Being Welcomed: Is There Anything More Affirming?

There I was waiting . . . and . . . waiting . . . and . . . waiting. I was not very good at it. I paced back and forth, traveling from window to window with my eyes scanning and searching. I was looking for a vehicle to come down the gravel road towards the farm.

Eventually, I adjusted my gaze . . . I extended it even farther . . . beyond that gravel road which led to home . . . out on the horizon, as far as my eyes could see . . . hoping to catch a small glimpse of a vehicle. I stared intently, my eyes squinting in order to extend my vision . . . I wanted to be the first to announce boldly, “They’re coming!” That road, the one on which I now focused my attention, was not the gravel road that led to the farm. Instead, it ran perpendicular to it. The gravel road traveled east-west while this other road, “the oil road” as it was named in the family, went north-south. It served as a connecting road between two state highways. I looked again, pressing my face hard against the cool glass in hopes of seeing more of the horizon. “Where were they,” I wondered. “Were they on that oil road or were they far from here?”

As the day wore on and the sun had set, my eyes could no longer detect the shapes of the vehicles on the oil road. Now, I gazed intensely into the darkness, searching for bright beams of lights. Could those be the ones? My hopes rose . . . I waited, almost holding my breath. Could it be? Is it slowing down? It is! My excitement escalated. Will it turn this way? I watched and waited, my breath held in anticipation. However, my excitement fell as quickly as it rose as I watched the car turn westward, away from the farm. I saw how my breath clouded the window ever so slightly. Oh, where are they now?

I continued to watch . . . more vehicles drove by the gravel road that led to the farm. Back then, it was a road without a sign to indicate its existence. It was an east-west road that was . . . well . . . just out there . . . in the dark. Only those who purposely traveled it, who knew it, ventured onto it. By this time, I had become like that gravel road . . . I, too, waited in the darkness, as the lights in my room only hampered my vision. Each pair of headlights generated a small crescendo, producing hope, only to result in a decrescendo, becoming crestfallen again.

Throughout the afternoon and evening my feelings had risen and fallen repeatedly. Up. Down. Up. Down. Like my chest rising and falling with each breath. Rise. Fall. Rise. Fall. Vehicles came. Vehicles went. My secret hope that they had embarked earlier on their journey than expected had long passed as the day had slowly worn on. Now in the dark, I watched as a semi-trailer traveled on the oil road, its distinctive lights signifying its identity. I detected what I believed to be a pick-up truck pulling a stock trailer. I witnessed a tractor with its flashing yellow lights, announcing it to be a slow-moving vehicle. Dispersed in between were indistinguishable vehicles that elevated and lowered my hopes. I was growing impatient. I knew once they arrived, work would cease . . . the family would be together . . . But until then . . . I waited.

Then . . . I saw it . . . another set of headlights . . . could it be? I waited, with my eyes refusing to release the oncoming vehicle from the grip of my gaze. Was it them? Maybe staring at it would make it so. While such magic had previously failed me, a longing mixed with love caused me to try again. I fixated on the headlights. I repeated to myself, “I believe. I believe. I believe.” Was that my imagination or was that vehicle slowing down? I had been staring so long and hard that it was difficult to tell. Yet . . . so it seemed . . . it was slowing down . . . could it be? . . . It was turning! It must be them! I ran to the big picture window in the living room to look again . . . my heart was beating wildly. I cautioned myself, “This could be a neighbor, rushing home from town.” The intensity of my gaze refused to be deterred. I watched. Was that a yellow light? It was. The vehicle’s blinker was on! I shouted, “They’re here! They’re here!” I could hardly contain myself. I was like a child on Christmas morning . . . My sister or my brother had come home again!

Being the youngest of three, my sister and my brother had graduated from high school and gone away to college when I was in elementary school.

Each time that they returned for a visit to the farm, I impatiently waited much of the day to see their faces. Yet, I was not the only one who longed to see them. While my parents were older and less expressive by nature, I periodically caught glimpses of my Mom or Dad looking westward, searching to see if their child had returned home. In their own way, they, too, experienced the anticipation of seeing their children again.

After my mother died, I continued to witness this type of anticipation in my father. When I was visiting Dad at the farm for a weekend, my brother would spend an evening with us. As I was preparing the meal, I would periodically observe my father looking westward to see if he could catch a glimpse of his son coming down the gravel road. Once in a while, I would hear Dad call out, “He’s here!”

For over eighty years, my father gazed across the same horizon. He watched as his children grew and moved away from the farm while he and his wife remained. Together, they waited for their children to return. Then, one day his wife departed—she had returned to the dust from whence she came. Now, he alone continued to wait for his children to come back. And when his children returned, he would welcome them home again.

To be clear, my father was not one to overtly express his welcome to others. One of my first profound indications of how much he longed to have his children home occurred when my husband and I returned from living overseas for three years. He looked me in the eye and said, “It is good to have you back home.” It was then I genuinely knew: he really did not like having us so far away. And as he continued to age, he increasingly expressed his longings more plainly. Home. He wanted his family at home.

