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Welcoming Strangeness

There are a lot of ways to speak about hospitality, probably as many ways as there are to be hospitable. But, I particularly love thinking about how our hospitality informs our ways of seeing the world, and how our ways of seeing the world inform our hospitable actions. Hospitality seems to be circular, and deeply embedded in the Christian narrative:

“Hospitality is a central virtue of the biblical tradition itself, where God is always using the stranger to introduce us to strangeness of truth. To be inhospitable to strangers or strange ideas, however unsettling they may be, is to be hostile to the possibility of truth; hospitality is not only an ethical virtue but an epistemological one as well.” Parker Palmer, To Know as we are Known

I don’t really know how to add to the potency of this statement, except to say that the linking of hospitality (action/ethics) and hospitality (belief/epistemology) reminds us that the fears we have in hospitality are warranted. When we encounter a person we are afraid of, who makes us bristle or renders us uncomfortable—we can be sure that they are a sacred, strange truth. And this renders us vulnerable: if this is a bearer of sacred truth and yet I am unable to receive him/her—what does that say about my relationship to truth? Might I not possess it all right now as I thought I did? Is there more?

We know, on a deep level, that we either have to open up to this flesh-covered truth, or run away (or fight, or shut down). Often, we use our instinctual fear responses (fight, flight, or freeze) to respond to the person, and to the possibility of truth that they bear. We keep our truth locked up tight, walled in, and quite certain. And we make sure they do too. It’s safer that way, we think.

For example, when we see a person on a street corner asking for money, the first decision we make is whether or not to even read the sign or risk making eye contact. The first act of hospitality is to look. What keeps us from looking? The knowledge that when we connect, we’ll have to encounter the need (or reality) of another person, and we don’t really want to deal with that this morning. So we ignore. We may even switch lanes to avoid having to encounter this “problem.” And that is how we encounter strangers throughout our day, on street corners, on Facebook, at the office. Except maybe some of us are more combative with strangers—people see politics or religion in a different way. They are the problem.

What if we started to see the discomfort of the stranger as an invitation to strange truth?

The problem with strangers is that we may actually have to change in the process of encountering them, to sit with discomfort and lack of certainty as we hold something in tension, to begin to ask questions of ourselves based on new information. Scientifically speaking, our bodies and minds resist change at all costs—or find ways to keep things familiar—but they are also capable of great change (read: neuroplasticity). Familiarity is safe and certain and keeps us alive—but thanks be to God that physical safety and material security do not have to be the extent of our lives. Even people who are denied basic rights to security of their person have access to amazing capacities for consciousness and reflection.