It’s hard to say when this all started for me. Maybe it was one of those lazy Saturday mornings in my dorm room spent reading Henri Nouwen. Or perhaps it was during one of the cocktail-hour discussions with my friends up on the lake last summer. Or it could just be the result of waking up in so many strangers’ beds in the past couple years—not nearly as scandalous, or intriguing, as it sounds.
Regardless of the exact moment of inception, somewhere along the way I fell in love with the concept of hospitality. Of course, by this I mean something different—and more exciting—than Better Homes and Gardens entertaining and Holiday Inn lodging (though the kind of hospitality to which I’m referring can naturally find a place among the room-renters and party-throwers). The hospitality that has captured my attention and affection for the past few years is rooted somewhere in the movement and nature of God, and yet finds expression in even the most mundane and temporal corners of human experience. It can be described simply—as the welcoming of a stranger—and yet likewise alludes definition; it’s somehow divine, and is thus describable-without-limit, but remains undefinable.
The purpose of this blog is to add to the cacophony of images and stories of hospitality, hoping that by immersing ourselves in this conversation, you and I will grow in our participation in the welcome that formed the universe.
As someone who understands life through the lens of the story of Jesus, this series of posts will begin with a re-telling of the story of divine hospitality and humanity, a story that hinges on birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The hospitality displayed in this story provides a motif by which all my other posts on the topic will be framed.
Before proceeding, however, I’d like to quickly make a few initial observations about deep, true hospitality. These observations are hardly original to me, but are instead the most fundamental (and commonly noted) attributes of hospitality.
Hospitality makes room for the stranger.
I’d hate to be invited to stay at another person’s home, just to find my host’s home is so overcrowded with clutter/storage/people that I cannot even sit down, let alone rest. To extend authentic hospitality, one must leave free space for the guest to move and be themselves. In this way, hospitality provides the gift of emptiness in the midst of an over-crowded world.
Hospitality reciprocates the gift of the stranger’s presence with the gift of the host’s presence.
As uncomfortable as an absurdly cluttered home would be, I’d rather stay with a hoarder than in a vacant apartment; sitting on the floor by myself staring at four blank walls might be the least welcoming experience I can imagine. Hospitality provides emptiness, and yet not all emptiness is hospitable. The guest must be given room to be free and authentic, but she must also be welcomed by a free and authentic host. If either the guest or the host are restricted, both remain strangers. This is why Nouwen refers to hospitality as “a friendly emptiness,” the creation of a space in which the host and guest freely find themselves and each other.
Hospitality requires risk.
If you invite me into your home, I might break something. It’s happened before, and it’s likely to happen again; these things just happen to me. To receive the gift of my presence, you must be willing to sacrifice the security and order of your space. I could ruin something, steal something, kill something, make a mess, or any combination of the four. You could, of course, place restrictions on me—lock me out of certain rooms, put ropes around your valuables so I don’t get too close, hire a security guard to follow me around—but such restrictions would necessarily limit my freedom and force me into an inauthentic relationship to my surroundings. True hospitality must thus be accompanied by a measure of risk; a guest cannot be simultaneously given the space to be themselves and prevented from messing something up. If you welcome me into your life, you run the risk that your life will be altered (and not necessarily improved) by my presence. After all…
Hospitality changes people.
Or rather, to quote Nouwen one last time, hospitality creates “space where change can take place.” When two lives meet in friendly empty space, both lives are transformed in the meeting. Of course, the hope is that hospitality moves individuals from estrangement to friendship, from isolation to co-habitation, a transformation that persists even beyond the period of guest-host relationship.
My hope is that, by reflecting on this divine welcome, you and I are transformed and invited into friendship with each other, and with the God of hospitality.
For further, better reading, I suggest Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out chapters 4 (“Creating Space for Strangers”), 5 (“Forms of Hospitality”), and 6 (“Hospitality and the Host”).