Hostile Hospitality?

Open DoorWhen defining a state of being, whether emotional, physical or spiritual, I find it helpful to ask, does it represent the presence of something or the lack of something? A simple example is: dark is the absence of light, or cold is the absence of heat. Thus, heat and light are the true realities. Their nonexistence leaves a void: cold and darkness. So we might ask ourselves: is hospitality the presence of something positive, or the lack of something negative? In other words if we experience hospitality, is it because hostility is nonexistent? Conversely if we experience hostility is it because hospitality is missing? Which is the reality?

This litmus test may be helpful with light and darkness but is it a valid test for complicated associations? Rephrasing the questions might help us. Can hostility and hospitality exist at the same time? If there is a feeling of generosity, kindness and understanding, can feelings of animosity, distrust and anger also be present?

As Christians, and if we follow this logic, we should believe that hate is the absence of love and evil is the absence of good. Yet we have experienced where two opposites have existed at the same time and while only one may be the true reality, its presence gives a superficial reality to the other extreme. A room may be cold but next to a small stove in the corner it is reasonably warm. A streetlight shining through the window may provide some comfort in an otherwise darkened room. The reality is the heat and the light. However because of our fears the cold and darkness may seem to be the real truth.

A man invites a friend to a basketball game. The host reveled in the crowd, gets caught up in the cheers and groans, feel alive and happy sharing the excitement of the game with his fellow fans. His friend feels claustrophobic, nervous and restricted. He doesn’t like the noise, the jeering and closeness of the people. One feels the hospitality of the crowd and has a sense of well-being. The other is uncomfortable and senses hostility and fear. Which is the true reality?

Another man goes to a church for the first time. He is quietly listening to the service hoping not to be noticed when suddenly the Pastor walks up to him extending his hands in welcome. Then everyone in the congregation is shaking his hand and welcoming him to their church. Hospitable or hostile?

Whether an event is intimidating or welcoming is determined by which reality a person chooses to experience. Theologian Henri Nouwen suggests that feelings of hostility are an inward struggle which can be changed by outside influences. “It is there that our changing relationship to our self can be brought to fruition in an ever-changing relationship to our fellow human beings.”[1]   If a situation makes a person uncomfortable within themselves, they seek a physical environment in which they feel safe and reinforce their emotional sense of security. Thus people gravitate toward their “safety zone”, their own reality. A person may feel uneasy during the Sunday morning service, but enjoy working on the church’s bazaar on Saturday afternoon. This is not an unhealthy behavior as long as the “safety zone” provides ample space for living and a person is willing to occasionally step away from the warmth of the stove. It’s when the sanctuary becomes too small and people are not willing to be more than two feet from the stove’s heat that the cold room becomes a greater reality, and thus a source of fear, than the actual reality of the comforting stove.

Author Jean Stairs, minister and theologian, states that as pastors, “We offer meaningful space and time that is uncluttered and personal, but spacious and appropriately comforting.”[2] Both the pastor and the church should provide this “space and time” which draws people from their sheltered place. Henri Nouwen affirms this idea, “…it is possible for men and women and obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.”[3] Time and space seem to be key elements for Nouwen and Stairs in this transformation from hostilities to hospitality. Thus creating an environment where this transformation can occur is the first step to helping an individual deal with their inner conflicts.

We still have that nagging question: how do we define hospitality? Nouwen cites the biblical example of Abraham welcoming travelers, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”[4] So they said, “Do as you have said.”

Rev Emma Justes uses this scripture (Genesis 18 & 19) as a bases for identifying the “Four Core Qualities of Hospitality”[5] which are vulnerability, humility, thoughtful availability and reciprocity. She contend that each lays the foundation for the real heart of hospitality; listening. Jean Stairs also focus on the listening or hearing as the key element in hospitality. Henri Nouwen concurs but place more emphasis in teaching and healing.

