Today’s culture is increasingly hostile and suspicious toward anyone who appears to be different. But deep within the thinking of Christianity lays a remedy to hatred, fear, and suspicion – it is called hospitality. If that sounds radical, perhaps it is; so let’s call it radical hospitality! It is deeply comforting and yet sharply challenging; radical hospitality entails welcoming the stranger, not only into our homes, but into our lives.
Henri Nouwen describes hospitality as creating safe space for the stranger. This definition also resonates with the concept of radical hospitality.
The Bible can also help us in the practice of radical hospitality. There is a rich biblical tradition of hospitality which is about taking in and welcoming the stranger. One well-known story in Old Testament is about Abraham taking in three strangers who turn out to be God’s messengers to him and Sarah. This process through which the stranger becomes the guest, reminds us of the companionship practice of listening to the Spirit and where the Spirit is calling us to companion. I cannot companion everyone and even when we feel called to companion a particular individual, there is a sort of dance in the beginning, as we each figure out – the ground rules and how we will enter into relationship. There are some times when what the “stranger” expects of us and what we can offer do not match. In those cases companioning that person may not be possible for us.
One of the most authoritative calls to radical hospitality in the Bible is found in Matthew, chapter 25, where Jesus teaches that whenever we welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, we are doing the same for him. It is this concept – that every person is worthy of care, as if that person were Jesus, himself – that both drives our work as chaplains. We need to remind ourselves that we are not without limits –that although God will give us strength and guidance so that we can do more than we could do alone, healthy boundaries are still important!
This leads us to our awareness that the Spirit also calls us to give ourselves the gift of radical hospitality. Just imagine what it would be like if we were to apply all the attitudes and practices we think of as radical hospitality to ourselves.
The world can be a pretty inhospitable place for those who are considered to be different. In a world that seems to be trapped in stereotypical perceptions of beauty, vitality, intelligence, youth and action, to be perceived as lacking in any of these things is not only a ‘handicap’, it is often perceived as a blemish on one’s very humanity.
In a culture which values intellect, reason, speed and competitiveness, to be viewed as different can easily slip into being perceived as less than human. But to think in such ways is theologically mistaken.
The church is called to look at the world quite differently. As Jean Vanier puts it, “The church is not called to do extraordinary things; it is called to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”
The church’s calling is not to become a community of beautiful, fast people who can rule the world through power, might and cleverness. Rather it is called to become a community of radical diversity that reveals extraordinary love. Such a sentiment may sound foolish and perhaps even naïve. But, on reflection, radical inclusivity and doing ordinary things with extraordinary love is precisely the heart of the Christian gospel.
Indeed, doing things and thinking things that look foolish to the world is central to the radical power of Jesus; it’s the heart of discipleship. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1:25: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” There is power in small things. But noticing the power of small things requires that we take a particular stance towards the world; it insists that we learn to look at the world differently; more hospitably. When we look at the world hospitably, everything changes.
One of the extraordinary things about Jesus’ ministry is the way in which he worked out his practice of hospitality. Sometimes Jesus was a guest in people’s houses; sometimes he was a host. The constant movement from guesting to hosting is a primary mark of the hospitable work of the incarnation. This observation is crucial for understanding the nature of the church’s life with people whom society has chosen to label “the other”. The person with dementia, a disability, or a mental illness. The person who speaks, no English; the person who is Aboriginal, or the person who seeks refuge.
To be truly hospitable, we need to learn how to be a guest in the house of the “stranger.” Rather than assuming that our task is to host people with disabilities; somehow to seek to find ways of “looking after them” because “they can’t look after themselves,” what might it look like if we were to become truly hospitable and begin to think of ourselves both in terms of guest and host.
What might it be like to perceive of one’s self as a guest in the presence of a person with advanced dementia? What can be learned about being human from being a guest in their presence? What might it look like to be a guest in the house of the visually impaired? To learn what it is like to be in the world without sight and to have it revealed to you that seeing the world is not the only, or perhaps even the best, way to come to an understanding of God’s creation?
What might it be like to be a guest in the house of a person with profound intellectual disabilities? How can we learn what it means to love and to worship God without words?
Aged care chaplains absolutely get this idea of being a guest because when they are doing their work; they are visiting people in their own homes, whether it is a room in an aged care facility, or in home based care. Chaplains are guests in those places.
What might it look like if churches were to consider themselves guests in the stories of the lives of those who have different experiences? Of those who were here before the colonial enterprise took place; or who have sought to take refuge here more recently?
It is in the small stories of friendship, hospitality, love, listening and acceptance, all of which are modelled clearly in the life of Jesus, that we find the context and the seedbed for extraordinary love.
Here we encounter healing – even if cure is not an option. The task of the church is not world transformation but signalling the Kingdom through small gestures. Look after the small things and the big things will fall into place.
Previously published 8/9/14