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Hospitality and Heartbreak

November 24, 2020
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Neil likes to say that for many people, their living and dining rooms are designed solely for when the president stops by unexpectedly for dinner. Our western notion of hospitality is drawn more from gourmet columns than it is from any biblical notion of hospitality.

Biblical hospitality is entirely different. It requires vulnerability and it can inconvenience, even hurt you. It can break your heart, but it shapes disciples.

For Neil and for me, the hospitality of saints was our first experience of the Gospel. We were far from home in boarding schools, and Christians welcomed us into their homes, feeding and caring for us. As they opened their doors, they opened the door of Life to us. Their hospitality drew us into the Kingdom and shaped us as disciples.

Our earliest experiences of ministry as a couple were in community. The summer of our engagement we shared a house in a beach community outreach with a team of six. That house became a place where visiting students could process their questions about the faith, a place where the Scriptures were both studied and practiced, and a place where people were fed. A year later, within a few weeks of our wedding and with a team of ten young adults who all lived together in the Sunday school wing of a church, we ran a summer coffeehouse in another beach town, welcoming high school seekers night by night. That was an unusual newlywed experience! Our lives as new adult disciples were shaped by radical, biblical hospitality.

Similarly, biblical hospitality shapes the generation that follows us. When our kids were small, Neil was on the staff of a large and lively church. We saw later how much the steady stream of visiting saints at our table had demonstrated discipleship to our kids. Our guests shared remarkable and varied stories. One visiting speaker was snowed in at our house for several days. Parked in our rocking chair this cathedral dean engaged our girls for hours with accounts of his life in fellowship with Jesus, and his passion to see unborn lives protected. African bishops were frequent enough guests that when it came time for Neil to serve on a diocesan committee to nominate a new bishop in Virginia, one daughter was sure that being Black must be a requirement for candidacy. The lively faith of our African guests was a profound influence on our children.

Hospitality is a ministry that’s easy to share with children. One simple ‘trick’ we had was to teach the kids to ask good questions of our guests. That’s one strategy that became a life principle. Expressing interest and curiosity about the life of another is a fruitful way to show love.* This happens easily at table. All through the Scriptures we see God doing things at table, around a meal. From meals with tax collectors and sinners like Zacchaeus, to the Last Supper, to the setting of so many of Jesus’ intimate teaching times with his disciples, shared meals present a powerful opportunity as well as a foretaste of heaven when we will gather around a table together (Isaiah 25, Revelation 19, Luke 14).

It became natural for our kids to share their own faith, and to expect us to do the same. One memorable morning our six-year-old literally pulled the Spanish-speaking nanny from next door up to our kitchen table, sat her down, and begged me, “Tell her about Jesus!”

One church in our diocese suggested to its parishioners that they commit to a week, or a month, of eating like Jesus ate.By that, they meant sharing at least one meal during that time with a fellow believer, and one meal or coffee date, with someone outside their community of faith. For those with kids at home, such a practice can be a seamless way to demonstrate the life of discipleship.

In Michael Frosts’ challenging book, Surprise the World, he says, “Sharing meals together on a regular basis is one of the most sacred practices we can engage in as believers. Missional hospitality is a tremendous opportunity to extend the kingdom of God. We can literally eat our way into the kingdom of God! If every Christian household regularly invited a stranger or a poor person into their home for a meal once a week, we would literally change the world by eating!”

In the beginning of the Book, Moses urges the Israelites to imitate God who shows love to foreigners, widows and orphans, giving them food and clothing (Deut. 10:17-19). At the other end of the Book, Jesus says this, speaking of shared meals: “. . . don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back and that will be your only reward. Instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you” (Luke 14:12-14 NLV).

While table fellowship may be where biblical hospitality begins, it is not where it ends. The cross, the heartbreak, of hospitality came to our family in the shape of those who could not repay. A foster child with multiple heart defects came to us at 6 days old, and was with us for more than half a year before adoption. We had bonded fiercely and giving him up crushed us. A single friend needing a place to recover from surgery was carried through our front door on a stretcher just days before Christmas. (The side benefit for the kids was playing with her automatic hospital bed when she wasn’t in it!) The author of Hebrews says we may entertain angels unaware (Hebrews 13:1-2). Our guest was likely more sacred than our sacred Christmas traditions. More recently the Lord sent literal foreigners to us, one escaping persecution in his home country and subjecting us to complexity, pain, and personal risk.

In all these there was joy and fruit in equal measure to the sacrifice.

We spoke last month about imitation. In the practice of hospitality perhaps more than anywhere else, we imitate the Father, and provide young and new disciples with a picture of heaven.

Paul urges us to practice hospitality without grumbling. I frequently failed on this score. One day while bending over the sink and preparing to feed a crowd, I was mentally tallying how many hours it was taking me. I felt the Spirit of God break into my grumble.

You’re doing what I’m doing right now.

What? What is that, Lord?

Preparing a feast for my beloved!

Imitation. Suddenly my burden was lighter. At the price of the life of His Son, the Father opened his own home to us forever. And he is preparing a banquet to welcome us home. We were bought with that price (1 Cor. 6:20),and with us, all we have, including our homes! Imitating God in this radical hospitality may be among the holiest things we do. And in the process, as we include and involve them, we shape the next generation of the Father’s Kingdom.

Could your household use this time of Covid limitation to ask the Lord to make you willing to open your home to whomever he sends? When it becomes safe again, welcoming an international student for a holiday meal is a wonderful way to begin.

Could you commit to weekly or monthly ‘eating like Jesus ate,’including a fellow disciple in one meal or coffee date, and someone outside your community of faith in another?


*See David Brooks’ excellent article on ways to have deeper conversations.