no heroes tonight

This nativity set has been around since the girls were tiny.

I think that I could capture you in this season of blinking lights and I’ll be home for Christmas promises. My fingers flutter above the keys as my mind stretches to capture a flittering thought, a sentence, a heartbeat in a phrase.  Writers do it all the time but I am sure that our weary world is growing tired of such antics.

I think that I could prick your fear with tales of that weary world and its prophetic end, though the details of its righteous timing most of us faithfully remember to forget. Nobody knows when; at least, I do not.

Perhaps I could shame you, if I tried. Shame you into giving. Shame you into feeling guilty for the gifts under your tree or the food in your pantry or the number in your bank account. But, I just do not have the heart for it.

Making their way to school in Jerusalem.

Instead, could I raise my hand in this classroom and ask to be honest? No gimmicks. No tears. No trendy words like ‘tribe’ or ‘journey’ or ‘global’ for the sake of cornering or creating a missional market. No emotional roller coaster ride of a story with a Christmas morning miracle that brings a tear of catharsis. May I just suggest a simple, authentic reflection about a phrase in the story of a panicking boy and his much too pregnant girl?

After a long, exhausting journey, the too-soon to be parents arrived at their destination. She was in labour. The baby was coming. And he knocked at the door of a home, begging, pleading for help. What did he know about delivering a child? More than nothing.

But, Joseph knew something about hospitality.

A place to rest.

Funny word. Hospitality. Today, we associate it with Grandma’s cinnamon roll recipe, a complicatedly simple table with planned eccentric nonchalance, a gourmet coffee, a brunch for a careful number of studied guests. But in another time and place and still somewhere in this world, the word hospitality is a radical commitment. It is the laying aside of my needs, my time, my comfort, even my well-being for the sake of another.

In that place, the offer of hospitality was the taking on of a moral responsibility for another person’s welfare; a sanctuary for the weary soul.

Evidence of a sleepless night in the city

When one frightened, overwhelmed, exhausted father-to-be knocked on the door of a home and asked for help, the repercussions were clear. The unfortunate host was faced with a dilemma, for there were other guests in his home that night and the blood of a birthing mother would render everyone under his roof unclean.

Ahhh, the irony of a blood that purchases grace for humanity but fails to purchase a room for Grace to safely slip into the skin of our humanity.

And so, a host becomes hero and heartless in the same eternal breath,

‘and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.’ (Luke 2:7, NIV)

There was no room for them. Hospitality is never a simple matter and rarely is it convenient.

Early morning moments with the Father.

Much to my dismay, I went to the Bona Dea family shelter in Diósd on a whim. Oh, I had graced their entrance before. Once. It is a nice place, as far as havens go. Dry. Warm. With rooms that hover somewhere between home and office and institution. This particular house calls itself home to 35 guests from 7 family units. It is the last Hungarian stop before homeless. Out of work, evicted, repossessed; people and possessions hanging onto sanctuary at knife’s edge. The fall from here is bloody.

I came with two warily wonderful Hungarian students, we three, bearing an invitation to celebrate a jolly season there in the gym of our English speaking school that lives a street over from the shelter for Hungarian families. We were welcomed. Profusely.

And on Friday night, when all the stockings were hung and the band was tuned and the voices were warm, they came. Little boys and girls and moms and even dads, arrayed in varying forms of gaiety and expectation. I was shocked. I expected … well, one or two, or maybe eight but … all?

St. Stephens Catholic Church Budapest
Beautiful view from Hungary’s State Opera House

Feeling very much like an innkeeper in a story that I once read, I wondered where we were going to put 35 new bodies 30 seconds before the curtain went up. And suddenly, I found myself staring into the face of 8 year old wisdom attached to a name. Nikolas.

Nikolas came to speak English. Well, he came to try out his vocabulary of 5 phrases, which were basically exhausted once the conversation progressed past introductions. A little shy, a little unsure, but eagerness was there in his eyes.  If anybody needs a hero around this time of the year, it is Nikolas.

And, that is where the missiology gets tricky.

I would gladly step into that role of hero. Most of us come from cultures that seem to embrace that right in such a way that it actually becomes a trend, even in the Church. It is relevant to thrift store dive, to buy organic, to veganize a diet, to spin, yoga, or granola your way through the days, to downsize, simplify, and authenticize a life, for the purposes of a global village, or an African thrust, or a Jewish Jesus. We take mission trips, sacrifice our summer or a year or maybe two with our possessions narrowed down to a moleskin journal and coffee. Making a heroic difference in our world is an ultimate high.

But truthfully, a hero only does one thing. He dies.

Gaping wounds, oozing blood, anguished cries. Sanctuary. Hospitality. The taking on of a moral responsibility for another person’s welfare; a sanctuary for the weary soul.

A woman makes her way in Jerusalem’s marketplace.

Reading the eagerness in eight year old eyes, I struggle to live a profound paradox. Nikolas does not need me. He needs a hero. But, until I die to everything that I think makes me relevant, significant, comfortable, authentic, healthy, spiritual, connected, heroic, I stand in the way of that sweet boy’s clear view of his true hero. Jesus.

Honest dialogue? This world, which is in a profoundly desperate state of agony, does not need you or me to be its hero tonight. And, if you need to be a hero, if I need to live heroically in ways that are defined by a cultural trend, then we are not ready for mission.

Sometimes, I think we are a little hard on that innkeeper. We read his story from eyes that never knew his context and we interpret his actions out of our own culture. One of the most valuable life-giving lessons from my years in Eastern Europe is the beauty of hospitality. I have never known it to be withheld.

After four years in Russia, and five months pregnant with our second daughter, Sophia, in the midst of the crash of the ruble, God called us to move to Bulgaria. The little church in Vyaizma had a goodbye dinner for us on our last Sunday. The table was full of food put there by Russian families who would sustain themselves with bread and tea for the next week in order to honor us on that day. Hospitality.

It seems an uncharacteristically inhospitable answer, ‘We have no room here,’ but only Joseph could see the expression on the man’s face and hear the emotion in his voice.  The innkeeper could not be everyone’s hero that night. Neither could Joseph. My guess is that he could have ignored the repercussions for all who had already received sanctuary in the innkeeper’s home and pushed the host for hospitality. Joseph could have been Mary’s hero or not. Instead, two men, neither of them heroes that night, found compromise.

No gimmicks. No tears. No trends. No easy answers. No heroes tonight, please. But maybe, just maybe, in the midnight hour, we could confess our selfish sin and plead for a hospitality that has already been offered. What a heavenly mystery; when the would-be heroes fade, the blood births Sanctuary and even weary souls, like Nikolas, receive Hope.

A view through a chapel window.

In this holiday season, Jay shared a song called Yahweh from U2 with our family. I think it captured his prophetic imagination. It has certainly captured mine. I am drawn to a achingly beautiful line in the song and it has become my prayer this season.

‘Take this soul stranded in some skin and bones. Take this soul and make it sail.’ 

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