Hospitality: Listening and Loving in the Middle of Our Messy Lives

By Laurie Rempel

As we continue to search for ways to meet our deep longings for communion with God and others, let’s consider how the practice of hospitality might be just the thing we need as we ride out this pandemic. It may help us to enjoy and share the kind of connection and ongoing friendship we have missed not only at church, but also with our neighbours.

Expanding our definition of hospitality

First, let’s look closely at some old words pertaining to the context of hospitality and our attitudes toward others. According to René Stockman, “We know the Greek word xenos, means ‘stranger’ but also ‘guest.’ The stem is found in these two words: xenophobia which indicates a negative attitude towards the stranger; and philoxenia which means love and hospitality for the stranger. Another correlated Greek word is oikos, which means ‘house,’ the place where I belong, where I have rights and obligations. In Latin, we also have the word hospes, meaning ‘guest.’ This word is similar to hostis, which means ‘enemy’. The word ‘hostile’ is derived from it. However, the word ‘hospitality’ is also derived from hospes” (“Brothers of Charity: Hospitality as a Community of Brothers,” Vincentian Heritage Journal, Vol 33 No 1).

It is interesting to note that beliefs surrounding the practice of hospitality are deeply engrained in every culture and context around the globe. From contemporary pre-industrial societies, as well as earlier historical periods, we find that hospitality was and is extended to both neighbours and strangers. Because of this, it has always represented a fundamental, moral, imperative (Conrad Lashley, course on Hospitality Studies).

However, with the rise of individualism and materialism as well as our increasing use of technology for connection, the practice of hospitality is often neglected and considered too cumbersome. Then, because of COVID-19, we have been asked to live in isolation for long periods of time. So how do we begin to literally put our lives together again?

Experts say we need regular rhythms of sleeping, eating and exercise. Religious leaders tell us we need time to pray and meditate. I suggest we also consider offering and receiving hospitality with friends and neighbours. Not simply entertaining, but true hospitality.

The reciprocity of hospitality

Consider with me for a moment how hospitality is reciprocal—it always involves a host (giver) and a guest (welcoming recipient). There is mutual giving and receiving happening as we humbly share our lives, loving and listening to each other.

According to Scripture, humans were created in the image of God. Even now, as the Holy Spirit animates us, we are being restored or recreated to the image of God, which means we are learning to love God and others more fully. This involves a sort of circular motion so that as we breathe in God’s life and bask in God’s love, we can put off our selfishness and put on God’s selflessness. We keep trusting God to be our unending source of abundant goodness. And we keep leaning into our generous Host who provides us with all the resources and energy we need to love and be hospitable. Once we know who our Good Parent is, and this identity becomes deeply rooted in us, giving ourselves away becomes a way of life.

Imagine how hospitality might illustrate the sense in which our belonging and purpose are continuously being wrapped into and flowing out from God. Suppose that when God created the cosmos, the earth and humans, he became a divine Host to our planet and to us. We did not create ourselves; rather, God arranged to put humans on earth. He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, in perfect harmony and communion. In his creation, we are made to belong with God and be “at home” with God. Here, we fulfill our calling to tend and watch over the garden God puts each of us in; we plant seeds, pull weeds, and eat the fruit of our labour together.

Hosting the Host of the world

To observe this circle of hospitable giving and receiving more profoundly let’s take a closer look at two scenarios from Scripture. The first is when three angel guests come to visit Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). Here, Abraham graciously hosts the Host of the world! In this moment between Abraham and his guests, he is given the gift of a promise—his longing for children will be fulfilled. And this gift will extend well beyond his own family and the next generation. Abraham is also given the gift of a new name. Both of these gifts speak to Abraham’s identity and calling.

Another picture of the reciprocal host/guest relationship can be found when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for water (John 4:1–42). Notice how the Host of the world becomes a guest, asking a stranger for hospitality. An everyday routine is transformed through a conversational exchange with the Source of “living water”! Can you begin to imagine the transformation that occurs when we humans encounter God as either host or guest and experience his hospitality?

The Trinity as a picture of hospitality

The concept of the Trinity also conveys hospitality. Here’s why. As theologians in the early church tried to describe the Christian God who appeared to be consistent with the Israelite Yahweh, the divine/human Jesus, and the empowering Holy Spirit, they eventually settled on the word Trinity to help explain this mysterious phenomenon. They wrote about a God who is revealed in three persons but still one in nature, substance and essence (Richard J. Plantinga, Thomas R. Thompson, Matthew D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian Theology, pp. 109–146). One of the church fathers, Basil of Caesarea, expressed that the Trinity has always existed as a sort of continuous and indivisible community (Colin Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p. 10).

It can be helpful to picture this kind of God-community as the Greek wedding dance, perichoresis. This dance involves at least three participants who move in circles, weaving a beautiful pattern of motion. They start to go faster and faster, while staying in perfect rhythm with each other. Eventually, they are dancing so quickly that as you look at them, the dancers become one continuous, circular, moving ball of synergy. Their individual identities are part of a larger dance where we see three eternally self-giving persons who are open to one another without forfeiting particularity or identity (John J. Navone S. J., “The Grace and Call of the Hospitable God,” Vincentian Heritage Journal, Vol 33 No 1). Consequently, we may think of the Trinity as a loving, harmonious set of relationships in which there is mutual giving and receiving.

God as receiver

It is easy to think of offering hospitality from the one-sided sense of only being the giver. However, even God offers hospitality from the position of receiver. Jesus allowed himself to be carried in the womb of a woman and born a helpless baby. A baby is the epitome of “receiver.” This humility and vulnerability displayed by God still boggles my mind. Yet, God the creator and giver, graciously becomes the receiver.

Scripture tells us that while angels sang and wise men travelled from away far to worship Jesus, a certain King Herod wanted to kill him. The Host of all creation was not welcomed when he came to earth. There was no room or place for the creator of cosmic space, not one place to lay his head!

Those who did make space for Jesus experienced his hospitality in very practical ways. He turned water into wine for a friend’s wedding. He multiplied fish and bread for a hungry crowd. He welcomed children to approach him. He touched, defended, and healed the outcasts. Jesus humbly loved on others even as he did real life with them. There was a give and take. Martha and Mary hosted Jesus for dinner and Jesus made breakfast on the beach for his disciples.

Practicing hospitality in our messiness

We tend to want to entertain and be amazing at it; yet, hospitality can be a posture of listening to the other, extending and receiving grace. Here we can talk about the loss, disconnection and brokenness we feel, and remind each other of who God is and who God says we are.

Pain, evil and this pandemic will never overcome the beauty and love found in God! All the flaws and sicknesses of humanity are reconciled in Jesus. He treasures us and makes sacred each misstep in our lives. The Holy Spirit empowers us with gifts to bless and energize others. Consequently, the communion with God and creation we lost in the garden is recreated as we choose to join in the hospitable embrace of the Trinity now.

Maybe this kind of hospitality is more like when we go camping—eating, laughing and crying together with Jesus in the midst of our messiness. I suggest we try humble, vulnerable hospitality as an antidote to our burnout brokenness. Let’s not think of hospitality as something that only happens around the table but also in the office, the hospital, the barn or in our kitchens while we are canning salsa.

Laurie Rempel

Laurie Rempel (BA, William Jewell College; MA, Fuller Seminary) lives in Abbotsford, B.C., with her husband Sheldon. Hospitality has been a huge part of their ministry. They have served with Avant Ministries since 1994. They are associate members of EFC in Steinbach and became EMC Associate Missionaries in 2006. They have served in Mali, France and Canada, and are currently involved with member care for Avant missionaries in five countries.

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