Saturday, July 15, 2017

An Ear Full of Hospitality

The value of stories has been woven into just about every part of who I am; I am motivated by stories. I am not speaking only of well-written fictional stories, but of real stories about real people. Eugene Peterson wrote, “Stories are radical acts of hospitality.” When I read this simple phrase a picture pops up in my mind: I see someone leaning in, looking into eyes and listening to the heart of another telling a story. How else can stories be equated with hospitality? If I am present to your story, listening and being with you in your story, I can be hospitable to you anytime, any place. Don’t you think?

I am not sure if I am writing about hospitality, stories or something else. Maybe I should first tell you how stories have their grip on me. It began with being read to, memorizing the rhythmic cadence of a rhyme and sounding out words to read. As a child it was the beautiful stories of hope and happily ever after buoying me up in the midst of a messed up family. My mind and heart were captured by words woven into stories. And at the time I didn’t see the value of my own story.

It was the true story of Jesus told in Vacation Bible School – His love for me – that drew me forward to His forgiveness and gave me real hope. Over the years I have been challenged, encouraged and strengthened by the true stories of God’s Word. As I grew in my relationship with Jesus I began to see value in my personal story.

Words fascinate me. I love reading stories of people who have overcome great difficulties and I love playing with words – writing real stories people can plop themselves into and find some encouragement along the way. Bit by bit I began sharing my story. It was in the tangled chapters of dysfunction and confusion I felt God inviting me into a place of healing, not only receiving healing but receiving a call to facilitate healing into the broken places of other people’s stories.

So when I read Peterson’s words I began to see in me a hospitable place. Kristen Schell, writer of The Turquoise Table, says, “. . . learning to listen and be present is paramount if we are to take every opportunity to open our lives and homes to others.” Henri Nouwen’s words confirm the link between listening and hospitality, “Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.” I have never considered myself as gifted with hospitality, but this gives me hope: hospitality comes in many forms and one is being present to others through listening.

Of course my job as a counselor requires me to lean in, be attentive and fully present. I know this doesn’t get me off the hook from offering other forms of hospitality, but it seems imperative I consider how well I am listening to those most important to me: my husband, family, friends and particularly God. I decided to ask my husband to rate how well I listen to him; he gave me an 8. I think there is a lot of grace in his answer. When asked if he felt I listened better to others he said, “Yes, but with me you have all the unspoken marriage expectations in there.” There have been times he has said, “You aren’t even listening.” When I am with family it is hard to say how well I do. Sometimes I am very attentive but in the family I am often quicker to interrupt and have my say in a matter. Some of my friends have told me I am a good listener; I can only take their word for it.

Sometimes I think I make people uncomfortable with my inquisitive nature and desire to learn about their stories. When a vulnerable heart lets go and shares bits and pieces of a tattered story my own heart leaps in response to make a safe place to hold their story. This all sounds good, but am I giving my dearest the same gift of hospitality? And what about Jesus? Does my heart open up to His Words – fully listening and believing the story He tells me of His love for me? Do I listen and participate in the story He tells of my life line by line and chapter by chapter – adventures of faith? I long to be hospitable most of all to my Savior in the form of listening; I long to be tuned in to His voice at all times. This requires me to spend time everyday in stillness, listening. I am certain I could fine tune my listening skills with all my loved ones.

So if stories are important to hospitality, then listening is as well. And whether or not you and I are especially gifted in hospitality we can all learn to listen better. I encourage you to develop a curiosity about other people’s stories; people have a deep need to be known. Kristin Schell offers tips for becoming a better listener in her book, The Turquoise Table. Here are a few:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • No interrupting
  • Don’t solve or fix the problem
  • Pay attention to what is being said
  • Don’t be afraid of silence

And sometimes use the phrase I have found to be helpful in counseling: “Tell me more.” The speaker will feel welcomed when invited to elaborate on his or her story. Telling our stories to a good listener can be healing. Offer an ear full of hospitality to someone today.

Some last thoughts about the value of stories. Philip Pullman writes, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” In Whispers of Rest, Bonnie Gray writes, “Your story is the portrait in which God’s light of love shines.”

As we come together in genuine fellowship, offering one another a place of hospitality, know that our shared stories are vessels for His greatness to shine through. So my challenge to you and to me, not only to offer hospitality by listening to others’ stories but to be open to sharing how God’s love has brought hope and healing into your own story.