Last month a former Oregonian colleague, Joe Rose, invited me to take part in a retreat on hospitality and strangers at Trinity Retreat Center in West Cornwall, Connecticut. For months, I’d read about how wonderful this center was, newly refurbished by his wife, Heidi, and bursting with ideas, thanks to both of them. The center, part of Trinity Church Wall Street's ministry, was all the photos and reviews had promised.
Sitting alongside the Housatonic River, in the midst of a stripped but probably lush deciduous forest, the center is quiet, spacious, comfortable, with a library, windows full of light and outdoor beauty, gracious common rooms and a kitchen staff that inspires even the tired, old cook inside me.
And the people who came to the retreat, almost all strangers at the beginning, ended the weekend knowing names, broad outlines and some precious details of each other’s lives. It was for me, a chance to see walls fall and bridges being built. And that is what my heart needed.
For my part, we all read and talked about the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-27. He is one of the characters I wrote about in Sacred Strangers. From the standpoint of the “believers” in the story -- the Israelites -- he was an outsider, an actual enemy who had conquered them in past wars because, Scripture says, God was on his side. As if that weren’t surprising enough, the story goes on to recount his peace-time encounter with the Israelites in which he seems to have a better grasp of the Holy than the believers around him.
If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to read his story and watch for some of the surprises that we talked about on the retreat. What you discover may open your eyes to what the strangers in your own life might be teaching you.
A few questions to get you started: Who is it who gets the ball rolling in this story? And what does it say about Naaman that he ends up before the king of Israel? What does the king’s behavior reveal about government authority? Why does Naaman resist a solution that sounds too simple to be effective? Finally, if this is a story about servants, good and bad, what kind are you and which do you aim to be?
As our discussion ended at the retreat center, some of us objected to the notion that the punishment of one generation is felt by the next one, and the next. It is an idea familiar to readers of the Bible, and one that we want to reject. That is not fair, we say. And we are right. But here’s one thought: Many who study the Bible recognize that it is often descriptive, not prescriptive. That the intention is not that one person’s punishment should be visited on subsequent generations. But, if we are honest with ourselves, that’s often what does happen. If we try on that perspective for a moment, does it change the end of Naaman’s story?
My heartfelt thanks to Heidi and Joe and all who took part in that amazing weekend.