Practicing hospitality

Please come in sign

It’s been a harsh winter here in southern Ontario, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to practice our winter driving skills. In the midst of a snowstorm, drivers know it’s best to ease up on the accelerator. Slowing down and keeping both hands on the wheel has a way of making you hyper vigilant, more aware of what’s going on around you and your responses to it. It helps you stay in your lane, on the road, and out of trouble.

Similarly, I’m learning that there’s value in slowing my life down, taking time to intentionally reflect on my Christian practice. I can be so task-focused, that I neglect to really live in the moment. But I’m discovering that thinking deliberately about how  I’m practicing my faith each day is causing me to see things in life—important things—that I might be neglecting, areas where I can do better if only I’m willing to challenge myself.

What it’s about

It’s not about striving for some unrealistic ideal of perfection. And it’s not about trying to earn God’s favour; no matter how far short I may fall in my efforts to live a life that honors my Jesus, I know that He loves me, and that His grace is more than enough to make up for my failings and weaknesses. What it is about is wanting to live my best life, recognizing that the time we are given to do so is limited and short. It is about turning the practices of my day-to-day life into acts of worship.

Still, I admit that my heart sank a bit when I turned to the next chapter in Practicing Our Faith and realized that it focused on hospitality.

Don’t get me wrong; I love to bring people together in my home, to sit around a table for good conversation and nourishing food. But I realized in reading Ana Maria Pineda’s chapter—the third in the book edited by Dorothy C. Bass—that Christian hospitality focuses on welcoming the stranger. And that’s not only something I’m not very good at, it’s also something at which I’ve not tried very hard to improve.

I’m an introvert, and I’m naturally shy around strangers. It’s hard for me to reach out to people I don’t know. I have neighbours I’ve lived beside for years—I’m ashamed to say—with whom I regularly exchange pleasantries, gifts at Christmas, and to whom I’ve sent the occasional meal when I learned they were struggling. But we’ve never been in each other’s homes. I’ve defaulted to what’s easy and comfortable and been content with allowing things to remain as they are.

“Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger,” writes Ana Maria Pineda. But, she also writes, “In the traditions shaped by the Bible, offering hospitality is a moral imperative.”

Welcoming strangers

Jesus himself emphasized the importance of welcoming strangers. The gospel of Matthew (chapter 25: 34-35) records him teaching in a parable that at the end of time, “The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In other words, Jesus is saying, when we welcome strangers, we welcome him.

A journalist and writer friend of mine who passed away suddenly a couple of years ago was a master at welcoming strangers; that was clear at her funeral—one the largest I have ever attended. People came from near and far—literally from around the globe—to attend. Debra Fieguth lived in a university town, and she and her husband welcomed international students into their home for meals and conversation weekly for years. In her book, The Door Is Open: Glimpses of Hospitality in the Kingdom of God, Debra writes that North American Christianity lacks hospitality and then diagnoses the problem: “We cocoon ourselves in our own homes or families or churches, forgetting to share what we have—including our time—with others.”

As I’ve thought about hospitality, I’ve thought about Debra, and about what it means to welcome strangers. And it occurred to me that I am surrounded by strangers as I ride the train and subway three days each week during my commute into and out of the heart of Toronto. But in my desire to productively use that time, I’ve been cocooning—ear buds in as I listen to podcasts, or head down looking at my cell phone as I scroll through headlines, articles, and news feeds.

An open heart as an open door

“Could hospitality be as much a matter of welcoming strangers into my heart  as into my home?” I wondered. And could I start to be more welcoming, cultivating a willingness to share my time by simply keeping my head up, with eyes and ears open during those commutes?

Last week, I thought I’d try. My first encounter with a stranger on my first commuting day happened early; it was still dark when I stood on the platform of the train station waiting for the train to arrive. A petite young woman with long brown hair and a gold knit toque pulled down low over her forehead cupped her travel mug in both hands and sipped its contents. I told her it smelled good, her coffee, and it really did on that frigid morning. She smiled and told me her boyfriend had made it for her. That was all it took to open up a friendly conversation until we boarded the train and I lost sight of her.

But disembarking from the train, I saw her again, and wished her a good day. She returned my wishes. It was such a small exchange, but it occurred to me that my commute had felt a little warmer that day; I hoped hers had too.

For the next couple of days, I continued to leave my cell phone with its many enticements tucked out of sight, and had several other, brief, and seemingly inconsequential encounters with people unknown to me. There was the sniffling, middle-aged woman on the train who clearly needed a tissue, so I offered one; the tall, bearded young man struggling with a suitcase and several bags at the bottom of the subway stairs who obviously needed a helping hand, and the woman who slipped and took a tumble at the bottom of a staircase on the way in to the subway station. When I helped her up, she brushed herself off, embarrassed. In answer to my query, she assured me she was fine, but thanked me for asking nonetheless.

In the grand scheme of things perhaps none of those encounters will really count for much, but I’m certain that none of them would have happened had my eyes and ears been closed to the world. Emerging from the confines of a cocoon, I’m learning, takes both effort and time. And for me, it also takes some courage. I’m hoping that with practice, it might come more easily.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 4 – This post is fourth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.