The third Monday of January is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. Annually reminded by my Facebook feed, I often take time to listen to or read one of his sermons or speeches in and around that date. Again, this year I was refreshed by both listening to and reading his Nobel Lecture.
His characteristic weaving of deep experience, social meta-analysis, Scriptural truth, insights from literature, sages and life, provide practical wisdom that is as contemporary now as when delivered over 50 years ago. Today I was struck by his emphasis on the insufficiency of merely identifying, extinguishing or condemning what is wrong but rather noticing his advocacy for our giving attention to the positive (he was doing so in context of the problems of racial injustice, poverty and war). He drew on the well-known story from Homer’s Odyssey and captured the story as follows:
There is a fascinating little story that is preserved for us in Greek literature about Ulysses and the Sirens. The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home, duty, and honour as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Ulysses, determined not to be lured by the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat, and his crew stuffed their ears with wax. But finally he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens?
I could easily relate, as I have reflexively pointed my fingers at the ills of society, constrained myself through my doubled-up efforts to “fence the law,” reify the efficacy of boundary-setting rules and by habits that mute distractions or altogether ignore difficult news or circumstances. My further musings left me asking who I am listening to? Who is the Singer who has my ear (Calvin Miller’s The Singer, The Song and The Finale trilogy came to mind). Then as I read and reflected further, I heard MLK advocate a boundary-spanning message to embody an “. . . all-embracing and unconditional love for all . . . .” This, he said is the key to displacing that which unhelpfully draws our attention from flourishing as we proceed on our onward journeys (1 John 4:7-10). I recalled an old adage: “L.A.M.B. = Love Attracts More Believers.” .
Hospitality to the Highest
Rev. Dr. Orville James is Pastor at the Wellington Square United Church, Burlington, Ontario
Can Jesus’ team provide a safe, fun gathering, to serve people without diminishing them? Maybe Yes- at ‘The F.N.C. (Friday Night Community)’ in downtown Burlington, ON., where every week some 300 people (50 volunteers, 250 ‘guests’) gather for an ‘open-doors, no-charge’ meal. The dinner itself is impressive, including a salad and dessert bars, and full main course (varied weekly). However, it is the atmosphere of hospitality and camaraderie, set in a soft Christ-centered spirituality, that sets this ‘dinner’ apart.
The ‘Men’s Group’ who initiated these open dinners 10 years ago, foresaw only a hearty meal for hungry stomachs. As one of those founders, I make public confession here & now, that we dreamed only of simple pots of spaghetti, or platters of burgers…served to a moving line of passing faces.
But something better happened. The event grew in size and complexity until the church hired one of its members to lead the teams of volunteers. Lisa (a single mother of 5), had the visionary understanding that, in Jesus’ name, this could be much more than a ‘soup-kitchen’ type meal. She preached and role-modelled equality and respect in all relationships. The message caught on, and a culture of radical hospitality has evolved.
What helped that happen? Three characteristics contributed to the warmth and inclusivity. These were both about ‘mind-set’ and ‘action-steps’: Build Barrier-Free, Get Personal, and Stay Spiritual. Let’s unpack those:
Built Barrier-Free. Of course, physical accessibility of the facility is a must; beyond that, ‘barrier-free’ should also describe the culture and atmosphere. There is no stratification, no layers of hierarchy, no divisions between servant-volunteers and client-guests. It is a community, a weaving together of every description of humanity. What else?
Get Personal. Nametags are encouraged for all, and essential for volunteer-servants. A first-name culture develops, making titles and roles irrelevant. A cook sits down to eat dinner amongst regular guests, and hear the story of their week. Richie, now retired from Canada Post, remembers some tough years in his youth, “I’ve been penniless, nothing to eat; Someone always helped me then. Now I have a camaraderie with a lot of these people.”
There is a team of volunteers specifically assigned to ‘care & connect’ (which I translate to ‘schmooze & snoop’). Mingle in the crowd, find the least and the lost, welcome them, ask, listen, thank them for coming, and invite them back.
Getting personal also means celebrating Birthdays and Anniversaries of regular guests, complete with cake, candles and singing. For a lonely widow, or an out of work laborer, to be named and celebrated means you belong and are valued. Even illness and sometimes deaths are named, mourned and prayed over. That’s part of the third characteristic . . .
Stay (softly) Spiritual. For people on the margins of life, a Higher Power is often their best and only hope. They are open to the Holy – yearning for God’s touch of mercy, fortitude and healing. Public prayers of Blessing are offered every week - for the dinner, and for each other. There is never a Friday when the box for ‘prayer requests’ goes empty.
Regular guests are comfortable with this spiritual activity. They ask for prayer; and wherever they come from, new volunteers respect it. So in the bustle and clatter of a steamy kitchen, a quiet curiosity will descend over a 14 year-old boys hockey team, as they are prayed over, before they go to their place in the serving line, to deliver the meal to the guests.
This 3-fold recipe of ‘Barrier-free’, personal relationships, and gentle spirituality creates the atmosphere that draws guests, and volunteers. Liza drives up to an hour through Friday rush hour to come back and serve at the dinners, “I live alone; not a lot of interaction. I look forward to getting here, the warmth; this place is by far the best community atmosphere I have experienced anywhere, ever.”
The Partnering Intelligence Fieldbook
Stephen Dent, Sandra Naiman
Prompted by current work with group of leaders who are exploring the potential of taking their historic partnership further and deeper, I’ve been reviewing Stephen Dent’s Partnering Intelligence and he and Sandra Naiman’s The Partnering Intelligence Fieldbook. These are excellent resources with helpful insights. They emphasize the importance of trust, mutual benefit/mutual gains, and fostering an appetite for interdependence that contribute to increased partnering intelligence (PI). The authors advocate and provide means for assessment and development of self-disclosure (feedback), win-win and future orientations, resilience to change, along with what other authors have called adaptive confidence and reciprocal interdependence. The Flourishing Congregations Institute has found that partnering is a quality, indicator or attribute of flourishing congregations. How might we best hone our partnering intelligence such that we increase our leaning toward thriving? These two books encourage us with some means to increase our PI.