Welcome Your Stranger

Welcome Your Stranger
Douglas Taylor
September 17, 2017

Let us talk for a moment about the interplay of shadow and light (chiaroscuro). This little light of mine will shine, oh it will shine bright and glorious. But I have a little shadow and darkness as well. All of us have both light and shadow. It is the way of nature and all life. It is the light we want, the light we show; but darkness and shadow are present as well.

Here I am not talking about shadow is not a bad thing. Let us not think of shadow or dark as evil or negative. It’s just shadow. We want light more, but dark has its own glory as well. The dark is where the seed grows, darkness allows rest. Let us not think of dark and shadow as synonymous with evil.

Consider the times you have seen sunlight, actually seen a ray of sunshine. Perhaps it was a photograph or an experience while out in nature. Can you recall? When the light shines out through a cloud bank or breaks through the trees and you actually see the ray of sunlight? Have you seen that? It is as if the sun beam has a shape, a width and length.

The sunbeam in such an experience is clear because it is partly blocked by the trees and their shadows, or by clouds. Unfiltered light shines everywhere, but we notice it, we see it, when it is flickering, when it is filtered through shadow, when it is a little obstructed.

So, let us consider the interplay of light and shadow. Or, if it is easier, consider the stranger, the alien, the foreigner in our midst.

Most people seek out a homogeneous community, a place of like-minded people. Our religious community – indeed most religious communities are familiar. It is part of the ancient instinctual bias within us. We can be comfortable in conformity. We are at home in the homogenous. We are safest in sameness. This is not a bad thing, it is just a common thing. As a species, we have some hard-wiring about how we can stay safe and who we can trust.

As we’ve grown beyond our tribal civilization structures, but our hardwiring does not necessarily grow with us. We remain a little tribal to this day.

And don’t get me wrong, it is true that strangers can be dangerous. Just as darkness can hide dangerous things. This does not make the darkness bad. It makes it a risk. There is risk in stepping out of our comfort zone. It can be dangerous. Ah, but interestingly, the risk of danger is not the only risk! Sometimes the risk is growth. Meeting the stranger with an open hand, welcoming the shadow and darkness around us, this invites risk. There is the risk of harm but there is also the risk of growth.

Consider a model I found in a Richard Rohr blog a few months back. Rohr is a process theologian I find to be very accessible. Rohr was writing about “The Three Boxes.” We begin with order, move through disorder and if we keep at it we can find our way into reorder. He wrote, “Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to.” https://cac.org/the-three-boxes-2016-12-06/

Essentially, he was advocating for the value of disorder. He could have as easily written about imperfection or suffering or chaos. He picked a more neutral concept: disorder. You could equally think of it as the progression from thesis and antithesis into synthesis. Or perhaps: light, darkness, and the interplay of light and shadow which allows us to see sunbeams.

This is not meant as a moral judgment about light vs darkness, order vs disorder, or the like-minded community vs diverse community. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of comfort and discomfort, and the values of each. “This is always painful at some level,” Rohr writes in his blog, describing the move from the first box ‘order’ to the second box ‘disorder’; “But part of us has to die if we are ever to grow larger” In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (NIV; John 12:24)

This analysis is a reminder of the harmony we are aiming for, the third thing that can come: new life embracing paradox! The shadow allows the light to be seen more clearly. Perfection and imperfection reside together. Life and death, joy and sorrow, comfort and discomfort, arriving in the ‘third box’ of Richard Rohr’s model – the one he labeled ‘reorder’ – doesn’t mean we are back to pure light or perfection. It means we are nearing wholeness. There is both light and shadow, order and disorder residing side-by-side together in a dynamic wholeness.

As I consider this concept, this way of dealing with Rohr’s second box, of embracing disorder, I see both societal and personal applications. With a sermon title about welcoming strangers, perhaps the societal implication is easy to guess.

