Welcoming Strangers: Epiphany and Hope

Welcoming Strangers: Epiphany and Hope

January 13, 2015

One yes is a thousand renunciations.

It’s been over a decade since I read the book[1] from which I recall this idea: that saying yes to anything, really saying yes, requires saying no to a host of other options and opportunities.

It’s now 2015. Which feels strange. I am still unaccustomed to writing the proper date on checks; I still feel surprised when I see my calendar no longer presents a familiar date. It’s a new year, a cycle of time containing events yet unknown, experiences yet unlived, and places yet to be explored.

New Year’s always seem to promise a veritable deluge of possibility. And as I say hello to this particular swath of time, I am a tiny bit wary. Because, like so many others, I believe those promises! I’m the one searching for a miracle cure who believes the Snake Oil Salesman breezing through town.

I’ve reflected on 2014, with all of its beautiful messes. I’ve written down the things I hope for during 2015 . . . in lists, long lists, with strategies and plans and calendar-bound timelines, because I believe that what 2015 promises will make life awesome. And I know for a fact that I’m not the only one.

But I am wary, because I know believing and making lists at the beginning is the easy part.

The more difficult aspect of saying yes to hopes and dreams is the whole business of committing. I have hundreds of ideas for paintings, but unless I commit to one (or even five), they remain only ideas. I have stacks of books to read, but unless I commit to that first page (instead of a hundred other channels, or games, or distractions), the books do little more than collect dust.

During an age characterized by FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), really saying yes to only a few things, to the most important things, is not an easy task—especially when things don’t go according to plan.

But this is the invitation every brand spanking New Year extends to us: to make choices, consciously, intentionally, and fully, without a guarantee that things will work out, whatever that might look like.

And, like so many others, I want to say, “Yes!” Yet I’m still wary. Perhaps because of the manner in which I greet New Year’s—with anticipation and lists and plans, with nose-to-the-grindstone work ethics, as though through sheer force and discipline I might will into existence the things for which I hope. I know for sure that I am not alone in this, either.

Perhaps this is why it seems apropos that a little way into the new calendar year coincides with the liturgical season of Epiphany. January 6th, to be exact. Epiphany marks the close of Christmastide, and celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the world. The stories remembered during this season[2] include the Magi visiting Christ, Jesus’s presentation at the temple, and his baptism. They are stories of receiving and being received:

God incarnate welcoming and accepting gifts from people from foreign lands.

God incarnate being welcomed into his home community by people astounded by his understanding of their stories, if not also a little confused.

God incarnate being baptized by John, who demonstrates a bit of unease at feeling unworthy for the task.

Welcome and disquiet.

The promise of possibility amidst uncomfortable realities.

They are stories of God’s hospitality.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri J.M. Nouwen differentiates our cultural notions of hospitality—which might be more accurately described as entertaining—from the biblical notion, which in essence is the practice of welcoming the stranger.

Nowen states, “really honest receptivity means inviting the stranger into our world on his or her terms, not ours . . . . Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.”

There are two things that strike me about Nouwen’s descriptions of hospitality. The first is that it is an act of relinquishing control over what, or who, we have welcomed. My lists and plans and time-lines are, on the one hand, efforts to quantify and bring into being change and excellent goals. And that’s great! But they are, on the other hand, constrictions and demands that the New Year behave according to my terms. The result is often that my lists and plans and time lines strangle life out of the newness I intended to welcome.

My lists and time lines also tend not to leave much margin for the unexpected, which is the second thing that arrests my attention. Nouwen uses the phrase, “free space,” which connotes both temporal and physical breathing room.

I wonder if readers might relate to this—that in all of my plans and thinking about 2015, I did not leave much room for surprise. And yet that sort of space, in schedules, in my heart, and in what I consider home, is exactly what’s necessary in order to welcome strangers.

Whether the stranger be an unfamiliar year, an unfamiliar creative work, or an unknown neighbor, I need to have enough space to recognize, receive, and encounter them on their own terms. Perhaps then we might have a mutual exchange of something wonderful. Or perhaps not.

Epiphany is a season of celebrating God’s hospitality toward the world, of God meeting us on our own terms and providing a place of welcome for us without any guarantee that we will enter it. So the point of welcoming strangers is not to receive something from them, but in some small way share a bit of communion with God.

One yes is a thousand renunciations.

Saying yes to making time that’s not scheduled, or not consumed by other activities and interests, is not an easy task. But it is a good one.

May peace be upon your household, and may all of us become more adept at welcoming the strangers.

[1] Luci Swindoll’s Wide My World, Narrow My Bed.

[2] In some church traditions, Epiphany lasts only a day, and in others it lasts until either the Sunday or the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season.


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