In order for you to appreciate this story about my friend Deborah, you need to know a little something about me in my pre-priest life: I was a very serious child. I was committed to the pursuit of knowledge, goal-oriented, rule-abiding. And as a teenager, I had a single-minded goal: I wanted to go to Yale. I wanted to go to Yale because when I was thirteen, I took a writing course, and my writing instructor had gone to Yale and studied English, and because she was the most talented writer I knew, I wanted to go to Yale and study English so I could become as talented of a writer as she was.
So I applied, and I arrived to set up my room and said farewell to my parents and then promptly became exceedingly confused: I had worked what felt like a lifetime to get to this place. What was I supposed to do now? I knew next to no one, there was a course book three-inches thick filled with classes that could occupy my imagination, and all of them seemed to vie for my attention, and I didn’t know how to choose. My dreams of being a writer flew out the window when I received my first English paper back freshman year with a poor grade and the words, “You have gotten away with writing words that sound beautiful but mean nothing for too long. Next time, add some substance.”
I was crushed. The whole thing—the paper, the new environment, the lack of direction—it was all incredibly confusing. I felt like I had no idea who I was. I had no idea what I wanted, and most miserable of all, I felt entirely alone.
Then I met Deborah. Deborah is the real-life version of Hermione. And in case that Harry Potter reference didn’t mean much to you, what I mean is to say is that Deborah is exceedingly, exceedingly smart. She’s the smartest person I know, and yet also one of the most humble. She’s got poofy, unruly red hair, freckles, just a tinge of social awkwardness, and an incredibly generous heart.
Deborah had just started seminary when I met her my freshman year and she had come directly to Yale fresh from finishing her PhD the previous spring. In English literature.
So with that scarring in hand and that stinging remark glaring at me in red ink, I picked up the phone and called her for help. I had a term paper due in a few weeks on T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland,” and I was petrified of turning it in.
“Of course I’ll help you,” Deborah said. “Why don’t you come over this afternoon?”
Deborah lived about a 20-minute walk from campus, and because I didn’t have a car, I walked there in bitter cold. My jaw was tight and my fingers numb when I arrived at her front door.
“Would you like some hot chocolate?” she asked, taking my coat.
“Yes, please,” I said, thinking of my frozen thumbs.
And then Deborah did something I’ll never forget: She took out a pot, poured in some milk, heated it, and whisked in chocolate flakes. The mug she handed me was steaming, rich, creamy and, most foreign to me—it wasn’t Swiss Miss.
To my memory, no one had ever made me hot chocolate from scratch before, and even though it was a tiny gesture, to me, it felt like a gesture of radical hospitality. I’d been eating impersonal dining hall food for months in my lonely little freshman year-world where everyone was a stranger and no one felt known, intimate, like family.
And that family part is where my story touches today’s lessons. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection all occurred so that our relationships might be radically reconfigured: No longer would we identify ourselves as members of a nuclear family or a tribe. Now we would identify ourselves as God’s children, as members of God’s family.
Indeed, one of the things that my friend and New Testament scholar Candida Moss told me the other day is that the early Christians actually left their biological families after baptism to become members of the Christian community. To become part of their new family.
We certainly don’t practice anything like that today. In fact, I would argue that our culture fights against this notion that there is family beyond those in our nuclear clan: Even if we don’t like them much, most of us spend a premium on plane tickets to see our nuclear family at the holidays. Most people bequeath whatever wealth they accumulated in this life to their children, nieces, and nephews. If two people needed a car, one of whom was your cousin and the other of whom was a stranger, most of us would give the car to our family member, not to the stranger.
So Paul’s message is incredibly challenging to those of us in modern times—if we are all God’s family, then the command to exercise radical hospitality isn’t just limited to our nuclear family. It extends far beyond that.
To be honest with you, I have a lot of questions myself about how we’re supposed to live this out given how our culture operates: Are we supposed to bequeath our wealth to strangers? To charities? Are we supposed to donate that car to the person who is not our cousin because strangers are members of our family too? If we are all adopted children of God, then should adoption be the preferred way that Christians start their families? Should we, as the early Christians did, return to living in big Christian communities instead of tight nuclear families?
All of these suggestions are radical, radical departures from how our culture operates, and I don’t know about you, but when I think of any of them, my mind kind of explodes. They require too much change; they demand far more than I know how to give.
So today I suggest that we start small, start with being family to one another in ways that are more manageable, less intimidating, whose ethics aren’t so ambiguous. Maybe we can start with a mug of homemade hot cocoa for someone who really needs it. Yes, it’s a small gesture, but whisking that chocolate into scalding milk—it’s the kind of thing you do for someone you really love. It’s the kind of gift you’d give to a family member. And as you whisk that chocolate in so that the milk turns dark and deep, perhaps a prayer will pass your lips: That all may know they are God’s children, God’s family, and heirs to that everlasting kingdom beyond.