The Heart of Stranger Love

[“stranger love”: 1) a biblical theme that flows from the heart of God, through Israel, Jesus, and the Church to welcome the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:17-19); 2) a two-year, unifying emphasis of study, service, and mission at the First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, Colorado.]

In a recent adult Sunday School setting I was asked about the personal impact our church’s new emphasis “Stranger Love” (SL) is having on me. I had to be honest. On the one hand, I love the idea! As I study it more deeply in the Bible, I find that God’s love of the stranger, God’s welcoming home of the estranged child, is a unifying theme, a narrative arc that holds together Old and New Testament. I think, at its heart, SL is the gospel. So, what’s not to like?

But if I’m honest, I respond to this theme with a splitting of head/hands/heart. Like many Presbyterians, I value the life of the mind. Our rich tradition of thoughtful biblical theology and intellectual engagement is stimulating to me. My head is 100% excited about SL. And, like many in our church, it’s easy for me to jump straight to the hands: “how do we now practice SL?” We’ve had a historic flood in Boulder County that invites (if not demands) we serve our neighbor and welcome the stranger in practical ways. As a congregation we are studying Pathak and Runyon’s very practical book The Art of Neighboring. We’ve got Thanksgiving this week and our deacons welcome church members to assist them in serving the downtown homeless. It’s so easy to jump from head to hands. But to do so can neglect the heart—to our detriment. Here’s what I mean:

Good ideas lead to good practice, right? Not so fast. There’s this often-overlooked area of the heart. From it spring our motives and our deeper feelings. As we rush into service, trying to apply SL, it’s too easy for us to bring old, fallen motives into our activity. We likely never articulate them, but I suspect that many of us, in an honest moment, might hear ourselves saying, “If I’m a good Christian (especially like so-and-so) I should go serve the stranger/help with the homeless/etc.” Beneath this impulse is shame and guilt, a need to deny, hide, or otherwise mask our feelings of essential unworthiness by our performance or our good deeds. In many cases, we grit our teeth and end up doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Essentially, we’re trying to serve God and others in the power of our flesh (self-reliance and self-interest). This isn’t the world’s worst thing, by any means. But it’s a far cry from the biblical example of SL in Jesus Christ. So, I urge you reading this--you, who like I, want to live SL fully and joyfully--to pause and examine your heart. How do you really feel about SL?

Honestly, sometimes I find the practical outworking of SL to be painful, humbling, messy, and burdensome. Sad, but true. My hope for all of us is to have hearts that are free and joyful to respond to strangers in our midst, realizing full well that we may not solve their life’s problems, but can still reach out to them in love, even with just the cup of cold water Jesus spoke of (Matthew 10:42).

You see, SL is just another name for the gospel: God’s gracious love for the unworthy, poured out richly and fully in Jesus Christ, free of charge. To offer SL with head, heart, and hands requires that we be gospel people, immersed in the downpour of God’s grace, fully aware of our undeserving status, in the beginning, middle, and end of our Christian life. Only as I am being filled with God’s SL am I even able to pour out a bit toward others in a healthy way.

Last thought: all of this is a journey that is cyclical, not linear. We are instructed in the compelling biblical vision of God’s love for the stranger, a love that welcomes us home and now calls us to do the same with others. We step out to practice this love and find ourselves frustrated and shackled by old habits of thinking and feeling. We then go back to the source of God’s grace and freedom in Christ and find ourselves loved fully even in our struggles and shame. And we try again. Repeatedly moving under and out of God’s stream of grace, we take our buckets to others and seek to satiate their thirst, even as we quench our own. It’s a rhythm of grace and gospel. That’s what Stranger Love is all about.

They're Never "Just Pets"

"We put down our dog yesterday."

Oh, how many people have said this to me! I've usually murmured, "I'm so sorry." And then I've moved on, thinking to myself, "Well, it was just a pet" (assuming that because theirs wasn't a human loss, it couldn't have been nearly so deeply upsetting or gut-wrenching). Now, I know better.

We put down our dog yesterday.

It happened so fast. My wife and I went to California for a brief visit leaving our boys in charge of house and dog. Like most in her breed, Hannah was a glutton. So when they texted us she wasn't eating, we knew it wasn't a good sign. We thought it was food poisoning or a bug. We returned and, though she didn't seem herself, she was mostly the same--wagging her tail and eager to go on a walk. A day and half later she was worse. We took her to the vet, only to hear some bad news, including an option to euthanize her. I almost dropped the phone. Apparently, she was jaundiced and her liver values were off the chart. Best case scenario: she had a major infection; worst case: cancer. Also, we were shocked to learn she was almost 11 (we had thought 10) and we discovered that 11 is the average lifespan for Golden Retrievers.

