There are many in the Coram Deo community who are gifted in articulating biblical truth with creativity and beauty. One of those is Sonya Gray, who penned this thoughtful reflection on hospitality. (Reprinted from The Cry, an advocacy journal of Word Made Flesh, vol. 11 no. 3, Fall 2005).
Those who want to be first must be the last (Matt. 9:35); His immeasurable Kingdom will begin as a seed so small it’s almost unnoticeable (Mark 4:30-32); the all-powerful Creator and King of the universe is a slain lamb (Rev. 5). It seems that whenever God reveals something of Himself or His Kingdom to His children, it is typically contrary to our thinking, delivered in unexpected ways and always producing unexpected results. My understanding of hospitality was challenged, then revolutionized, in just this way. He used the most unlikely source to allow me a glimpse of true Kingdom hospitality.
A couple years ago… I met Tatiana, a princess of the Kingdom who lived under the dim glow of the Lima [Peru] streets… One night, toward the end of our time in Lima, I joined the [Word Made Flesh] staff as they met the kids in an alley near a row of dark and decrepit hotel rooms that served as brothels. Weekly, the staff and kids would come together in this spot to worship and share a devotional while the kids ate sandwiches that the staff brought for them. Tatiana saw me before I saw her, called out my name, ran to me, embraced me, and pulled me over to talk and be with her and the other kids. We were getting ready to sit on the curb in the alley when she grabbed my arm and stopped me. I paused, uncertain, and Tatiana casually took a sweater (possibly her only sweater) that was tied under her pregnant belly and proceeded to place it on the dirty curb – for me. I tried to argue that I was fine; however, she began to drape it on the sidewalk that was her home and insisted that I sit down on it so we could spend time together. After a few minutes, I reluctantly conceded, and as I sat down, I saw my Father’s heart in the penetrating, sweet smile of this 15-year-old girl who, without pause, proceeded to ask me questions about myself in Spanish.
This precious young girl, pregnant and living on the streets of Lima, was concerned about my comfort – when I had traveled thousands of miles, ignorantly thinking I was to be her comfort. She created for me an environment of safety, acceptance and ease, offering no apology for our surroundings, making visible her life and opening her heart. Unintentional as it may have been, she flawlessly fashioned a space for us to come together and share our lives.
Today, as I sit in the comfort of my home, I reflect on this selfless act of my friend in relation to my feeble attempts at hospitality. For many of us, our practice of hospitality consists of entertaining friends and family in our cozy homes, inviting those with whom we have a connection or those who are dear to us, offering them our best through our acts of service. Sometimes, however, this creates an illusion of peace and perfection, hiding the true chaos that is inherent in family life. How dramatically this safe concept of hospitality differs from the radically open hospitality of God.
The early church regarded hospitality as a means of providing for the physical, spiritual and social needs of strangers, aliens, the sick, the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. It was a response not only to their physical needs, but also, as Christine Pohl states in her book Making Room, a “recognition of their worth and common humanity.” Pohl further argues that hospitality was considered a “fundamental expression of the Gospel.” Not only is welcoming the sick and poor an act of love to the Son of Man Himself, but it is also a means by which we can see glimpses of the Kingdom and by which the promise of the Kingdom is embodied. Today, this understanding of hospitality has been lost. We now invite a limited number of people into our busy, unavailable, unapproachable and already exhausted lives.
So, how do I internalize and live out this unlikely lesson in hospitality, taught to me by my sweet friend, Tatiana? How can I help regain this spiritual practice?
I must first recognize that I, too, am a stranger; I am the one who is poor and hungry. I must recognize my weaknesses and move through my own brokenness, admitting my dependence on and need for my Father and the people He has put into my life. Laying bare all my faults causes me to cry out for mercy and grace, seeking only Him and finding that I have nothing apart from Him. Then, all that I offer becomes an extension of His beautiful love as I allow Him to embrace me. As I engage in open and vulnerable relationships with those I have invited into my home and life, a place of welcome has been created, not from any effort on my part, but through His presence alone.
It is necessary that I renounce my belief in hospitality as an act of inviting few into a place of perfection and presentation. I must embrace the wishes of my Father to invite many into my life, a place of honesty and vulnerability, allowing for mutual sharing of lives, as I am sustained by God’s grace and love. He, then, is offered the space to reveal His greater hospitality – declaring that we, who are broken and poor, are His adopted children, rich in our relationship with Him, and welcomed into His perfect Kingdom.
The reality of our days offers ample opportunity for this hospitality of openness. In my case, my infant son typically cries through dinner, my 5-year- old daughter chatters without pause about her day, and the meals I cook are simple and sometimes burnt. After the meal, while my son still fusses in his swing, we do dishes and dance in the messy kitchen, uninhibited. Celebration is usually a part of our evenings, and sometimes we maneuver through tears and tantrums (not only from the 5-year-old!). Why do I hesitate to make these realities visible to others? By creating a façade of perfection for guests, I am unintentionally distancing others from me and my family. But when I invite others into my life without apology, recognizing my poverty and hunger for Him, I offer God the opportunity to move in this place.
Tatiana was the unlikely person who taught me this unlikely lesson. The living room of God can be a dark alleyway on the streets of Lima and the couch of God a curb above the slime of the gutter. It’s not what we have, it’s how we hold it out to Him and offer it to others. Ultimately, it’s about giving ourselves – our true selves – to one another. If God lives in us, then opening up our lives can bring others into His presence and into His beautiful Kingdom.