The Lonely Mountain and the Lonely

There is a heart-warming scene in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit near the end of the book where Thorin Oakenshield lies dying from wounds he received during the Battle of the Five Armies.  As he dies, Thorin shares his last words with Bilbo, a simple hobbit who had proved to be a faithful companion and friend to Thorin through some very difficult times.  And his last words had nothing to do with how Bilbo had helped the company escape from capture by three trolls, or from a cadre of giant spiders, or from being locked in an elvish dungeon.  Thorin commended Bilbo for his love of hearth and home:

Thorin and his company of dwarves had grown weary of their exile from their homeland, having been driven out of the Lonely Mountain by the terrible power of the dragon Smaug.  And the dwarves longed for their home and for the inheritance of wealth that had been stolen from them, an inheritance that they wanted to regain.  But somewhere along the way, somewhere in their travels, the value of the wealth the dwarves sought to regain overtook the value they placed on regaining their home.  And only here at the end of his life did Thorin’s fading eyes regain their sight.  It wasn’t gold and jewels and the vast comforts that the Lonely Mountain afforded that held life-sustaining value.  It was family and friends sharing life around a common table, however slim the fare might be, that was the true treasure worth pursuing.

Many of us, if you can allow me to extend the Hobbit analogy, have retaken the Lonely Mountain and have failed to see that the comforts we have are always best when shared with others.  We like to think we value “…food and cheer and song…” as much as the next person, but we rub elbows with people at work, in our community, in our churches, and even next door who are lonely… strangers to the warmth of our tables and our companionship.  And a dear lady in the church I serve reminded me of this when I asked for prayer requests one time.  She simply said, “We need to watch out for the lonely.”  That was a few weeks ago and her words have been my constant companion.  Those words make me wonder: who do I see on a regular basis that may wrestle with loneliness?  Who might see the craziness that gathers around our family table as a taste of medicine for what ails them?  Who would feel warmly remembered by receiving a hand-written note from me, an impromptu phone call, or an invite to grab a cup of coffee some evening?  Where do I see the lonely and how can I participate in bringing them Bilbo’s “…food and cheer and song…”?

And then I remember that it is the LORD himself who points us in this direction.  The 68th Psalm speaks to us along these lines (emphasis mine):

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
     is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
     he leads out the prisoners with singing… (Psalm 68.5-6 NIV)

The LORD is the original champion of “…food and cheer and song…”  For what else are His redeemed children called to do but to gather each week to feed at His table, to remember the glad news of life conquering death, and to sing our hearts out alongside people of all walks of life?  And while the LORD trains us to love and value “…food and cheer and song…,” the back doors of our church sanctuaries can be a cold reminder for those that wrestle with loneliness that they are departing fellowship to re-enter isolation.  So maybe – just maybe – we can begin to do as my dear sister asked a few weeks ago: to watch out for the lonely.  And once we see them, how do we invite them into the food and the cheer and the songs of our lives?  We may be the kings and queens of our own Lonely Mountain, but do we have the heart of a simple hobbit from Bag End?  Are we willing to reflect God’s good work of setting the lonely in families and leading in song those who have been set free?

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Review of “The Gospel Comes with a House Key”

Do I “…see strangers as neighbors and neighbors as family of God“?

Do I “…recoil at reducing a person to a category or a label“?

Do I “…see God’s image reflected in the eyes of every human being on earth“?

Do I know that I am “…like meth addicts and sex-trade workers…,” …taking my “…own sin seriously – including the sin of selfishness and pride“?

Once I’m done asking myself these jack-hammer questions, I can move on to the second paragraph in the preface to Rosaria Butterfield’s most recent book The Gospel Comes with a a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World.  Whew.  But for a person that’s being honest with their heart’s default mode and their daily practices, that’s about the pace of the book from launch to landing.

In a sense, Dr. Butterfield’s book is a little like Aslan, good but not safe.  But that’s kind of her point.  If a life motivated by the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is safe and comfortable, then it is a life unfamiliar, in some very practical ways, with the God who entered the un-safe-ness of life under the sun in order to love and rescue the unwashed and the unworthy.  So in her very narratival fashion, Dr. Butterfield walks her readers along the smooth and jagged edges of what it looks like to regularly open one’s home to neighbors, dogs (hers and the neighbors’), strangers, church members, grad students, at least one black snake, and a seemingly constant stream of children (the source of the aforementioned reptile).  She draws the reader along with story after story of how regularly having people in the home opens up an expectation that no topic is off-limits.  As she says, “We were – as we almost always are around here – a politically mixed group.  Unbelieving neighbors and church members all together (p.120).”  But this is all what we might expect if the people seated around our dinner tables reflected our neighborhood as often as it it did our hand-picked group of friends.  As she says a little earlier, “The gospel creates community that welcomes others in… It isn’t always easy.  It begins with recognizing people as your kin (p.86).”

Dr. Butterfield’s book excels in amazing ways at setting a vision for radically, ordinary hospitality and its transformative power for our post-Christian culture.  Her closing list of “Imagine a world where…” is pure gold and worth typing up and putting on the refrigerator or bathroom mirrorWhile she does get down to the practical and the nitty-gritty of what it looks like to practice radically ordinary hospitality (see her “The Nuts and Bolts and Beans and Rice” in the concluding chapter), this reviewer’s fear is that this vision of hospitality is so far from where most people live right now that folks won’t know where to start and, in turn, fail to do so.  We all know that feeling well.  You get up on Saturday morning determined to clean out the cluttered garage only to raise the door, see the mountain of undifferentiated stuff that has to be tackled, and then close the door in favor doing some other task your familiar with.  So if I had to recommend a starting place, I would simply offer Dr. Butterfield’s wise words from her conclusion:

In married households it is vital that both husband and wife share a calling for hospitality and work together to establish a budget for time and food and people.  Wives, let your husbands lead. Husbands, be sensitive to your wife’s energy level… the pace is set by the one who feels the most frail… [Hospitality] should make us stronger in Christ.  If hospitality becomes a point of contention, something is wrong.  Stop and reevaluate.  Pray.  Map out goals and values.  Be a team.

Of course the ministry of hospitality isn’t simply practiced by married couples (something Dr. Butterfield says as well), nor will it look the same for all households.  For instance, I have a single friend whose hospitality ministry looks like foster-parenting two children taken from a home due to the current opiate epidemic.  I have another set of friends who are hosting an international exchange student; another set of friends who gave a lady a home during a period of time when her marriage was crumbling; and another set of friends who are slowly working their way through the church membership rolls and inviting a different family over each Lord’s Day.  At the end of the day, Dr. Butterfield’s vision for practicing radically ordinary hospitality is as bold and bracing as it is alluring and refreshing.  If Christ’s redeemed people began practicing and coordinating this kind of hospitality, then walls would crumble as our doors opened, and we would be able to “…put the hand of the hurting into the hand of the Savior (p.207).”