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Disorientation and Hospitality . . . and Hope.

A year ago I began my work at Luther Seminary in the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project.

Snowy Pine outside my office
Snowy Pine outside my office

Being here on campus this week reminds me of that first trip as a new hire. I arrived late in the evening to the snowy winter dark. The next morning I went in search of breakfast. I hoped I could remember where the dining hall was. I found it (eventually), but I felt disoriented at every turn. I couldn’t even decide what to eat. And I was slightly nervous about my first day on the job. When I finally managed to get a bowl of oatmeal together and some toast, I stepped up to the register to pay.

It was J-term which meant there weren’t many people in the cafeteria at 7:30 a.m. There was no line.  I put down my food.

“You don’t owe anything,” the cashier said.

“Do what?” I sputtered.

“Someone already paid for your breakfast.”

I started looking around. There was no one to be seen. “You’re kidding me, right?” I asked narrowing my eyes in suspicion. Was this a cruel sort of  joke?

“No. It’s paid for.”

“No one here even knows me. Why would someone pay for my breakfast?”

He shrugged. Getting a little tired of my disbelief.

I looked around a bit more. “You’re sure?”

He nodded.

“Okay. If you’re sure. Do you have any idea who it was?”

He nodded his head in the direction of the door. “It was just someone who paid for your breakfast.”

“Well.” I said, “Thanks. And have a good day.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I walked away, feeling tears well up. People just aren’t usually that nice to me. Total strangers don’t buy me breakfast.

This became a paradigm story of my first year at Luther. Every time I arrive  I experience some unexpected moment of disorientation followed by an unnerving moment of hospitality. The two things don’t always happen in quick succession. But they do usually happen within hours of my arrival. I’ve lost luggage and gloves, and dropped my computer in the airport restroom. I’ve been late to meetings because of airline faux pas. I’ve been unable to get keys to my apartment, and gotten locked out. Every trip has its disorienting moment.

But that is almost never the end of the story. Every trip so far has also had its profound and unsettling moments of hospitality as well.  I’ve experienced a kind of grace that not only surprises me, but also welcomes me back to this space. I’ve found flowers and cards, been invited to eat with strangers who became friends, found gorgeous sunsets, and been welcomed into the homes of new friends.

Today I told some of this story in a J-term class I’m teaching on prayer and pastoral care. I think most of my life’s journey so far has had these same moments. I was wrong last year when I said to myself “strangers don’t do nice things for me.” If I stop and consider the past year, it turns out that manifestations of God’s grace have been everywhere. Moments of disorientation that throw me off balance and take me out of my comfort zone are their own form of God’s mercy – afflicting me with grace. And the gestures of hospitality, small and large, jar my memory of the provision of God’s care.

It took some doing. But two days after that disorienting morning last year, I found the stranger who bought my breakfast. I thanked her. I told her what a gesture of grace her gift was to me. She greets me nearly every time I come to campus, including yesterday morning as I walked to my office. There she was again. Her smile is wide. Her hug was ready. She was walking with another student to breakfast. Imagine.  If this young woman is the future of ministry in the church, then I feel hopeful indeed.

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