The Power of Place and Hospitality
Surely God is in this place and I didn't know it - Jacob the patriarch
Do not neglect to show hospitality.... Hebrews 13
I walk into the “History Museum” at Mount Hermon, a Christian Conference grounds tucked into the Redwoods near Santa Cruz, on the coast of Northern California. I’m there to thank the host for sharing some photos with me of Arthur Dahlstrom’s children walking from Oakland, in 1909, to a new place (established 1906) for families called Mount Hermon (it was a six day walk that included sleeping under the stars, and cooking food over an open fire).
Arthur was my granddad’s brother and, apparently, the pioneer who led our family to its association with Mount Hermon. Now, well over one hundred years later, I’m here to speak on the book of Hebrews, a book which includes reference to the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us, invested in us, as parents, coaches, band directors, and teachers do, as well as grandparents.
It’s my memories of my grandma on my dad’s side, and her sister, that fill my heart this evening because after grandma Esther’s husband died in the 50’s, she moved to Mount Hermon to become their baker, working alongside her sister in the conference center that still serves food to thousands of guests annually today. The combined smell of cinnamon roles and redwood trees transport me back to my childhood even now, in my sixties. That transport was intensified this time back on three fronts:
First, my grandma’s house, which is still standing, had a family in it this week, with small children playing in the very driveway where my sister and I played for one week every summer from Kennedy’s assisination to the moon landing. I visit it every year when I speak here, as a sort of pilgrimage, but I’d never seen children playing in the yard until this time. It was eerie, like I was walking around with the ghost of Christmas past in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It supercharged the holiness of the place, because I felt, in my body, the memories of joy, safety, and being held, both in grandma’s loving arms, and the beauty of the redwood forest. I was shaped here, profoundly. That hospitality taught me ‘safe places exist’, and only now, over 55 years later, am I gaining the full realization of the power of that hospitality. Later this week, I’ll speak about hospitality from the Bible book of Hebrews, but the redwoods and the house of grandma Esther already preached the sermon to me: “Invest in others by welcoming them, by loving them. You may never see the fruit, but don’t worry, you’re sowing eternal seeds that will bless and change people in God’s time, just like you were changed when the time was right.”
Second, a woman roughly my age came up to me in tears after my second talk. She told me that her dad worked with my dad in the school district just outside Fresno. My parents invited this woman's parents to Mt. Hermon in 1960, and coming here became a regular event for her family too, eventually coming to faith in Christ due to the witness of my parents and their invitation and testimony. Now, five decades distant from our childhoods, we’re sitting under the same redwood trees, absorbing the power of hospitality and invitation. “When your dad died, my dad took his faith to the next level.” Maybe it was dad’s grace in the midst of suffering as, tethered to oxygen and chronically coughing, every breath was a battle for him, a reminder of loss in contrast to the athleticism of his youth. Maybe it was the realization that comes when someone dies in their early fifties, that life is short so we’d better get busy living. Either way, dad was a witness in life and death, and those memories, too, flood my mind and body as we chat under the redwoods.
And finally (do keep reading, even if you hate baseball), the Giants. Nearly every trip to Mount Hermon was preceded by a Friday night and Saturday afternoon visit to Candlestick park, the home of the San Francisco Giants. I remember being wrapped in my dad’s overcoat, being fed sips of hot chocolate because the piercing chill of fog had me shivering, yet afraid to say anything for fear we’d leave the game. I remember the shelter, the safety of a father. No wonder “Field of Dreams” and a few other baseball movies slay me!
Through the generosity of a friend, I was invited to join him at a game this past Saturday. It was an epoch, featuring the two best teams in baseball, complete with lead changes, lots of home runs (including one into the bay), and a win for the home team. The best moment though, happened off the field. My friend introduced me to the usher who asked me if I was a Giant fan, which led to my long answer about coming to games from the heat of the San Joaquin valley every summer to see Mays, McCovey, and other legends play in the chill fog of San Francisco. “…so this feels like coming home,” I said.
As it turns out, “Welcome Home” is the Giants slogan this year, perhaps because of Covid. The usher removes a button from his jacket and says, “You can’t buy these anymore, but I want you to have it”. I immediately put it on my sweatshirt, and will cherish it forever because it represents this week where I’ve been able to look back with gratitude on those who created memories of what home should be: places of safety, security, and love. My ancestors did that without fanfare, through bacon, cinnamon rolls, laughter, tickets on the first base line, all saturated with the scent of redwood.
Later, shortly after the death of my dad and grandma, I’d move away from depression and anxiety by moving to a new place of hospitality, a new place of safety. I moved there because someone preached that knowing God, not theoretically, but intimately, was the best pursuit you could have in your life. I took that bait, and can now say that it’s true. I know the “arms of God” sounds mystical, but for me it’s nonetheless a reality. My safe place, where I know I’m loved, held, cared for, provided for, is God. God is that real for me, and for this I’ll be forever grateful. But the belief that safe places can exist in a world of untimely death and loss?
That belief came because of what I experienced in these redwoods, that driveway, that baseball stadium, and the scent of cinnamon rolls. You can drop Bible verses like bombs, and they’ll behave the same way, wrecking stuff through their burdens, shaming, and judgement. Or, you can wrap Bible truths in the unconditional love and hospitality they intend to proclaim, and so create a powerful invitation to make God one's resting place. That’s what happened to me in my childhood, and I’ll be forever grateful.
Oh, and the text on the button I received as a gift from the usher? “Welcome Home”.
Of course, what else could it say???
O God of place and welcome
I give you thanks for childhood memories of safety and love. Knowing it wasn't perfect, the years have taught me that in spite of the shortcomings, it was a precious gift. Having received much, may I follow the examples of generosity, hospitality, and embracing love, offered by those who've gone before me. Amen