn’t have much new to say, but he was eager to walk back some of the kind things he had said over the previous months. Like a boxer dropping his guard to court a punch, he baited me with hurtful words.
I’ve thought about that moment numerous times since then and how I shivered not from the cold, but with a strange mixture of disappointment, guilt, and anger. Maybe Mason baited me with those words because he felt guilty and thought he would feel better if I hurt him back, or maybe Mason wanted to know if I’d meant it when I’d told him time and again that we loved him. Maybe he wondered in that moment if our relationship could be stitched back together, too.
But, I took the bait and harangued him for his relapse, all the while harboring the feeling that we had disappointed God with our hospitality gone sour.
Mason stayed in the hotel for three or four nights and tried to decide if he was ready to recommit to life in community and his pursuit of sobriety. Meanwhile, the community prayed about what to do if he said yes. At the end of the hotel stay, the community had decided to offer him a room in a different house if Mason thought he was ready. But, Mason decided that he wasn’t. To be honest, I was relieved because I wasn’t sure I had it in me to walk with Mason again if he said he was. Mason didn’t think he was ready to return to life in community, and I wasn’t sure I was ready, either. I wondered if I ever had been in the first place.
Mason found a couch to crash on whose rent could be paid in full bottles and cans, while we tried to dig out from under what felt like failure. We’ve learned over the last several years that doing our kind of work means hearing a repeated chorus of promised failure from a wide variety of people. Opening our homes and extra beds to people without shelter has also meant opening ourselves to criticism that what we’re doing isn’t practical. Inviting hungry people to our tables for meals has also meant inviting the scrutiny of well-meaning folks who want us to be more efficient at the cost of intimacy. Living in community and practicing hospitality has meant that there are many who love what we’re doing, but also many who are waiting for us to fail. “See,” I imagined them saying, “we told you it was a bad idea.”
But, to call our time with Mason a failure is once again to be baited by a lie.
Mason was with us for several months before that one terrible night and to call our hospitality failed is to profane that sacred time when we learned that Mason was our family and Mason found peace in the midst of chaos. To give into the temptation to render Mason into one night of glass and stitches—to call it all a failure—is to mangle the image of God still imprinted on Mason’s gentle heart and forget the laughter, love, and resurrection celebrated on our front porch and over countless episodes of Frasier and the Munsters. As one dear friend reminds me, “The story’s not about the results. It never is.”
Mason doesn’t live with us anymore, but for a little while he did and we are better for it. Over a dozen months later, we can see that we’re even better because of that hard night when we learned that hospitality isn’t a good deed, but a way of life where everybody’s health and sickness is wrapped up together under one roof to be healed by God’s love. If you want to call that a failure, think again about what you mean when you say you believe in the resurrection.
Mason stays in one of the other Grace and Main homes these days, having started coming back to meals and occasional prayers some time ago. He’s not “better”—this isn’t that kind of story—but he’s welcome. We still argue occasionally and there are days when one of us avoids the other, but a few months ago, Mason opened up the road to healing for all of us.
“You know, living with yall was good,” he began as I was dropping him off somewhere, “I’m not going to say I’m sorry for what happened, but I’m sorry I wasn’t there when the baby was born.”
“Me too,” I offered.
“But, you know I love you guys, right?” he asked with the hope of healing in his questioning tone.
“Yes,” I responded, though sometimes I wondered. I continued, “You know we love you too, right?”
“Yeah. I know you do,” he replied, though I’m sure sometimes he wonders, before continuing, “It was a good time.”
He’s right about that. It was a good time.
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We disabled our doorbell when our daughter was born, because with her birth we instantly became conservators of a precious resource: baby sleep. Since we live in a hospitality house where many gather, rest, and take shelter, not having a doorbell was a challenge at first, but we have all become fluent in the language of knocks. There are the loud, hard, pounding knocks that describe numb hands or agitation. There are the soft knocks on the storm door that whisper anxiety and timidity—perhaps a sister who’s not sure if what she’s heard about this place is true. There are the insistent, rapid knocks that seem to scream loss or desperation. There are the rhythmic knocks—“shave and a haircut” being the favorite by far—that promise a friendly conversation and maybe a cup of coffee on the porch.
Our household—both families and those staying in the hospitality room—fall easily into a game of guessing who might be at the door by the knock we hear. Some of our brothers and sisters have knocks as distinct as their personalities. I’ve learned another important thing by learning the language of knocks—something important about myself:
I don’t always want to answer the door.
As covenanted members of Grace and Main, we have committed ourselves—both individually and as an intentional community—to opening our homes to the folks God introduced into our lives. But, after a while, hospitality ends up meaning much more than spare bedrooms and open chairs at dinner tables. As we made our home and life in a place with the commitment to be open to who and what God brings us, we’ve found that hospitality also means opening our lives to others and their stories. We’ve had so many great stories that begin with a knock on a door—stories of lives changed and overflowing redemption and resurrection. We’ve also had our fair share of heartbreaking stories that begin with a knock. After a long day or right after the baby has gone down to bed, the stories of heartbreak are what feed my imagination when a knock announces a visitor.
In the practice of hospitality, we’ve learned that it can feel like a holy opportunity to prepare a hospitality room for another guest to join the house and, simultaneously, a frustrating imposition to have to answer the door yet again for another brother or sister while you’re trying to dust, make the bed, and clean up the baby’s toys. In the space of a breath, our quiet confidence and faith can turn to anxious doubt and “what ifs” when we hear a distinctive knock that promises one of our brothers or sisters who has relapsed or threatened someone we love.
Yes, we’ve learned to speak the language of knocks and found that we don’t always like what it has to say about us.
We’ve also discovered that it’s not just our sisters and brothers who wait for us on the porch with hopeful expectation in their hearts, but the Gospel waits for us there, as well. With each knock comes a summons to hear the good news that God is at work in this messy world and that sin is being undone by love—sometimes gloriously fast, and sometimes agonizingly slow. Each knock is an invitation to place our faith and trust in God and be born again. Each knock is a call to prayer, inviting us to pray to the God of the widow, orphan, stranger, and outcast. Each knock is an occasion once again to prepare the way of the Lord and make His paths straight. Each knock is a chance to welcome Jesus into our lives once again. With some knocks, we welcome Jesus into our home in the guise of a friend. With other knocks, we find Jesus waiting on our porch, looking like a stranger.
The folks waiting at our door certainly want us to answer their knock, especially when it’s frigid. We don’t always want to open the door, but we do it—not because we are “good people,” but because salvation is on the other side of our storm door, knocking and waiting.