The Holy Ghost-i
In the last couple of weeks, my daughter Else discovered an etymology that somehow, I’d never thought to think about.
She’d settled in to write an essay for her early admission college app, one in which she was asked to reflect on what it is to be a servant-leader.
As an aside, Else is brilliant, generous in spirit, compassionate, principled, wise, loaded with chutzpah, and did I mention I get to be her mama?
So with this prompt, E got to thinking about the word ‘hospitality,’ and did what she, both by nature and by nurture, is prone to do: she looked up its etymology.
”I often tease my English-major mother,” she began her essay, “about her love of etymology. Growing up, when I didn’t know the meaning of a word, I wouldn’t just get the definition of the word, oh no.
Instead, I got the definition along with its etymological origin. It was the admission fee to learn the word.”
Yes, yes it was and I am unrepentant about it.
But here’s what my Else learned while figuring out her take on the topic: the word ‘host’ comes from ghost-i, a root word in the Proto-Indo-European family that means host, sure, but it also refers to stranger and guest!
All at once!
Host and guest and stranger!
One stop hospitality shopping, I tell you.
Insofar as that is true, then, ghost-i less describes one of those particular roles, she discovered, but rather the relationship between them.
How cool is that?
You can’t just be host, and you can’t just be guest, and you can’t just be stranger, because if you are any one of them, you are related to all of them.
I’ve been thinking about this etymology ever since.
Can’t quite shake it.
It’s completely claimed my attention, I think, because of two reasons.
The first has to do with a show that Else, my son Karl, and I stumbled on recently: Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil.
We’re positively hooked.
It’s chock-full of good will, good nature, good humor, and, of course, good food.
The basic premise-y schtick, of course, is that Mr. Rosenthal loves food, drink, travel, meeting people, hearing their stories, and learning the history that informs what’s on his plate and in his cup.
Left there, though, we could have a set up for a show that would be fine, that goes after the low-hanging fruit of co-mingled cute and cultured, and, like I say, it would be fine.
But what has captured our hearts about Somebody Feed Phil is that instead, Mr. Rosenthal and the producers infuse not just the show but—even though we can’t see it, it’s so palpably evident—their entire on-location stays with sheer delight, humility, vulnerability, and openness to new ways of being, thinking, acting, and, of course, eating.
See, it’s got this ghost-i thing going on, this inherent interrelationship between host, guest, and stranger.
Mr. Rosenthal is the host of the show, and so clearly has some measure of direction and authority, free to make people comfortable as they talk, on camera no less, about their home, their restaurants, their families, their cultures, their histories.
But he is also a stranger in these places, unfamiliar with the language, or where to go, or what he’s eating, or even, on regular occasion, how to eat it! He’s thrown to trust the host as guide or the host as restauranteur, or [gulp] the host as producer, aka his own brother.
And in addition, he is guest, dependent on the savvy and welcome of those who have agreed to take him in off the streets and make him feel, well, at home.
As my daughter wrote in her essay:
“Just like the etymology suggests, hospitable people can simultaneously be host, stranger, and guest. They know to welcome and initiate conversation, like an experienced host does. But they also know what it is to be the stranger, to be in unknown places surrounded by unknown ways, to be vulnerable and subject to the grace of others, to search out meaning and answers for the immediate context, and as a way of life. And they are guest, coming into unknown situations with openness and gratitude.“
Just another quick reminder that I get to be her mama.
Anyway, for exactly these reasons, although I hadn’t thought of it quite like it until my daughter wrote this essay, Else, Karl, and I, we bask in Somebody Feed Phil, I tell you, because we are so blame parched, thanks to these last several years, for this sort of generosity of spirit, of glee, of wide-eyed wonder, of the thrill of risk undertaken, of human connection across divides too many to count.
The implications of the ghost-i etymology has also merged with all sorts of conversations being had these days in the two pools in which I regular swim—church and politics—about whether and how people should be hospitable to one’s opponents.
For example, in his victory speech, our (hallelujah!) president-elect—and, in many ways, therefore our nation’s host-elect—Joe Biden said that “Trump supporters are not our enemies. They are Americans.”