Over the weekend she crashed. We put her in an emergency hospital, agreed to more exams and imaging (along with the quickly mounting costs) and then were told she had mere days left. Monday evening we took her home, choosing to make her comfortable and say goodbye. And then...we put down our dog yesterday.

I'm starting to get it now. It occurs to me that many people around me (that jerk cutting me off on the freeway, that grumpy checkout clerk, that sullen teenager) bear hidden losses and grief which I'll never know. Most people, at one point or another, are walking wounded: carrying sadness and stress that the rest of us can't even imagine. Maybe I (maybe we) need to cut them some slack.

The next time I hear those sad words, I'll listen with much greater attentiveness and compassion. And I vow to do something else: I'll let this be about them and their loss. I won't try to say those well-meaning (and terribly wounding) words "I know just how you feel." Because I don't. I didn't live with their beloved pet the way they did. I don't know their emotional bond that's torn and tattered. This is about their loss, not mine. Listen well, Carl.

Furthermore, I won't try to make their loss better by saying, "But (s)he's out of pain and in a better place." I won't try to package and explain and in any way minimize or trivialize their unique grief. I will listen. I will try to reflect what I hear. And I will try to make space for them to be wherever they are. Because these furry loved ones of ours are never "just pets." They're family. Sure, they're not humans; but losing a beloved pet is a deep loss and a window into bigger losses.

Hannah Hofmann

At the Root of Restlessness

Ach. It's probably midlife again. You hit that tipping point and you realize that soon, if not already, you're on that downward slide. Mortality is real. You and your friends begin losing parents. Kids leave home. You or those you love have health problems. You look around you: same job, same house, same car. Restlessness. Sometimes regret. It's a new stage of life with new temptations and new challenges--for everyone, including the person of faith. I'm realizing that for me, at least, the diagnosis might be discontent or dissatisfaction. With that awareness, a recent quote hit me while reading. It's from Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith:

"[A]lmost paradoxically, we remain dissatisfied in the midst of experiencing satisfaction. We compare our 'pleasures' to those of others and begin to envy them. The fine new Honda of our modest dreams is a source of dissatisfaction when we see a neighbor's new Mercedes. But even when we win the game of comparisons--when we park in front of our garage the best model of the most expensive car--our victory is hollow, melancholy...marked as we are by what philosophers call self-transcendence, in our imagination we are always already beyond any state we have reached. Whatever we have, we want more and different things, and when we have climbed to the top, a sense of disappointment clouds the triumph. Our striving can therefore find proper rest only when we find joy in something infinite. For Christians, this something is God" (p. 63).

Perhaps, for you, it's not "the fine new Honda." Maybe it's the promotion. Or the new house. Or the kitchen remodel. Or the bike. Or the PR on the favorite race, run, or ride. Or the book that's finally published. Whatever it is, it fails to satisfy, at least deeply. The restlessness, the striving, the gnawing remain.

St. Augustine put it timelessly, as he wrote his prayer to God in his Confessions: Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” The Christian can easily say at this point: "But I've received Christ; I've walked with Christ for years. And I'm still restless!" I sympathize with this anguish. My only advice at this point is "onionskin." Keep peeling back the sources of your restlessness: 
  • Is there some standard externally imposed by our culture (or your education or career trajectory) which defines success and nags at you because you haven't reached it? Re-examine this.
  • Are you comparing yourself with your friends and family? Beware this!
  • Are you, perhaps unconsciously, seeking to fulfill expectations someone in authority (a parent, teacher, or Christian leader) has given you? Reflect on this.
  • Do you struggle with insecurity, inferiority, inadequacy and seek to bolster your self-esteem by your accomplishments? Be gentle and honest with this.

I suspect that we need to not only peel back, but to dive deeper: to open ourselves up more fully and honestly to Jesus. Perhaps we need a "spirituality for the struggling." Let's pray our discontent. He knows it already. He won't shame us in it. He'll open his arms and embrace us. John 15:4-5 continues to resonate:

"Abide in [live, dwell, remain, get your life and identity from] me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."