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Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “hospitality”? I think of several things, one dating back to my childhood.
As a busy school teacher, my mother saw housework as the least important chore that needed to be accomplished. The result was that we didn’t have many guests. But when we knew that we were expecting “company,” we children would be conscripted into a whirlwind cleaning project that often involved shifting piles of stuff into closets and under beds instead of careful cleaning. We weren’t really prepared for guests to arrive, but we pretended we were and, at least on the surface, our guests would never have known it.
The second image of hospitality I have is my mother-in-law, Ruth. Ruth loved having guests and she was consummate hostess. She did not obsess over presenting a perfectly clean house, because it mattered little to her how people viewed her housekeeping skills. Ruth was all about making any guest feel welcome. She was famous for always having “windmill cookies” on hand (she was, after all, Dutch) so that there would always be something to offer a drop-in guest, alongside a cup of coffee.
For many of us, hospitality conjures up pictures of “entertaining”: setting a nice table, providing good food, and making guests feel welcome into our homes, but little more. But when we explore the topic of hospitality in light of the Bible, we see that hospitality is so much more than simply sharing a meal or inviting someone into our space.
Hospitality begins with God. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” says Genesis 1. What follows is the story of how God creates a space into which God invites a whole host of creatures, the last of which is the human person.
In Genesis 1:26 God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” The Godhead, who is complete in itself, decided to create relational space to invite others into its fellowship. Further, the God-in-Three-Persons, in loving relationship with one another, makes humans in God’s image, God’s likeness. At that point Genesis does not give us many clues as to who God is other than the one who brings creation into being, making space for us to share with God. We can conclude from this that one of the ways we are to image God is in creating space to share with others. Hospitality is part of what it means to be human.
In light of the biblical mandate to practice hospitality, I offer a different kind of definition from what we might usually proffer. I suggest that hospitality has (at least) four dimensions:
- Making room for others.
- Welcoming others: friends and strangers, people both like and unlike us.
- Building relationships with others.
- Allowing others to use their gifts.
Alongside these components, there is also the attitude with which one extends hospitality. Some welcome guests in a way that makes it seem like a chore, and this is felt by the person receiving it. In such instances the person on the receiving end of hospitality may feel as though they are merely someone to check off a list, an obligation to make the other person feel better about themselves. Others offer hospitality with a sense of joy and delight. Indeed, the one being welcomed may be made to feel as though they are the most important person in the world at that moment, and their responses to being together are not only welcome, but vital to the relationship.
In my Sunday blogs this month I have been drawing attention to the importance of ecumenism.
It is my firm belief that hospitality is a crucial component of genuine ecumenical relationships. It has been my sincere pleasure to be involved in the ecumenical work of the Reformed Church in America since my election as Vice President of the General Synod in 2010. As VP I was invited to several ecumenical events and denominational meetings, at home and abroad, and many of these relationships have continued to the present day.
My reception in these various gatherings has varied widely, but there is one relationship that I hold up as an example of genuine hospitality. In 2010 I was named to be a participant in the General Synod mandated dialogue with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) following their adoption of a social statement on human sexuality. Their stance toward my RCA partner and me was eminently respectful. They welcomed our concerns and answered our questions with humility and openness.
When I subsequently became the RCA representative to the ELCA Executive Committee (the equivalent of the RCA General Synod Council), they invited me to lead a Bible Study and preach for their Sunday morning worship service. At their churchwide assemblies they seated me in the midst of them. In short, they made room for me, they welcomed and built relationships with me, and they invited me to share my own gifts within their space—all the components of genuine hospitality.
In these times in which denominations are being rent asunder, I believe we need to regain the concept of genuine hospitality. No matter our disagreements, we are called to practice hospitality—perhaps especially toward strangers and those with whom we differ.