135: Will Our Financial Fears Fuel Hostility – or the Sacred Art of Hospitality

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     If there ever was an era that called forth our spiritual resources — this is it.
    After the crash of Bear Stearns and panic in global markets, shocking magazine cover stories are fueling our financial frenzy. The Economist cover seems to be ripped in half, right through the words “WALL STREET.” Foreign Policy shows a grief-stricken Wall Street trader crouching beneath the headline: “FINANCIAL PANDEMIC.” And even the normally cheery New Yorker shows a ship sinking on the office wall of a financial executive — who is tumbling downhill faster than the stock market.
    This week, people around the world are asking, “How shall we live in these troubling times?”
    This is a moment in which our religious traditions truly hold meaning for millions.

    Throughout this week, ReadTheSpirit is offering helpful perspectives on this huge challenge — from a wide range of voices that already are rising on the horizon to help us.
    Today, let’s talk about the basic choice we’re facing in response to global anxiety: Hostility or hospitality? Do we see the world as teeming with enemies — or as our community in which we are called to serve, to help and to heal?

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    The Rev. Nanette Sawyer, a Chicago-area Presbyterian pastor and a nationally known advocate for improving interfaith relations, helps us rethink this whole issue in her new book, “Hospitality — The Sacred Art: Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome.”

    You may be surprised as you start reading Sawyer’s book that you’ll be  more than a quarter of your way through the entire volume before she actually leads you toward meeting someone. For more than 50 pages, you’ll be getting yourself spiritually ready for that moment. This book really is about what Sawyer calls “deep hospitality.” It’s€ a guidebook to some of the possible approaches we can take to open our hearts, minds and lives to other people.
    Despite what our parents and grandparents may have drilled into us, hospitality is far larger than all of the etiquette and cultural customs of welcoming people or visiting them. Hospitality is a timeless spiritual principle that flows to us from our earliest scriptures, although today we tend to trump the value of hospitality with other values like competition and the desire for self-expression. That’s unfortunate, because those more popular values often wind up carving out dangerous divisions in our communities.
    In his preface to the book, the Rev. Dirk Ficca, a well-known bridge builder himself through the Parliament of the World’s Religions, explains the urgency of freshly exploring this kind of deep hospitality: “In a post-September-11 world, driven by the forces of globalization and religious identity, where communities of often starkly different languages, cultures, and traditions are now living side by side in major urban centers, the stakes have never been higher for a different reading of these traditions, with hospitality as the guiding principle.”

    I think one of Sawyer’s most brilliant choices in this guidebook is that she doesn’t stop with hospitality toward other people. Like Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis and many others in recent years, she concludes her book by demonstrating that our “community” includes the entire Creation — the entire natural world around us.

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    AND — that’s a perfect opportunity to recommend one of our most delightful discoveries in recent weeks: “A Visitor for Bear,” the first of a series of Bear-and-Mouse stories by Seattle-based children’s author Bonny Becker.
    On one level, this is truly a light-as-a-feather fantasy about a plucky mouse and an anxious bear colliding over the tiny mouse’s desire to visit the bear’s expansive home. These characters jump to life in Kady MacDonald Denton’s illustrations — so much so, that without ever drawing a conclusion, you’ll enjoy reading the book over and over again with children.
    But — and here’s why we’re telling you about this book today — in the heart of the story lies one of the clearest expressions of the spiritual gift of hospitality that I’ve seen in weeks of searching for good books on this theme.

    In the course of this adventure, Mouse uses every trick he can pull to invade the big old Bear’s sanctuary — to the point that, thrown into a panic, Bear locks his door, boards up his windows, stuffs concrete into his chimney and plugs all the drains in the house!
    When even these Herculean measures don’t stop Mouse, Bear wearily resigns himself to a visit. He removes all his barriers and finally builds a cozy fire in the fireplace. That’s when Mouse reveals that, really, all he wanted was to sit back with a friend and appreciate Bear and Bear’s world. That’s a jolt to Bear.

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    The book says:
    “The mouse looked most attentive. No one had ever been most attentive to Bear.
    “‘The fire is nice,’ Bear announced.
    “‘Lovely,’ said the mouse.
    “No one had ever said Bear’s fires were lovely.”

    Now, I don’t know whether Becker intended her book to hit stores this season with such a timely lesson for the whole family about the true nature of hospitality — but she certainly offers her tale at precisely the right moment.
    Perhaps we all should learn from Bear and Mouse. Perhaps we shouldn’t panic. Perhaps it’s time brew a pot of tea and invite someone across your threshold who you’d never expect to welcome home.

    TELL US what you think. Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of our story today — or you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, directly.

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