Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hospitality

I have a friend who is a recent college graduate with a degree in "hospitality." That means she has learned how to run a hotel or a restaurant.

It can be tempting for us Christians to think of hospitality as a limited thing like that – you know, something like having a friend over to lunch. While opening our homes and our churches to others is without doubt a part of it, I think Christian hospitality is so much more than that – it is opening our hearts. Our word hospitality comes from the Latin word that derives from hospes - "guest." The New Testament Greek word for it - philoxenia - literally means “love of strangers.” It is extending welcome to one - anyone - who does not have what we have and inviting him or her to join us and share in what we have. The next step, then, is to invite the one who is now sharing what we have to join in what we are doing.

I have the blessing, or the curse, to be able to remember random details. Along with batting averages and the capitals of all the countries of Central America, I can recite the lyrics of way too many songs. I can wade through my memories of the Eagles and the Gatlin Brothers and the Who to find a host of songs I learned in youth choir. One song we sang on a choir tour where we did mission work among the homeless of Chicago includes these words: “Give a cup of water in the master’s name, feed the poor and needy, comfort those in pain. Clothe the naked millions, touch the sick and lame. Welcome in the stranger knocking at your door. Go to all the lonely where few have been before. Help the poor lost sinner, tell him Jesus came. Give a cup of water in the master’s name.”

Fast forward from that Chicago trip of 1978 to a moment in November of 1992 that seems to be appropriate as I ponder the virtue of hospitality – it was the night I was ordained as a deacon.

My current church, Broadway Baptist, enjoys great tradition and standing in the Baptist world. Perhaps the only church with more tradition is the First Baptist Church of Nashville, site of the founding of the Baptist Sunday School Board and widely recognized as the “mother church of the Southern Baptist Convention,” back when that was a good thing.

That description would not lead many to believe that FBC would be open to variations from the stereotypes that many who like to toss labels around would expect. Yet even that bastion of tradition and Baptist history welcomed an amazingly diverse group to its deacon body that Sunday night when five of us were ordained. Fred was the poster child for Baptist deacons – a middle-aged white man who had raised a couple of sons through the youth group of the church. But the rest of us… well, I was 27, young and brash and wet behind the ears. David was single. Danny was Hispanic. And Mavis was single and female.

And yet that high holy Baptist church welcomed us and ordained us and charged us with serving the community of grace that is that great church. We did not need to look alike or be of similar status.

I read a wonderful quote from Dieter Zander. Although I do not agree with him on everything, I think he shows great insight when it comes to hospitality: “When we moved to San Francisco, we lived on a street where our neighbors included an atheist Jewish family, a Buddhist family, an Irish Catholic family, a gay family, and a Hindu family. There was no sense of community, so we decided to become conduits of the kingdom by practicing the discipline of hospitality. We learned people's names and used them. We introduced neighbors to each other. And something began to happen. My atheist Jewish neighbor came into my kitchen once and said, ‘You know, something has happened since you all moved to this neighborhood. It's hard to describe, but it's like an enzyme has been added. Where once there was no life, now there's life. What is that?’ And I said, ‘That's the gospel of Jesus being lived out in our lives.’ "

I heard another great illustration just last night. A yourg woman meeting her future in-laws for the first time felt their love and embrace, not because they knew her well yet, but simply because she was special to their son.

I am a very “churchy” person. I take the New Testament language that the church is the body of Christ very seriously and very personally. I believe that the way Christ most often works in the world is through the church - He hugs with our arms, speaks with our voices, feeds with our hands - and I intend to be an integral part of that. My understanding of that role was heightened, if not started, by a rudimentary understanding of hospitality, in singing about the importance of a cup of cold water and an offering of welcome. My faith was heightened again, if not confirmed, by the welcome I received as a church laid hands on me as I knelt between an Hispanic man and a single woman.

There is nothing wrong with running a hotel and inviting someone in for a meal, but we Christians cannot stop there. We open our hearts to the stranger, just as God open His heart to all of us who are special to His son.

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