The Gospel Comes with a House Key
Mar 17, 2022 | by Bekah Sullivan
My first exposure to The Gospel Comes with a House Key was timely. It was 2018, and we had a sick child. The illness necessitated we move away from a both spiritually and emotionally rich season of living among refugee neighbors at Cedar Point, and put an indefinite pause on our plans to move overseas. Finding myself “forced” to put down roots in the suburbs after experiencing such joy and connection within a dynamic international bubble was both confusing and frustrating. I did not understand what the Lord was doing. Looking back, some of His purposes are now clearer, and I can also see how He used House Key to facilitate much-needed shifts in both my heart and daily life.
Daily, Ordinary, Radical
Though I am often tempted to skip prefaces, the opening to House Key is not one to miss. In it, Butterfield presents her vision of what true hospitality is, as well as what it is not. While most of the principles expressed were not necessarily new to me, the way she fleshes out each one, using vivid and specific examples, is both eye-opening and convicting. She then describes her many hopes for this book, and at the very heart of them is the prayer that as the hearts of God’s children grow in union with Him and become more like the heart of His Son, their homes would be used to grow His family. Another way of phrasing this would be, as our loves are conformed to His own, disordered loves and self-protections in our lives begin to fade.
Butterfield longs for her readers to recognize “that practicing daily, ordinary, radical hospitality toward the end of rendering strangers neighbors and neighbors family of God is the missing link” (14), effectively “show[ing] this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like” (13). For those disillusioned with religion or previously hurt by someone claiming to follow Jesus, a place at the table can be both an illuminating and reconciliatory experience. The beauty of this book is, Butterfield does not simply tell us we need to be more hospitable – she throws open her own front door and shows us how. Not the way to do it, but many ways it can look.
House Key can be a pretty intense read, not only due to the heaviness of certain stories and the high bar modeled by the author, but because Butterfield does not mince words. In each of the ten chapters, she lays out her case for “daily, ordinary, radical hospitality” by using flashbacks to flesh out the wonderful and messy realities of being open-handed with our time, plans, lives, and homes. The narrative does not unfold chronologically: some chapters center around more recent happenings in their Durham neighborhood while others go back decades, as she recollects memories from childhood or various experiences of hospitality during her pre-convert days. Anyone who has read her memoir will recall it was hospitality that drew her into the company of believers in the first place. Seeing that story come full circle, as Butterfield becomes the one welcoming in skeptics to sit at her family’s table, is both poignant and compelling.
In Our Weakness, He is Strong
One of the best qualities of House Key is how theologically rich it is without lacking in accessible takeaways for the reader. Sometimes we read a book that grabs head, heart, or both, but the “hands” are left wondering what to do with the message presented. Not so with House Key. Yet before I share some ways it prompted changes in our family, I want to make one thing very clear: neither pursuit of strangers nor boldness in general comes naturally to me. At all. Group settings, crowded rooms, meeting new people, or even having back-to-back conversations are all scenarios that quickly deplete me, much to my chagrin.
As such, Butterfield’s acknowledgment that people can be draining for her really resonated with me. So did her warning that “introverts miss out on great blessing when we excuse ourselves from practicing hospitality because it exhausts us” (214). These words stayed with me, and have helped me make a practice of praying before group gatherings or social interactions – asking the Lord to use me to connect with someone who is lonely or listen well to someone’s struggles. I share these things to emphasize that any good done in our home and neighborhood are the Lord’s achievements brought about by changes He instigated, not the product of my own desires, giftings, or inclinations. Rather, it has probably been the clearest example of His grace being enough and His power being all the more greatly displayed in my deficiencies (II Cor. 12:9-10).
Saying No to Say Yes
Right away, the Lord used lessons from House Key to reorient how we viewed and utilized our resources. For starters, we realized that hospitality as a lifestyle required our monthly budget to be upped, significantly – which then meant making cuts in other areas to keep us within our means (63). It also meant simplifying our meals, and repeating the same ones most weeks to keep shopping and meal preparations fairly predictable. Our calendar also got a makeover, as we moved from booking ourselves tightly to building margin into our weekly rhythms. Having margin allows for more spur-of-the-moment yeses when needs or opportunities arise out of the blue. While it is an ongoing challenge to protect these margins, I cannot fully describe the joy that comes when we are able to say “yes” to a cry for help in a timely manner because we have wiggle room in place.