Yet, one of the last welcoming gestures I received from my father did not occur at the farm. It was three weeks prior to his death . . . a Saturday . . . May 6th. My father had spent only two nights during the previous month on the farm. After being in two hospitals, he stayed eleven days in a nursing facility prior to moving into assisted living. On this day, he had just spent his first night in assisted living when my husband and I came for a visit. We had been the first of his children he had seen since his last night in the hospital. When he saw me, he grabbed me and held me fast. The hug that welcomed me was long and tight, its grip exceeding any other embrace I had experienced from him. I had returned, and he intensely welcomed me into his space.

To be welcomed.

It communicates, “You are important to me. You matter to me.” The simple act of welcoming says, “I embrace you, and you may come just as you are into my space. Your being is received by my being.” In this space there is acceptance. It communicates desire for the other. It is an invitation to receive the other. Its gesture rings of the words, be they spoken or unspoken, “Make yourself at home.” To welcome the other is to create a space that is a home away from home. It seeks to place one at ease. It invites one to be herself. It desires him to be comfortable. It validates the being of the other. It says to the other, “Come, just as you are.”

Conversely, when we are not welcomed, we are ill at ease.

Instead of an implicit or explicit “Come on in,” one receives a message of, “Stay away,” or one less blatant, “Oh, it’s just you.” In an instant, we may wish we could be anywhere else but there. We may feel shame and experience questions such as, “What is wrong with me?” There may be an overwhelming sense, “I am not good enough.” Feelings of loneliness may wrap around one’s being as isolation comes close. We may want to hide, fight back, or pretend such an unwelcoming did not occur.

Many of us probably know how to purposely un-welcome someone without saying a word. Let’s admit it: many of us have done it. Oh, we may respond to the other, be it verbally or via text or email, but the response is curt, such as “no” or “yes.” In such a response, we are secretly striving to communicate, “I do not want you here.” Of course, if anyone ever challenged our unwelcoming behavior, we can speciously say, “But I did not say the person was un-welcome. I answered her. I responded to him.” That may be true    . . . yet . . . while we attempt to console ourselves that we really did respond and while we attempt to deceive and protect ourselves from our own nastiness, in our heart of hearts we know: we desired to send a signal; the other caught it, and we both know it.

Such concealed knowledge can foster uncertainty for us: who will un-welcome us? If we un-welcome others into our space, who is to say others will not un-welcome us? Maybe it will be a stranger . . . a relative . . . a longtime friend . . . or maybe . . . God?

Whether we admit it or not, such is a common underlying anxiety: “Will I be un-welcomed by God?”

Christian music artist Sara Groves captures this when she puts her grandfather’s exact words to song:

How much foolishness and folly are allowed in your graceland
How much doubt and melancholy
‘Til I’m lost[1]

Thus, it would seem that no matter our age, we may wonder, “If humans un-welcome each other, what makes us think God will welcome us? Is God’s love any different from humanity’s love?”

In search of an answer to such a question, I draw our attention to the Lukan corpus of Luke-Acts where Luke is addressing Theophilus.

Some scholars assert that Theophilus was a Gentile who was questioning whether or not to remain a believer partly due to his experience of how unwelcoming the Christian community was to the Gentiles. Darrel Bock holds that Theophilus is being called to be faithful to a new community that is embroiled in conflict between Jews and Gentiles, a place that he is experiencing rejection.[2] Luke seeks to assure Theophilus to remain because he is welcome. Consider the following:

  • Luke-Acts highlights fellowship meals, places of welcome.
  • Luke includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is preceded by the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
  • The Gospel of Luke displays the welcoming nature of Jesus as he sat with sinners and tax collectors (5:30–32; 19:2–10).

For instance, Luke states in 15:1–2: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear him. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” It is within this context that the parable of the Prodigal Son appears, a parable that signifies the welcoming nature of God as portrayed by a father welcoming a wayward son home. When the father’s youngest son decides to return home, Luke depicts the scene:

But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him.

This is, as Charles Talbert writes, “a dramatic demonstration” of “unexpected love” as “[t]he father’s actions were without restraint” towards his wayward son. Some may say that the father’s actions were “to the point of humiliating himself” in that “he ran,” and dignified, elderly men from that region of the world during that time did not run.[3] The father’s hope, joy, and love were communicated in his welcome . . . come, just as you are  . . . you are welcome here . . . I want you home.

Notice: Notably absent is the message of unwelcome. No explicit turning away from humanity. No ignoring humanity’s cry for God. No implicit message of “You are not welcome here.” What we see is that God’s love is not like human love. God is waiting in anticipation to welcome humanity . . . similar to that of a child waiting for her siblings to return . . . similar to an elderly parent waiting for his children . . . God waits . . . watches . . . anticipating your return . . . longing to welcome you . . . home. I close with the words from the aforementioned song:

You are standing in the driveway

As I come up the street

I can tell by your movement you’re not angry

You are waiting there . . .

You are running now

You are running[4]

 

Thanks to pixabay.com from the above image.

[1] Sara Groves, “My Dream,” Floodplain (Brentwood, TN: Fair Trade Services, 2015).

[2] Darrel Bock, “Luke, Gospel of,” in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), Accordance edition, 498.

[3] Charles Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel, (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2012), Kindle edition, 180.

[4] Groves, “My Dream.”

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