Hospitality: giving the gift of yourself.
The lease was about to run out, and we had nowhere to go.
Oh, we looked. We prayed. We made calls. But as students living over 6,000 miles from friends and family, my sister and I had very few options for the last six weeks of our school year. Then our Israeli landlady stepped in, inviting us into her home.
For six weeks, we were part of her family. We learned how to keep a kosher kitchen; we helped prepare the Sabbath dinners, and we sat down at their long table to feast, sing and talk. Befuddled by such extravagant kindness, we asked our hosts how we could repay their hospitality.
“Pass it on,” they replied.
If we dig into the Greek for Romans 12:13, it becomes clear that each of us should be taking care of the needs of others, fond of entertaining those who are new or even foreign to us. When I was a teenager, secure in my home and family and surrounded by a strong, loving community, hospitality was just a pleasant diversion. Now I realize that someone’s choice to share their home can be like cold water to a thirsty soul or a life preserver to a drowning swimmer. The deep joy and relief I’ve experienced while receiving a selfless welcome makes me enthusiastic about passing it on to others.
In many Bible stories, hosts actively pursued passing strangers, actually persuading them to be their guests. Though offering hospitality meant taking on substantial responsibility – providing food, lodging, protection, water for washing and feed for horses, donkeys or even camels – they seemed to count it an honor when their invitation was accepted.
Hospitality was – and still is – a key value in the Middle East. Withholding or neglecting it can be a sign of boorishness, if not a deliberate insult, while extending it is an opportunity to honor family, friends, political allies, national and spiritual leaders, or those who previously hosted you.
Jesus takes hospitality a step further, encouraging us to seek out guests who cannot repay because this is what God does for us. In fact, God has taken on full responsibility for our support and protection – without any expiration date. His bounty is a movable feast, following us throughout our lives and on into eternity, where His house is open to us forever. With this extravagant, unconditional welcome in mind, it’s no wonder we seek out even the least-known of His followers and lavish them with care. It’s easy to remember and delight in offering hospitality when we realize that whatever we do for our guests, we do for Him.
The Secret Ingredient
I’m learning that hospitality isn’t as much about glossy magazines, fine china or perfect décor and food as my culture would have me think. God seeks not to impress His guests but to bless them. How? By bringing them into His life as it already is.
I’ve learned this best by watching others. In Jordan, our tour bus driver took us to his home, where his wife served us tea and pastries, apricots from their tree, and lettuce leaves from their garden. Simply visiting a remote historical site made us – students, driver and guide alike – guests of the head man in that village. We sat under his fig tree, drinking glasses of hot, highly-sweetened tea, garnished with fresh mint leaves.
In Israel, Korean friends fixed seafood soup, kimchi, kimbob – and a big bowl of spaghetti, just so their Western guests would feel at home.
In Sweden, my friends’ mother had me over to dinner, though we had no common language but waffles and hugs.
If giving hospitality is ultimately the gift of ourselves, then each person’s style of hospitality will be just as unique as his individual personality, circumstance and season of life. Here are some examples:
- Ben, a 30-something graduate student, doesn’t feel especially good at hosting others. He says, “I get to be hospitable by proxy because my roommate is constantly putting people up for the night – sometimes people passing through town who are friends of friends. I let him do so without complaint precisely because I see it as a ministry and as a biblical exhortation.”
- As a 50-something bachelor, Dave directs most of his hospitality toward young men from church. His cooking is admittedly simple, but he provides a warm welcome with snacks, some fascinating memorabilia, a war movie or some intense games of Risk, and a genuine interest in getting to know his guests.
- Mary, the young mother of seven children, intentionally puts herself in the position of being able to entertain, organizing her home and furniture so it is convenient to serve guests. Extra chairs hide in a corner; paper plates and cups await the time when she might not have enough dishes. Often she’ll have a dessert in the freezer. She creates a sense of calm by reducing clutter, providing toys for children, adjusting music levels to the number of guests, and disconnecting from the electronic world.
- At 88, Mary’s grandmother Elizabeth is the epitome of Southern hospitality. When she offered to provide a picnic dinner for our family’s move we had no idea she would deliver pizza for 12 or so, plus huge veggie and fruit platters, drinks, paper plates, plastic silverware, tablecloths, toothpicks, trash bags and even twist ties. She delights in sharing richly detailed, oh-so-proper meals. It’s just the way she ticks.
- Elizabeth feels that at the root, hospitality is an attitude that makes her guests feel loved and important. Sometimes this means sacrifice, like the couple who gave up their bedroom for her and her husband when they came to visit. Sometimes it means accepting that her guests' needs are simpler than expected, like the adult grandchildren who chose to drink water with their meals, though she wanted to pamper them with juice and tea.
- Elizabeth's first taste of Kathy’s bayside hospitality left her astonished. A lover of swimming, she found herself in the water within 10 minutes of her arrival. Not long afterward, she was driving a jet ski, with her host behind her as a coach.
Behind such a relaxed style lies careful preparation. As the frequent hostess of vacationing friends, Kathy finds out what interests her guests – a book, some photos, some games – and has these items on hand. She also requests a list of their five favorite foods. When she doesn’t have advance warning, she figures that apologizing for the mess might make her guests more uncomfortable than the fact that the mess is there. But when she does have the time, she tries to get shopping and cleaning out of the way so she can stop and tune in to her friends. Mindful that the most important things are often said in the last 30 minutes of a visit, she especially focuses on the time they arrive and the time they leave. In between, she gives them freedom to just be, in whatever way they like best. “It's so different from person to person,” she says. “If you know their ‘language of love,’ that can really help.”
Kathy believes that intentionally adding love when she cooks makes a palpable difference in the taste of the food. I’m sure it’s also the secret ingredient in her home.
No matter how heartfelt the hospitality, giving the gift of yourself eventually means you have nothing left to give. Unless you tap into the source.
Ellen was exhausted. For the last week or more, she’d been hosting friends from Mongolia, in addition to caring for her own large brood of children. Finding just a few quiet moments when her guests had finally gone, she was comforted by reading Jesus’ words to His disciples: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.”
But life kept rushing along.
Sunday came and with it, a visiting preacher and his family. Ellen was horrified when her husband mentioned they might drop by after church. She was just too tired, and there was too little in the house to eat. Wasn’t it someone else’s turn to be hospitable?
Then she heard the sounds of children at the door: her own and the eight who were visiting. And she couldn’t get away from what Jesus said to His disciples when a hungry crowd interrupted their sorely-needed rest: “You give them something to eat.”
Like the little boy with his lunch of loaves and fish, Ellen determined to share what she did have: popcorn and hot dogs. And in the kindness of God, this embarrassingly simple meal turned out to be just what her guests normally ate for Sunday lunch, making them feel right at home.
She gave herself. God provided the rest.
That’s how hospitality works.
Copyright 2011 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.