Find your beach.
The words were emblazoned on a giant wall ad across from novelist Zadie Smith’s Manhattan apartment. In the ad, a large yellow beer bottle stood tall in a field of luxury-blue. “Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her own beach and God help you if you get in their way,” writes Smith, describing the hustle of Manhattan’s self-actualizing urbanites.
I live in Toronto, and though it’s hardly to be compared with NYC, the economic, intellectual, and artistic pulse of Canada throbs here. Nearly four years ago, my husband and I, with our five children, moved to Toronto from the Chicago suburbs, and when people have asked about the most jarring aspect of our transition, I insist it’s not assimilation to Canadian culture. It’s making our home — in a city.
There is much to love about cities, and it’s worth noting that the kingdom of God comes down eternally as a city (Revelation 21:2). But in many ways, the ethos of modern cities runs counter to the gospel. Where the gospel tells an old, old story, the city cherishes novelty. Where the gospel creates a family, the city celebrates the solitary self. Where the gospel forms self-sacrificing love, the city stokes selfish ambition. In the city, no one’s elbowing for the cross. They’re finding their beach.
Apart from conversion, we don’t know the first thing about the eternal economics of losing our lives in order to gain them back (Matthew 10:39). How does holy desire for Christ and his kingdom get formed in God’s people anywhere where temptations toward selfish ambition and vain conceit are legion? Or, as Augustine puts it in The Confessions, “Who will grant me that [God] come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, [himself]?”
Our habits become our worship.
In order to delight in God, we must cultivate disciplines that immerse us in the gospel story and shape our desire to “dwell in the house of the Lᴏʀᴅ all the days of my life, gazing upon the beauty of the Lᴏʀᴅ and inquiring in his temple,” (Psalm 27:4).
What we repeatedly do forms our loves — or said another way, our habits become our worship.
Today I want to write of one such desiring-forming practice, and it’s the discipline of hospitality.
The Summons of Hospitality
Every fall, our children’s school in Toronto asks for volunteers to host the parent meet-and-greet events, and this year, my husband and I had decided in advance that we would host. Today, on the eve of this party we’re throwing for practical strangers, I could regret that numbskullery. I won’t have the time for finishing this blog post. Instead, I’ll be mopping the floor, baking pumpkin bread, and running to the Cheese Emporium.
In the abstract, I cherish the idea of guests in our home. In reality, I always feel a little too busy and a little too tired. This makes hospitality, at least for me, a discipline, a theologically driven practice. I know what I believe about God and my role in the world. Hospitality summons me to live in ways congruent to those beliefs.
God is fundamentally hospitable in his nature. In fact, Genesis 1 is the record of his housekeeping. Evening turns to morning, and as each new day begins, God makes preparation for his honored guests. As he completes a chore, he breathes a satisfied sigh: It is good. On one occasion, however, God does not ascribe “good” to a particular task of creation, and it’s when God separates the sky from the waters.
Hospitality, at least for me, is a discipline, a theologically-driven practice.
“The reason,” writes John Sailhamer, in his commentary on the Pentateuch, “is that on that day nothing was created or made that was, in fact, ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’ for humanity . . . The land was still ‘formless;’ it was not yet a place where a human being could dwell.” In short, “good,” in Genesis 1, has the work of hospitality in mind. In creation, God was making ready a welcome.
Welcome is a metaphor for Christian salvation, and this is most visibly portrayed in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A wealthy father is affronted by his youngest son who, as if wishing him dead, demands his inheritance in advance of his father’s death. The son splits town, gambles the money on guilty pleasures, and before long, is hungry enough to feed himself from the troughs of the pigs.
Not daring to imagine he’ll be restored as a son yet hoping to be received as a servant, the son returns to the father. The welcome-home is extravagant.
The fattened calf!
Sparing no expense, the father throws the wildest party the village has ever seen in celebration of his son’s return.
“My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!” (Luke 15:24).
If welcome is so fundamental to the nature of God, hospitality is one practice for growing into our likeness of and desire for him. As we invite people into our homes, we assume the role of father and reenact the divine love we ourselves have received. Every mopped floor, every baked loaf, every minute standing behind the counter of the Cheese Emporium allow us to enter into what God has been doing from the beginning of time: loving humanity by his welcome.
It’s a costly business — welcome. We necessarily give up on the idea that we’re meant for some shaded spot under the sun, sipping leisure. Instead, we embrace the call to imitate God’s self-sacrificing hospitality expressed from the beginning of time and fulfilled at the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s never beach — but always a joy.
The dishes are washed, the floors re-swept. One couple, lingering longer last night than the other parents of our son’s classmates, began asking us spiritual questions. Olga and Peter had grown up in Communist Russia. “No one ever taught us about religion,” they admitted. So, standing around the kitchen island, we began at the beginning. For God so loved the world . . .
We shared a welcome. The welcome became a witness. I can’t help but think that’s how it’s meant to be.