One work of fiction that captures the agonizing alienation in our culture is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. This American writer has a genius that is expressed by focusing on ordinary people, all of whom seem to have attachment issues. The book explores the relationships of the Tull family; the mother, Pearl, abandoned by her husband Beck Tull; the sons, Cody and Ezra; and the daughter Jenny.
The organizing metaphor in the book is Ezra Tull's Homesick Restaurant. The dilemma of a family who can never make it through one meal is captured in this reflection by Cody, the eldest son:
"Hadn't Ezra noticed that the family as a whole had never yet finished one of his dinners? That they'd fight and stamp off halfway through, or sometimes not even manage to get seated in the first place? Well, of course he must have noticed, but was it clear to him as a pattern, a theme? No, perhaps he viewed each dinner as a unit in itself, unconnected to the others. Maybe he never linked them in his mind.
"Assuming he was a total idiot.
"It was true that once--to celebrate Cody's new business--they had made it all the way to dessert; so if they hadn't ordered dessert you could say they'd completed the meal. But the fact was, they did order dessert, which was left to sag on the plates when their mother accused Cody of deliberately setting up shop as far from home as possible. There was a stiff-backed little quarrel. Conversation fell apart. Cody walked out. So technically, even that meal could not be considered finished. Why did Ezra go on trying?
"Why did the rest of them go on showing up, was more to the point?"
The brilliance of Anne Tyler's work (John Updike once called her "wickedly good") is that this metaphor of people who can never finish a meal together in the Homesick Restaurant is not only the picture of a dysfunctional family, it has a broader application to a whole society that is increasingly separated from knowing how to create meaningful connections with each other.
In a recent article by Janet Kornblum, USA Today reported that Americans have one-third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago. This is something of a seismic shift. "You usually don't see that kind of big social change in a couple of decades," reports Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and co-author of the study reported in American Sociological Review.
In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to him or her. By 2004, that number had dropped to two confidants, and the findings determined that consequently, 25% of Americans have no one in whom to confide.
Smith-Lovin explains, "Close relationships are a safety net. Whether it's picking up a child or finding someone to help you out of the city in a hurricane, these are people we depend on."
The USA Today article makes the point that research has linked social isolation and loneliness to mental and physical illness. If that is the case, can we not also conclude that our mental and physical (and spiritual) health improves when we are socially connected and not living in isolating environments?
In 1967 I wrote a book, one of the first of its kind, I believe, that developed a theology of hospitality. Open Heart, Open Home has sold more than 600,000 copies and is still in print (InterVarsity Press). I believe — indeed, am even more convinced — that scriptural hospitality is an antidote to alienation. It is a sure-cure for spiritual homesickness. It is a tool that, when practiced in the family (learning how to stay at the table with each other), can create a sense of profound welcome and acceptance. It is a tool that, when regularly and intentionally practiced in the church, is guaranteed to effect assimilation of the members as well as the creation of community. It is a tool that, when practiced in the neighborhood, results in neighborly connections. Believe me when I say that today, in this disconnected society, just inviting people for dinner (then using deep-listening questions like those we are developing in the Hungry Souls Listening Groups) is an evangelistic act. Hospitality can (and does) heal the lonely soul.
So why are we not using this powerful spiritual tool — in our families, in our churches, in the world around us? Why is this ancient spiritual practice falling into disuse? Aren't there many of us who, longing for significant connection, cry like Ezra Tull, "Please! Please. For once, I want this family to finish a meal together. Why, every dinner we've ever had, something has gone wrong. Someone has left in a huff, or in tears, everything's fallen apart..."
In the next months, I want to revisit the concept of hospitality. God has given me one of those Grand Ideas, and I am going to need help to pull it off. I'm hoping some of you may want to be on my Grand Idea team. But first, we need a little time (and a few Soulish Foods) to recapture the beauty of this spiritual practice, its relationship to the inner journey, and the high value God places on having an open heart and an open home.