For a man's house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man's home is his safest refuge].
This was established as common law by the lawyer and politician Sir Edward Coke in The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628. It has meant different things to different people over the centuries but, broadly speaking, it means that a person may do what they wish within the confines of their own home without interference from outside bodies and/or people.
Our homes are the places of refuge from the pressures of the outside world. It is the place where the nuclear family feels safe and secure from those around them. It’s our retreat from a hard day’s work. It’s our oasis from the stress of the frenetic pace of our modern world. It is safety. It is security. It is sanctuary. It is home.
A Home Became My Home
Not long after my baptism, I moved into the loft conversion of a couple called Bernard and Joan, who lived not far from the church where I had been converted. They would have been in their early 50’s, and their grown-up children had already left home. I had nowhere to go and they opened their home to me. They didn’t really know me. All they knew about me was that I had just been released from prison for various violent offences and that I had been a drug addict and a drug dealer.
They knew that I had been a liar and a thief. They knew I hadn’t worked for years. They knew that I was angry, aggressive, and silently sullen (most of the time). They knew I had lived on and off the streets for years. Yet, despite their misgivings, they opened up their home to me by giving me a room.
Unknown to me at the time, it turned out to be more than a room in an attic conversion. It became my home. They became my family. In the beginning I was untrusting, paranoid, and suspicious of their motives. Why would they let me into their home? They didn’t know me. What did they want? What were they getting out of it? (It couldn’t be money because I didn’t have any). Would they even like me? Would I like them? Would they kick me out without reason? (I was so scared of this that I didn’t unpack for months and slept on the floor next to the bed so as not to get too comfortable).
I would hide up in that room for hours on end and creep around so as not to make a noise. I would sneak food into my room and eat alone, listening to the laughs and conversation from their dining room table as guests joined them for meals. (They always asked me to join them and I always refused, too embarrassed to sit with strangers and their friends).
Over many months I began to relax (and so did they). It started when I joined them for breakfast one morning. Just a quick bowl of cereal. It was over in five minutes and the conversation was brief, practically monosyllabic. It progressed to a lunchtime bowl of soup and maybe a few sentences of chat. Then a chip supper and a funny story recounted. That soon became questions about my day (I had recently enrolled at a college to get some qualifications).
When I realised that they asked out of interest and not to try and catch me out, I became more communicative. They showed me how to cook a meal, how to use a washing machine, how to budget my finances, and a hundred other little things. I learned to help around the house (when asked) and I sat at their meal table with the family and talked about my day as well as things of the Lord. When I got angry—and I often did—they would make me sit down and face my demons (which I hated). Nowadays, we would call it ‘dealing with our heart issues’. But it was good for me. I had grown up learning only to vent anger and never to consider the reasons behind my emotions.
I realised I wasn’t a guest anymore when I got invited to go to a family holiday. Well, I say ’invited’. It was more a command. ‘You’re coming with us’, they said to me. No discussion. No thought. I had become a member of the family without realising it. I spent less and less time locked away in my room and more and more time sitting at that dining table, joining in the family conversations. I even learned to play boardgames, something I had done only a few times in my childhood. I learned to find joy and fun in the little things of life. I had never been in a home like it. I had never experienced anything like it. Even though I tried very hard not to, I began to love it. It made a deep impression upon me. It changed me forever. I wanted a life like that. I wanted to sit with my own family around my own little table. I wanted a house full of laughter. I wanted my own home.
But, it all could have turned out so differently had I made another decision one sunny day, not long into my time there. I remember a few months into my faith the overwhelming feeling of just wanting to leave and go back to the streets. I wanted my old way of life back. I missed it. I felt like I was losing the real me the further I travelled along this road to Christianity.
I hated having to always make the right choices. I hated always having to consider my words before I spoke. I hated having to apologise when I said or did something wrong (which was often). I hated having to hang around middle-class people all the time with their insufferable small talk. I wanted to go back to the streets. I almost convinced myself that the old life was better. That the old me was happier. But he wasn’t. He was miserable and lonely. He was dark and depressed.
The real issue was that I didn’t like being told what to do. I didn’t like having to explain my actions when I sinned against another person. I told myself that I liked my freedom, but the reality was I liked my sin. I liked a life where I did what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. I liked the feeling of being rude to people just because I could be. I liked to be my own man even though all these things made me deeply unhappy. I liked the lack of responsibility. I liked blaming everybody else for all of the ills in my life.
One sunny afternoon, I sat kicking my legs against the back garden wall of this house and I was wondering whether to stay or to leave. Nobody was in. They were all out at work. I could just pack a bag and go quietly. A quick train to another city and I could leave all this behind and start again. I looked back up at this house and—in that moment—I knew that if I left it, my life would be over. There would be no turning back. It would be a life of crime for me. A life in and out of jail. A life back on drugs and constantly in trouble. Even though it seems stupid to say it now, it was still tempting. It was still better in my mind than a life of being good, reading the Bible, going to church, sitting down for meals, and talking about my feelings. There would be no more family. There would be no more jokes around the meal table. My dream of a home would go with me. So, I stayed. I fought through my personal demons and my uncanny ability to mess things up. I chose, at least for me at that time, the hardest path. I walked back into that house and I never looked back. I was never tempted to return to the streets again. For the next four years that place was my home. It saw me through College, seminary, and right up until my marriage to Miriam.
