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Make sure words, actions don’t yank up welcome mat

Paul Graves

Over many years, visitors to our home have stepped on a succession of welcome mats. Sue is wonderful quilter, so there have also been a variety of “welcome” wall quilts beside our front door. But not all visitors have really been welcome. A burglar back in 2001 certainly wasn’t.

“Welcome” has its equivalent in a wide variety of languages, but its origin is the Old English word wilcuma. It describes “one whose coming suits another’s will or wish.” Welcome mats, as an item, began in 1908.

I only wish our culture wasn’t so eager to yank up the welcome mat, upending the waiting guest. Many news reports, and anecdotal reports from individuals, are overflowing with examples of how one “kind” of person or a certain group of persons are directly or subtly made to feel unwelcome.

If only this was just in the general culture, our religious virtue might be less tattered. But in Christian churches – perhaps in synagogues and mosques as well, but I’m very unqualified to speak about those congregations – I see and hear about people made to feel unwelcome.

And that deeply saddens me. We say we follow the one who embodied God’s radical hospitality, but I suggest there isn’t a Christian community in America that hasn’t consciously or unintentionally turned away persons who weren’t “like us.”

It makes me wonder if our welcome mats might more truthfully say “Welcome (if you are like us).” The unwelcome comments or actions might come from an ungracious parishioner or an unthinking pastor. A particular church’s doctrinal positions might be too stringent, or too lenient, for some.

We could go on and on about specific examples of unwelcoming attitudes and actions within the church. But all that does is point out where we are wrong and need to turn around. To start that turn around (“conversion” is one word for that turn-around), let’s consider this:

What we reflect in our congregations says more than we might think about the character and image of God we hold in our hearts.

That could be a scary thought. We could be speaking about a God of Grace and Love; but if we aren’t consciously trying to reflect that God, maybe we don’t trust that image of God as much as we say we do. You mean we might not practice what we preach? Maybe not.

So I believe it is always a healthy exercise for church congregations and individual church members to regularly ask themselves questions like these: What image(s) of God have I deep-down experienced?

Is God mostly a male rescuer for me, looking for the next soul to save? Does my God-image include maternal characteristics that suggest human nurture more than rigid human obedience? Is my God focused on justice and love on earth, or simply preparing me for heaven?

Does God seem mostly absent in my life, in spite of what I might say in a worship service? Is my God-image a combination of different biblical images for God, or some image I learned “on the street” from others whose experience of God is as consciously limited as mine is?

And then a few last questions for your faith review:

Does my image of God shrink or expand the kinds of people I welcome into my life? Do my words say “welcome” to certain kinds of people, only to imply they don’t dirty up the welcome mat?

Do my actions yank the welcome mat out from under them? If “yes,” do I let them lie there; or do I apologize, help them up and invite them into my life?

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at welhouse@nctv.com.
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