London: Hospitality and Belonging

There have been two pieces of art that have caught my eye on sabbatical and have taught me something about our pilgrimage.

The first was Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal which surprisingly hangs in the Columba Room of the Northumbria Community. Surprisingly because I have kept a small postcard version in my journal for the last year or so. Part of my discovery in the last year has been the story of the prodigal, the desperation and poverty of the son and the blessing and embracing love of the father. I had hoped we would have been able to see the original in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg with others after the choir trip in Moscow, but we decided instead to fly to London. So when I saw the large poster hanging in Hetton Hall I had to smile.

But today we went to the National Gallery, one of the great museums of the world. The one painting that caught my eye, and represents themes of our sabbatical is the Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, the Italian master. This painting has Jesus in Luke's post resurrection encounters with the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 21. The disciples left Jerusalem before the resurrection, even before or during Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus walks along with them and they don't recognize him. He stays with them for supper and still they don't recognize him until he breaks the bread and gives it to them.

A few things about this painting was particularly meaningful to us. The man on the right is a pilgrim, marked with the pilgrim's shell. We often discover Jesus while we're on the road, travelling, journeying with others. And his arms are stretched out even into our space, telling us something of his reaction to discovering the risen Jesus is alive and eating with him. Is it an expression of the wide grace of God, or his surprise? Either way, his left hand reaches out to us and invites us in. Jesus has given them the bread, but they have not yet eaten, still on the table ready for us to take. And the basket it hanging over the edge begging us to catch it. We are invited in. There is something about table fellowship that brings us closer to each other and understanding Jesus' welcoming hospitality.

Last night we ate dinner at Gordon's Wine Bar in London. It is an underground, arched brick grotto with tables and candlelight. The tables are shared and people find whatever seat is available to enjoy the wine, cheese plates and cold and hot dishes you get cafeteria style. We landed at a table in a gated room, sharing it with five others. The three who sat on our side of the table were all friends from Australia. Two were married (30 and 25 years old) and expecting their first child, and they were visiting their younger (19 years old) in London on their way from Norway to New York on their five month world tour (which they planned before they knew they were pregnant).

We toasted them on their pregnancy and finding out the sex of their baby that morning in Norway. We shared a bit of our story having twins when we were 27, some of the joys of parenthood and the great opportunity to be away together for four months in our 25th year of marriage. The conversation made its way to talking about being a pastor and answering their questions about what kind of church we have and what we've learned about churches on our travels. It was a very warm, honest, fun conversation.

And they shared their stories as well. The married couple both left home when they were fourteen years old because of issues with their parents. The younger woman left home to travel and discover new things at 19. None of them grew up in church, but believed in something and weren't sure you really needed to be specific about "God" except to do your best to live well and make good choices. They all felt the churches they visited and know about are about rules, power and money (the Vatican "took" the best marble from Greece? Indulgences paid for the construction of St. Peters? People make up rules for others to follow and then abuse children? People who don't know God live good lives and those who say they know God are as sinful as anyone?) How can we argue? Where is the true experience of God in the church?

As I described our church I talked about a place where we serve and make a difference in the community "because who cares what you believe if it doesn't make a difference for others?" and a place of community in small groups "because we are all so disconnected from each other—where else can you have meaningful conversations like this?" We all smiled because we knew we were experiencing some kind of "God-moment," or "it was meant to be" moment. They and we were 8 or 9 time zones from home in different directions, but we talked about life, faith and family over bread, wine and appetizers.

Amy and I went home blessed. What is most important to people who don't understand what God or Jesus or Church means to us? It's not always believing in the same things, but it's almost always belonging to something meaningful. Jesus belonged to those disciples in a special way around the table. He could have told them on the road, but something special happened when they were breaking bread together.

Hospitality is what we have appreciated most on our sabbatical. People reaching out a hand, sharing their story, welcoming us into their home, their kitchen; and sometimes it doesn't happen in the places where you expect it (a church service) and other times it happens where you don't expect it (a pub). It was so strong for us at the Northumbria Community (people offered us rides, we baked together, we shared our stories around tea and coffee) we decided to come back for another week after our trip to Scotland. We experienced being family in Italy when they didn't speak English and we were learning Italian.  And this week in London we are guests in the flat of a couple while they are in California.

The father in Rembrandt's painting offers hospitality to his son by giving him the embrace of his large hands, the welcome into his home despite his behavior or disappointment, a robe, a ring, a meal, a feast-- all of it was totally unexpected.

I want to be aware of how much space there is in our lives for hospitality, not just for those we know and love, but for the stranger, the one who is looking for hospitality as much as we have longed for it these four months.

Maybe we'll see Jesus more clearly.


  1. I worked at a publishing company next to Gordon's Wine Bar for 3 months during my time in London after college. We went to Gordon's every Friday for lunch!

  2. I loved hearing about the Norwegians in the wine bar. The experiences I have had backpacking around the world have been the best. You never know what will happen when you take lots of time to explore and converse (and you are not staying at a Hyatt)


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