When I was a child, I used to play a game at school called ‘tig’. Somebody was always ‘it’, and their job was to tap somebody and, ‘pass it on’. As soon as Miriam and I got our first home together, we realised that we were it. Our job was to pass it on. What was it? It was the kindness and hospitality shown to me by that couple of strangers who, ultimately, showed me a better life and a better way to live. Their actions, almost 20 years ago now, have been passed on to many—young and old, men and women—who have shared our home and family life over all that time. What they did, intentionally or not, was model to me what a Christian home ought to look like. They didn’t just invite me to lunch one Sunday—they invited me into their lives. And what they did changed me forever.
People often come to visit our ministry and they meet some of the characters that live in our home. We have had many over the years. Male and female. Young and old. We have had seriously mentally ill. We have had seriously violent. We have had addicts and alcoholics. We have had criminals galore. Why do you do it? That’s always the question. Closely followed by, Aren’t you worried for your girls? (I have two girls). Of course, I sometimes worry for my girls. All dads do.
So, Why Do We Do It?
For biblical reasons? Not really. I mean, there’s no biblical imperative to invite complete strangers into your home to share your life. Of course, there is the hospitality question. But I think what many of us do here in Niddrie goes beyond that. Some think we do it for money. (My wife and I find that very amusing). We do it because we can. We do it because we want to. We do it because 20 years ago, an older couple in church broke with their entire worldview and comfortable life and allowed me into their home. They gave me more than a bed and a meal. They made me one of the family. We do it because we have seen that those who stay in the homes of Christians in the early years of their faith are far, far, far more likely to stay the course over the long haul rather than return to their old life (with sad exceptions of course). We do it because it brings a special joy to our hearts to share what we have with those who don’t have anything. We do it because discipleship is more than the exchange of information but the sharing of all of life. We do it because we really do want to see people go on in their walk with Jesus. We want them to see what a Christian family looks like in real life—warts and all. The arguments. The sinning. The laughter. The fun. The repenting. The loving.
Sooner or later, every single one of our guests have their own ‘back garden’ moment. It happens without fail. They go outside for a smoke and they’re tempted to never return. Some have just ‘gone to the shops’ and stayed away forever. Some have gone and returned once they realised their mistake. Some have worked through it and stayed on. Those who do the latter always, without fail, go on in their walk with Jesus. They become better parents. Better fathers/mothers/sons/daughters. They learn the value of a sacrificial life. They, too, learn to pass it on.
We Christians have a responsibility to pass on the baton of the good news but, I firmly believe we pass on the baton of good deeds too. I don’t want my children to think of the Christian life as a set of beliefs and attendance at formal services. I want them to see that it affects the whole of our lives. Sharing our home and our lives has worked to disciple my daughters and to turn them into disciplers. They see, up close, the ravages of lives ruined by bad, godless choices. They see, up close, how costly, Christian discipleship works. They challenge people at our table about their sins. They confront their own judgementalism. They see the mess of life and the failures as people go astray. They see the reality of the Christian life and not just the sanitised Sunday version. They feel the pain of a loved guest or family member who runs back to their sin for no logical reason. They, too, are learning that one day they will be it and they will have to pass it on. I was out for a meal with Miriam and our girls recently. Just the four of us. “This is nice, dad”, one of them piped up. “Just us, together”, the other one chimes in, “Yeh, but I love the madness of our house. One day I hope I have a home like that. Where sad people can just come in and feel part of the family.” The other one thinks about this for a second, “Me too.”
Our homes are not our own. Our lives are not our own. When are we all going to realise this? What did Jesus say we would gain if we gave everything up for him? People need to hear about the love of Jesus and they need to experience the life of the love of Jesus.
There’s a remarkably moving scene at the end of the movie Schindler’s List, when Schindler realises the end of the war has come. And he’s desperately sad that he didn’t do more for the Jews. He didn’t sell more. He didn’t swap his watch to save one more life. I wonder if many of us will feel the same when the end of life comes? When we realise the insignificance of what we are leaving behind, the glory of what we are entering into, and the terror that awaits the lost. I wonder if we will feel more than a glimmer of regret that we could have done more with what we had during our brief time on earth. The question is not, “How can we do these things?” But, “How can we not?” If this life is not all there is, then our things should really have little meaning. If this Christianity thing is true, then maybe we should hold on to our riches less tightly than we do. Sharing our lives and homes should not just be a ‘model’ that we follow. It should be who we are. It should be what we do.