On hospitality

My seminary classmates and I recently concluded a two-week in-depth introduction to the Quran. These classes are called intensives for a reason; all one really has time for after class is reading, writing, eating, and sleeping. (OK, I did some laundry and got some exercise, too.) We closed our discussion with reflections about the experience of being a guest in someone else’s religious home.

The metaphor is rich. Depending on whom I am visiting, I might take off my shoes. I say thank you. I’m not rude. I don’t say the food is awful or the décor is ugly. I don’t offer alternative recipes that I find superior or suggest the place would be improved if they only hung different things on the wall. I find things to admire and enjoy. I offer compliments and curiosity: how did you do that? Can I get the recipe?

My host has welcomed me and graciously shared something of value. I recall a time of literally being a guest in another culture, when strangers in Castaner, Puerto Rico, opened their home and shared a meal. We spoke two different languages but connected through a translator and through hospitality. Hospitality is what opens doors for strangers and prompts hosts to give. Generosity is a matter of course and a matter of kindness.

1910_558109703_1149054_mughal_ewer_41  Hospitality is about turning those who aren’t known, and might be potential threats, into those who are known, thereby establishing rights and relationship. It’s the opposite of closing doors. Hospitality in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. As America now attempts to close its doors to perceived threats from the Middle East, it is acting inhospitably.

I did not set out to critique when I first began to reflect on the subject, only to explore a practice and situation that is easy to relate to. In the abstract, hospitality is about a set of rules for getting along: respect for and gratitude to a host, sustenance for a guest. It’s a mutual relationship that leaves both better off, and dials down the threat level as well.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware.” The Bible, which originated in the ancient Middle East, is replete with stories of hospitality (as well as its violation). The Quran is also aware of these ancient rules for obtaining sustenance and establishing safety. Hospitality establishes safe zones, it would seem.

There is a way forward in times larded with suspicion. Can I get the recipe?

Melanie and Atticus

A number of animal residents of Richmond, Ind., have brightened my days when I am required to be here for residential study at the Earlham School of Religion. Two of them have been Melanie and Atticus, a pair of dogs whom I met a few years ago on their regular walk down the alley that adjoins my guesthouse. Their human companion is Neville (another story). Last night I met Neville walking only Atticus. Melanie is gone; Neville explained that she was 13 and had begun to experience health problems. Atticus is a robust 3-year-old, Labrador-sized (I don’t know his breed, since I am a cat person), whose disposition is visibly sweeter now that Melanie, the more sociable of the pair, is gone. Atticus nosed around patiently as Neville filled me in on the dogs.

dog-breeds

Though I rarely see these dogs, I was stricken by a pang of sadness. A dog’s, or any pet’s, death gives us humans an inkling of the big snooze that awaits us. I am picturing Melanie in the Elysian Fields, happily sniffing around, attracting friendly attention from many souls. The Gospel of John, which has my attention during my study here, contains the immortal image of the good shepherd. Dogs are used to help with shepherding. Some would say Melanie has been promoted to a happier neighborhood, where she doesn’t have to wait for Neville to walk her, I expect. For some sentient beings, heaven is a dog park. Here on earth, Atticus continues dog duties and doings, which include nosy visiting with strangers who may become friends.

Prayer of gratitude to celebrate and mourn Phyllis Tickle, publishing visionary

I owe my professional livelihood to Phyllis Tickle. Had she not established the religion department of Publishers Weekly, I would not have had a dozen years of supporting myself through writing about the publishing of religion books. Phyllis’ comprehensive vision accommodated not just a segment of the publishing industry, but a team of professional observers, of which I was privileged to be a member.

More personally, she wrote the introduction to my first book, The God of Second Chances. In it she called me an investigator of hope. I would like that on my tombstone. Phyllis treated words like gems — precious, beautiful, and precisely faceted. She also had an admirable and large collection of them, so that she had just the right words always at the ready. She generously wrote introductions and endorsements for dozens of grateful colleagues. This, in addition to having the discipline of a writing machine, turning out her own provocative and far-sighted work that was especially visionary in the later part of her amazingly productive career.

Now she goes before us, to a place where all the books are about heaven. After she and Sam catch up, she may turn her energy to forming a Divine Words imprint. Here on earth she has sown a bountiful crop in the field of publishing. We benefit from the harvest. May we honor her memory and remember her well-chosen words and broad insight. Hard as it is to imagine her not writing, may she rest in peace.

Amen.

Meditation: Lobstah Land

To my prairie-formed Midwestern eyes, Maine looks like nothing else I’ve seen: big water and hard granite. I come from the land of lake and limestone, where one watches for deer darting across the road, not massive moose that will best your car in a collision. The water around the island of Vinalhaven, where I am visiting, is dotted by colorful, bobbing buoys that mark the location of lobster traps. It’s lobster (or lobstah, as Mainahs call it) roll time and the season for summer people, down east and midcoast or wherever it is I am, not at home but visiting someone at her home.

My friend’s family is as native to Vinalhaven as its granite. Her great-grandfather polished the granite columns on the library; she points them out to me, and later shows me the farm her grandfather sold during the Depression. It’s now owned by summer people from Boston. Some people have been here a long time; her family name helps her fit in to the community of year-round residents, which is smaller by a few thousand than the summer population. Everybody wants to be in Maine in summertime, especially those who live the rest of the year in hot cities elsewhere.

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It’s not easy to get there; you need to know the ferry schedule. And the weather might mean the ferry won’t run, so you need to be ready with a plan B. Your car might not fit on the boat, which is OK because there’s no place you need to drive. The commercial strip is a few blocks long, and then it’s trees and rocks and houses sprinkled in outlying areas.

Besides granite, water, and lobsters, it’s all neighbors. My friend knows the vendors at the farmers market; one apologizes for not recognizing her. Stops to chat with people she knows are frequent. It’s a small place: small means everybody is up in your business, but pretty discreetly so. They give you your space. They’re Yankees: self-reliant and industrious, respecters of privacy, but there if you need ’em.

The Harbor Gawker restaurant, celebrating 40 years, is for sale. It’s called that because as it was originally sited, before the street was re-engineered, customers could sit and gawk at the harbor. The tablecloths are red and white checkered oilcloth. The menu is neatly printed on chalkboard after chalkboard after chalkboard, listing a dizzying variety of ways to serve fish and shellfish and, of course, lobster. It’s known for generous servings. My lobster roll is so stuffed with hunks of mayonnaised crustacean that I eat it with gusto and deliberation, so none of it ends up in my lap.

Place: what you see, what you hear, what you eat, how people live. Foreign or familiar, offering roots yet changing. Work, food, ancestors, neighbors, weather, the horizon of history and rock and big water. Millions of permutations of home.

Thank You Note, late winter

Thank you for juicy bright oranges on winter-gray February mornings.

Thank you for the chimes ringing in the stiff wind that blows a little good.

Thank you for seed catalogs that burst with the promise of later bloom.

Thank you for stopping the snow before it got too heavy to shovel.

Thank you for cats that lounge in the afternoon sun, relaxed.

Thank you for the citrus-scented steam hovering over the teacup.

Thank you for the light in darkness, warmth in cold, simple in complicated, silence in tumult,

Every blessed day.

Amen.