As the days shorten and temperatures drop, we find ourselves indoors more often, and many of our gatherings move indoors too. There are exceptions, such as football games, but our more personal gatherings thrive on the coziness of warmth and shelter and smaller, more intimate spaces. We have, in fact, made the “holiday season” a time of near-mandatory gathering with friends and family.
And because our coming together gets less frequent as we become ever more separated by geography and busyness, these “special occasions” require more and more “special” treatment: special food, special décor, special touches. Please don’t mistake me: feasting and celebration are vital in their due time, redemptive acts of war against the shadow. But in our generation, hospitality is too often reduced to mere entertaining, and we may offer it to a limited circle of our closest relations.
The difference between entertaining and hospitality is a subtle one that begins with a mindset. To practice hospitality is to invite another into one’s life through specific and deliberate actions. There may well be attention to detail, but always as a way of loving and serving someone else. The person and the relationship always remain the true focus. Entertaining, on the other hand, easily drifts into a focus on the externals; the experience of the guests depends largely on the impressiveness of the food and its presentation, the centerpiece and the candlesticks on the elegant table runner, and of course, the spotless and tastefully furnished home. When we find ourselves putting on a show to please guests – a show that may have little to do with our real life – it can hinder intimacy and connection instead of fostering it. We risk keeping people at a distance where we meant to draw them closer.
People-focused hospitality is simplified. It doesn’t require a spotless house, and doesn’t wait for a holiday. In fact, since it is at its heart a form of love and service, it knows that the needs of others don’t necessarily coincide with a calendar “event” and aren’t always scheduled far in advance. Hospitality is willing to be spontaneous, to swing into action as needed, at odd hours and with little notice. My wife is particularly sensitive to people who are in need of comfort, encouragement, uplifting and strengthening. She picks up on grief or brokenness like detecting an invisible wavelength. People tend to find their way to our home in the valleys of their lives, to share the fellowship of the table, to talk and receive prayer, and maybe even a bed for the night. Sometimes we see little of these fellow travellers once they’re out of their valleys and their burdens have eased. When we’re fortunate, they become old friends.
It’s important to understand that service of this type wouldn’t happen if it required putting on the show. If we had to have a crown roast to put out, or even a clean house “fit for company” to welcome them into, before we let anybody come over…nobody would ever be over. Hospitality would be relegated to a someday that never arrived. We’re as messy on the outside as we are on the inside; sometimes our house feels barely fit for us, let alone guests. I couldn’t tell you just now when the floor last felt the caress of a broom.
But the hurting aren’t looking for a gourmet spread or a showpiece living room, so much as spiritual sustenance and a safe and nurturing space. They have an internal need waiting to be met, and only by inviting them into our “real life” can we begin to meet it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to live not only a more authentic hospitality, but how to extend it to a wider circle. It’s easy to fall back into the rut of sharing our lives and homes primarily with family and closest friends. These people are familiar, comfortable, and generally easy to accommodate. Even their faults and rough edges are known and predictable; we can usually maneuver around them like submerged rocks in an well-charted river. But our Lord, while a guest Himself at a dinner party, told his host he would do better not to fête his relatives, friends, or rich neighbors when he threw a feast. Rather, he should invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13). This is a picture of hospitality that is intensely service-oriented, and cannot so easily be turned to self-glorification. A blind guest may not be able to admire our magnificent centerpiece, or the clever and classy Pinterest trick we did with the linen napkins. The beggar who lies down in the dust in the city gate and cries for attention is quite possibly going to leave smudges on our fashionable cushions and carpet, if we let him in. Even when we’ve gotten beyond materialistic tendencies to elevate things above people, what would that dinner conversation be like, shared with the people on the fringes? Those waters might be deep and unpredictable. We might have to venture far outside our comfort zones to practice hospitality like this. Does anyone really attempt such a thing today?
I’ve had the privilege of knowing a quite a few foster parents, great-hearted folk who open their homes to the children of other mothers, and love them like their own for a season, whether that be a week, a month, or a year. Sometimes these children overcome hardships with relative ease, adjust well and quickly in their new family, and peace prevails. Sometimes life is more complicated than that, and love is messy, costs something to keep giving. Deep-rooted traumas flower and bear unlovely fruit. Past brokenness wells up into the present.
