Three important lessons of hospitality

Sometimes, indeed oftentimes, there are no preparations for hospitality. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities to practice hospitality or to host a stranger. There are rewards for doing so, and the following story from my personal experience illustrates that such rewards come in different ways.

It was summer and I had enrolled in a German language course at the University of Cincinnati. I was excited as I looked forward to summer school – I was grown up, you can tell – and I told everybody I knew about my upcoming language course.

In the past year since arriving in Cincinnati I had met a German couple through the church, and we became good friends. Every time we met we just could not avoid talking about my soon to come German lessons. They were as excited as I was: After-all there is something exciting when somebody is interested in learning our language.

One day, during one of those casual conversations, Heidi announced – with visible excitement in her eyes – “my friend Susanna will be your teacher! She knows you too!”.

Indeed, I had met Susanna ten years earlier when she was traveling in Tanzania.

Two German friends had visited us in Tanzania, a mother and her young daughter, both of them blind. I took them to visit a school for the blind where a friend from my seminary days worked,  about 200 miles away. On my way back – our visitors were to stay at the school for some weeks – my friend asked me to help his visitor (Susanna) get a seat on the bus as she was traveling to my home town.

While visiting her friends in northern Tanzania, Susanna stayed at our house one week-end.

Ten years later she turned out to be my German language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. When we met in Tanzania she was simply a stranger traveling in a foreign country. Indeed there was nothing unusual or special about her travels. It was very common for people to go to a foreign country because they knew somebody there from their area. Through church connections they were then able to travel anywhere in the host country and got connected to the local people as this story illustrates.

None of us in this story thought of any possibility of meeting again. For us it was a common story of guests or strangers and hosts. For me it was the reversal of my experience in Natanya as I was traveling to Kibbutz Regavim in the previous story. Indeed, if I would have thought of meeting Susanna again, I would have thought of Germany.

Yet, our second meeting was thousands of miles away from home for both of us.

This is what I learned from this experience: First, the stranger today may turn out to be the host tomorrow. Second, be host to a stranger – and a good one – because your paths may cross again someday. Third, there is always a reward for hospitality even if you do not see or recognize it.

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Hope lost is life lost

Anybody who has had the opportunity to work with people who are struggling or have struggled  against adversity knows the tremendous power of hope in any success. Think of cancer patients – mothers, daughters, sisters fighting breast cancer, or fathers, sons or brothers in battle against prostate cancer – just for example. These people, their families and friends, chaplains, social workers and even the medical personnel, do count on hope for victory.

There are numerous stories of people who have lost everything – possessions, families, relationships, careers, homes – because of adversity. It could be something they did, like gambling or addiction, or simply a calamity befell them. In many of these stories, there has been recovery and restoration, because there was hope.

Our society today ridicules hope! Watch television for only 5 minutes and see how much negative advertising is being channeled  to you. Obviously there won’t be placards inscribed “Despair” but the point of the negativity and portrayed disillusionment is to convince you of a prevailing hopelessness.

A couple of weeks ago we commented on the prophet Amos’ message of doom to the people of Israel – the northern kingdom –  as a result of the greed of the rulers and the wealthy who despised the common good and sought to benefit themselves.

Calamity befell the northern kingdom when it was destroyed by the Assyrian empire in 721 BCE. The people were exiled and scattered and Samaria resettled with foreigners.

Yet, the message for this Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost from the prophet Jeremiah is one of hope. “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together, a great company, they shall return here” (Jeremiah 31:8).

Similarly, Psalm 126 expresses the joy of the hope of restoration. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream – (hope sometimes is like a dream, you just have to dream it) Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. Those who sowed with tears will reap with joy…”

Crown all this with the story of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52. Though blind and a beggar he never gave up the hope of seeing again. Neither would he give up when shouted down by those around him, those who told him it was a lost cause. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly…”

Never give up hope, stay the course.

Ever been a stranger?

