Hospitality and the Church

We can call the virtue of hospitality in the Church either radical hospitality or faithful hospitality. I use “radical” here not to evoke some wild, anarchist kind of hospitality, but that is the root (radix) of what we do. Hospitality is “faithful” because we do it under command.

God gave us hospitality in Eden. The first created humans lived entirely in God’s hospitality. All was love and generosity, care and nurturing. The earth itself was hospitable, sheltering, warm and nourishing. Why did Adam and Eve ever envy God? They had all that he had. But envy was their sin – they desired to be as God, thinking that it would somehow be better than what they had. (Obviously, Satan has already fallen- literally – into the sin of pride. Pride and envy are closely related.)

Is lack of hospitality a sin of envy and pride? We call it selfishness, but isn’t that a kind of pride? “I deserve to have this for myself, and not share it with someone of lesser value.”

Is there more to the myth of Eden than we think?

What’s with the Sin, All the Time?

Christians talk about sin a lot. Google or tag surf the word “Sin”. Lots to read.

That’s a frequent criticism of the church. “What’s with the sin! You talk about sin all the time!”

We do, and we always have. The Philokalia, a collection of spiritual readings intended for Orthodox monks, has pages of lists of sins. I was raised in a Calvinist Baptist Church where the constant theme was “Avoid sinning.”  And we were told how to avoid sinning, mostly by staying away from the opposite sex. My logical little mind soon realized that staying away from the opposite sex did nothing to check gossip, lying, and envy among teenaged girls. Also, staying away completely from the opposite sex meant that the reason we stayed “pure’ – marriage – wasn’t going to happen. I knew a number of elderly spinsters in that Baptist Church.

Sexual immorality, of course, is the Big Sin for most evangelicals and fundamentalists. They see it (in a theological sense) as misplaced love, love that is owed to God and expressed in the basic relationship of a man and a woman loving each other and loving God together. Sex then becomes a mystery of the divine order rather than a physical human need. At that theological level, to misuse sex is the same as dishonouring a sacrament. (Please note that what I mean here by “sacrament” is theologically technical – not the sacraments of the church, but an action and a physicality that are sacred.)

The modern problem with emphasizing sexuality is that it becomes the focus of the definition of sin. It is so interesting! Prurience itself is a sin, when to hear about sex while being shocked by it becomes stimulating. Of course, sin is much more than sexual immorality.

Sin is anything that separates us from our love for God. Sin is always an idolatry of the self. We are more interested in pleasing ourselves than in pleasing God.

And isn’t it easy to excuse it, even as Christians? “It’s not vanity, I’m just trying to look nice for my husband.” “It’s not greed, I just think it’s okay for Christians to have nice things.” “It’s not envy, it’s just that she really doesn’t deserve that.” “It’s not pride, I just think I did a good job and should have some recognition.”

So the Church has talked about sin a lot, in order to alert us to its dangers. If I don’t tell you about the jagged rocks under the water ahead, your boat will probably hit them. Forewarned, you can steer around, or turn back if you must.

We can’t avoid sin in this world. It is a fallen world. Christ waits to restore it in the last days, with the saints in heaven asking, “How long, O Lord? How long?” We wait, but we wait amongst our own fallenness and the accumulated sin. We see it everyday – in broken lives, in hurt people, in hearts that may never mend from the injury done them in the name of human love. We see a polluted and damaged creation. Like cleaning up the tar balls on beaches after this latest oil spill, we can only mop up on the surface. The real damage goes much deeper. The real damage of an environmental disaster goes beyond ruined beaches, dead wildlife, and a crippled ecology. It goes down into our hearts, where luxury, greed, and desire pollute and corrupt us.

Our world is based on lies, the child of the father of lies. We are told daily that we need to look and act young, that we should be spending money on things and experiences, that the past is a dead and ugly thing. All of this leads to sins of the heart.

Why do we want to be young as we grow older? Is not grey hair the wisdom and glory of age? We must have been brainwashed, to think that being young is a good thing. Although I remember the carefree days, I also remember the overweening self-esteem that led me into some bad situations. I got in well over my head at times. I’m glad that’s all past.

Vanity is encouraged by those who want us to buy their products. Fifty-plus-year-old women don’t have lustrous dark hair, at least not many of them. Telling us that we need to look young (to get partners) is just a way to sell us a poisonous product to turn our hair a different colour. Make-up is the same thing, as well as face creams, foundation garments and figure-enhancing clothes. If you look like the middle-aged grandmother that you are, who is going to want to be your partner? Look, I figure that while I am married in middle-age, my husband is also middle-aged, and I dont’ need to look elsewhere or win anyone else’s admiration. If I wasn’t married, I don’t think I would look for a new partner. If God sent someone my way, he’d better be interested in a  grey-haired, Plain-dressed grandmother or keep on moving.

Vanity is a waste of money and time. Get used to yourself. Start young, and avoid the silly products, the waste of money and all the anxiety around dressing and looking like an advertisement.

