by Dr. James H. Furr, President I grew up in a rural community surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins. Folks from our small church constituted a second extended family. Consequently, countless chickens and other domestic animals gave their lives for the sake of innumerable meals as groups of family and friends routinely gathered to break bread and share life. Special highlights were holiday gatherings and hosting the pastor for Sunday lunches. We understood ourselves to be practicing hospitality, and, in the social sense, that’s a fair description.
In recent years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the value of hospitality as a spiritual discipline. The practice of welcoming friends and even strangers into one’s home is affirmed in many cultures. Predictably, the practice often takes into account the social standing of the guests so that the host is conscious of exchanging hospitable gestures with the highest possible social benefits. Distinctively Christian hospitality challenges the ordinary version by graciously, even sacrificially, hosting others, whatever their social standing or ability to reciprocate.
The essence of hospitality is to create a safe, caring, and supportive space so we can relate to whomever God sends our way. As important as our homes continue to be as bases for care, surely hospitality can be practiced anywhere. Two scholars provide especially helpful insights for me.
Christine Pohl states, “Hospitality is not so much a task as it is a way of living our lives and of sharing ourselves. For most practitioners, offering hospitality grows out of their attempt to be faithful to God, to hear God’s voice in the Scriptures and in the people around them. They have learned hospitality [until it] has become for them both a disposition and a habit” (Making Room, p. 172).
Amy Oden observes a similar lesson from church history. “Early Christians teach us that hospitality is more akin to compassion, to suffer with. The sense of solidarity with the stranger, the widow, the sick, in early Christian texts is palpable. Hospitality does not entail helping another person so much as immersing oneself in a new reality, entering into a new relationship with one who before was unknown or unappreciated. The notion of ‘being with the other’ values presence more than outcome. It may or may not be possible to alleviate another’s suffering or improve another’s situation. The success of hospitality, however, does not depend on end results. Rather, the success of hospitality is measured by the degree to which one offers one’s genuine presence with another, to fully enter another’s world and dwell with another” (And You Welcomed Me, p. 109).
As we celebrate the gift of God with us in this season of Christmas, may we practice the grace of being with others whenever and however the Spirit leads.