From the Boundary: I was a stranger …
Some will know that I have the greatest regard for the wonderful work the animal sanctuaries do in this land. I regard God’s covenant with us as made with all living things and so, for me, animal sanctuaries are doing His work and fulfilling His promise. All of us warm ourselves before the same fire and dance to the same flute, even the sparrows which are sold for two cents. We are all part of the Is-ness of God.
On Saturdays you will find me at the Ark, an oasis of peace, love and care at the end of a long track, a ‘way’. I help walk the dogs and give them treats. It’s a great privilege to know them by name and to bless them – and God surely knows their names as well, as he knows mine and yours. Gerad and Arthur daily feed and water them. They’re surely blessed too.
You see, whether we realise it or not, animals teach us so much about all sorts of things – love, patience, endurance, strength in adversity, loyalty and, yes, even about prayer. Martin Luther tells us of his dog, Tolpel: “Oh”, he says, “if I could only pray as the dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated there. Otherwise, he has no thought, wish or hope.” Dog lovers everywhere will know that ‘look’. And it’s not just what they teach us. It’s what they give us. Like the hound, Gelert, in Celtic lore, they guide and guard us. Meister Eckhart tells us that if we’re alone and afraid, and have no child to drive away our fear, then let a dog be our companion, whose very life will bring strength to us. Moreover, if our lives are spent on the track which leads to the Ark searching for God, the ‘way’ to the Kingdom, then God also searches for us, and his ‘hound’ will never let us go. Think of the startling imagery of Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven:
“I fled him down the nights and down the days;
I fled him down the arches of the years;
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind…….”
We all know the injunction ‘love me, love my dog’. Well, St Bernard of Clairveaux said it, and simply put it means that our pets are part of whom we are. All of which leads me to last Saturday.
You see, I was walking a sleek brown dog called Heidi with Dominique – she works tirelessly for the Ark – who was walking Blaze, a biggish black dog who prefers giving love to chobbling biscuit treats. A little brown dog was hanging round the entrance, a ribs-showing dog. There are so many of them, you know, friendless and wasting. We subsequently found out that some fella with a truck had simply dumped him and hoped the Ark would find him. Well we did, and though at first he fled. All of a sudden he turned round and came towards us. Dominique left to seek the help of Arthur. ‘Ribs’ came on and said ‘hello’ to Heidi. She wagged her tail, smiled a doggy smile, and together we walked back to the oasis. Yes, ‘Ribs’ had, thanks to Heidi’s welcome, her ‘come unto me’, found the place the Lord had made for him and so indeed found a future and a hope. Heidi, bless her, had offered him hospitality. It was a very Christian thing to do. Do we always match her in this supposedly Christian land, or are our responses to strangers rooted in xenophobia, fear and suspicion? As a ‘stranger’ still in so many ways, I suppose I could offer a comment or two. Remember the ‘bare foot’ preacher? His case is not unique.
Hospitality remarks the common dependence of host and guest on God, and participation in the divine life. It’s not simply ‘doing good’, or mere ‘welcoming’, or private virtue. It’s an active response to the physical, social and spiritual needs of the guest. It embraces ‘otherness’, and it’s why Pope Francis washed the feet of Muslim migrants and called them “brothers”. It’s an ethic entrenched in community and is as old as the Greeks. Nor does it matter from whence comes the stranger in our midst. He may be an outcast. He may be an angel. You never know and it doesn’t matter anyway.
Hermas the Shepherd, a second century former Christian slave, tells us to give to the needy in all simplicity, give without hesitating, without rationalising – ‘he’ll spend it on drugs’, ‘he’ll only be asking tomorrow again’, that kind of thing. No, for the stranger, like the lame, blind, widow, orphan and prisoner, exists on the margins where all the vulnerable are. Jesus tells us that the Great Banquet is for them. The feeding of the 5 000, like table fellowship, was itself an act of hospitality. Those who have been hospitable to the very ‘least’ are blessed – for “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Hermas also has wise words for Bishops. Those who take the stranger into their homes, he says, are protected by the Lord forever, and their place is already with the angels. He doesn’t say what will happen if they don’t.
Well, has the moral landscape on hospitality changed here in Barbados, do you think? At the very first Church where I worshipped, shortly after I arrived in 1994, no-one spoke to me and I never returned. At the last Church where I celebrated, in 2014, its people were the kindest, the most hospitable, I’ve ever experienced, but all ‘my’ congregations have been welcoming. I can’t say the same for the hierarchy. They have a lot to learn from little Heidi, but miracles have been known to happen. You really never know.
Boundary jotting: “God is like a man who clears his throat while hiding, and so gives himself away” (Meister Eckhart).