I read a paradox that says “Poverty makes a good host.” Henri Nouwen explains,
“We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, ‘Please enter–my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness, and my life is your life,’ we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give.”
We were talking about this in our Missional Community where a few of us confessed embarrassment about our neediness. Throughout the week we might be lonely, hungry, needing a ride someplace, needing prayer, and we don’t say anything. We succumb to the isolation of the midweek.
Why do we do that? When we are feeling poor, why don’t we reach out?
What is it we still have left to lose?
I think it’s because we don’t understand our own poverty. Our awareness stops at the pain of lacking something. But our need is so much deeper than that which we can itemize, and we have to accept that in order to reach out.
Lacking something, I often don’t reach out because I am afraid I’m too much, too emotional, too demanding, too weak, and I’m embarrassed. Afraid of rejection, I worry about rocking the boat and losing what little approval or acceptance from other people I feel I have.
Even at my poorest, somehow I still believe I have something left to lose.
But it’s a lie that thinks we can control when we are accepted or rejected based on what we reveal when.
There’s no salvation in this.
Worse, this lie informs how we receive the strangers around us. It provides the framework for judging our neighbor instead of loving them. By holding ourselves to a standard that insists we always manage our own need, we consciously or unconsciously hold other people to that standard.
When it comes to our own need for mercy, if we are not at home in our own house, we are terrible, terrible hosts.
For me, “family” is the set of people who are allowed to see all my need. They are the people I call with car trouble, money trouble, when I’m sick, lost or lonely.
It’s the place where I run when I am hurt or scared.
Or just plain tired.
When I put on my ugly sweats, and pile my hair on my head and strip off all the makeup—the people who see THAT version of me—those are my family. I read something that had a picture of a girl in this gave-up-on-life costume which said “Home is where you can be ugly and like it.” Deeper definitions of beautiful and ugly notwithstanding, I think that girl was on to something.
Family is the set of people who are not allowed to have car trouble, money, and trouble, be sick, lost, or lonely without giving me a call.
Family sees you ugly- cry. Or they make you ugly cry.
Family is the people you expect to share your plate with, see their sweatpants, pick them up on the side of the road, and answer their calls after midnight.
And when I fail to meet your needs, and when you fail to meet mine, we try the whole thing again tomorrow.
Because we’re related.
Or we got that way by God’s grace.
There is a daily-ness to family, or certain friendships that distinguishes them from the others. I think in another era these are the friends who were your neighbors next door. I grew up on a street with neighbors like that. Two such “aunts” were how I comprehended extended family. One walked her dog every day, passing by our house the moment we needed bailed out of trouble, and the other was usually in possession of my littlest sister. They moved me in and out of college my final year when my parents couldn’t and I count their kids as my cousins.
But I don’t live on that street any more. Or even in that state. And people who are 18-35 rarely live on the same street for more than 18 months. We don’t get neighborhood family the same way.
I have some new friends from this past year who are dear and important to me—heart-friends that I weigh with some of the people I have known as long as I’ve lived here. The other night I was talking with one of them, and I was startled by a distinction I hadn’t noticed before. He pointed out a difference between the self I refer to and the self that he sees. I had taken that for granted attributes I thought were obvious. At the time I ascribed the discrepancy to the newness of the friendship, but I think there’s something else. I’m wondering how much of our selves only emerge in the day-in, day-out way we live to which our neighbors bear witness.
I have a few friends here who I’d consider the daily kind of friends—my “neighbors”. Though I’m considerably older, we met while they were still in college. Daily, intimate relationships between unrelated people are a way of life for students. While I was no longer in that season, it became a way of life for me, too. That daily-ness seeped into other relationships peripherally attached to the student crowd, and that made a framework for my church community that is unique. And very precious.
They have keys to my house–which isn’t even my house. It’s a house shared with me by someone else in my church community whose life and relationships were changed by the daily-ness of it all.
We are in a transition now. Graduations, new relationships, new jobs, and new schedules have diminished the opportunity for daily interaction. I accept that and I’m at peace with it, but I need to call attention to the change. I worry about our ability to grow into this new season of relationship without acknowledging the daily-ness that made us how we are.
On Sunday night, we shared stories. In our Missional community, the “crash landing” is a common thread. We are surprised by where we are and what God is doing in our lives. We definitely didn’t see it coming, and we can’t believe we’re still here. Some of us are deeply aware of how much we are still learning how to be part of a family—God’s family, this Sunday-night family, our own families. Sunday nights make some of us very aware of just how much baggage we bring “home”, but they also reveal what unique treasures we bring to the table. We’re learning how to live with one another— learning the idiosyncrasies and irritations—that we bring as much as anyone else does.
It’s funny that each of us thought we were the only ones still learning, the only ones who wondered if this was real, the only ones who felt poor. We thought we were the only ones who didn’t know what we were doing, who didn’t know how to trust people, who didn’t know if we could give that much. The only ones who felt overwhelmed and alone in that gathering of 20 people.
But we don’t come into this community life together because we’re good at it. We do it because we’re not. We are all poor—poor in body but especially in spirit.
But we have to be at home in that. We have to be willing to cry for help. It’s only in doing that that we’ll be ready to go when we hear the cry from someone else. The poor-in-spirit will be blessed as promised, but in community, they are blessed by the earthly hands and feet of Jesus who are poor-in-spirit themselves.
And remembering our poverty is part of the gift.
He who has nothing to lose has no reason to lock his doors.
We unlock our doors, welcome the stranger—live in community—because The Stone was rolled away. Because the visitors who entered the tomb—who had witnessed death and burial—were told that “He is not here, He is risen!”
We go into community with hope that this time the cell keys are turning, that that which was dead is gone, and there will be glory to behold.
And then we get to work: in honesty and love, the work of setting captives free, restoring life, and bringing God’s people home.