I arrived in Natanya on the Mediterranean coast at 6. The sun was orange as it looked like it was sinking into the ocean in the western horizon. The sea itself was calm, with hardly any noticeable waves. The sand along the beach was unusually white. It was late spring-early summer, and there were a few people strolling up and down the beach.

I had taken a bus from Haifa and was to catch a train back north from Natanya, to a small train station called Binyamina, near Caesarea.  Binyamina could be reached by train only, that was why I was in Natanya.

My final destination was Kibbutz Regavim, near Binyamina. There would be some form of transport from the train station to the Kibbutz or I could walk there since it was not far. I had received all these instructions at the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem where I had completed a semester of study.

I had indicated that I wanted to volunteer in a kibbutz after my studies because I wanted to continue learning modern Hebrew.

Volunteers in kibbutzim were usually European pre-college kids. They spent 90 days working in the kibbutz farms, earned an allowance – in kibbutz currency, which they could use there – but also got free meals and free lodging. I was thirty four and therefore did not have choices of kibbutzim. Kibbutz Regavim was one of a couple that accepted older volunteers.

There was also another reason for Kibbutz Regavim: It was made up of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, rather than Europeans.

These factors, according to my hosts at the Swedish Theological Institute, would make my stay at the kibbutz  worthwhile and productive. What they were not quite happy about, and they warned me of the prevailing rumors – which they advised me to investigate – was some belief that kibbutzim were very secular and that they did not even observe Shabat.

What transpired for me – and somewhat disappointing – was the fact that the kibbutzniks were interested in learning English which they preferred for conversation rather than modern Hebrew. It was impossible to learn Hebrew in a kibbutz – I did have to enroll in an ulpan, but that was some years later and during another stay in Jerusalem.

It was getting dark in Netanya, and my train would not even be there for the next two hours. I would arrive in Binyamina at night, and I was not even aware of the surroundings. I decided I would have to stay in Netanya and take the train in daytime the following day.

Then I saw my dilemma.

There were beach hotels almost everywhere. I did not even bother to try to ask how much it would cost in one of them because I did not have any money for that. Then I saw a real estate office which was still open.

I went in there and asked the young man at the desk if he knew of any cheap lodging in Netanya where I could stay for the night. He referred me to the hotels along the beach and I told him I could not afford any of them. I further told him why I was in Netanya and the train and kibbutz arrangements.

“Do you really want help?” he asked me.

“Sure I do”, I replied.

“If you truly want help, come back here about an hour when I close the office”.

I did not know how Avner – I learned his name later – was going to help me but I went back after an hour. He closed his office, took me to his family – his recently widowed mother and a younger brother with a bullet in his head after being hit during a gun battle, so common, between Israelis and Palestinians.

They lived in a moshav outside Netanya. I was treated like a family member. When I left the next day, Avner’s mother said to me, “Remember you have a home here”. After the three months in Kibbutz Regavim I went back home. Some years later, I was back in Jerusalem and I visited my new family. Avner’s mother kept reminding me, “Remember you have a home here”.

The secret to being a servant like Jesus

For those churches that follow the lectionary, the lessons for this Sunday, the Twenty First after Pentecost, come from Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; and Mark 10:35-45. All of them are about service, or even a servant.

The First Reading comes from one of the four Servant Songs, also known as Servant Poems, or Songs of the Suffering Servant found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13- 53:12). Since these compositions were first identified by Bernhard Duhm in his commentary on Isaiah in 1892 there has been a lot of discussion as to the identity of the Servant.

In Jewish scholarship, the consensus is that the Jewish people collectively are the Suffering Servant.

In a previous post entitled “Sometimes transformation and legacy can only be understood in retrospect”, we wrestled with the question of the sufferings of the Jews – the holocaust, for example – and wondered how it all ties up with the workings of the Divine. The servant’s picture in this Sunday’s reading – and indeed in all the Servant Songs – is not one of glory and exaltation, but pain and degradation. It is a portrait of humility and, yes, suffering.

