Hospitality of Cold

Bombadil House November 2017
Bombadil House, November 2017

“…I was a stranger and you invited me in” -Jesus (Matthew 25:35b).

To some, this little cabin looks the pristine picture of a perfect retreat. To others, it’s a bit far out of the way of civilization. To a few friends of mine, it’s the perfect horror movie setup, and I’m clearly trying to get myself killed by a) an axe murderer, b) a tortured ghost, or c) my own insanity. Out of the three, “C” is the most likely bet, although I think “B” could make for some fun.

All fun aside, Bombadil House is most definitely out in the wilderness. My parents’ house is up the pathway, but that path is completely forested. I have no electricity, save for a little bit of power generated from an old solar panel which supports 1 light; I have no running water; and I have no heat except that which comes from the wood stove. It’s rustic living at its finest.

It can sound romantic…in the spring, summer, and fall.

It’s winter now.

The cabin is somewhat insulated, but not to the degree where I can just walk inside one wintry afternoon, lie down, and take a nap. I can see my breath inside. I need heat. I need warmth.

For heat to happen, I need wood — and not just any pieces of wood found on the forest floor. I need well-cut firewood that has been drying out for a couple of years. I need to get up off my butt, help haul the logs to make that wood, split that wood, and stack that wood. One it’s stacked, I have to remember to load up that wood into a sled & make the trek to the cabin, fill the stove with wood (so I can light a fire to start warming the place while I see to the rest of the haul), top up the wood bin with wood, and set the remainder outside in my own little wood pile.

If I don’t haul, split, stack, and use, I freeze. Simple as that. And in this climate in northern Alberta, freezing can mean dying. If I don’t take responsibility for keeping myself warm, I die. The end. More urbanized folks are afraid of bears and cougars and such. Many look at me crosswise when I tell them that the cold is the deadliest foe we face where we live.

Yes, the small quaint place becomes snug and homey once the fire is lit. There’s no more peaceful sight than to watch fire shadow play off the knotty pine walls in my little place. The chill can remain outside. Inside, I’m toasty and content. I will live. But the reality of this cabin is so unlike the reality of a house with a working furnace. In that house, all the heat is taken care of for me. I don’t have to plan ahead or worry. I might need to adjust the thermostat every so often, but I have no fear that when I walk into this house that my fingers won’t thaw out or that thin crusts of ice will have formed over my drinking water.

My gift of warmth and life comes at the cost of understanding how to live in a harsh winter climate.

The Bible talks a lot about welcoming strangers. Xenophobia is rampant in our day. We don’t know our neighbours, we live with high fences around our properties, we judge entire groups based on jelly-like opinions set with false truth and misinformation.

Add to this that we have over-spiritualized “welcoming the stranger”. We use the phrase to somehow energize church-goers into welcoming more unchurched people into church buildings. Why?

There’s no NEED to actually welcome the stranger in. We want people over for dinner or bible study. Yet if they decline, most of us are pretty certain that their basic needs are going to be met. Our vision of hospitality is rather dim.

In the times of the Hebrew Bible and on into Jesus’ time, there weren’t rest stops, highway motels, or B&Bs every few miles. There was desert. And deadly heat. And little water. If you couldn’t walk to your destination in a day and stayed out past dark unprepared, it mean death — by wild animals, heat/sun stroke, or dehydration.

Hospitality, seen through this lens, becomes a life and death situation.

In a xenophobic world, to offer someone cold water or a cool place to sleep in the ancient near east was as subversive and crazy as it came. Invite total strangers into a household? These people could be thieves or murderers or rapists. These people could be untouchables or foreigners. These people could be aligned with enemies.

And yet to deny strangers cold water or a safe place to sleep was a horrific and criminal act. When life and death hung in the balance so blatantly on a daily basis, the practice of welcoming the stranger became a lifeline. God, being a God of life, reminded the people again and again and again to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, and the alien.

Jesus even puts himself in that image: Jesus IS the stranger, the foreigner, and the alien. To deny hospitality to a stranger was to deny Jesus himself. Instead of blessing life over a desperate stranger, denial meant sealing the stranger’s death.

I live miles from anywhere. And it’s cold. If someone, somehow, found their way through the forest in the snow, what kind of person would I be to deny them room around the fire? Without it, they would die. Bundled up properly, they might make to the highway in an effort to flag down a passing car. But in the reality of Albertan winter, someone knocking on my door — even when the winter is mild — is the signal for me to put aside all xenophobia or misgiving, and to share life. Warmth is life.

This is the hospitality of cold, of winter. Our climate kills people unless people are properly clothed and sheltered. Whether passing through on a journey or lost in the woods, it doesn’t matter. Heat is life, and God is about life. I would be passing a death sentence on anyone I turned away.

I realize most people don’t live in isolated cabins up north. I realize that life and death hospitality is not as imminent to our society that it once was. Perhaps that urgency needs to be rekindled in our hearths. When we crow about forcing new Canadians to assimilate to Canadian ways or kicking terrorists out, we so easily forget the urgent hospitality called for by God again and again throughout the entire book of Scriptures.

When we eschew hospitality, we easily forget those we have turned away. Out of sight, out of mind. We don’t see the poverty, the racism, the abuse, the homophobia/transphobia, the rejection, the heat, or the cold the stranger is then subjected to after we close our doors.

Or maybe we do and we believe ourselves to be just righteous enough to tell God and others that they have no place at our hearths. Whatever happens to “the other” is not our problem. The stranger might deserve what’s coming to them. Or, heaven forbid, we might discover they we are actually a part of the stranger’s isolation, rejection, and wanderings. Now there’s a thought.

Jesus doesn’t pick out who is more worthy of life in these situations — the homeless, the vets, the immigrants/refugees, the addicts, the poor, or even the rich. In these narratives, we know these people only as strangers. And the strangers are in need of life because they are facing death.

I know the kind of cold death I could face without working to get and burn wood. How, then, can I subject another person to the same fate when there’s more than enough warmth to share?

I can’t.

The risk is always there that I will be taken advantage of. Of course it’s there. Practicing hospitality is a risky discipline. But it is one God calls for repeatedly, and we seem to be deafening the message.

Sometimes the Gospel comes in the form of a kind word of life. Other times, it comes in the heat of a small wood stove.


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