8 Practical Thoughts about Hospitality

“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Heb 13:2 (NIV11)



Hospitality is an essential human activity. In some cultures, it is so important that failure to show hospitality might mean that some lives will be lost. In American culture, hospitality seems much more optional. I would like to suggest that hospitality is actually a critical, subversive, and magnificent means of participating in the in-breaking Kingdom of God.

Hospitality is a creation act. The simple act of hospitality in whatever manner it is offered honors both the place and relationships involved, and makes love visible. Hospitality discloses what is beautiful, true, and good in this world. It is a work of ongoing transformation at the most fundamental level. Hospitality transforms war into peace, homelessness into a place of belonging, prison into freedom and despair into hope.

Admittedly, these transformations begin in seed form, but new creation blossoms when one realizes they are loved and belong.

The master of hospitality, of course, is God.

When we confine creation to an originating event, we lose sight of the fact that it is a dynamic, ongoing force. It is so cherished that God enters into covenant relationship with it, so beautiful that God promises to renew it, so valuable that God takes up residence within it. Creation is not a vast lump of matter devoid of value. It is God’s love made visible, fragrant, tactile, audible, and delectable. Because God’s love is eternally hospitable and always fresh, creation will always have a place in God’s life. (Norman Wirzba. From Nature to Creation. Page 21)

Eight Practical Thoughts on Hospitality

Here are eight practical thoughts on the act of hospitality. These are stories from our first church in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada.

1. If you are hospitable, you may be used and taken advantage of at times, but true hospitality is not a reciprocal practice. If you keep score you will likely become disillusioned or bitter. Hospitality flows from the heart and is unconditional. If you are expecting a return invitation you are only entertaining.

Our church was in a small town in rural Alberta and our home was a 900 sq. foot prefab (basically a double wide trailer) on a small street. One evening around 8:30 we heard a knock on our front door. When we opened it, there stood a little old couple, something from a story book or fable. “My husband is a retired pastor,” the lady with gray curls said as she hugged her black purse to her tummy. “We’d like to stay the night.”

Alrighty then! We smiled and invited them in. The kids were asleep so we carried them to makeshift beds on the floor of our closet and invited the elderly couple to refresh themselves and settle in. They went to bed in little nests of warm sheets where our kids had just been sleeping. The next morning, we shared a muffin and said goodbye. I have no idea who they were or where they went. But somehow the fact that we said “Yes” to them is one of the gifts of my life.

2. Having limited resources is not a reason to withhold your space/life/heart with others. Hospitality is a corrective to our perspective. We are not poor when we have something to share. In the sharing, we discover a great wealth. I learned long ago that it is wise to live within our means, but not to let our finances determine the expanse of our life.

In times of limited resources there are always people around us who seem to enjoy much richer lives than our own. This difference can create a false sense of shame. Being with such folks in their homes can make us feel inferior; we observe their celebrations, laughter, and seemingly easy enjoyment of life. The thought of inviting them to our home can fill us with panic—our home seems completely shabby and we don’t want them to see it.

One day I gathered the courage to invite such a family to eat with us. My day had been spent gathering berries and making jam. I set a simple but nice table with a vase of wildflowers. The table looked simple and orderly with a toaster plugged in at one end. My fresh made jam filled two bowls beside the slabs of butter. We sat together at the table and toasted bread and spread jam and had the most wonderful conversation. Our guests found the richness of our lives and I learned in the process the importance of sharing my life.

3. Hospitality can change/save lives. Hospitality gets us into other people’s lives and them into ours. One Sunday we had a couple with a young baby come to our church. They were driving through town and clearly not privileged in any way, so we brought them home for lunch. The baby was very fussy and I noticed they had what looked like Kool-Aid in the bottle. I asked if I could dump it out and replace it with milk. With their approval, I poured the Kool-Aid into a glass and warmed up some milk for the baby. He immediately calmed down and went to sleep.

Steve came in, hot and tired and took up the glass to drink it and then promptly spit it out. Apparently, it was cool-aid but without the sugar added. We had lunch together and then we loaded their car up with everything in our cupboard so that they might be able to eat on the road. I gave the little mom some advice of how to care for the baby while on the road and after filling their car with gas, we sent them on their way.

I have no idea whether they were able to transition into a whole life, but I learned from Ruth Graham that “I am not the last link in anyone’s chain of experience.” That said, I make sure that my link connects others into a whole life as strongly and lovingly as possible. Who knows what they take with them.

4. Hospitality is about much more than just your home (if you even have one). We sometimes think about hospitality too narrowly. Hospitality is about honoring the sacredness of life, wherever it is found.

One year I determined to give my Steve a special Christmas present. Although we had little money, I found a way to gift him with a pair of slim lined leather gloves that he wanted. I was so pleased with the joy the gloves gave him that Christmas morning.

Not more than a few weeks later Steve was driving from Edmonton back to our home on a bitter, 40-below day, the kind of day that your feet are freezing in your boots even though the car heater is running full blast. On the way, he came upon a young, First Nations hitchhiker. This is the kind of weather that you don’t consider whether to offer a ride, you just do it. The young man was wearing a jean jacket, running shoes, and a ball cap.

