Beyond Welcome: Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is a phrase well-known to most anyone who has taken a writing course. Using this technique, authors convey a story or some plot point through dialogue or actions, thoughts, sensory events, and emotions, instead of through argument, thesis and antithesis, exposition, conclusion, and so on. It was summed up by Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

This past Sunday, with its gospel account of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary, I got to thinking how both women showed—and didn’t merely tell—Jesus of their love for him, how they showed that they cherished his presence, and how they showed their care for him.

For whatever reason, this year for the first time “show, don’t tell” also struck me as an ideal approach to the matter(s) of hospitality, welcoming, and so on—whatever your preferred term may be.

At the first parish I worked for full-time as a liturgist/musician, I’d been informed at my interview that the parish had something of a reputation for being cliquish and rather cold to outsiders. The solution the liturgy committee had reached was to have the commentator (a role fully envisioned by the liturgical documents) say that the parish extended a warm welcome to everyone. Since—as in most parishes—99%+ of those in attendance were members and/or people who regularly attended Mass there—it seemed odd to me that this welcome should be extended week after week.

I’ll confess a personal bias against terms such as “welcome” or “hospitality” mostly because I think they can cause or at least perpetuate a rather wobbly ecclesiology. My frame of reference (and I know there are others) is that of welcoming or showing hospitality to people in my home: while I am pleased to have guests, they don’t live there; while I want people to be comfortable in my home, I do have a solid sense of what is mine and, therefore, what isn’t theirs. It all sets up a me/you, us/them, insider/outsider dynamic.

A reflection, “Guests among Guests” by Rev. Mary Luti, recently helped me come to terms with many of my views about this issue. She observed that—except for the feeding of the multitude, the Last Supper, and the post-resurrection breakfast on the beach—whenever Jesus was at table, it was always somebody else’s, be it Levi or Zacchaeus, various Pharisees, Peter’s wife, or Martha of Bethany.

She continues: “So when we say we welcome everyone to the church’s table because Jesus welcomed everyone to his, we’re on shaky evidentiary ground. Which doesn’t argue for exclusion. It only suggests that Jesus may present a challenge to us not so much because he was a gracious host, but because he was a willing guest.  If our churches aren’t very inclusive, it might be because too many of us have mistaken ourselves for the Giver of the Feast. We’re not hosts extending invitations. We’re guests among guests. Yet we behave as if having arrived earlier than others has given us proprietary rights over the hall. [C]hurches will more closely resemble God’s all-embracing realm when we relinquish our sense of entitlement to them, cease welcoming others as if there’s such a thing as “others,” stop playing munificent hosts, and learn to be good guests.”

Starting with that first parish position of mine, I’ve always had the feeling that telling others about our welcoming spirit was something of a mask, something to make us feel better about the true face that was underneath it. Here, perhaps, is an area in which Roman Catholics in particular might need to be a bit more honest about the face behind the “welcome” mask. There are conditions for coming to the table, there are boundaries, there are things for which you can and will be excluded. I’m not trying to determine the rightness or wrongness of any of this, just saying that it’s probably healthier to be honest about it up front. That way, you don’t end up telling people things that you aren’t able to show them. Jesus had a rather low threshold for hypocrisy.

Each in her own way, Mary and Martha employed “show, don’t tell” during Jesus’ visit, and I think their witness is a helpful foundation for us. There are nuts ‘n’ bolts hospitality concerns for Martha to take care of: people need to know the restroom location, what the songs are, and it certainly helps the whole experience to have a “hello” or a “good morning” from a friendly face at the door—especially for those who live alone or are the only members of a household who attend. Following the lead of Mary of Bethany, we do need to make sure that the word is heard clearly, that there is prayerful attentiveness, framed with the dialogue of both silence and response. Still, as important as caring for these essential details is, we can’t mistake accomplishing them for the accomplishing of the broader mission of incarnating “God’s all-embracing realm.”

My own sense has long been that we should be speaking of our churches/parishes/congregations as places of belonging, places of inconceivable inclusion, and—above all—places in which we relentlessly show, show, show—so we don’t have to tell.

Featured Image:
“Martha and Mary” by He Qi

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