Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Welcoming the Stranger

“Often, often walks the Christ in a strangers clothes” - an old Celtic proverb

The concept of hospitality is one of Youth With A Mission’s 18 foundational values.  Among YWAMers (Youth With A Mission...um...ers), when you say the word “hospitality”, a specific picture comes to mind.  Hospitality is that place or department that looks after visitors to your property.  At most YWAM locations, at least the ones with buildings, there is someone looking after “hospitality”.  A room or three where guests can stay for a few days free of charge or for a suggested donation.

My family was recently the recipient of YWAM hospitality down in Los Angeles while we visited the Disney Park and we had a great experience.  We stayed in a comfortable 3 rooms with access to bathrooms and a small kitchen.  We were welcome at community meals (although our first day there was “base fasting day” :), there were nice gift baskets in our rooms with goodies and good conversation with other guests.  It was a full time for the hospitality department and a good time for us.

While very nice, if this is our only expression of hospitality as a mission, then we are missing something.  I have been thinking about this word a lot.  If I could sum up our calling in one word, our calling as a YWAM community, our calling as a family (the Whitlers) and even the special gifting of the local congregation I am a part of, it would be the word hospitality,

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary...

hos·pi·ta·ble adjective

a : given to generous and cordial reception of guests

b : promising or suggesting generous and cordial welcome

c : offering a pleasant or sustaining environment

In our worship service on Sunday, one of our elders spoke from Matthew 25, the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats.  While Mark was speaking, it hit me that all of the ministries to Jesus, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, giving clothes to the needy, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and the prisoner, they are all expressions of hospitality.  This is what life is about...welcome, food, drink, sharing, visiting, listening.

Hospitality this way assumes a growing relationship.  In these few things that Jesus mentions, there is a progression of intimacy.  It starts out with the sharing of very basic needs like food and clothes and moves to time, visiting and bringing strangers into your home.  There are tricky and uncomfortable aspects to all of this.  How do I remain hospitable without becoming and enabler?  How do I protect my family from danger?  How can I walk out hospitality in a “balanced” way?

A wise friend once told me that it’s best to replace the word “balance” with “tension.”  That’s where we live, in tension between a challenging thought and the status quo.  And Jesus doesn’t seem to offer any help here as to how to walk it out.  Maybe because he wants us to wrestle with these uncomfortable concepts.

We generally respond to this kind of thing by relying on programs.  We support the mission who takes in the homeless, we do canned food drives, we organize service projects (insert the obligatory “none of those things are bad” comment here).  But without real connection to people, these things only go as far as they physically can.
“If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Cor 13:3

Like any friendship, our response to strangers and those in need can develop over time but this assumes that we stay long enough for that relationship to grow.  There are men that we have gotten to know through our calling in the city that have horrible pasts but some are part of our life and family and love to be around my kids today because we actually know them for who they are now, not for what they have done in the past.  This took time and some very uncomfortable situations but that’s what relationship is all about.

And we are by no means experts.  I have been the recipient of heartbreaking hospitality and thoughtfulness that has taught me and challenged me and humbled me.  My friends Dave and Liz pour their life and money and time out for others in so many beautiful ways that it’s hard to pick an example.  I have wonderfully hospitable family and friends in our congregation and in YWAM and in the many beautiful communities I have been able to visit around the world.  One of the finest moments of my life was being extravagantly served music, water and bananas by the students of a small Christian school in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand.  I don’t deserve such grace.

And that’s the point, isn’t it?  We welcome the stranger because we ourselves have been welcomed to a table so bountiful that it makes no sense to keep it all to ourselves.  There’s no way we’ll use up all this grace.  There’s plenty to go around.

And hospitality must start right where we live.  What good is my welcome of strangers if I don't let my family and friends in?  How can I serve the poor if I don't serve my wife, children and friends?  There are many opportunities to welcome others in all throughout our day.

So give a cup of cold water or a hot cup of coffee but then, stay and listen.  You can’t be busy and hospitable.  We have to fight our culture and slow down.  And as we welcome others, the stranger in us is welcomed too.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

My struggle with hospitality is the staying put. I can buy the hungry homeless guy a burger in the drive thru and throw it at him with a brief blessing as I drive out, but I have never stopped to talk. I have been under the delusion that I was Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, but I recognize now I am a Martha. My challenge: still buy the burger, but sit and talk for a while. Not to convert or fix, just to listen and be converted.