That rankled people.
I was one of said rankled people.
It’s the word of a host who is not familiar with the perspective of a stranger.
The word ‘stranger’ comes from the Latin (get this) extraneus (!!!!!) namely “foreign, external, from without.”
You can be a stranger in one’s own land, of course: that’s what it is to be dis-enfranchised, a word which in its ‘enfranchised’ root means to be free, to be recognized and to have privilege, to be one sharing the collective rights of a land.
So if you are disenfranchised, you are none of these things.
Ask blacks, migrants, immigrants, Muslims, women, the disabled, the poor, and arguably even creation itself, how these last few years have gone, let alone an average day in US life, in comparison with those in standard power.
Disenfranchised people are, in more ways than one, really really extraneous.
So if you are in these ways a stranger, when, say, you have a group of people who, not least of all by their vote, are striving, in one way or another, to see you exclusively as a stranger (like for example, saying to those who are non-white citizens that they should “Go back home,” all the worse when ancestrally speaking, whites, in point of fact, are the strangers in the land), to see you as a hostile stranger (by way, say, of building walls or refusing amnesty to refugees desperate to flee violence—violence often enough caused by US policies), to see you and to exactly therefore disenfranchise you (seen in the GOP knack for gerrymandering and the Trump campaign’s recent attempts to toss out Biden votes exclusively from black and poor counties), to see you and consequently quite possibly off you (Black Lives Matter is founded on this very real fear), when you have Nazi and Confederate flags being waved and maskless people breathing on you as a form of assault, well…you got yourself a real live enemy, a not-exaggerating-about-it enemy, a person whose very adjective quite literally means ‘not a friend’, not (en-) friend (amicus).
So while at first blush, Biden’s words seem magnanimous, they reveal an understanding of a role less of a host than of a harborer of privilege, one who in preparation for visitors doesn’t actually clean but rather sweeps things under the rug.
Biden’s words were well-intentioned, of course—he has a big and unenviable task on his hands, to heal our nation after Trump—but in his attempt to create solidarity, he instead—and I do think inadvertently—created a haven for harm-mongers.
It’s a ‘whatevs’ response to deep insult, injury, and real and present harm and threat.
The host’s attempt at reconciliation did not make the vulnerable stranger safe, but rather all the more vulnerable, and made guests out of those who would prefer to change out the host, and in fact become the host, making everyone but those like them the unwelcome stranger.
As it turns out, we are having similar conversations in the Church—at least in my denomination, the ELCA—about how is it that we bridge the elephant/donkey divide.
Again, it’s a magnanimous notion, this yearning to respectfully disagree.
One could argue it’s even a Christian notion.
But in this present moment, we have the present day GOP calling in the Proud Boys, hanging with the Nazis, calling for the now-free murderer Kyle Rittenhouse to run for office, supporting a ham-handed coup attempt, spreading conspiracy theories, not to mention four years of tolerating such things sexual assault from our President, his mocking of people like my son with disabilities, and babies being ripped from the breast at the border.
See, the thing of it is, none of that is consistent with Jesus.
Jesus wasn’t so much known for both-sides-ing hate and harm.
It leads me to recall a story told by my mentor Walt Bouman, the time he up and excommunicated a parishioner of his.
Just told him flat out that he was not welcome at the Table.
Walt had discovered that the man was an unrepentant racist of deep conviction, and the moment that that became clear to him—the man was giving Walt a lift to the auto repair shop right then, as it happened—Walt said, “Nope.”
You can’t maintain that you’re a Christian and simultaneously wrap one’s arms around racist beliefs and ways.
Chose one or chose the other, but one cannot chose both.
You got two mutually exclusive things going on, my friend.
Now, although the story begins with that, and ensues with heaps of unfun phone calls and church council meetings, the story ends in an interesting way: Walt and the man engaged in conversation.
And in these visits, Walt learned that the guy had grown up steeped in prejudice. The man was 70 years old and had had absolutely no incentive to change—in fact, every incentive not too—until Walt drop-kicked him out of the church.
