Emily* sat in the back row of the chapel, tucked in a corner. It was her senior year, and she just needed spiritual formation credit. The chapel space was uncomfortable, too familiar. The pulpit, the altar, the stained glass—all were reminders of her life growing up in a church that had wounded her deeply.
On the other side of the chapel, I sat twisting my hands as I watched the sanctuary flood with hundreds of students. I was both energized and terrified. What have I gotten myself into? Nothing but the power of the Spirit could enable me to do this work. Clinging to the promise of God’s empowering Spirit, I stepped to the pulpit and told them the story of St. Benedict.
A long time ago—1500 years, in fact—a young named named Benedict journeyed to Rome to begin his education. When he arrived, he was dismayed to discover that the Rome he had imagined was no more. The empire had fallen. The gleaming obelisks and arches were piles of rubble. Disgusted by the chaos and the violence, the corruption and the evil both around him in society and within the church itself, Benedict retreated to a cave. Years later he emerged with a mission to create a space in which the upside-down way of the kingdom of God—the way of nonviolence, love, and hospitality—might be embodied. But this space was not to be a holy bubble, a refuge to keep one unsullied by the world. Rather, Benedict insisted the monks welcome every stranger. In his rule, Benedict wrote, “Let all guests that happened to come be received as Christ, and above all let care be scrupulously shown and receiving the poor stranger. For in them, especially is Christ received.”
This stood in stark contrast to society—a world in which a traveler could not pass safely from one town to the next for fear of the thieves and marauders who stalked the roads. There were no Motel 6es keeping the light on. Soon, Benedictine monasteries were scattered across the countryside. According to Benedictine folklore, the monasteries kept a lit lantern in the window each night, a beacon to travelers in need of a safe place to rest. Hospitality was not a social grace; it was a matter of life and death.
I looked out at my new flock of college students and asked, What would it look like to be a lantern-lifting people? People who welcome the other as we ourselves have been welcomed by Christ? How might we be a safe haven to the wounded and worn?
It is a question worth our reflection: how might we, the church, be a lantern-lifting people? How might we be a place of refuge to the world-weary traveler, to the single parent alone and discouraged, to the LGBT+ teenager who has been kicked out of the house, to the young person experiencing the devastation and isolation of mental illness?
Before we are the welcoming, we are the welcomed. We do not stand over and above those we hope to welcome. We are redeemed sinners who stand before God by the salvific work of Christ—not our own merit.
These are not abstract questions. They are questions that demand concrete, actionable responses. But before we jump to action, we must remember one central truth: Before we are the welcoming, we are the welcomed. We do not stand over and above those we hope to welcome. We are redeemed sinners who stand before God by the salvific work of Christ—not our own merit. When we forget that, we quickly slide into the posture of the older brother of the prodigal son—a posture of self-righteousness, judgment, and even resentment at God’s unlimited welcome. We lurk in the shadows of the celebration, unable to rejoice in God’s welcoming of the lost son. How quickly we find ourselves attaching to the welcome of God contingencies of our own making.
However, when we first embrace our identity as the welcomed, we are able to live in the freedom of God’s embrace and extend the divine welcome to all. We discover there is no pleasure in judgment. Self-righteousness finds no home in us. Rather, we are liberated to love the other as we trust in the Spirit to transform hearts and lives.
By her second semester, Emily was occasionally slinking into my office like a nervous puppy, uncertain of how she would be received. I welcomed her gently and asked her to be part of a conversation around our spiritual formation programming. I only knew slivers of her story, but I wanted to hear the perspective of a person with her experience and church hurt. As students munched donuts and shared their opinions about chapel, small groups, and the rest, Emily spoke up. Her voice was quiet but firm. “This year I felt welcomed, even when I didn’t want to be.” A few weeks later, I received a private message on Twitter. “I’m going to give the whole Christ follower thing another shot.”
Thanks be to the God who transfigures our obedient welcome into a vehicle of grace.
*Not her real name