One of my earliest memories is of a home where a knock on the door meant the kettle was immediately filled and set on the always-hot, apple green old Esse stove. Within moments of stepping into the well-used kitchen of our parsonage home, visitors would be offered a cup of traditional Rooibos tea always quietly sputtering om the back burner, ‘English tea’ or Postum, which we used instead of coffee. My dad had given up coffee in his late teen years before he went to Bible school, when a co-worker he was witnessing to said, “Oliver, you’re as addicted to your coffee as I am to my cigarettes.”
“If coffee spoils my testimony, then the coffee has to go!” Dad never touched it again.
And that was how we were raised. What benefitted the Kingdom was to be desired; what brought disrepute to the Name of Jesus was to be eschewed.
Mostly, people came by looking for their pastor. But because our home was attached to the church, the opened door often revealed the weather-beaten face of a homeless traveler, hopeful of shelter for the night. My profoundly pastoral father never turned anyone away, sometimes to my mother's dismay. Things usually worked as intended, the traveler sent on his way the next day with a full stomach and a grateful heart. But I also remember when a man emptied the closet of my father's Sunday suit, along with some household items, and disappeared before morning. Much as he was grieved by this misuse of our hospitality, my dad was quite philosophical. Not so my angry mother! However, compassion always demanded that the traveler be fed and sheltered for the night. After all, we were obviously Christians. And wasn't this just what Jesus would do?
So, I came to understand early in life that hospitality is not always comfortable, but it IS always a practical outworking of Scripture. As a child I often heard this verse: "Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!" In my childishness, I almost held my breath if the visitor was unknown to me, sometimes examining their faces closely just in case, this time, there was a real angel in our living room.
Small wonder, then, that for Best Beloved and me, this simple practice – the opening of one's home to another – has been a cardinal part of our lives for over 50 years of marriage and ministry. The first words anyone hears when my husband opens the door? "Come in – you’re welcome!" Our homes are our sacred places, and when we invite someone into this space, we are saying, in effect, “Fellowship with you is precious to me."
In our world today where we seem to be increasingly isolated from one another and almost certainly too busy most of the time to exert ourselves for someone, the shared warmth of a home very often signals hope to an otherwise dejected soul. Over the years, we have tried to be this place of comfort to people who, for one reason or another, were lonely or alone. Grieving mourners, broken-hearted lovers, homesick soldiers serving their country in a far away place, young people taking in their new world with wide-eyed excitement or those with a sense of trepidation or fear of the unknown, all these and more have sat at our kitchen table.
We learned that before we ever offer someone something to eat or drink, it is the gift of ourselves and our time that makes a person feel welcome. We learned that one of the greatest gifts we can give, is the gift of listening, of letting someone understand that this place is a safe place for the expression of those questions so often too difficult to ask, the fears too intimidating to confront. We learned that when we rise above the frequent excuse ‘people might take advantage of us’, we find that the blessings of hospitality far outweigh the cost.
I think it is true to say that we live in an increasingly hostile and downright inhospitable world. But in the New Testament, the Greek word translated ‘hospitality’ literally means ‘love of strangers’. The Bible not only commends hospitality, it commands it! In the Old Testament, we see it specifically commanded by God: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). God never requires of us something He hasn't modeled in Himself. He proclaims Himself to be “the Father of orphans, champion of widows” (Psalms 68:5). As a disciple of Christ, I can be no less. The plight of the millions of refugees in the world today, as well as communities in need on our very doorstep, is one to be taken to heart with the same warmth, commitment and caring we would exercise in our own homes.
Once again, I look at the words of Jesus Christ: "But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). Servanthood is both a privilege and calling, and by being truly and generously hospitable, we open ourselves not only to the needs of those around us, but also to the heaped-up blessings promised in Luke 6:38: "Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”
And, curiously, sooner or later, even though generosity may start in just one aspect of life, it invariably spills over into all of life, stretching our hearts and enriching our lives.