Steve grew especially concerned when he heard the boy say that was traveling many miles past our town to the home of his ‘auntie.’ (Any female relative is an ‘auntie’ in that culture.) When Steve let the young man out of the car he gave him the gloves that I had so sacrificially purchased the month before. He also gave the fellow his business card and asked him to mail them back.

I was, of course, not happy that he gave his gloves away and we both knew we would never see them again. The winter was harsh but we made it through. Late in the spring Steve received a package from Fort McMurray. The letter inside was from a First Nations woman who thanked Steve for his generosity to her nephew. She wrote that she prayed often for the boy and Steve’s act of love was not lost on him. She was grateful. Inside were the gloves, completely worn out, all soft, with seams pulled apart. Steve never wore them again, but we knew that God had used him and the gloves in His Kingdom endeavor.

5. It takes so little to be prepared to welcome another person into your life. When I was a very young mom, a woman professor shared with me the idea of doing a bit extra once in a while as preparation for hospitality. If for instance, you put together a couple ‘love bags’ with simple supplies (pair of socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, bag of nuts) for a street person and keep them in the car, you would be able to pull over and pass it out the window when someone stood on the corner. Just as easily, a frozen casserole or bag of cookies in the freezer makes it easy for you to say “yes” to someone who drops over. Hospitality is about connecting with people along the way and being prepared for the unexpected helps makes the connection possible.

My friend Joycelyn recounts how she was coming out of her doctor’s office one day in a lot of pain and sadness because of her situation. She limped toward her car with a face full of tears and an older lady came up to her and said, “Honey can I pray for you?” She prayed for my friend and then went to her car and took out a beautiful knit shawl in pink and purple that was folded up and protected in a plastic baggie. She unfolded it and wrapped it around Joycelyn’s shoulders and told her that she knit these shawls to give away when the Lord prompted her. As she put it around my friend’s shoulders she said, “Whenever you feel sad and alone use this as a sign to remember that God’s love is wrapped around you.

6. Mature hospitality flows from the heart and needs no props. I have a way of thinking about maturity—a mature life is one that is able to be a resource to others. A word that has a similar meaning is “generate.” A mature life is a generative one that enables others to flourish. This idea of life being a resource is not about having enough stuff or money that you can give it away. Maturity is a way of being in the world in a life-giving way, not a means of managing goods.

Fr. Adrian VanKaam, whom I studied under for a time was a brilliant theorist and wisdom bearer. His studies in formative spirituality have provided me and others with a foundation to understand life and God. As he became elderly his abilities diminished and he became aware that his path, like for so many others, was going to take him through dementia. He crafted a phrase for himself—“the ministry of the smile.” As he lost his ability to connect and think and teach he surrendered to the ministry of the smile. Wherever he went he beamed on anyone who would look him in the eye. In the last years of his life Fr. Adrian offered hospitality to everyone he met.

7. Hospitality is a sure path toward friendship. Steve and I left our first church after seven years and moved to Calgary, Alberta. I cannot describe the loneliness I felt as the weeks turned into months and all my deep friendships were miles away. This was, remember, the days before Facebook and email.

One Sunday a new family came to church, and I connected with Joy, a woman who was also struggling with being in a new city. We had a cup of coffee that evening at Joy’s home, even though they were hardly moved in and it was a mess. I remember that we found a hatchling of fly larva under a rug in her new house and we were mutually disgusted. That week someone gave me a bucket of irises from their garden. I took them over to Joy’s and left them on her porch in a five-gallon bucket. Joy said that when she saw what I had left her, she determined that we would be friends.

And we are. That was 1989. We raised our kids, wept over losses, shared clothes and shoes when times were tough, listened to each other’s laments about our husbands, and laughed ourselves silly. Joy and I are still the closest that friends could be. We now live across the country but still spend a couple weeks together each year. All of this is because we invited each other into our lives.

“We cared so deeply for you that we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but our very lives. That is how dear you were to us.”
I Thess. 2: 8

8. If you cannot close your door and be alone, you are not ready to open your door. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the sacred and necessary rhythm of being alternately in solitude and with others. A front door that is always open, never closed, will eventually create an unhealthy environment for you, your family, and others. It is in private moments that we are reordered and reconnected with our soul and with God.

Jesus, Himself, set the example of a rhythm of engagement and withdrawal. Even when a crowd was clamoring for Him, He would leave by the back door and climb a mountain to pray and rest. Remember that you are not the last link in anyone’s chain of experience. There will always be need and you may have a drive to meet the needs you see. But sometimes what we are called to do is to close our door and attend to the quiet… or the washing, or the kids, or simply to rest.

When we embrace hospitality, we step into a subversive power that can change the world. Don’t be afraid of people or of letting your life be seen. In the final analysis, you will be loved.

Marilyn Elliott served as Vice President for Community Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary and has been a church leader in the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination since 1979. She has wide pastoral experience in partnership with her husband Steve. Together, they have lead three churches over 31 years, provided missionary member-care and pastoral retreats in Chile, Argentina and Venezuela since l985, and formation teaching during Field Conferences in Eastern Europe and Indonesia.


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