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Book Review: The Gospel Comes with a House Key

Book Review: The Gospel Comes with a House Key

When I get offered Christian books to review, that usually means Amish romance novels. 

So when I saw this upcoming book by Rosaria Butterfield on offer, I was genuinely pleased.

Hospitality is something I've been thinking about a lot for the past few years: how to receive it, how to extend it, how to make it part of Christian home life as a reflection of the spiritual life we share, and how to invite outsiders in. 

A bit of background on Butterfield, if you're not already familiar with her other books: she is a former lesbian/radical feminist/activist. In these circles, she had a community, one that loved and accepted her and extended hospitality. When she converted to Christianity, not only was that hospitality no longer available to her, there was no such corresponding hospitality available within her new community. Thus, this book.

The overall theme is simple. Stop waiting for someone else to step up. Step up yourself. I can't say I disagree, I'm just still not sure how to make that happen in my particular circumstance. 

Butterfield writes about how she and her husband and children live in an urban/suburban neighborhood, connected to their 300+ immediate neighbors by an app called Nextdoor. (Out of curiosity, I explored Nextdoor to see what it was like in my neighborhood, where houses can be a lot further apart... it's not in use by anyone else around here.)

A typical week for them will include hospitality extended day and night—people coming and going, neighbors in crisis, long-term guests, church events, travelers in need... the list goes on. It is not uncommon for them to post to the app and invite the entire neighborhood over for a barbecue. 

She describes her need to recharge being met by rising in the pre-dawn hours, so she can have a snippet of time alone to do devotions. With children at different ages and stages of life (I believe she homeschools the ones who are still at home), it sounds like their days as a family are packed. Her husband is a pastor, and they're heavily involved with their church. 

Hospitality on this scale requires a great deal of preparation and forethought, down to the budget and shopping, and she makes it clear that you can get so bogged down in the details that you can forget why you're doing this.

It's clear that this isn't a "let's impress the guests" kind of hospitality—it is the extension of the family life to the outsider. Yes, sometimes things are going to be a mess. But as she says, if you're family and you come in and see I'm still working on something, you pitch in—fold the laundry, stir the soup, unload the dishwasher. 

As I have written about many times before, most of my friends have small children. And they're always apologizing for what they perceive as things that would make me uncomfortable. The noise! The mess! Leaving me on my own for 5 minutes while they put the kids down to sleep!

.... Stop worrying. I've been trying to tell you I'm just glad to be here. Thank you for letting me be part of your family, and give me something to do. This is real life, and this is what Butterfield writes about. A hospitality borne out of the recognition that we all may be fine communing together on Sunday morning, but then you're on your own until next week. 

She describes how we come together, for the high point of the Christian week, and in that time we are full, raw, and whole ... and then we splinter apart and return to our own homes and lives. There is little to no overlap, and this can leave people (myself included!) reeling somewhat as they attempt to readjust from that spiritual high to the drudgery of "real life". Hospitality can help with this. This is one way to interpret Galatians 6:10—doing good to all, especially your family in Christ.

Some of my initial concerns going into the book were readily addressed. Does this kind of hospitality mean flinging your doors open to everyone, no matter what? (No.)

How do you do this without totally burning out? (If you try to do this in your own strength, you will. There are times when it can't be done.) Is it safe? (Not always.) Is this a substitute for the hospitality your church offers? (Nope: that's corporate, this is personal.) Is this some kind of goofy "outreach" to just soup-kitchen unbelievers into belief? (Definitely not.) Couldn't hospitality mean adoption? (Yes!) Do you have to have a house to do this? (No: she writes about how hospitality can indeed mean visiting those in the hospital, prison, catching up with someone over coffee, etc. I hate using this word, but what she's talking about is being intentional, not lackadaisical.)

One of the questions I didn't really see an answer to was: how do you prioritize your own family if this is getting to be too much, i.e., is there one night every once in a while where you have one-on-one family time? Is it ever okay to just regroup and recharge, or are you inherently failing by taking some time off?

The book is more or less addressed to married couples. She writes that, of course, the contributions of singles to hospitality are important, but then didn't offer any practical suggestions on what that might look like. I guess if I want those answers, I have to write the book myself. 

The kind of hospitality they can practice is facilitated by her being able to work from home, while homeschooling, and cooking, and cleaning, with the help of the whole family and whoever is on hand to assist. And that's amazing. I would love to be able to do that someday. Meanwhile: I work 40 hours a week and live by myself, so what I'm able to offer is, by necessity, on a smaller scale. It would NOT be safe or prudent for me to have the kind of open door policy they do, although the conviction creeping up on me is that it does need to be slightly more open than it is now.

I think the thing that struck me most is her interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13 and how God will provide a way out of any temptation. She suggests, what if your extension of hospitality to someone IS that escape for them? What if, by providing a place for someone to go and a family to be part of, God is using your hospitality to protect them from the spiral of addiction? 

It's a powerful concept. (As a 110% Martha type, I'm aware my tendency is to give and give and give—out of my own strength—until I'm completely toast, which takes a long time to come back from ... so this all has to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes, learning how to regulate yourself means you have to step back from things you would naturally like to be doing.)

Butterfield is a conservative Presbyterian, and the theological portions of the book reflect not only the church environment she's been in for years, but also the thorough, measured approach you'd expect from someone who was a former professor. There wasn't much in here I disagreed with. If you have a sound understanding that all people have sinned and come short of the glory of God and that we are yet made in God's image, that SHOULD shape how you interact with them. I freely admit that is more difficult with some people than with others. I don't know where to start with my sprawling neighborhood, with the neighbors I wave to but don't speak to. I have no idea what the kind of hospitality she describes looks like in New England, where people can be neighbors for decades without actually knowing each other. 

My first thought was, how do I start this with people from my church? But this is where I hit another barrier because I do live at some distance from church—meaning I have to ask people to drive to me, or I have to forcibly invite myself over (cough New England cough). What does hospitality look like, then? Is it taking people out for lunch, or bringing food to their house? I DON'T KNOW. HELP ME, ROSARIA. Maybe if I tell God I just want to get married so it'll be easier to be hospitable, that will finally crack the code. JK. (Maybe not totally kidding.) 

Overall, while I have a few concerns that weren't addressed within this text, it is a thoughtful and helpful book that I would like to read again in a few years, to see how my circumstances and approach have changed. I would recommend that those who are interested in Christian hospitality (and yes, outreach) read this book. It is challenging and convicting, and having read it, I want to do more in this area. 

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free Advance Reader Copy by Amazon Vine in return for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. 

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