You Can’t Win “Em All, Part 2 OR The Hospitality Killers are at it Again!
When God’s children are in need, be the one to help them out; Get into the habit of inviting guests home for dinner or, If they need lodging, for the night. (Romans 12:13 TLNT)
One of the greatest delights and surprises my wife and I have had was to learn that five men of the church that had called us to their pastorate some five hundred miles from where we were living had offered to use most of their vacation time to move us to our new home. They were excited to bring everything needed for the task: boxes, a huge truck, dollies, large stuffed protective tarps for protection of the furniture, plus all necessary tools for breaking down and reassembling the furniture. What a tremendous gift of time and effort, to say nothing of the relief to us as well!
The transaction went off more smoothly than imaginable. When we arrived at our new home, a parsonage supplied to the pastoral family, we found a newly repainted and decorated house with every piece of furniture exactly where we had indicated on the layout we had drawn for their guidance. All we had to do was move in. We had an “instant home.” It seemed as though we had been living there for months. Needless to say, we were most appreciative.
Two weeks later, we invited the five “movers” with their wives for a gracious five-course evening dinner of roast tenderloin with all the trimmings, sterling silverware and candelabra (gifts from Ollie’s grandmother), a centerpiece of flowers, and a fine dessert. How could anyone not feel appreciated with that kind of recognition? They knew we were thankful and wanted to show that through our hospitality.
At the conclusion, just before leaving, almost everyone expressed deep thanks. We had also hoped to exemplify our plans to lead the way by showing that good times of fellowship can help build the church.
However, as they departed, one of the men, Deacon Jim Hansen, a local corporate executive, took Ollie aside, and asked if we ever ate hot dogs. If so, and if we were ever hungry, just feel free to stop by their house for lunch. She explained that there was no thought or motive toward reciprocity in this evening’s thank-you celebration; it wasn’t likely that we would be dropping in for a meal unannounced, but we would respond whenever an invitation was extended. With that, he assured us that we would never be invited to his house for a dinner. And we never were. What a shock!
In all our years at that church, we treated Jim and his wife no differently than anyone else. His wife was one of the best pianists in the church. His young son, Tad, was in my first Bible instruction class, and we became close friends. After he married, Tad and his wife recruited me to participate in a special anniversary program years later in this same church. Meanwhile, Deacon Jim turned out to be a hospitality killer.
Another illustration concerning our “hot dog” member came about as the result of several divine “coincidences.” My wife’s father was a contractor in New York City. He had met a world-renown Christian photographer and found out he lived in our community, halfway across the country. His wife had burned out on church and ministers both. The result was that she and the children did not attend anywhere. The photographer, Harry, asked my father-in-law if I’d consider stopping by their home for a visit. He was assured that I would. As a result of that visit, his wife Cindy agreed she would try the church.
A week or two later, Cindy was able to get the four children ready, and they arrived for Sunday School, but they arrived at 9:35. Harry was out of town. As she entered the lower auditorium, she was met by Superintendent Jim Hansen, who, with one quick glance at his watch, gave Cindy and the four kids an accusing look and soundly declared, “Around here, we start Sunday School at 9:30!”
Had I not been a short distance behind Jim to observe Cindy’s hurt look of rejection, I wouldn’t have been quick enough to intercept her before she exited the church, but I did. After I got everyone situated in their proper locations, I returned to Jim and gave him the story behind their visit. He remained defensive about both the time and his manner of addressing the new visitors. Hospitality? Give me a break! Harry and Cindy were soon regulars in spite of that traumatic experience, and we remained close friends for years.
But let’s stay with the saga of Deacon Jim. First, I must draw your attention to Paul’s first letter to Timothy, chapter 3, where he articulates character traits of church leaders, i.e., pastors, overseers, elders, and deacons. Let me point out just four of them: temperate, self-controlled, respectable, and hospitable! Now, two more quick illustrations.