It is good and healthy for a society to welcome immigrants and refugees. Certainly, it can cause disruption and difficulty. To welcome the stranger is to invite change and disorder, especially if you allow the stranger to have an impact.

Religions the world over hold an important place for hospitality. In ancient times, hospitality was the cornerstone of civilization. Countless stories begin with a stranger or potential enemy arriving at the gate, and they are let in. There were wide-spread hospitality rules across different cultures, rules about how to be a good host and how to be a good guest, and about what is expected by both parties.

Abraham, in the Bible, wanders around before settling in Canaan; always hosted and treated well. And he, in turn, plays host in some of the tales. There are numerous times the theme of hospitality appears throughout the stories in Genesis. In Norse mythology, Odin would disguise himself as a stranger and wander the land to see how he would be treated. Other cultures and mythologies carry the theme as well.

Again and again, the appropriate response to meeting a stranger is to show hospitality. At least, that used to be the norm. It is not so today, not in our American culture today. There is a fierce push against diversity, against the influx of other cultures.

There is an anger in some parts of our country now against refugees and immigrants. I think the root of this is a fear that they will change American culture, (as if immigration is not as American as apple pie.)

But if we take Richard Rohr and others who echo his sentiment seriously, the only way forward is through the disorder. “Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to.” (Ibid)

Any time we encounter the ‘other’ we are challenged, and we are given an opportunity to be ‘led out of normalcy into sacred, open space.’

Consider, the current conversations we keep stirring up here about institutional racism and white supremacy and how well they fall into this formula too. Order and disorder, comfort and discomfort, and the misguided notion the disorder and discomfort are the problem. Meanwhile St. Louis is in the news this week for much the same reason as its suburb Ferguson 2 years ago: race riots sparked by systemic racism in the police force. And disorder has claimed the streets.

Our question should not be ‘how do we stop the disorder.’ We should ask, ‘how do we move through the disorder to the time of reorder.’ Part of the answer is to listen closely to what the disorder is offering. The rest of the answer is revealed by the listening.

Consider the interplay of light and shadow. Consider the way sunlight shines through the leaves or cloudbank. Consider the disorder in the world around us. Or consider the disorder within you. I see a personal application to Richard Rohr’s concept of three boxes. We all have shadowed places within our hearts. I have shadowed places within my heart.

Sometimes the troubles we see in the world are those we project from our own inner shadows. Sometimes people project an enemy onto a stranger or community of strangers out in the world that is more accurately a reflection of the stranger within.

How do you welcome the stranger within? Perhaps there is inner work we each must do before we offer hospitality to those around us. Is there some part of myself I deny? Some shadow – again, I do not mean something negative or bad, only hidden. How much disorder do you allow in your own living before you push it away or push it back into the older, comfortable order from before? How many ways do we travel between the first and second box, between order and disorder? Have you experienced reorder in your life, the interplay of shadow and light?

This can be tricky work, this welcoming of the stranger. How hard it is to welcome the stranger within! Remember the admonition: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” (Heb 13:2). The stranger is not only the foreigner, immigrant, or refugee arriving on our shores. The stranger is also not only our shadow within. The stranger may also be the holy.

Recall that sentence from Richard Rohr I keep says: “Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to.” He names it ‘sacred’ space. There is much we Unitarian Universalists say about the holy being found in our natural experience, in our everyday living. We talk about the natural world as sacred. But we emphasize that because in many ways an experience of the holy is not an experience of the normal. The holy is strange. Few things are stranger.

This is not to say all strange things are holy, only that an encounter with the stranger can open us up to the holy. Ancient traditions call us into hospitality, to welcome the new person or new experience. It is more than good manners – it is the path forward for civilization

Consider the interplay of light and shadow, the dynamic constancy, the perfect imperfection. Be not locked in to what has always been. It is not safety we find is sameness but stagnation and death. Release your fears, trust that the risk is worth it more often than it seems. Welcome your stranger, welcome and grow.

In a world without end,
May it be so.