Sunday, January 22, 2012

LIFE IN TENNESSEE // Hospitality

Last week I had the honor of teaching the ladies of The Church At Indian Lake during the Wednesday night service. I thought I would post my musings here for those who didn't hear it, including the men who had a separate teaching.


I had been thinking about hospitality and what it means to show hospitality. I was inspired by a friend's entry in the Live Dead Journal. Here's an excerpt from Day 23, "Hospitality: Our Faith in Action":

There is a knock at my door and my heart sinks. I anticipate who stands on other side. It is a neighbor who knows that I am home. She loves to spend time together, although the language barrier is so great we can barely communicate. I feel like a prisoner in my own home! She knows I am home, so choosing not to answer my door is to risk offending her.

I go to the door. Suspicions are confirmed and I invite her inside. I smile outwardly and grumble inwardly. At this point I am new on the field and a young mom with two toddlers. I enjoy spending time with this neighbor, but she always seems to knock at the most inconvenient moment--and this day is no exception. I offer her a seat in my living room as I go to the kitchen to prepare something to drink. Alone in my kitchen, I throw my hands in the air and "scream" in a whisper, "I don't even want you to be here!"

Alone in my kitchen? I might as well have spoken those words in front of an audience of thousands. More sobering is that I had just spoken those words in front of Jesus Christ himself. Just months earlier I had stood before churches that sent me overseas for opportunities like this very one--and yet here I was in my kitchen, resentful of the "imposition." God forbid that I ever see a human soul as an imposition..." (Live Dead Journal 2011, 122).

The entry goes on to talk about how hospitality is faith in action, how hospitality is us extending Jesus' heart to others and looking for God's plan in the midst of seemingly inconvenient moments.

I've been doing some reminiscing recently as I prepare to leave my home of 14 years. And thinking about the good times, the difficult times, what I would do the same, what I would do differently. And I've been thinking more about my house and my neighborhood as I sit and wait for a buyer. Putting those two things together, I think, "How have I shown hospitality to those around me?" Answer: Uh, not very well--at least not to my literal neighbors.

But hospitality is about more than just opening my house to my neighbors, though it is that, too. This is about a different attitude and change of heart towards people. It is about fellowship and sharing a meal, but it is also about the relationships made.

One of my classes in grad school looked at hospitality. We used the book Making Room by Christine Pohl. As I read the above entry, I revisited the topic and the book and put some of these thoughts together.

The tradition of hospitality was once the practice of welcoming strangers into one's home with the offer of food, shelter and protection. It covered physical, social and spiritual aspects of life. But more than just meeting needs of a person, hospitality was about recognizing people's worth and our common humanity. It was (and is!) about seeing others in the image of Christ. "Hospitality is central to the meaning of the gospel...a lens through which we can read and understand the gospel, and a practice by which we can welcome Jesus himself" (Pohl 1999, 6). We welcome others as Christ welcomed us.

In the early days of the Church, hospitality was a means for the spread of the gospel; it went above any ethnic or national distinctions in the Church; and it was for the care of the sick, the strangers and the pilgrims. Hospitality was meant to build relationships with family and friends, but also to include those on the outside, to bring them into relationship as well.

Pohl talks about the definition of hospitality, using the Greek word philoxenia. That Greek word combines the general word for love or affection (philo) and the word for strangers (xenos) (31). It literally means "love for strangers" or "stranger love" if you will. So, by definition showing hospitality is showing love to strangers. But aren't all believers considered aliens here on earth and citizens of heaven? We're all strangers here. Showing hospitality is about caring for physical and social needs of family and friends and strangers, and about developing the spiritual dimensions of those relationships, too.

That said, how do we reclaim the art and the practice of hospitality?

There certainly are opportunities for offering hospitality; I don't think anyone would disagree with that. Pohl even thinks that our situation today is much like the situation of the early church:

"We, like the early church, find ourselves in a fragmented and multicultural society that yearns for relationships, identity and meaning. Our mobile and self-oriented society is characterized by disturbing levels of loneliness, alienation and estrangement. In a culture that appears at times to be overtly hostile to life itself, those who reject violence and embrace life bear powerful witness" (33).

This thought by Pohl still makes sense, even 12 years after publishing. People are hungry for relationships and to be known. Maybe they feel connected through social media (Facebook, Twitter), but are people really connected in those virtual worlds?

I can feel like I know complete strangers based on our interaction on Twitter--but I don't really know them. And then there are the widows and orphans, the homeless and destitute among us. How do we reach out and connect to them? It will require doing more and opening ourselves up more.

It was probably easier in the "olden days"--when the community took on all the physical, social and spiritual needs of the family, acquaintances, strangers and foreigners within it. Consider Israel of the Old Testament or the early Church of the New Testament--meeting the needs of those who lived among the community. Nowadays we have others to do that for us. We have hospitals for the sick, orphanages for the orphans, shelters for the homeless, retirement communities for the elderly and so on (57). It doesn't take much for us to show hospitality as we deliver canned goods to the food bank, coats to the shelters, make dinners for the sick, etc. We have specialists to do the day-to-day with those people. Giving to those institutions is good, but something more is required for true hospitality.

We also have to overcome our own American mindset. We like our privacy; we like to retreat into our homes after a long day at work or at school or just being out in the community. "A man's home is his castle." But oftentimes I think we make those castles into fortresses; we shut the outside world out. "No one's getting in here right now. I need to my space." [Raising my hand] I'm guilty of this. I could easily be a hermit; just shut myself up in my house for days at a time. This is not the best behavior for showing hospitality.

Where do we start? I think of my friend above. What needed to happen in her? I think of my hermit self. What must happen in me? It's about a change of heart, a new perspective on people.

Pohl notes that hospitality begins in worship. Hospitality is about God's grace and generosity, and not about my duty or responsibility. This is a response of love and gratitude for God's love for me (172). "Our hospitality both reflects and participates in God's hospitality. It depends on a disposition of love because, fundamentally, hospitality is simply love in action. It has much more to do with the resources of a generous heart than with sufficiency of food or space."

This is about giving our full attention to people--to all the strangers in our lives. Whether they come over to your house at your invitation or just show up at your door unannounced. How do you welcome them? How much interest do you show them? What kind of time do you give them? All of this communicates how much they are valued (179).

Do we show hospitality at home--to our family? In our neighborhood? At work? At church? At school? At the grocery store? Where is hospitality happening? And what is our response when we encounter those moments in which we should show hospitality?

Hospitality can happen anywhere. We need to make sure our hearts are ready to give it. We need to make a place for hospitality, not just in our homes but in our lives and in our hearts.

In Matthew 25 Jesus gives an illustration of the judgment. In addition to offering food, drink, clothing and visits, he says, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (v. 35). This could very well be about welcoming Jesus into a physical place, but could it not also mean welcoming Jesus into a relationship? That's what we are talking about here. Hospitality is about sharing meals and offering a roof to sleep under. But it's also about relationships, about welcoming people into our lives, not just into our homes. And if Jesus said, "As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me," then are we welcoming people into our lives?

Hospitality is about relationships. It's not about entertainment. Though if you want to invite me over for a game of Apples To Apples, I will gladly come. It's not just about hosting a dinner. Though if you want to have me over for dinner, it needs to be vegan (a meatless chili will do just fine). Hospitality is about putting primary attention on the person. Hospitality is about welcoming people INTO your life. Hospitality is about relationships. Hospitality is about loving others with the love that God has shown us. God has shown us great love and generosity; we should do the same.

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