PILGRIM NOTES: Grace / 17.01.13

“…not because of anything we did, but because of his mercy…” -Titus 3:5

“I don’t think I can do another climb.” It was getting into late afternoon, the time our cycle group Fueled By Rice usually starts looking for campsites. But now it was just Kallie and I, biking along the east coast of Italy to meet up with the other four team members at a host’s house about twenty kilometers further. Twenty kilometers isn’t too bad, on the flat; but lately the mountains had been getting noticeably more mountainous and a 10 km climb on the switchbacks would probably be another hour and a half. Kallie was tired; so was I.

We had just descended to sea level and we had one more climb to go before we arrived at Miki’s house in Chiavari. Since we were in a town, we decided to check in with email and see if any plans had developed and to let the others know our intentions. Fortunately, the only WiFi we found was a gelato café, so we were obliged to indulge in ice cream while we were online. With some extra gelato power and an encouraging note from Tori saying, “Hot soup is waiting!” we decided to press on.

By the time we arrived in Chiavari it was nearly dark, and our map wasn’t leading us as well as we would have liked. We stopped and started several times, and finally made it to the road we thought would get us there. As we were stopped one last time to check the map, a motor scooter pulled up and the man took off his helmet and greeted us with a wide smile: “Hi guys!” Kal managed a polite smile and wave in return, but we were focused on the map, a bit stressed and tired, and wanting only to arrive and take a load off, take a shower, and have a hot meal with friends. We didn’t have energy to engage a friendly and curious local. But the man just smiled wider, spread his hands and said, “I’m Miki!”

It took us a moment to register what he was saying, and then we realized that this was our host! He had found us along the way. We gratefully introduced ourselves and followed him the last half kilometer to his house–an apartment building he and his family and his extended family lived in. It was four stories, with two apartments on each floor. Miki lived at the top–at least until they could finish the renovations of his third floor, three-bedroom apartment. But for now, we could stay there, each of us couples having a room to ourselves. It may not have been finished, but for us it was luxury.

We unloaded our stuff, had a hot shower, and then found our way up to Miki’s top floor pad to eat supper and catch up. We stayed three wonderful days, during which we cooked, ate, relaxed, explored, used internet, and talked to Miki and his family. We found out he had traveled as much or more than any of us, and had hosted many other interesting travelers. In fact, the more we heard the more I began to realize the poverty of my own experience. My experiences, though wonderful, weren’t enough to make me outstanding or worthy. I began to feel that I wasn’t that interesting–that I had very little to offer Miki by way of exchange for such a lovely place and generous welcome into the family.

At some home stays I felt that simply doing a six month bike trip was enough to merit some awe and respect–that my hosts were pleased to have us just so they could say they hosted us and retell some of our stories. Kind of like mild celebrity status, it is significant just to see Johnny Depp or share an elevator with him. But here I felt none of that. In fact, all the things I had thought made us special and interesting and therefore a fair trade for generosity and hospitality felt thin and faded.

On the other hand, if I couldn’t rely on my celebrity status and merit as a world traveler, then perhaps I could fall back on pity. I am comfortable with accepting pity–at least for a couple days. “Here are these poor, hungry, tired, dirty bikers… take a shower, have a meal, rest awhile.” When I’m cold and hungry I’m worthy of some hospitality. But this was the third day! After pity wears off, after we are clean, after we have eaten and rested and have become humans crowding space and no longer pitiful cyclists, then what do we lean on to ensure our welcome remains?

Part of me wanted to leave — to stop being a bother to their family. I didn’t want them to feel they had to offer me kindness because I was a guest; that I should be invited to eat with the family day after day was too much! I had nothing! Still, each day there was some sort of feast–homemade pesto with fresh pasta, cookies, salads, lasagna, pizzas, beer, wine, coffee, liqueurs, fresh lemon crescent rolls… “Come up! Eat something! My mother has made some food for you!” I felt completely unworthy and accepted at the same time.

And somewhere during that stay I realized I was experiencing grace. Unmerited favor. In seminary and church I had heard a lot about grace and talked a lot about grace, but here I was given a visceral experience of grace, Italian style. The only reason I was still welcome was because Miki said I was. I had to rely on his word and on the family’s good graces.

Christians believe we humans are fundamentally accepted because God offers us grace. We belong, but not because of anything we did. It’s not pity, and it’s not based on merits or cool points. The Creator, for unfathomable reasons, finds me interesting and says, “Please, stay.”

You are welcome at the table.
You are welcome in the family.

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