It is no wonder that, for Christians, Second Isaiah – the whole of Isaiah, in general – is the most popular, even the favorite book of the Hebrew Bible. For, in retrospect, Christians identify the Suffering Servant with Jesus.

The broader message though, is that Jesus’ servant-hood, or service, is unique. It is different from what we normally associate with service. Looking at our society today, service and suffering seem to be incompatible. On the contrary, gain and benefits supercede sacrifice.

In the Gospel Reading, the disciples – notably the Zebedee brothers James and John – portray the popular view of service as power or authority rather than sacrifice and giving of oneself on behalf of others. Indeed, the Epistle Reading uses the priestly duties of the high priest as an example of service rendered on behalf of others.

Thus, Jesus is portrayed as both the Suffering Servant and the High Priest. For his followers, he is the example to be emulated. It is interesting to note that some see Isaiah 61:1-3 as the Fifth Servant Song even though neither the word “servant” nor “suffering” appear in those verses. But, as Jesus himself declared in the synagogue in Nazareth, Isaiah 61 summarizes his ministry: healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, setting prisoners free – that is the service that now, his followers must do, and do so following his example.

Prosperity and inequality are usually strange but common bedfellows

The First Reading for this Sunday, the Twentieth after Pentecost, (Amos 5:6-7, 10-15) speaks very eloquently to our society today. During Jeroboam II’s reign in Israel (the Northern Kingdom) from  788-747 BCE,  prosperity was unprecedented. The disparity between the wealthiest landowners and the peasant farmers was equally unprecedented.

In this economic climate, the wealthy managed to manipulate the lending and borrowing structure to their advantage while squeezing the poor out of their land.

The story of Wall Street, financial institutions, Occupy Movements, Pay Day Loans, the mushrooming billionaire’s and millionaire’s clubs and the equally mushrooming poor households is too familiar in our society today.

“Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain”, the prophet Amos warned, “you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine”. Almost 30 years later, in 722 BCE, the Assyrians conquered Israel and settled foreigners there  and thereby fulfilled Amos’ prophecy.

The talk today is framed in “Are you better off?”. It is alright to be better off everyday. But the healthy question ought to be “Are we better off?” The common good should be the standard. In our individual quests to be better off the weak are often sacrificed.

In this Sunday’s Gospel Reading from Mark 10:17-31 a man asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Paraphrased, he asked, “What must I do to be better off?”. Jesus directed him to the common good:  “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor”.

Finding inspiration in the positive

Looking back on this day, October 12, 1492 when Christopher Columbus accidentally stumbled into the Bahamas and the five centuries thereafter, for many, there are mixed feelings. Columbus had a plan he called “Enterprise of the Indies” – to find a western route to Asia. When he solicited the help of King John II of Portugal for his plan, he was rejected. He did not give up, but sought help from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Even after being rebuffed twice, he persisted and eventually won their support.

There is no doubt that Columbus’ “discoveries” led to European colonialism in the “New World”, marked with the worst brutality against the indigenous people – the Indians. European colonialism is to blame for the savagery, and since I am not an expert on Columbus, I will desist speculating into any ulterior motives on his part.

Nevertheless, commercial pursuits also led to unprecedented exploitation of human beings and natural resources evident in the past five centuries.

The inspiration in Columbus’ “discoveries” is not in the greed and dark side of humanity. Rather, it is to be found in his belief in himself, in his vision, in the possibilities (of an alternative route because of the difficulties of the normal route through Egypt and the Red Sea). He persisted when rejected, not accepting those who said it could not be done.

William McGowan, founder of MCI Communications Corp used to say, “Those who tell you it cannot be done are telling you what they cannot do, not what you can or cannot do”. The following previous posts highlight the same principles:

Possibilities and impossibilities are products of the mind.

Discover your life purpose.

Finding Life Purpose.

Stay the course.