You might wonder how we were able to get into a building program with members having attitudes like those I’ve shared, but we did. At one point, a question arose over the color of the carpet for the new sanctuary and the type of tile in the lower auditorium activity and classroom area. There were strong feelings on both with a deadlock in sight. At this point I was invited (strongly urged by the chairman) to return to the decorating discussions. It was clear to me that if the ideas of both parties were not recognized, greater hostility would be forthcoming.
The sanctuary got my vote as highest in priority, so all was settled by giving Deacon Jim his wish on the basement tile in order to assure his agreement for the most appropriate carpet upstairs in the large worship area.
On still another occasion, Deacon Jim was doing some volunteer work in the basement of the new structure one evening when one of our guys stopped by and invited him to take a break and accompany him with a free ticket to a major league baseball game at nearby Giants’ stadium. Jim quickly refused the free offer, reminding the friendly donor that he had “too much work to do for the church” than to spend time idly at the park.
By the way, following the completion of the new building, a question arose regarding how much insurance would be needed to protect the new edifice. Deacon Jim reminded the board that they must include the long hours he had given as value added to the building. The amount he suggested was well into five figures. We never knew whether or not he used that as a deduction on his income tax return that year.
Right about now you may be asking, “Pastor Al, this is agony. What can possibly be the benefit of hearing all these negative, inhospitable accounts of one man’s stubbornness?" Good question! That’s certainly what I would have asked. The word “stubbornness” occurs thirty-two times in the Bible. In the Old Testament it is found in reference to Pharaoh’s heart, rebellious oxen, and arrogant people. Only once does it appear in the New Testament, in Romans 2:5, where we read about “stubbornness and an unrepentant heart, storing up future wrath in the time of judgment: (in the context or works), and in verse eight, of those who are “selfishly ambitious.”
That Greek word sklayros is most often translated as hard-hearted, harsh, cruel, or merciless. It is the very opposite of the nature of Jesus as seen in His meekness. In Paul Bretscher’s book, The World Upside Down, he compares the third beatitude, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” with the opposite concept, “Blessed are the aggressive, for they shall dominate the earth.” Bretscher adds that those of that mindset are candidates for fears, tensions, and ulcers because “the self they present to the world is bigger than the self they know they really are.” In time, I think we saw that occur with Deacon Jim.
In his latest book The Reason for God, Dr. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, observes, “Self-centeredness creates psychological alienation” (p. 220). In looking back, I’ve come to believe that Jim knew about and doctrinally believed in the grace of God. However, in his own heart he must have felt that somehow he needed to earn it. Therefore, through his “busyness” for God and his own perceived concept of self-denial, it appeared that he was trying to “compete” with God’s grace in order to prove to himself that he was worthy. That is sad.
Whenever you are called to minister to such a one as this, tread cautiously and compassionately. He does not realize his own fragility. One of the blessings of “aging in the ministry” is seeing over time how God works His will out in others. It seems so strange for us to eventually observe how those who caused us the most stress during our time in their midst are those who will be the most cordial and welcoming to us as old friends. I have experienced that more than once, but we do not serve in order to reach that point in our relationships. Our calling, as in all things, is to be found faithful. We serve the Lord Christ.
I will never forget the counsel of Dr. Henry Brandt during a case study he led during my early seminary days a half century ago. The example involved some question I can’t recall, and which does not matter, but during the process of my explaining why I would do something a certain way, he asked, “Al, why would you do that in the way you have just told me?” My answer, that I was just “putting my best foot forward,” brought down his great “wrath” upon me.
While I sat there with my fellow classmates, he spent several minutes on the subject of character, hypocrisy, “posers” and finally, as I recall, Christian integrity. His concluding admonition to me can best be summarized in these powerful words: “Bishop, instead of trying so hard to present yourself in that special way, why don’t you ask God to help you to really become that which you’re trying to project?”
No counsel has proved to be more meaningful, challenging, or memorable to me for my personal Christian growth. Spiritual confrontation can accomplish great benefits when ministered in the right way—“speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
“Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? The foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20,25).