Hospitality Reconsidered

I have a love-hate relationship with the spiritual practice of hospitality. On the one hand, some of my best memories are connected with the love, welcome, acceptance and provision I have received over the years from friends, Christian families, intentional communities and monastic orders. On the other hand, I have never felt like I am particularly good at the practice: I am an introvert, I’ve never owned a big enough table to re-create the moving scenes from the movie Babette’s Feast, and I live and work in country where hospitality can also involve tricky cultural dynamics, unhealthy dependency relationships, and questions of physical safety. Nonetheless, hospitality is not optional for the Christian. As theologian Christine Pohl says in Making Room, “hospitality is central to the meaning of the Gospel.”[1]


What follows here is a brief overview of the concept of hospitality for followers of Jesus, and then some practical suggestions for those of us who are either new to the practice or “hospitality challenged.” It is my experience that when we reframe hospitality away from the ways we normally think about it, and the dramatic ways it is still practiced by some, we can find opportunities for an “ordinary hospitality” that almost any Christian can practice.


A Brief Theology and History of Hospitality


Theologically, it is important to start with the idea that we make room for others in our lives because God made room for us. From the act of creation, onwards through redemption and sanctification, to the final wedding feast of the Lamb, we see clearly a God who desires to create a place for us. He didn’t have to create us, but he did- and, ever since, he has been unrelenting in pursuing us and bringing us home. Hospitality begins, then, with God’s hospitality towards us. Further, to be hospitable is an act of faith in the already-but-not-yet Kingdom that Christ established. It is living on the basis of what we believe about how the world is, as opposed to what we see:


In offering hospitality, practitioners live between the vision of God’s kingdom in which there is enough, even abundance, and the hard realities of human life in which doors are closed and locked, and some needy people are turned away or left outside.[2]


So, then, we offer hospitality because we were first welcomed by God, and because that is the nature of the Kingdom.


Historically, the Bible commends two types of hospitality- that given to strangers, sojourners, and exiles, and that provided to our fellow believers. Taking up this call, from the earliest days of the Christian faith until the present, families and various types of communities have been involved in the practice. Indeed, both the words hospital and hospice, now associated with medical and palliative care, earlier referred to the rest houses provided for pilgrims and travelers by monastic orders. The word hotel ultimately derives from the same history as well. We think of those who provided shelter for Jews during World War II, the work of Mother Teresa with the sick and dying, those who take in refugees today, and even the monastery guest houses for people who make retreats. The corporate practice of hospitality can be seen to be an ongoing reality in the life of the church.


Practical Hospitality “for the rest of us”


But what about the rest of us? Most of us do not live in an intentional religious community. We may not have the financial resources or space needed for the larger and more radical expressions of the practice. Too busy, too introverted (like me), or living as a stranger ourselves- hospitality can seem like an overwhelming idea that is better left to larger communities, richer people, or religious professionals like monks and nuns. What follows are some practical suggestions for how anyone can engage in the spiritual practice of hospitality in an intentional, but manageable, fashion.


1. Room in the heart is the key issue


The place to begin is with the realization that hospitality begins in the heart. In our hectic, individualistic age, we may not realize how closed off we have become to other people. The cultural disintegration and polarities we are experiencing in the West heighten this effect as well. Many of us, assaulted by a fast-paced and unforgiving world, have retreated to the confines of our family, a close circle or friends, or simply to our apartments and to Netflix. The first step in practicing hospitality for many of us, then, may be simply to open our hearts to the stranger again. Take the risk and speak to those around you. Ask questions and listen. Be available to those you encounter, recognizing a fellow brother or sister in them, as opposed to a potential argument or threat. Above all, I think, we need to give others our interest and our time- this is a simple form of hospitality all of us can begin with. However, giving time is not without inconvenience. We have to be willing to allow our plans and schedules to become less fixed- because that flexibility is the space in which God can begin to create community. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.”[3] To become open in the heart towards the “other,” and ultimately towards God, is perhaps the beginning of hospitality for us all.


2. Don’t obsess about the ideal setting


While it is true that hospitality has traditionally been concerned with both food and shelter, we can free up our practice of the discipline by letting go of certain metal images of what hospitality requires. Don’t worry over not having a house with 17 guest rooms and a table that seats 14, just meet someone for a meal or coffee and pick up the bill! What is important is the other person, and our attention, love and care for them. As long as there is a coffee shop nearby and you are willing, the practice of hospitality is within your reach.


3. Partner with others


Another option is to partner with others for more effective hospitality, as a cooperative practice. Have a friend with a better dining arrangement? Work together with them to prepare and host meals in their place, and help them to clean up afterwards. Give your time and donations to a local shelter, church, or monastery that is involved in the kind of radical hospitality that is beyond your reach individually. The key is to be a part of offering hospitality, not to feel like you have to do it on your own.


4. Recognize your limits


It should come as no surprise that the practice of hospitality- like all spiritual disciplines- can move us into unhealthy areas if we are not careful. Balance is needed, or guilt and over-functioning can result. Two areas particularly need balance: our spiritual life and our perspective on our resources. As to the spiritual life, it is useful to remember the following quote: “Almost all insist that the demands of hospitality can only be met by persons sustained by a strong life of prayer and times of solitude.”[4] When considering the guilt that may arise when we realize how meager our material resources may be, the words of Edith Schaffer of L’Abri Fellowship- so renowned for their hospitality- may help. She states, “because there are more people than we have time or strength to see personally and care for, it is imperative to remember that it is not sinful to be finite and limited.”[5]


Conclusion


The reasons for extending hospitality are manifold: the recognition that Christians share the same status of resident aliens and pilgrims (1 Pet. 1:1; 2:4–10), that in hosting strangers one may actually be entertaining heavenly visitors (Heb. 13:2), and the recognition that in offering hospitality to another, one is offering it to Jesus (John 13:20; Matt. 25:31–46; St Benedict’s Rule, Chapter 53). We give as we have received from God. Hopefully, the practical suggestions presented here for consideration can transform how we viewing actually doing hospitality, making it easier, guilt-free, and accessible to the introvert, the overcommitted, and those with limited means as well. Perhaps it can then become more widely practiced, and less of burden.


 

Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.

 

[1] -Pohl, Christine D. (1999). Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition [Kindle iOS version], loc. 130. [2] -Pohl, Christine D. (2016) Hospitality. In C.E. Moore (Ed.), Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, p.288. [3]-Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (1954). Life Together. New York: Harper Collins [1994 gift edition], p. 115. [4]-Pohl, Christine D. (1999). Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition [Kindle iOS version], loc. 179. [5]- quoted in C.E. Moore (Ed.), Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, p.289.

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