Greed is subtle. We measure success in this world by money and possessions – the most fleeting of things. Beyond meeting our basic needs, why are we concerned about having ornaments and luxuries? So we can impress others? Be more concerned with the state of your heart before the Lord than with the state of your goods before the world! Keep possessions to a minimum, be easy to move if the Lord calls you elsewhere. You are only a pilgrim here.

We are brought up to be competitive, on the theory that good-natured competition encourages excellence. But it more likely encourages working for praise, and that leads to envy. We can’t seem to rejoice in another’s blessings without wondering why we didn’t get the preferment. Competition, along with the anxiety generated in us by an inundation of advertising meant to weaken our self-confidence, ruins our joy. Someone else can get the prize, or get the preferment, or get the promotion: The Lord has work for you that may not include any of those things. Be happy in the work of the Lord!

And when we do get the envied prize, the coveted preferment, the gainful promotion, then we are proud. We won! We are better! Have you ever noticed that the only personal trait in Jesus that is described to us is His sinlessness? It isn’t His skill in His trade, His athleticism, His rugged good looks. None of the usual traits that lead to fame are there. It is His willingness to do the work of the Father. Certainly, we must strive to be competent at our work, for we owe that to God who gives us our talents. But to desire and then gloat in worldly success because of them displaces them from heaven and drops them in the muck.

While we know we will not achieve sinlessness here in this world – for we are drawn into it not only by our own desires, but by the ways of the world that we cannot change – The Lord desires to forgive our sins and lead us in righteousness. All we need to do is walk in His light.

Envy

I think of envy as a sin of youth, a failpoint of immaturity. It is part of that clash of self and identity, of expectation and potential. It is love of this world, and of self, and a neglect of self-discipline and prayer.

Envy is not jealousy. Jealousy is guarding what one has; envy is hateful yearning for what one does not have. It is not “Please give me a meal, for I am hungry,”  but “I want what you have even though I have no right to it.”

To each his own gifts; envy denies the gifts of others and covets them. Envy says that God’s blessings for one’s self are insufficient.

Envy is murder. It is the root of gossip. It is the root of theft. It is the root of adultery.

Envy creeps into lives looking like ambition. It creeps into the church especially this way, as Christians battle Christians for control of the institution. We cannot control the Church. It is under Christ, not humans, but instead we attempt to annex the structure and system of the church for our own means. As St. John Chrysostom said, beware of ambition in a priest.

On the day-to-day level, envy leads to bitterness and causes love and admiration to turn to hatred and contempt. When we admire a person for his attributes we feel a kind of love. But if we become envious of those attributes because they are not ours, then that love turns to dislike and even virulent hatred. We may grumble about how arrogant someone seems, when the real sin is our own envy of their virtues.

Envy is most common over possessions. The old saw about “keeping up with the Joneses” is a statement about envy. We cannot bear, at times, to see the worldly success of others. We want the possessions, the status, the acclaim and the pleasure for ourselves. Modern marketing is an exercise in fomenting envy in as many people as possible in a short period of time. We envy the Hollywood actors and other famous people who can afford status symbol clothes, cars, houses and pets. We even try to emulate them despite our relative poverty. We flash the designer names and brand identifications to show that we, too, have status, and that others should envy. We belong, they don’t. And that is a losing proposition, because tomorrow, even tonight, there will be a different status object to desire, another person to envy, and the cycle is never ending. 

To step away from the world’s demands is to break that cycle of sin. The Lord told us this: Do not be concerned for how thee clothes thy body, or what thee will eat. The Lord provides. The world does not. 

My way of realizing that truth is plain dress and modesty. Plain people don’t need to envy; they don’t need the objects of envy. The Lord has set us in a good way of life, and we follow it. We are not to be envied, for we are the least of all. There’s nothing flashy or status conscious about us.

We have much to learn from monastics. The strictest groups still have uniformity of dress, to the point where it is hard to distinguish one from another.  They practive holy poverty, so that the monks and nuns are not concerned about the costliness or richness of their dress, and must be satisfied sometimes with old, faded and patched clothing. And it is enough, because true monasticism means that one’s eyes are not on the things of the world, but on the riches of heaven. One is clothed royally in prayer while the body is merely covered against indecency and bad weather.

I had to learn this kind of holy poverty, and it is a great gift. I was once worldly and envious of others, especially when I was young. When I was older I didn’t mind impressing people with my sense of style, my beauty, my understated but quite obvious status. I was proud, and that invoked envy in others, and that is a sin, to make others sin because of thee.

I’m not proud of the clothing I wear now; I don’t pay attention to it much until it gets to the point of ragged. It is a major change in attitude for me, thanks be to God! For He took me off the weary and lonely treadmill of envy and status seeking, and freed me for a life of prayer and service, and though I am feeble in that life yet, He will strengthen me for greater work.