It was a Sunday morning and I was sitting in my usual place in church. I’d been attending that church since I’d moved to Slovakia two years previously, but still felt like an outsider. Lots of the songs were still unfamiliar to me, I didn’t really know who was related to whom, and I still struggled to get my mouth round the doxology at the end that everyone else seemed to know off by heart. I sat down after half mumbling that doxology and Brynne came over and said, ‘Sorry, we’ve wanted you to come over for lunch for a long time but the house is a mess and I can’t get my act together to cook. We do want to spend time with you though. We’re going to McDonald’s for lunch, do you want to come?’
That McChicken sandwich in the slightly grubby McDonald’s was probably one of my favourite Sunday lunches during my time in Slovakia. I felt welcomed and loved and it was the start of a friendship with a family that blessed me a lot over the coming years.
Having recently started working with an organisation that puts hospitality at the heart of what we do, I’ve been reflecting about what that really means. One of the books that’s been helping me is Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl. Let me share with you some reflections from my reading and from my own experience of receiving and giving hospitality.
Hospitality is an expression of our core identity as welcomed foreigners
Welcoming the foreigner was a basic requirement for God’s people living in the promised land. Over and over God told them, ‘You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt’ (Deut. 10:19). God’s people knew what it was like not to have a place and not to belong and so they also knew how precious it was to be welcomed in. A core part of how they showed the world around them what their God was like was to live as foreigners given a place by God, and so they were to extend that same welcome to others.
As New Testament believers, we also know what it is to be welcomed foreigners. We were foreigners to God, excluded from his family, but we have been welcomed in, now ‘no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household’ (Eph. 2:19). We know what it is not to belong and not to have a place, but we also know the joy of being known, loved and welcomed in.
Given this, it makes complete sense when Jesus says that one of the identifying characteristics of those who belong to him is their hospitality (Matt. 25:31-46). Jesus’ followers are strangers who have been welcomed in. They show that to the world, and they show him to the world by welcoming other strangers in. It’s who they are.
Hospitality starts with the heart
Christine Pohl says in her book:
A life of hospitality begins in worship, with a recognition of God’s grace and generosity. Hospitality is not first a duty and responsibility; it is first a response of love and gratitude for God’s love and welcome to us… hospitality emerges from a grateful heart.
Hospitality is costly. It costs time, energy and money. If our motivation is duty, eventually we’ll give up. One of the costliest examples I’ve seen of hospitality was a colleague in Germany who invited two young refugees to live with him and his family for a considerable length of time. As I listened to him talking about their motivation, it was clearly not a sense of duty. He was acutely aware that he had been lovingly welcomed into God’s family at great cost, everything he had was a gift of God’s grace, and so it made complete sense for him to share what he had with someone else in desperate need.
A hospitable heart is one that has been transformed by God’s loving welcome. I know if I’m struggling to welcome others generously, there’s no point telling myself that I should do it. I need to go back to my generous heavenly Father in repentance, ask him to show me again how much I’ve been loved, and through that to shape my heart to be more like his.
Hospitality is much more about relationship than it is about service
I have failed in this area more times than I can remember, but one time that has stuck in my mind was a Christmas event some of us put on for students a few years ago. We had prepared a good meal, it was on time and we had worked hard. At different points during the evening an Indian student had approached me to start a conversation. I had been polite, but it was clear I didn’t have time to chat. At the end of the evening, when all the clearing up was done I went to ask him if he’d enjoyed the meal. He said, ‘Yes, the food was nice but I would have liked you just to sit with us.’
I compare that to a friend of mine who befriended two refugees. He helped them practically, giving them work in his food business, but he also offered them true friendship. One lunch time he made space in his kitchen for these refugees to cook a meal for him and some of his friends. They prepared some amazing food and then we all sat down to enjoy it and each other. He didn’t just serve them practically, he welcomed them into our community and made room for them to serve within that community.
It is often easier to serve someone practically and there is real value in that, but to sit down at a table together as equals, to offer friendship, welcoming them into the community, reflects more deeply the God who doesn’t just meet our needs, but adopts us into his family.
Hospitality is crucial to how we communicate the gospel to the world
The opportunities to show hospitality in our society are endless. Who ‘the foreigner’ is in our contexts will differ depending on where we live. It might be the international student who’s stuck in university accommodation over the holidays, the elderly neighbour whose family lives the other side of the country, the homeless person we walk past every day, the new Christian who’s just joined our church and doesn’t know how things work, the teenager who’s confused about who they are and struggling to relate to their peers… Our fragmented, individualistic society is filled with lonely people who long for a place to belong. Imagine the difference a community of welcome can make? The God who welcomed us into his family calls us to embody that same welcome by making room in our hearts and then our homes for those around us who are looking for a place to belong.