The example in Genesis 18 & 19 dictate that cultural customs encouraged Abraham to offer courtesy and generosity to the strangers. Whether he knew it was the Lord or not didn’t matter. Hospitality was offered in the spirit of respect and kindness. More importantly he demonstrated that the strangers were not an imposition on him but that he gladly gave up his time and space to make them feel welcome. Pastor and author Emma Justes states simply, “Hospitality is done with quietness and humility.”[6] Citing the above scripture in Genesis 18, Justes further emphasizes this point. “Their rush to get things underway, however, demonstrated their willingness to set themselves aside for the sake of focus on their guest and emphasized the importance of the guest…”[7] The Lord recognized this and granted Abraham and Sarah a gift: Parenthood.   Jean Stairs notes that “…effective listeners are those who practice the familiar biblical notion of hospitality.” She further states “A good host will stand still and receive and honor the emotional space of the guest, whatever that may be.”[8]  6

Churches and their leaders need to adopt the same state of mind; the guests are not imposing on them or using up their valuable time. Rather they (the guest) are the people God is trying to reach, the people for whom Christ came into this world for. Biblical hospitality goes beyond simple courtesy and politeness. It is an expression of faith and a means of sharing that faith through our actions. Thus a desire to offer hospitality should come from the desire to help others know the peace of God’s Grace. This is what distinguishes Christian hospitality from that of a gracious non-believer. This is done not by smothering them with kindness and expecting them to reciprocate in kind out of a sense of obligation, but rather to kindle a desire to experience Christian faith. Robert Schnase, former Bishop of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church defines hospitality in this way; “Christian hospitality refers to the active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ.”[9]

Let’s go back to the man who was uncomfortable at the basketball game, or the one who may have felt awkward shaking hands in church. Hospitality is offered as an expression of God’s good will. However if it is too narrowly focused and offered only on the terms of the giver, then it can become a hostile act and have the opposite effect that was intended. Rather than providing a respite for the friend and the first time visitor, both the basketball fan and the pastor failed to show humility or understanding in their kindness. Intentional hospitality within the church should create an environment in which a person can be invited, received, comforted and not pressured into a constricted philosophy no matter how genuinely it is presented. According the Nouwen, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”[10]

Authors Jean Stairs and Emma Justes focus on hearing the stranger, listening to the guest. According to Stairs, “Genuine listeners seek to become totally dedicated, focused and attentive to the well being of the one before them waiting to be heard.”[11] Emma Justes expands on this idea. “When we indicate that we are willing to listen to someone, we have welcomed that person. When we listen and hear another person, we have received them. When we listen we open ourselves not only to hear, but to being vulnerable to our own pain as well as the pain of others.”[12]

Henri Nouwen’s attention was on healing and teaching. Christian hospitality creates a realm where people could seek the healing grace of God’s love and learn to face their own difficulties and reach out to others. Nouwen states, “Therefore, healing means, first of all, the creation of an empty but friendly space where those who suffer can tell their story to someone who can listen with real attention.”[13]

Hospitality is a ministry. However it is not a single narrowly constrained ministry. Healing hospitality opens itself in many different ways and many different facets, through many different ministries. Pastors or churches need to widen their ministries, in order to offer a sharing, humble, open, and receptive hospitality where people can feel safe, where they can be listened to and where they may learn to feel the healing grace of God.

[1] Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Nouwen, Henri pg 65

[2] Listening for The Soul: Stairs, Jean, pg 21

[3] Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Nouwen, Henri pg 65

[4] Genesis 18:3-5, NRSV

[5] Hearing Beyond the Words, Justes, Emma, pg7

[6] Hearing Beyond the Words, Justes, Emma, pg10

[7] Hearing Beyond the Words, Justes, Emma, pg11

[8] Listening for The Soul: Stairs, Jean, pg 22

[9] Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Schnase, Robert pg 11

[10] Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Nouwen, Henri pg 71

[11] Listening for The Soul: Stairs, Jean, pg 22

[12] Hearing Beyond the Words, Justes, Emma, pg 19

[13] Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Nouwen, Henri pg 95