Our perspective on where and how we should / could live also evolved over time. Even as our desire for a guest room intensified, we opted to stay in our small-by-American-standards house as long as possible, preferring to be creative with less space rather than move away from relationships the Lord was cultivating. It is truly amazing what He has enabled us to do with this home. For example, we hosted a wedding for a couple in our church, something I never would have thought possible in this space. Then the fall following, we hosted a couple children through Safe Families, which meant we had two adults and six children under the age of seven living in our sweet little 3-bedroom house – only achievable thanks to bunk beds! And in each case, God’s kindness was abundant: the wedding day was incredibly special, and the months with the kids were exhausting but rich. We will never forget these and other special “yeses” the Lord brought to our doorstep in this home, and would do either of them all over again in a heartbeat.
An Introduction to God’s Love
As we continued to put some of Butterfield’s suggestions into practice within our own home and neighborhood, what should have been obvious became abundantly clear: unbelieving neighbors and friends – many of whom have not experienced unconditional love or what real Christian community is like – were far more likely to trust us with their needs, struggles, and true selves once they saw that we actually meant it when we said, “we want to get to know you.” Follow-through matters (54). Really getting to know our neighbors opened up opportunities for us to address both physical needs they can see (such as pulling in their trash cans, weeding a garden bed, bringing warm food after a surgery or death in the family) and spiritual needs they often do not realize are there. Many of them are more than just acquaintances now – we have celebrated birthdays and holidays together, grieved losses and talked about suffering, given and received practical help, and persevered through the unknowns and frustrations of Covid. They know we are a phone call away. They know we care about them. To some, we are the children and grandchildren they do not have. Yet our ultimate prayer is that all of this would lead them into our spiritual family too: “rendering strangers neighbors and neighbors family of God” (14).
An Introduction to the Body
Another suggestion of Butterfield’s that really stuck with us is the practice of merging the various circles of our lives whenever possible. For example, on David’s birthday one year, I surprised him with an outdoor potluck party which included both of our families, our care group, some friends, and some closest neighbors. Over forty people ended up coming, and folks from every sphere mingled beautifully. We hosted a similar gathering for Rosy’s birthday the following year and, from one event to the next, neighbor participation more than doubled. My favorite moment of each evening, by far, was watching the believers in our midst connecting with our unbelieving neighbors. When both are included in the invites, our unbelieving friends get an introductory experience of Christ’s body. It is also a chance to expand their experience of what “church people” are like, which is the beautiful window of opportunity Butterfield describes when she states that our homes ought to be “the place where we bring the church to the people” (33). Later in the same chapter, she writes:
Practicing radically ordinary hospitality is your street credibility with you post-Christian neighbors. It allows you to listen, to keep secrets, to be a safe friend, and to speak a word of grace into dark places. In post-Christian communities, your words can be only as strong as your relationships. Your best weapon is an open door, a set table, a fresh pot of coffee, and a box of Kleenex for the tears that spill ... (40)
And so, we pursue these opportunities, thank the Lord when they come to fruition, and pray for more to come our way. We also pray for greater boldness to fill our hearts, and for the hearts of our unbelieving family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbors to be softened. And as a church family, we share these stories with one another – not to show off our hospitableness or evangelistic prowess, but to spur one another on, and to remind each other that we are all on mission, right here, literally in our own backyards.
God brought The Gospel Comes with a House Key to my attention during a confusing season of disappointed hopes and, in His grand kindness, used both this book and the unwanted circumstances to orient my heart to a different mission field. Nearly four years later, we find ourselves moving unexpectedly, again. Yet this time, there is so much excitement in my heart when I wonder about the new relationships God has in store for us at our next address. The Spirit is ever at work, everywhere – and how amazing is it that He chooses to use us as a means of bringing the good news to lost ones by something as simple as an open door and a place at our kitchen tables.