That drastic move, and the ensuing long-term conversation that Walt was willing to have with him, was exactly the necessary incentive for the guy to re-evaluate who he was and how he was in the world, precisely as one who had labeled himself a Christian.
“As we talked,” Walt writes, “he…allowed how his perspective and behavior could be a problem, something to struggle with…That was a great learning experience for me, because I think it was a final personal breakthrough in my understanding of how struggling with problems happens in the church. The church is not the place where all of our issues are solved or settled, but it is where we struggle with them.”
Walt was, actually, being a brilliant host and guest here: making clear to this man about the place and way of being to which he was being invited, and welcoming a stranger to discover themselves actually at home after all, though not the home he thought he’d had, and being open to discovering something new about Walt himself, and about the place he had thought he’d known all along!
It’s worth noting that the bread which Walt denied this man is called the Host, again tied to the root word of ghost-i, except this time with an emphasis on the stranger, or the victim, as the reference is to Jesus, who was the victim, and also simultaneously the host of the meal.
Etymologies are so damn cool.
Recently, Sarah Silverman told of her friendship with a man who was, at age 14, welcomed by a group of white supremacists.
It’s easy to condemn and hate his views, and, in fact, we should.
The thing of it is, she said, when you condemn his people, you condemn the only people who hosted him as stranger, transforming him into guest.
And you also make him all the more estranged from the possibility of discovering a different way of being, because why would you want to be part of a people who hate you?
Now, to be clear, it shouldn’t be the victim’s responsibility to bear the weight of the oppressor’s wrongs.
The ones being threatened need not make room for those who threaten.
You need not host hostility—ask anyone who has endured and finally left an abusive relationship.
Nonetheless, I think, that there is something here, something at the ghost-i nexus, that might serve as a model for some ways to go forward as a nation and as a Church.
A host sets the tone: this is who we are and this is how we do things here. If you are so inclined to join in, welcome!
That is, insofar as we are talking either about who we are as church or what we are as nation, each has to mean something. We welcome people to an identity: we are this and distinct from that.
For example, Mr. Rosenthal travels to places that are unique, embedded in their context and history and traditions, and that is what makes the episodes so engaging: you know when he’s in Saigon that he’s not in Tel Aviv, and yet when he’s in Saigon you learn about Saigon, and when he’s in Tel Aviv you learn about Tel Aviv, and yet somehow, even in the quiet background, you learn about both.
They are this but not that, and insofar as that is true, they are distinctly beautiful each in their own glorious uniqueness.
So you welcome people to a place with an identity.
But the thing is, I’m not at all sure that either the Church or our nation know what our identity is.
As Church, we’re wrestling with whether we are a place where the history and claims of the likes of Isaiah and Micah and Mary, people and prophets who proclaimed God’s allegiance with the least of these (not to mention, oh, I dunno, Jesus, who proclaimed that death is real but life is real-er), are central to our present and future claims.
If so, or if not, what does that mean?
As a nation, are we a place where all are created equal, and the tired, poor, and huddled masses are welcome?
If so, or if not, what does that mean?
Without some measure of clarity here, some sort of answer to these questions, we are at risk not only of not being able to host people to these places, but of not knowing these places ourselves, and of not knowing ourselves in these places.
A host is also alert, though, and attentive to the various needs and postures of those who are coming: guests may come with confidence and curiosity, and strangers with distrust and disgust.
So as host you recognize each as who they are, welcoming stranger and guest alike with nimbleness, humility, and vulnerability too.
To boot, and perhaps most important of all, the best hosts recognize that it could very well be the guest, or the stranger, who are the actual host in disguise, welcoming us to a new way of being, a new way of thinking, a new way of acting.
Near the end of her essay, Else wrote this:
The best leaders don’t build walls but rather open up borders of thought, of habits, of experience. They lead by welcoming and by wandering, by offering and knowing what it is to depend on offerings, by establishing possibilities while inviting new ones from new places.
When, that is, you embrace delight, thrill, joy, courage, vulnerability, perseverance, and humility in the co-mingled midst of others, you experience holy ghost-i.
(Also, did I mention I get to be Else’s mama?)