Hospitality: Shifting from Suspicion to Space for the Stranger
Aren’t we known for our hospitality in our southern culture? It’s a known phrase, right? “Southern Hospitality.” What experiences, feelings, or thoughts arise as that phrase is mentioned? How does that line up with hospitality as we see it in the Bible? If you were to ask me what I enjoy doing, I would probably tell you that hospitality is one of those things. One thing I must also admit is that I (and I trust you are like me) am always learning and growing in every aspect of life, and my understanding of hospitality is not exempt from that. Do we really know what hospitality is? Sure, we can enjoy hosting and entertaining friends in our home, which is certainly an aspect of hospitality, but perhaps there is something more at our core that determines just how hospitable we are. Hospitality can be communicated in subtle, yet profound ways, such as my body language when I interact with someone who is very different from me. What is your posture when you are with someone who is like you? What is your posture when you are with someone who is very different…the “stranger” who doesn’t look or think like you do? The posture of our heart can very often be unknowingly communicated through our body language, actions, words, etc. Please don’t hear me making accusations toward anyone. There may be people who are good at welcoming people who are very different, but then struggle to love those who are themselves growing in their ability to welcome others who are different! If you can follow my train of thought, my point is, we all are growing in our ability to welcome others the way that God has welcomed us.
So, what is at the core of hospitality then? There are a number of places in scripture we could go to explore this. Lately, the Lord has directed me again and again to 1 Thessalonians 2:8. There the Apostle Paul reminds his Thessalonian brothers and sisters that they were so dear to him, he was willing to share, not only the gospel with them, but also his very life. What does it mean for me or you to share our lives with each other? I don’t think it’s easy to quantify or lay out into a program, because that’s not how life works. It’s a lot more messy and loose-ended. Must I add something to my busy schedule to fit in this idea of sharing my life with others?
Is the busyness of my life just clutter that I create to keep the messiness of others, and life in general out? Do we fill our time with things because we feel like it’s what we ought to do? Again, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. Life often has it’s demands that can’t be pushed to the side. I wonder though, who is making the demands of us? Is it Christ…or is it the culture (keeping up with the “Jones”), our own hearts (that might be looking for affirmation from others), or something else still. Being still can be very hard. Being still means I have to deal with the noise in my head and my heart. That noise usually involves fear, anxiety, and longings that cause us to wonder if we are “okay” or not. Silence and open space in our minds and hearts can be a vast uncertainty that can cause us to feel out of control. I find that it’s usually much easier to scurry around busying myself so I don’t have to be quiet or I don’t have to listen to the noise of my heart. The problem with busying myself is that I can become so preoccupied that I have very little room in my mind and heart for others.
Hospitality can certainly be the act of making space in my home for someone, but if I have little room in my mind and heart for that person, am I really being hospitable? I find that I can at times be physically present even with my family, while being mentally absent because my mind and heart or so preoccupied. Perhaps you know what I am talking about. Perhaps you’ve found yourself doing it as well. It’s very easy. We ignore the fear and anxiety within by trying to “speak” over it through preoccupation. When we do that we have little room for others and their fears and anxieties. We become unable to listen well. We listen only to respond, rather than listening to actually hear. We find that we must “shout” to even hear ourselves. In some sense we are hardwired for this. Our culture tells us to look out for ourselves because no one else will. A heart that doesn’t know or has forgotten the reality that the God who made us has also died for us will also tell us that we must look out for ourselves. What does it take to empty ourselves of the noise within? Perhaps it’s remembering that the Son of God emptied himself (Phil 2:5-8). The Creator made himself small and insignificant so that he could make room for us in his family.
When we understand that we are cared for far more that we could ever dream of by Jesus, perhaps we can begin to feel a little more safe in the quiet empty space that is needed to make room for others. We can step out into the uncertainty of what others might bring into our lives. Perhaps the noise will die down as we begin to shift away from inwardly asking ourselves “am I okay?” to outwardly asking others “are you okay?” Many times we don’t actually realize that we are asking ourselves “am I okay?” however, that question is usually always under the surface. I have found that when that question is buried deep in our hearts, we will often desire relationships with others, but primarily so that they will make us feel “okay” or to meet our needs. Sometimes we even need to be “needed” by someone else. As we look to others to provide us the happiness we want, we are burdening them beyond what they can bear. We are asking them to do what only Jesus can do. If we do that enough we push the person away rather than welcome them into our lives. If we look to Christ for our joy, then the other person is freed to be our “guest” and we can in turn truly be their “host.”
So will you join me in this ongoing pursuit of practicing real hospitality? Will you commit to continue learning and growing with me? We can spend the rest of our lives learning from the master of hospitality, Jesus Christ himself.