“….she knew and cared nothing about God’s love, since she had never had it translated to her through the medium of human love.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
A few months ago, Mark Wahlberg posted his daily schedule on Instagram—beginning with prayer at 2:45 am (how many Christians can say that they do that?) the actor’s routine is a carefully structured balance of work, exercise, golf, cryo-chamber, and family, with a strict 7 p.m. bedtime. I thought that was pretty impressive until I read Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes With A House Key. She’s also an early riser—up at 4:45 am for morning prayer, meal prep done by 6:45 a.m., then homeschooling her two children, running errands for her family (as well as anyone else who asks), meal prep for the thrice-weekly dinners she hosts, tidying her home and doing laundry. Interspersed are the various tasks that accompany caring for aging family members, friends recovering from eye-surgery, friends finishing up the final semester in their medical residency program, and her reclusive, anti-social across-the-street neighbor. Mark Wahlberg has a nanny. Mrs. Butterfield does not.
What she and her husband do have is a serious commitment to radically ordinary hospitality—the practice of using a Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God (31). Its purpose is to build, focus, deepen, and strengthen the family of God, pointing other to the Bible-believing local church, and being earthly and spiritual good to everyone they know (31). For the Butterfields, this is not a practice, but a lifestyle. The story that emerges from these pages is one of a family (their children are involved, too) devoted to the simple and yet sacrificial task of loving their neighbor—from the friendly Christian family around the corner and the meth cook across the street, to the sweet Southern ladies who live down the road and Mrs. Butterfield’s clinically-manic mother and dementia-afflicted stepfather. Through several personal anecdotes, she develops the biblical foundations of hospitality—union in Christ with his church—theological implications of hospitality—loving service and sacrifice—and the significant spiritual warfare unleashed upon those who extend it.
My first read through the book was frankly exhausting—as a working mother of two toddlers, the idea of balancing diapers, e-mails, deadlines and meal-prep for fifteen people four out of seven days a week is terrifying. There are mornings where I literally pray for the strength to get out of bed and watch my children, and the idea of doing anything more than keeping them fed and reasonably happy is a non-starter. What about time off? Her husband is a pastor—so is mine—how does he write sermons, do visitations, go to meetings, and spend time with his family? When do they re-charge? Happily, Mrs. Butterfield is refreshingly candid about the toll this life takes on herself, her family, their resources and their home. The picture of a neighborhood home overflowing with family and friends from all creeds, confessions, and callings is very charming, but it comes at a high cost—dinners are very simple (usually vegetarian) and dishes are Corelle. Patience is strained and people are difficult. The challenge of loving—not just tolerating or being civil to—those outside of your natural group (i.e., tribe) in such a highly-charged political and social environment is exhausting. A life devoted to loving one’s neighbor is neither glamorous nor fulfilling—but it is the one we’re all called to, in some form or another.
My second read through the book was different—while the first one left me anxious and overwhelmed with the idea that I wasn’t practicing sufficient hospitality in my own community, the second left me with a deep impression of the great value of a life lived in service to others. In between the descriptions of the to-do lists, catty remarks of neighbors and hurtful things said by family members are wonderful moments where the unrepentant confess Christ, the homeless find a home, and the weak are nursed back to health. The homely, insignificant tasks of meal-prep and errands are glorified as we see God use them to build up his church, even as their political beliefs threaten to divide them. The right hand that extends love and fellowship is the means by which the meth cook and his girlfriend are able to hear and believe the good news of the gospel, even from a prison cell. The long, painful bedside vigil by the side of her dying mother is redeemed by the Father into an eleventh-hour confession of faith.
It will be a comfort to the introverted reader to know that Mrs. Butterfield is wise as well as radical—she recognizes that different people are in different seasons of life and gifted with different resources and abilities, and encourages the reader to simply begin wherever they are, however they’re able. She acknowledges the concerns some may have about keeping an open-door policy to their home, and freely admits to some (arguable) mistakes she’s made along the way. The book isn’t a how to manual on reaching the secular culture for Jesus, but a sort of stream-of-conscious treatise on the theological principles of a life lived out of love for God and neighbor paired with personal examples of how those principles bore themselves out in her own experience.
The Gospel Comes With A House Key was difficult to read in the sense that I felt the gravity of our Lord’s word to the sons of Zebedee: “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The call to serve is sobering—it’s why Christ said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) and why he told the disciples that anyone who was unwilling to renounce all he has cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:33). In this age of self-actualization and consumer ethics, the call to lay down your life—not just your physical existence, but your time, your dreams, your money—for the least of these is the most terrible thing one can hear. Service—the ignominious, anonymous, humble service Christ exemplified in his earthly ministry—is a sacrifice. True sacrifice is often painful; you ain’t doin’ it for the ‘gram. The hospitality we see portrayed in Butterfield’s book is not a call to self-abnegation or asceticism, but a call to sacrifice our right to make the life we want for ourselves so that we might see our lives used as conduits of the life-giving grace of Jesus Christ to those we would call our enemies. In that sense, it is the most glorious, worthy work we can do.
Brooke Ventura is writer. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.