Imagine taking in four children who bear scars both seen and unseen. They kick and shove each other, and other children. They hit and spit on teachers, hit and spit on you. They get kicked off the bus. Get kicked out of preschool. When your husband comes home you show him the new bruises added to the constellation of fading ones. And along with these come scattered smiles, hugs, and “I love yous.” You love the kids for these tricklings back of what you pour in, but more importantly, because they need it. Day after day, month after month. Can this really be done? It can be done, because I have seen it done.
I’ve also seen the call to love that selflessly, declined. I’ve seen adults give up on children when things started to get turbulent. I’ve heard people say, “We thought God wanted us to do this, but if it were His will, it wouldn’t be so difficult.” I want to ask them, just what Bible have you been reading?
I haven’t met the Jesus who announces that love won’t require vulnerability or risk, who assures that signing on with him will avert all hardships.
Another woman comes to mind, who fearlessly opened herself not just to children but their parents. People with addictions, mean and women crushed between the consequences of their mistakes, she invited them to visit their children in her own home rather than some neutral location. She beckoned them to join her family for everyday meals or special occasions. In short, she invited them into relationship, thereby creating opportunities to mentor and encourage, to speak uncomfortable truths as well as life-giving affirmation. She helped cast a vision of what life could be and urged them toward that goal. This is a depth of hospitality that we may not have contemplated before, but Scripture tasks us with something more like it than Sunday dinners with family or Superbowl nachos with our buddies.
Christians are charged to offer hospitality to each other (1 Peter 4:9) but also to strangers (Hebrews 13:2). The word, in fact, for “hospitality” is φιλοξενίας – Greek for “love to strangers.” In earlier millenia hospitality to strangers was a duty legally required of citizens, and a right lawfully claimed by travellers. Ancient cultures, Greek and Roman included, reinforced this with many stories of gods pretending to be human, and sometimes strangers who were denied proper hospitality revealed themselves to be deities who then exacted retribution from the uncharitable offender. The Romans of Christ’s day, and those who had acclimated to their culture, may then have accepted easily the idea of entertaining angels unawares, and perhaps even Christ’s equating the feeding, clothing, and sheltering of “the least of these” as caring for the Lord Himself (Matthew 25:40).
But ensconced as I am in the 21st century, to welcome strangers comes as somewhat foreign and countercultural. I sprang into being in an era which tells me that my life, time, and treasure are mine and mine alone, to do with as I see fit, and it seems there is hardly a moment of the day that an advertisement of some sort is not blaring at us that we deserve more comfort, leisure, and convenience than we are currently enjoying. And to an introvert like myself, it does sound attractive to reserve my home as a haven of peace and rest, such as it can be, for myself and my immediate family.
And yet I am not my own; I was bought at a price, and the One who paid it tells me that my home and all that is in it are tools for the furtherance of His kingdom. And the better I come to know and love this servant King, the further He is opening my clench-fingered soul to a more adventurous and authentic hospitality.
When we are adopted as sons and daughters of the Most High, we receive not only a family and a future, but a vocation. We are priests to the world still shadowed. As we mature as God’s children, He shapes and fits us for that priestly role, loosening hearts that by nature are clamped tight as oysters against risk and sacrifice. As new creations in Christ, we have a mightier and holier hospitality within us than any the world knows about. It’s a hospitality too big, in fact, to fit into our homes only; it breaks out and invades any part of the world we go forth into.
Think about the story of the Samaritan and the man beaten by robbers and left for dead (Luke 10: 25-37). The Samaritan is on the road far from home, a foreigner in the land, but he carries his hospitality with him. He sees the need and meets it. His oil and wine, his beast and bandages and wallet are at God’s disposal. When Jesus tells this story in response to the question “Who is my neighbor?” (who am I responsible for?), he is saying, in effect, that the only strangers are those we choose to remain strangers to, and there is no place His hospitality does not reach when we claim all men and women as our neighbors.
In this season I am trying to be more deliberate and consistent in remembering my priesthood, and to be mindful of opportunities for hospitality both within my home and when I go out from it. To remember that my true Home is the Kingdom, is Christ. To invite others into that life is the truest hospitality. It may be that you’ve already been living this sort of hospitality; if not, maybe you’ll join me in taking a step into it.
Your household is a bastion and an outpost of the Kingdom on the borders of a wasteland and a blighted, tear-stained country. Refugees from those lands will pass by; let us be looking for them. Let them find in the darkness a door quick to open, and inside, a warm and welcoming light.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.