Focus on what matters

Previously, commenting on the 10 Commandments for Happiness, the following three were on the list: One, “Place Importance on the Things that Matter”, two, “Work Towards Something Meaningful”, and three, “Enjoy All the Little Things”.

This Sunday’s Gospel Reading from Mark 10:17-31 brings to mind the same thoughts.

There are so many demands on everyday living, especially in western culture that it is very easy to be caught up with so much that goes on around us and lose sight of priorities. There is, sometimes, not enough time for meditation, or relationships, or reaching into the inner self to discover the basics of our humanity.

Real strength and meaning come from within not without.

A few weeks ago I was energized by continuing messages and correspondence from my youngest daughter. It was like we were in each other’s presence even though we are thousands of miles apart. Then we started falling back again into the “busyness” of life; we slackened in our togetherness and we started feeling the void. We reminded ourselves to get back to what matters most.

No amount of material “success” or external achievements can satisfy the yearning of the inner self – our true humanity. We yearn for what is greater than us; we yearn for connection, with others and with the Universe, with the Creation, and with the Spirit within us.

The greatest reward for focusing on what matters is being fulfilled. That is a summary of Jesus’ response to Peter’s question in the Gospel.

The spirituality of our stories

 

The picture that a retreat – not military – invokes in most people’s minds is that of a time of spirituality away from everyday preoccupations. This is achieved through meditation, prayer, silence, contemplation, scripture or nature.

This past week-end twelve of us had a retreat which combined some of the above as well as structured and unstructured time for discussion.

It is amazing how every person’s story has the effect of building up and inspiring others. Whether these stories be personal or insights from daily life or scripture, they inspire, all the same.

In addition to sharing some aspects of my personal life and experience – which everyone of us did – I was privileged to lead a discussion of one of Jesus’ parables, The Parable of the Good Samaritan – even though the New Testament has a Samaritan, not a “good” Samaritan. In doing this, I brought in some of my personal experiences from living in the Holy Land, the setting of the parable, and my childhood in Tanzania.

Nothing required detailed study on my part, or academic research, but simply relating my personal experience.

At the conclusion of the retreat, many expressed an unfulfilled desire to have heard more of my story, and I too wished I could have heard more of everyone’s life experience. Obviously many of us prefer not to be the only speaker but the lesson here is that everyone has a story and that story cannot be told by someone else.

Those stories and those experiences are inspiring and transformational. But they need to be told. This domain is devoted to such stories that transform. You can also read about my personal experiences and transformation at http://www.mybeyondinfinity.com/. You can also go to the Blog Page for my discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

But, perhaps the most important thing, is sharing our stories. Leave a comment or suggestion. Send me an e-mail at joel@joelmlay.com. Together, the world can be transformed.

Seeking alignment with Destiny

 

I cannot say that everything I ever planned or wanted came about, as some people can make such a claim. Indeed my life experience is punctuated more with “failures”, “mess-ups” and even contradictions than what we conventionally term “success” or “the good life”.I have touched on this in My Transformational Experience in www.mybeyondinfinity.com.

 At the same time, there are many good things in my life which came about without my planning for them and even without my input.

 Growing up, I had a deep desire to study outside my own country, in places like England, New Zealand and Australia. It could have been British influence, but the desire for academic achievement beyond what my young home country could give was quite strong. I never drew up a plan as to how I would achieve my heart’s desire because I did not have the material resources.

 But the desire, or the dream, never died.

 Despite the lack of concrete planning on my part, the reality of pursuing advanced studies in England came at a time when I was already considering career change. And even after the career change, I was able to do specialized studies in my new vocation, in the one place best suited for it. For there is no better place for biblical studies than Israel (St. Jerome resided in Bethlehem when he produced the Vulgate).

 Often we are so consumed with our plans and what results we want to see that we fail to notice and recognize the blessedness of just being in alignment with the Universal Power. It is good to plan. It is equally good to discover where Destiny wants us to be and where we are being led.