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The good news of what God is doing in our world rings out most clearly and resonantly in the places of lack, loss, failure, and weakness. After all, God has always had a way with the wilderness and seems committed not just to forgiving sins, but also to cultivating life in desert places. Yet, I must confess that most months I’d rather tell you stories about the flowers than the sand or the heat. I’m tempted to tell you only the “good” stories or stories of “success.” But some of you remind me that you want to hear the “hard” stories, too. You want to visit the wilderness and I suspect that it’s because you know that God is hiding there, too, and is less obscured where confidence cannot venture. So, this month I’m taking a chance and writing this story long held close to my heart for fear of sharing.
One night over a year ago, shortly before evening prayer, Mason became a part of our household and moved into our hospitality room. It had been a long time since he had had shelter and we were enthusiastic (and scared) about sharing life with him in the way of hospitality and community. Our household, both families, had committed ourselves to the practice of hospitality in whatever way God was leading, but this was our first time welcoming a brother or sister into our hospitality room for a long-term stay. Mason had finally had enough and was eagerly pursuing his sobriety after a three day stay in rehab. He was also working on getting his identification and important documents gathered up in order to better support himself. For several months, Mason made us glad to be practicing hospitality, even if occasional messes, cigarette butts, and a faucet left on overnight tried our patience.
But one night broke that relationship in ways that we couldn’t immediately figure out how to repair. It was a night filled with a relapse, broken promises and broken glass, frantic phone calls, a few threats and hurtful lies, and a set of stitches. A couple of us took Mason to a hotel while the community broke its schedule to begin praying earnestly for wisdom and grace. There in the parking lot of a hotel two miles away and across a river from our home, we argued. I vented my disappointment into the April cool night and asked Mason if he was sorry. He wouldn’t—maybe couldn’t—say it and I still don’t know precisely why I wanted to hear it or what I thought it would accomplish. Mason didn’t have much new to say, but he was eager to walk back some of the kind things he had said over the previous months. Like a boxer dropping his guard to court a punch, he baited me with hurtful words.
I’ve thought about that moment numerous times since then and how I shivered not from the cold, but with a strange mixture of disappointment, guilt, and anger. Maybe Mason baited me with those words because he felt guilty and thought he would feel better if I hurt him back, or maybe Mason wanted to know if I’d meant it when I’d told him time and again that we loved him. Maybe he wondered in that moment if our relationship could be stitched back together, too.
But, I took the bait and harangued him for his relapse, all the while harboring the feeling that we had disappointed God with our hospitality gone sour.
Mason stayed in the hotel for three or four nights and tried to decide if he was ready to recommit to life in community and his pursuit of sobriety. Meanwhile, the community prayed about what to do if he said yes. At the end of the hotel stay, the community had decided to offer him a room in a different house if Mason thought he was ready. But, Mason decided that he wasn’t. To be honest, I was relieved because I wasn’t sure I had it in me to walk with Mason again if he said he was. Mason didn’t think he was ready to return to life in community, and I wasn’t sure I was ready, either. I wondered if I ever had been in the first place.
Mason found a couch to crash on whose rent could be paid in full bottles and cans, while we tried to dig out from under what felt like failure. We’ve learned over the last several years that doing our kind of work means hearing a repeated chorus of promised failure from a wide variety of people. Opening our homes and extra beds to people without shelter has also meant opening ourselves to criticism that what we’re doing isn’t practical. Inviting hungry people to our tables for meals has also meant inviting the scrutiny of well-meaning folks who want us to be more efficient at the cost of intimacy. Living in community and practicing hospitality has meant that there are many who love what we’re doing, but also many who are waiting for us to fail. “See,” I imagined them saying, “we told you it was a bad idea.”
But, to call our time with Mason a failure is once again to be baited by a lie.
Mason was with us for several months before that one terrible night and to call our hospitality failed is to profane that sacred time when we learned that Mason was our family and Mason found peace in the midst of chaos. To give into the temptation to render Mason into one night of glass and stitches—to call it all a failure—is to mangle the image of God still imprinted on Mason’s gentle heart and forget the laughter, love, and resurrection celebrated on our front porch and over countless episodes of Frasier and the Munsters. As one dear friend reminds me, “The story’s not about the results. It never is.”
Mason doesn’t live with us anymore, but for a little while he did and we are better for it. Over a dozen months later, we can see that we’re even better because of that hard night when we learned that hospitality isn’t a good deed, but a way of life where everybody’s health and sickness is wrapped up together under one roof to be healed by God’s love. If you want to call that a failure, think again about what you mean when you say you believe in the resurrection.
Mason stays in one of the other Grace and Main homes these days, having started coming back to meals and occasional prayers some time ago. He’s not “better”—this isn’t that kind of story—but he’s welcome. We still argue occasionally and there are days when one of us avoids the other, but a few months ago, Mason opened up the road to healing for all of us.
“You know, living with yall was good,” he began as I was dropping him off somewhere, “I’m not going to say I’m sorry for what happened, but I’m sorry I wasn’t there when the baby was born.”
“Me too,” I offered.
“But, you know I love you guys, right?” he asked with the hope of healing in his questioning tone.
“Yes,” I responded, though sometimes I wondered. I continued, “You know we love you too, right?”
“Yeah. I know you do,” he replied, though I’m sure sometimes he wonders, before continuing, “It was a good time.”
He’s right about that. It was a good time.
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