Hospitality

There’s a video making the rounds on various social media platforms.

For those who didn’t watch, the video follows a man dressed like a waiter as he delivers meals to homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles.  The meals are arranged on plate and require flatware.  As he delivers the food, he says things like, “Sorry about the wait, sir” and “Did you have the chicken?”  The people who receive these meals greet the guy with a mixture of surprise and appreciation.  Towards the end of the video, we see one recipient share part of his meal with an acquaintance.

On one hand, there is a very kitschy character to this video.  It’s dripping with sentimentality and a little self-congratulation, and was clearly designed to be shared as many times as possible (I’m just doing my part).  On the other hand, there is something very beautiful about this man’s service to the people in his community.  By dressing up as a waiter and serving a meal that requires a fork and knife, this man starts with the fundamental assumption that everyone is entitled to their dignity, no matter what their life circumstances may be.  More importantly, this video reminds us how important relationships are.  After receiving their meals, nearly all of the recipients introduced themselves to the guy dressed as a waiter.  Every encounter depicted in the video started a conversation.  Notably, it was typically the people being “served” who took this next step in building a relationship.

We often get caught up in the notion of doing things for those who are “less fortunate” than we are.  In some ways, there is nothing wrong with this.  If we have an abundance of something, we are called to share it.  But this is very basic discipleship.  This was the minimum standard that John the Baptist articulated to usurious soldiers and greedy officials at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  Jesus calls us to a much deeper level of commitment.  Jesus tells us that if someone steals our coat, we should call them back and say, “Wait! Take my shirt too!”  I don’t think this is because Jesus wants us all to walk around shirtless (ahem, Matthew McConaughey); I think this is because giving someone our shirt after they have our coat requires us to build a relationship.  It requires us to call that person back and find out why they took our coat, to find out how we can work together to improve their experience of life.  Ideally, we are called to do things with those who need help, to recognize that we are all part of the same creation, to embrace the fact that we are all people for whom Christ died.

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Identity

Over the past several months, a certain type of questionnaire has proliferated on Facebook and other social media platforms.  These quizzes are ostensibly designed to help us discover who we are.

All of them begin with the same kind of seemingly rhetorical question: Which character from Harry Potter are you?  Which city should you actually live in?  How much would Ron Swanson (a misanthropic character from the NBC series Parks and Recreation) hate you?  Which mid-twentieth century Anglican theologian are you?  (That last one is, astonishingly, not a joke).

Following this initial question is a series of multiple-choice tasks that are only vaguely related to the premise of the quiz: Pick a midnight snack.  Choose a hashtag.  Select a first date.

After responding to these, you are given the answer to the title question: Hermione.  Portland, Oregon.  Ron would have a grudging respect for you and might even shake your hand.  William Temple.

enhanced-28690-1395109813-6These quizzes are bizarre in a variety of ways.  Of course, the answers have no bearing on reality; there’s no way that a random computer algorithm can know where I am actually supposed to live.  The most surreal aspect of these quizzes, however, is how many people take them.  Some of my friends on Facebook  seem to take every single one of these quizzes, whether or not they are acquainted with the subject matter.  There always seems to be someone who posts their results with some version of this comment: “I have no idea who Eminem is, but he apparently encapsulates my identity.”

I think there are two primary reasons for the popularity of these quizzes.  On one level, they indulge the Internet generation’s twin passions: non sequiturs and nostalgia.  The answers to these questionnaires allow one to say, “Remember Shaggy from Scooby Doo?  Apparently I’m just like him.  Isn’t that way out of left field?”  On another, much deeper level, however, these quizzes are symbolic of the fact there are many people who struggle with their sense of identity.  Much of the sociological research of the last decade or so indicates that more and more, people are grappling with questions of identity and are turning to a wide variety of sources to help them understand who they are.  And it seems that these questions are becoming more and more of a challenge, as traditional markers of identity gradually lose importance and relevance in the wider culture.

Lent is a chance for us to engage these questions of identity in a more meaningful way.  On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are part of God’s creation.  After we hear this reminder, the rest of Lent becomes an opportunity to renew our understanding of our place in the world God created.  The only question of identity that ultimately matters is who we are in God.  So instead of taking an online quiz to tell you who you are, I invite you to look at yourself in the mirror every morning during this holy season and affirm your true identity: “I am a beloved child of God.”