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Be My Guest

The importance of receiving a true welcome.

My second Sunday in Charlottesville, Virginia, I wound up at Christ Church, where I knew exactly two people. One of them was my mother, and what single woman wants to get stuck at coffee hour eating donut holes with her mom?

Few situations make me as uncomfortable as being a newcomer in a church. Everyone else knows when to stand and sit, and has someone to talk to during coffee hour. In contrast, I just stand there awkwardly, my inner introvert yelling at me to go home and curl up with a novel.

After the service ended that morning, I managed to silence my introvert long enough to introduce myself to a couple sitting in the pew behind me. I complimented the wife's shoes, the husband asked if I'd enjoyed the sermon, and then they said, "If you don't have plans for New Year's Eve, please come to our party."

This unexpected invitation struck me as exceptional, even though I was back in the friendly South. In the coming weeks, though, I came to see that in the Charlottesville Christian community, the opening of one's home seems to be the norm. When my friend Suzanne found herself with a gap between leases, within two days she received three offers of spare bedrooms from fellow church members.

Or consider my friends the Hanovers. So often do they have guests for dinner that when they are guestless, eight-year-old Julianne asks, "Mommy, why is no one in the guest chair tonight?"

After a year in Charlottesville, I grew so accustomed to the ubiquitous hospitality that I almost didn't notice it anymore. But it's noteworthy, because it's part of what the church is supposed to be: a community of people practicing hospitality.

Hospitality isn't, of course, unique to Charlottesville. I first learned about real hospitality from my Jewish roots, especially the Orthodox Jewish community in New York. I moved to Manhattan when I was 16 and was embraced by several families who knew little about me except that I was new, my family was far away, and I needed somewhere to eat lunch on the Sabbath. The Farmer family, in particular, gave me an open-door policy—turn up, sleep, eat, talk, shower, hang out anytime, no need to phone ahead.

In Hebrew, this is hachnassat orchim, literally "the bringing in of guests." Scripture is thick with this practice. More than once, God instructs his people to welcome the stranger because "you were strangers in the land of Egypt." In Genesis 18, Abraham gives food to three strangers who turn out to be angels (it is to this event that Hebrews 13:2 refers: "Do not forget to welcome strangers; for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."). Rahab, a prostitute, was blessed for giving shelter to Joshua's spies (Joshua 2). And in 2 Kings, we read of a Shunammite woman who welcomes the prophet Elisha into her home.

The apostle Paul placed such a high value on hospitality that he listed it—along with temperance, sobriety, and gentleness—among the characteristics required of church leaders. Sixth-century religious writer Julianus Pomerius insisted that hospitality took precedence over other spiritual disciplines; he enjoined his readers to break a fast and "unbend one's self" in order to break bread with others.

Creation is the ultimate expression of God's hospitality to his creatures. In the words of one rabbi, everything God created is a "manifestation of his kindness. [The] world is one big hospitality inn." To invite people into our home is to respond with gratitude to the God who made a home for us.

As Christians, we aren't meant simply to invite people into our homes, but into our lives as well. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, isn't an imposition because we aren't meant to rearrange our lives for our guests—we're meant to invite our guests to enter into our sometimes-messy lives. It's this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining (i.e., deadly dull parties at the country club) into hospitality (i.e., a simple pizza on my tiny apartment floor). As writer Karen Burton Mains puts it, "Visitors may be more than guests in our home. If they like, they may be friends." And in the certitude of God, I ought to be able to risk issuing the occasional invitation.

Adapted from Mudhouse Sabbath. © 2003 by Lauren F. Winner. Used with permission of Paraclete Press.

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God's Love; Hospitality; Obedience; Service
Today's Christian Woman, June , 2010
Posted June 1, 2010

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