This Lenten season our church decided to eat together. As our ministry team planned worship for the season leading to Easter we noticed that the lectionary texts pointed us in a curious direction – away from our sin and failure, and towards God’s excessive provision and grace.
What a better way, we thought, to embrace God’s profligate, undeserved love than to discover it in our neighbors? We decided to invite the congregation into recognizing the places of gift in their midst, in those right next door. Who is around the corner, down the street, a two-minute car ride away? Who sits next to you in the pew without you ever realizing that she is your neighbor?
I began to recognize that this would be a discipline for our congregation when we started the sign-up process. There were many people for whom opening up their homes, or showing up to someone else’s house was chaotic and risky. What if no one shows up? What if too many people do? What if I don’t know anyone? What if everyone brings salad?
I didn’t expect this to be a discipline for me. I know everyone in my group. After all, I work at the church. And I am fairly confident in the face of chaos. I have three little children. Risky vulnerability comes with the territory.
As it was I was surprised that I began to feel nervous as I rounded the corner at the end of the block. Armed with only Kraft macaroni and cheese, my two-year old strapped to my chest, my school-weary kindergartner leading the way, I thought, “are we going to do a good job at this?”
We were at eating at the Ritchie’s house. They live in a beautiful home in Trinity Park. I was quite certain that it had been years since a three-year old slammed the door open so hard that it made a hole in their wall, probably decades since they owned a sippy cup. The Ritchies have also experienced their own transitions in health over the past year. While I knew they had extended hospitality, opening their home up to four different families with little children in our neighborhood, I couldn’t help but wonder if we could be a gift to them.
When we arrived Dotty ushered us into her front room, a room filled with beautiful things. On a little table sat Uno cards and dominos, carefully placed for the bevy of children beginning to arrive. Each time our toddler emptied a box I was right behind her, trying to keep up with the mess. Dotty came over and kneeled beside Etta. Always the preschool teacher she gently said, “it’s no problem at all. That’s what these are for.”
For the next hour we learned to receive the gift of one another. We listened for the comfort level of our hosts with our children running laps around their kitchen. We received the kindness of Maurice pouring water and Dotty wiping up the inevitable spills. Our new friends received our lives, our children’s temper tantrums and laughter, and we worked to be good guests, to meet our hosts in the friendship of their home.
It was a discipline, the work of noticing and recognizing, of being given grace and offering it to others. It was harder work that I expected, but it was good.
After we left I realized that were it not for our Lenten dinner group, if we hadn’t stepped into the discipline of God’s abundance, that we wouldn’t have found our way into the lives of the Seases and Tonkins and Ritchies in this way. It’s likely we would have gravitated towards people more like us, people with crayon on their walls and Legos under the couch.
This Lenten season I am reminded that the most difficult work of the Christian life is not pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, getting our acts together, being more faithful or brave or kind or good. All of that is the heresy that creeps into Lent. The difficult work of the Christian life is receiving the gifts before us, allowing ourselves to know, to experience God’s grace through the lives of others, and to know that we are God’s beloved. The discipline of the Christian life is allowing ourselves to be loved, just as we are.