Spacious Words: Language of Hospitality

What if I quit holding on to feelings and thoughts as if they are secrets from God? What if I just pour out my heart and tell him everything I’m mad about, scared of, or trying desperately to deny?  

I wrote those words on Christmas Eve. The last blog post I wrote before the Feast of the Epiphany, which was the day I was attacked walking in my neighborhood.  Near the end of the post, I wrote these words: 

Perhaps when I do seek to attend to him in my life, I look in the wrong places.  Maybe it’s the stables, among the smelly animals, in the feed troughs of my life that I pay attention.  Perhaps those are the true sacred spaces. 

The past two month have felt like the dirty feed troughs and smelly stables. I have felt needier than ever before in my life. I’ve awakened my husband countless times in the night. I cried in front of people for no reason and overreacted about things like blouses and skirts and dishwashers that need unloading.  My people have been very patient.  I’ve had friends coming to walk with me because I won’t go alone and I’ve buried my tear -streaked face in the dog’s fur.  I’ve visited the humane shelter looking for the biggest, meanest stray and yet my heart goes toward the one that seems scared and needy - like me. 

I constantly look over my shoulder in parking lots and detest turning my back to open the trunk of my car. I carry pepper spray on my keychain and a loaded 38 in my purse. (That’s a whole different post). This is not the me I’m accustomed to living with and not the world I’m used to inhabiting. 

I’m my father’s daughter. Everyone is a potential friend. I generally like people and trust them until they give me a reason not to. I now have that reason, and yet I don’t like this feeling. I don’t want to be hyper-vigilant, assuming the worst about people, my surroundings and my city .  But my current reality is a smelly stable. And so I find myself looking for Jesus in the dirty feed trough. 

In that same post, I wrote about making space for him and concluded that I’d attempt and fail (because I’m human) and the best I’d offer would be a stall out back, just like the innkeeper of Bethlehem. But that is something, I’ve come to realize.  Offering your messy, smelly stall is something.  It’s an opening, a place for him to be born anew in you and your world.  

I’ve long had an interest in the Benedictines and spent a few weekends in a monastery over the last several years.  I’ve received the hospitality for which they are known.  The idea is that all are welcomed as bringing Christ. They look for him in everyone who comes to visit and reciprocate by bringing Him to their guests.  Hospitality is not entertaining. It’s opening the door, making room, creating space where Christ can enter.

Words have the power to do that. They can unlock the door and invite a soul into safety. They can pour water on a parched tongue and untie ropes of fear. They can  chase doubt out of the yard.  Their power is equally strong in the other direction. Words can shut you out and shut you down, knotting you in fear, guilt, shame, and doubt. 

I’ve known the power of words for a long time. It’s probably why I find them so attractive. But anything that is powerful is also dangerous.  For an entire year in my late thirties, I prayed I would become a quiet person.  I had a beautiful new friend who talked less than half as much as me and I wanted to be like her. I figured the less I said the more likely I could stay out of trouble.  After a year of consciously praying that, and seeing no change in myself, I finally said to God, “If you aren’t going to make me quiet, will you please just use my words to bless and not to curse?” 

I’m still asking for that.  And perhaps it is that perpetual prayer that has attuned my ear to words people say to me - some so life-giving and some which slam the door on the soul.  

I didn’t want to write a ‘what not to say’ column as almost everything inhospitable that’s been said to me these past few weeks, I’ve said to someone in the past!  But I can’t let go of the spacious words that are worthy of remembering when my turn comes to open the door for someone else.

Because I want to end this post with life-giving words, I’ll begin with “No Vacancy” words:  

  • I’m so glad you are OK.  Because  whatever the perpetrator intended that day was unsuccessful, meaning I wasn’t robbed or abducted, these words only acknowledge my physical health and assume I’m fine.  Once spoken, I either have to deny damaged emotions and trauma symptoms or fake it in the presence of this person. I must be OK for them. This is not only exhausting, but closes the door on grace.  Where is the need for Jesus to help me?  One neighbor brought delicious banana bread along with a note that read, “I’m so glad you are physically OK.” That one word made all the difference. It recognized that my sore head and ear and my bruised knee were not where the real wounds were.

  • You should….(just pick any number of things to insert here - become an activist, go on TV and tell your story, take to social media, call the mayor).  Some of those might be good ideas; and  God may indeed call me to activism, but if you want to open the door and make space for him to enter my life - please let Him do the talking when it comes to telling me what to do.   As my friend Ted K. says, “Before you talk to a person about God, talk to God about that person.”

  • I bet you won’t…(again, insert any number of things here…talk on your phone, walk alone, listen to music).  This is a door-slammer comment, and I have to admit my anger here because it seems to give power to the criminal and shames the victim.  We have a right to walk in our neighborhoods in broad daylight and listen to music or talk on the phone if we want to without deserving an attack. Of course I believe in being prudent and watchful, but this kind of comment is beyond inhospitable. It’s selfish, actually.  It’s a way of talking to oneself.  The person is trying to  convince herself that what happened to me will not happen to her because she wouldn’t be so careless.

For every one of the above, I’ve been graced with hundreds of spacious, hospitable words that invite Jesus to enter, many of those words from you, my readers, for whom I am so grateful: 

  • I’m sorry. That really is sufficient. It welcomes without pushing. You are giving me a choice to talk if I feel like or or say “Thank you” and move on. A colorful variation of this one is an exact quote said to me one of the first times I went out in public after my ordeal, “Leah, I’m so sorry”…. she paused here for a moment, then said, “S%#t!”   I laughed and cried at the same time. She truly hurt not just for me but our whole  community.  She wasn’t trying to keep it ‘out there’ as something that happens to someone else.  Her choice word told me she felt my fear and anger. I loved it. 

  • How are you?  It’s open ended.  It creates space for the truth if I can speak it in that moment and acknowledges that you are not judging me by my outward appearance. 

  • I bet that’s compromising…an unusual phrase but I’d expect no less as it came from a smart young attorney. His four words acknowledge that my daily routines and my outlook on the world have changed for the time being or maybe forever. 

  • A scripture verse - Just pray it and send it.  It’s powerful without commentary whenever  I read it.

  • A typed out prayer-  These have come as text messages, emails and handwritten notes. They don’t require a response and give me the luxury of pondering and re-reading.  No matter what you pray, the fact that you took me to Jesus - It doesn’t get more hospitable than that. 

This experience is not how I would have chosen to learn the language of hospitality, and yet it is mine. The dirty stable with braying donkeys and bleating goats has been a place where Jesus has come and opened the door for a more spacious life in Him. It's a sacred space, indeed.