Saturday 3 August

The Gospel Comes with a House Key

The #NH2019 Media Team is delighted to bring you summaries of all the main sessions this week so you don’t miss a thing!  On Saturday evening, Rosaria Butterfield launched our theme – “Radical Hospitality” – exploring what it means to allow strangers to become neighbours and by God’s power, to see those neighbours becoming part of God’s family.

Rosaria is a former tenured professor of English and women’s studies at Syracuse University who converted to Christ in 1999.  Her books include The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and The Gospel Comes with a House Key.  Here’s what she had to say:

Hospitality is at the heart of the gospel – it means seeking the stranger, welcoming them and by God’s grace seeing them becoming part of the family of God.  Hospitality is one of the most powerful and impactful things that we can do in a post-Christian world.   At your dinner table, you get the take the hand of the stranger and place it into the hand of your Saviour.

Mark 10: 28 – 30

On a dark and early May morning in 2016, I received a text message from a neighbour at 5.15am, “What’s going on at Hank’s house? Why r police surrounding the house?”  But I had left my phone in the other room and didn’t receive the text. That morning in my devotions, I was praying for my immediate neighbour Hank.  It was a typical morning except that my phone kept receiving messages that something was dreadfully wrong in the house across the street.

When Hank first arrived in the neighbourhood, he was a self-described recluse.  He owned a 100 pound pit bull named Tank. We can all remember the first moment we met this dog! Good neighboring is at the heart of the gospel we know.  So when Hank moved in, we walked across the street, rang his doorbell, introduced ourselves and waited for him to reciprocate. Right after that he dismantled his doorbell!

We prayed for Hank and gossip sprang up about the neighbour who did not fit in.  Then one day, Tank ran away and in the crisis of a lost dog – one who was also the closet companion of a lonely man – the inkling of our friendship began.  One morning my daughter ran across the street and told Hank, she was praying for Tank.

When the pit bull was finally found, we became fragile friends – he gave us his mobile phone number but asked us not to abuse it!  We started to walk our dogs together.  We learnt that Hank was lonely.  We learnt that he had served time in the military and he had been homeless before his mum bought him the house.  Hank helped us chop down dead trees but he was uneven.  Sometimes he would stay secluded for weeks on end.  We presumed that his depression made him so. At those times, the only sign of life was his garbage can.

Then Aimee moved in. She wore the sunken eyes of a drug addict.  I disliked her immediately and I felt sinfully justified to do so.

As my neighbours were texting me about the commotion at my neighbour’s house, I was praying for my neighbours.  Suddenly, I noticed the DEA agents.  Morning darkness exploded with the unnatural intrusion of police lights. Yellow tape appeared everywhere marking the crime scene.

I grabbed my phone and turned it on.  Text messages bounced into life:  “What’s going on at Hank’s house!  Is there really a meth lab across the street from you?”

How are we to react to this?

We could barrack ourselves in our house and thank God that we are not like those evil meth addicts. We could envelope our house in our own version of crime scene tape.  We could surround ourselves with fear: What if the meth lab had exploded?

That of course is not what Jesus has called us to do. As neighbours filed into our front yard, to watch the unfolding drama, I scrambled eggs, put on a big pot of coffee and invited the neighbours to come in.

Who else but Bible-believing Christians can make redemptive sense of tragedy?  Who else can see hope in the promises of God when the real, lived circumstances look so dire?

If we close the door and draw the shades, how can we teach our children to apply biblical faith to the hard realities of life?  If we were to lock the doors, what legacy would that leave to our children?

I had other things on my list to do that day but none more important than gathering in distraught neighbours and praying for my friends Hank and Aimee.  Neighbours were quick to let the police know that we were Hank’s only friends.  We provided them with Hank’s mum’s phone number and then we told them about Tank, the gentle giant of a pit bull.  We started to defend the dog and then my husband who is not an animal lover said, “We will take the dog!”

This is an enormous dog. He is about the size of a small couch. Kent said, “We will keep him safe until Hank is released.”  The police said the dog would not survive long enough to seek Hank again!

All morning our house was like a trauma centre.  Neighbours came in a steady stream.  More than one asked, “Did you know about the meth lab?”  Others accused, “You must have known about the meth lab!”

At the end of the day when we could finally pray for Hank, we were in shock.  How could we have missed a meth lab across the street?  Was Hank really a dangerous man?  My husband asked, “Would you have done this any differently?” I said, “No Jesus dined with sinners and so do we.”  But being known as a friend of sinners has an edge to it. When you throw your lot in with Jesus, you lose the right to protect your reputation. When you love the stranger, you will become strange.

We invited our neighbours to a cook out and offered them the chance to talk.  Our neighbours were fuming mad at us but we felt like that was an important thing to do.

After that neighbourhood barbecue, the clean up of the meth lab started to take place in real time. We could not miss one detail. Meth is toxic. We watched helplessly as the dumpsters filled and departed.  With each dumpster, the shame of getting caught was laid bare.  The house remained enveloped in crime scene tape and the betrayal and grief of our neighbourhood grew.

That was when we started to practice radical, ordinary hospitality. We would share what we had – a simple meal.  The children would bring the plates up to the kitchen sink and bring back coffee and Bibles. Often at this point the neighbour would ask, “what are we doing?” We gathered, we grieved, we opened the Bible and we prayed.  And we did this for a long time.  And we did this because we had been recipients of this type of hospitality.

Hospitality was at the foreground of my conversion. In the 90s in New York, when I lived as an out lesbian feminist and a gay rights activist, Ken and Floy Smith invited me to dinner. Hospitality was common in the LBGTQ community so when Ken invited me, I was intrigued.

They were extremely welcoming.  They knew exactly who I was.  We were very different. At a certain point in the evening, Ken would stop the discussion and he would open the Bible and read a chapter and they would take prayer requests.

I was deeply offended by the words I was hearing but at the same time I was drawn in as they stopped and prayed.  I thought, “Wouldn’t my life be different if I could just believe these things?” So I kept reading the Bible and I kept going.  I had hundreds of meals and I read the Bible seven times through and I was still arguing.

I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts as you are loving your neighbours:

It takes a lot of time and money and sometimes all you get is arguments.

Sometimes you get people like my neighour Hank who brought danger into my neighbourhood.

During those hundreds of meals, Ken and Floy were tender with me.  They respected my privacy. They did not try to gain glory with their evangelical friends by posting photos on social media. They were patient with me.

I will say more later but Jesus is there for you when it doesn’t look like there is progress. Satan would love for you to give up on your neighbours.

So I will end where we began with the command that we are to love our neighbours because a hundredfold blessing is promised to them through you!