Perspectives: Be hospitable to others, as God is to us
Published 3:36 pm, Friday, January 12, 2018
Just recently I was in the arrival lounge at JFK’s Terminal 1, waiting for my wife’s flight from London to land and for her to pass through Customs and Immigration. It took over an hour for her to appear and so I was left in that special airport “Twilight Zone” where one looks expectantly at the security doors, hoping that the very next person to appear from the behind the doors (like some kind of late night talk show) will indeed be our loved one. And in that same “Twilight Zone” our minds pose the question: Will a quick trip to the coffee shop or the restroom also be the moment that perfectly coincides with the aforementioned loved one making her grand appearance … with no one there to welcome her?
I was, however, provided with an interesting distraction.
Immediately in front of me, on the other side of the security barrier, was a set of rather shabby metal seats. About 10 feet in front of the shabby metal seating was a lady in a booth with an illuminated sign over the top that said “Welcome.”
Passengers would emerge through the security doors, spy the shabby metal seating area and gratefully make their way toward it, searching for their smart phone (now that they were again allowed to use it), adjusting their luggage, generally taking a breath before they exited the terminal and began the next leg of their journey. And this was the cue for the lady behind the illuminated welcome booth to pounce. In a tone that was reminiscent of the kind of battle cry one might hear in a “Lord of the Rings” movie, her voice would bellow, “Can I help you?”
From behind the battlements of her booth, however, it was clear that this was not truly the question she was asking. And before the confused passengers could answer, she would yell, “You can’t sit there!”
It should not have been, but I confess that it was very entertaining to behold the weary passengers’ reaction. “You mean I can’t sit down?” The response from the booth was swift, sharp and negative. The same scenario (not unlike flies landing on a Venus fly trap) unfolded about a dozen times in the hour that I stood watching. What made it especially ironic was that at the exact time that people of all nationalities and across the generations were being elbowed off the shabby metal seats, the airport sound system repeatedly played a pre-recorded message of a warm and soothing voice saying, “This is John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal 1. The place where America welcomes the world!”
Justine Vogt defined hospitality as, “… making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.” I guess our harassed friend from behind the booth got half of that right.
Interestingly, the word translated in the Bible as “hospitality,” “philoxenia,” literally means “lover of strangers.” And so, practicing hospitality does not merely mean having your good friends over for the Super Bowl. It is a much bigger, broader idea. Biblically speaking, hospitality is to do unto strangers as you would have done unto yourself — to love the unknown face, regardless of who he is and where you are. This kind of “other-centered” lifestyle requires that we first be aware of the needs of those around us. This means intentionally slowing down and looking out for the person who God may providentially place in our path to help.
Clearly, there are cultural brands of hospitality. The American author C.E. Murphy assiduously captures the constitutional convention that, in the United Kingdom, if you go to someone’s house and are invited over the threshold (and it’s not a certainty that this will happen), you are immediately asked if you would like a cup of tea. This, however, is just the beginning of an ancient code of etiquette. To the offer of tea, you say “No, thank you, I’m really just fine.” To which your host asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, and really, you don’t need a thing.
“Well,” your host says, “I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble.” “Ah,” you say. “Well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, so as long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen.”
Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen, drinking tea and chatting. I found that when I moved to America and someone asked if I would like a cup of tea, I would follow the European protocol and say no, and then I didn’t get a cup of tea!
But whatever unique blend of cultural heritage stalks us, here is what truly happens when we practice hospitality: We become the open circuit of God’s grace. John Piper wrote, “We experience the joy of becoming conduits of God’s hospitality rather than being self-decaying cul-de-sacs. The joy of receiving God’s hospitality decays and dies if it doesn’t flourish in our own hospitality to others.”
Perhaps there is another way to put it. When we take a step of faith and practice hospitality, we experience the joy of the love of God conquering our fears of rejection, our natural meanness of spirit and, as Piper so aptly puts it, “… all the psychological gravity of our self-centeredness.”
The priest and writer Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
Piper asks if there is anything “… greater than the joy of experiencing the liberating power of God’s hospitality making us a new and radically different kind of people, who love to reflect the glory of His grace as we extend it to others in all kinds of hospitality.”
To welcome the stranger is to extend the hand of God, the same God who welcomes us without reserve.
The Rev. Drew Williams is the senior pastor of Trinity Church.