Upon moving from South Texas to the Midwest 10 years ago, I first bought a sturdy workhorse of a shovel. Then I bought another one made of some ultralight alloy with a snazzy ergonomic handle.
Between the two, over a decade’s time, I’ve avoided spending $400 or $500 on a snow blower. I cheaply reasoned if I doled out the big cash and bought one, we’d almost certainly end up moving to some tropical locale and I’d be out $400 or more.
We recently got more snow in one storm than we’ve had since moving here: mid-calf snow, heavy and wet, the worst kind and halfway to zero in temperature. I first uncovered the two kids’ cars parked outdoors and went to work uncovering the double-car driveway so we could drive to work. It took me three shoveling sessions, four cups of coffee and two hours.
Near the end, as I thought I might be finished, I looked at the sidewalk bending from the driveway to our front door – and still buried under 2-foot snowdrifts.
“No one’s coming to visit in this kind of weather,” I reasoned. “Don’t do it!” my back yelled out. It was 25 feet of curving concrete with the biggest drifts around the front door.
It was irrational to worry about it, I thought, but then I noticed my retired Greek neighbor shoveling his front porch before tackling his driveway. It dawned on me that making a path to the front porch made a statement of welcome. Making a path for hospitality was at the heart of the issue, and it gave my sore back something to reflect on as I worked my way steadily toward the front door.
How often do we view an intentional, thoughtful gift of hospitality as the work of God in our community?
A few years ago, a couple visited my church after I had been involved consulting their former church over conflict between their pastor and the laity. The dispute grew even after the pastor left, and the conflict was then waged between two rival groups of laypersons. The church fractured, and members fled hither and yon in the aftermath.
This lesbian couple visited my church and loved our sense of worship. They had already accepted me as a pastor they could embrace. I felt their love and acceptance, and I visited with them one day after church about the possibility they might enter into the community of our church.
The issue of sexual orientation had been a nervous anxiety in the past, yet our pastors regularly preached that God’s love is boundless and inclusive as we discover the imago dei; we are persons created by God and bear an undeniable resemblance to God’s image. I recognized sadly that in honesty about my church, it’s one thing to preach God’s love and another to practice it.
These two women were committed followers of Jesus and had loved one another in a committed relationship over many years. We talked about whether the church could accept them just as they were, recognizing their sexual orientation was about the least interesting thing about them, and that they were both daughters of God looking for a community of faith to embrace and be embraced by.
In the middle of a very serious conversation about membership, one of them asked me bluntly, “Is it safe here?”
I asked if she meant whether our members could accept them as they were. She nodded her assent.
“I’m not sure,” I said. I knew when I said it that I was admitting, “I don’t think it is safe here.”
In truth, I could not say for sure whether the sanctuary of God’s people was safe for them to join. I couldn’t say with all certainty that I could even broach the subject with our church leaders, as it would put them in the position of objectifying this couple as nameless, faceless persons representing an anonymous, morally considered idea and not deal with them as persons made in the image of God.
Tired and sore from shoveling all that snow, I plunged into the sidewalk leading to my front door, the visible symbol of welcome to anyone who might come along wanting warmth and acceptance.
When I got to the church, I found its front porch already cleared of snow by our diligent custodial staff. Strangely though, I still can’t say for certain whether it’s safe inside for those who visit. We live in a broken world in which we are considering a more honest reflection on God’s hospitality.
For many, the snow of winter will melt before the snow in the cold of our hearts. But spring always comes – with a glimmer of hope that our communities of faith will become safe refuge for all God’s children.
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).