Gospel Hospitality: Humanity and Grace Colliding
Is there really anything left to be said about hospitality (both Biblical and non) that hasn’t already been said in numerous ways by boatloads of people more clever and more hospitable than I? (Case in point, my current read, The Gospel Comes With a House Key by Rosario Butterfield. Wow. Check it out. Super challenging.) Hospitality can be one of those words we hear so much that we actually stop hearing it. I readily admit there have been seasons in my life when I’ve forgotten that the practice of hospitality isn’t optional or a nice idea, but rather something I get to engage because I have been so loved. It’s not an obligation, but a response.
Much of my life has been lived around the table in one way or another. Family dinners as a child; my papa presiding over meat, potatoes and a stack of white bread. My brother and I sitting across the kitchen table from one another, our bowls of cereal between us, laughing while milk sprayed from our mouths. Gathered around my parents’ table set with enough food to feed three times as many people. Meals cooked for friends in high school, then college, and later as a wife and mom for my own family. Waitress, prep cook, caterer. Hundreds of shared meals with friends, neighbors, and strangers. Often my first thought when meeting someone new is, “how soon can I have them to dinner?” my mind already flipping through my mental cookbook contemplating what meal they might like.
As a former professional caterer, what’s on the table always reigned supreme. Vast quantities of food precisely prepared (albeit sometimes on a wing and a prayer) and laid out for luncheons, parties, and events. Buffets that fed bodies, minds, and hearts as guests gathered in groups around all manner of tables to share a meal, catch up, or make a new friend. In those days, I had a habit of finding an unnoticed corner of the room during the meal so I could observe the crowd. The breaking of bread, the pursuit of the stranger, the fellowship of the saints. The food, no matter how good, always takes a back seat to the goodness, the fullness and even at times, tensions and awkwardness of meals shared. Humanity and grace colliding.
In recent years, whether it’s gathering neighbors for Saturday waffles or family and friends for a celebration or a just-because dinner around my kitchen table, I know the most important thing isn’t the food. Rather it’s what each person brings to the meal. Ourselves. My pastor and friend, Donald Zimmerman, often says that the most life-giving thing we have to offer other people is our transformed and transforming presence. That the ways Jesus has changed our hearts and lives to more closely reflect who God has made us to be, is what offers that same kind of transformative power to others. Yep! The most important thing we bring to the tables we gather around is ourselves and the work Jesus is doing in and through us.
I want my table to create space for others. Space for people to rest up, catch their breath, hear some Good News, and be known. Jesus modeled this for us; much of his ministry happened “at table.” (Matthew 9:10; 26:7,20, Mark 14, Luke 24:30, John 12:2) Do I want to feed and nourish bodies too? Yes! I want the food prepared by myself and others to be a taste of God’s lavish and kind provision. But, even more than that, I want guests and strangers to come to know Jesus. To see Him in the person they’re bumping elbows with or in the conversation from across the table they can just barely hear over the laughter and kids complaining; “I don’t like that red stuff.”
Hospitality is a practice to be cultivated for God’s glory, our good, and the flourishing of others. It’s an invitation to worship the One who invites us in, feeds us, listens to us, knows us, and provides for our needs. It is an opportunity to receive the Kingdom and then to pass a taste of it along to those bellied up to our tables.
Engaging Hospitality As Mission – You Can Do It Too!
As we enter in and entwine our lives with others through the practice of hospitality we get to experience both the sweet and hard of following Jesus. We get a taste of the Kingdom and we get to show what it’s like to others who don’t yet know. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:
- Start small, but just get started. Let the Spirit show you where to start and then what’s next.
- Build a team committed to the same mission. Even if it’s just your own family to begin with. Let it grow from there. (Make sure to leave room for non-Christians. Kick out some of the Christians if it gets too big.)
- Be patient, be intentional, be real, be present. Get to know people’s stories so you better understand how to love and care for them.
- Keep these three things in mind: 1.) nobody needs you to save them. That’s God’s work. 2.) People aren’t projects, they’re friends. 3.) You’re just as needy as they are.
- Invite guests to share the responsibilities, decide on the menu, contribute money or food items for the meal, let them host when you’re out of town. By doing so, you’re training others to practice hospitality.
- Have an open door policy. (It’s kind of like when your child isn’t sleeping through the night – as long as you expect to be woken up, you don’t mind so much.) Have boundaries, but be flexible.
- If you have kids, don’t assume your kids think hospitality is their mission too. Give them space and freedom to discover their own gifts and passions.