Michele Hershberger longed to meet God and see him in the people she interacted with—to host him in the stranger that Jesus talks about in Matthew 25:31-46 ("For I was hungry and you fed me … a stranger and you invited me in …"). So she initiated a 40-day experiment in hospitality, asking God to daily send her someone to host. God answered her prayers in ways both surprising and mundane, expected and unexpected. What she learned about biblical hospitality became the basis for a book, A Christian View of Hospitality: Expecting Surprises (Herald Press). It also became the basis for a conversation with Kyria about this misunderstood spiritual discipline.
Tell us about your 40-day experiment with hospitality.
It was exhilarating, scary, and sometimes exhausting, because God really did show up. Each day, I looked for someone I could share hospitality with. I think of the 40-day experiment as a game of "I Spy God." It helps you intentionally look for those opportunities, to stop and truly see people.
For instance, I had a student who'd stay after class. I finally realized, Oh, she wants to talk to me—to walk down the hall with me and have a conversation. If I wasn't tuned in, I wouldn't have recognized that.
For many people, the word hospitality elicits images of homemade cookies, tea and doilies, or Martha Stewart—something they can't, or don't want to, do.
It does involve physically interacting and sometimes sharing food and lodging, but it's so much more.
So how do you define biblical hospitality?
Being willing to see Christ in others. It's the intentional practice of putting yourself in a situation to both receive Christ and extend Christ's love to others. It's as much about attitude as it is about food.
We know hospitality is a spiritual gift, but how is it a spiritual discipline?
To be truly hospitable, we must first receive God's hospitality. Unless I connect with God's love for me, and see myself being hosted by God, I have little to give.
And then it takes prayer and attentiveness to the Spirit to put my own needs and agendas aside, at least temporarily, to give that person what he or she needs. And then, like every spiritual discipline, as we give, we receive.
What does extending hospitality do for our spiritual lives?
Many people see it as an outward spiritual discipline—giving food, providing shelter, and sharing who we authentically are. But if you're practicing biblical hospitality, you're also open to receiving what others offer. My faith has been strengthened as I've received hospitality, heard their stories, and shared their lives.
But we also grow as we receive God's hospitality. I know a lot of Christians who know God loves them, but don't realize that God likes them too. It's wonderful to have a specific time of prayer. It's also wonderful just to waste time with God, to come to him with no agenda, to spend time with him as one does with a friend.
When I find myself too drained to be hospitable or to do any of the other outward spiritual disciplines, it's probably because I haven't wasted time with God.
How can receiving hospitality, which you say is just as important as giving, help us grow spiritually?
It takes care of self-righteousness. It takes us out of control. In my denomination, we wash feet as in John 13. I'm so good about getting down on my knees and washing people's feet. But when I sit in that chair and the other woman is washing mine, my tears flow. It's good for me, because I only want to be the giver. But we need also to be receivers. It helps me grow, because as I let someone else give to me, then maybe God can give me something that I've resisted.
One of the things that surprised me most as I started to study hospitality in the Bible was how fluid that role is. Jesus did some of his best hospitality ministry when he was receiving hospitality, staying in the homes of Pharisees and tax collectors, for instance. For many of us, receiving hospitality is more difficult than giving. One of the greatest gifts we can give to the other person when he or she is offering hospitality is to allow them to host us.
What does the well-known biblical story of Jesus' visit to Mary and Martha teach us about hospitality?
This is a paradigmatic story in hospitality. Martha wasn't wrong for preparing food, but she had the wrong motives. In her frenzy to please, control, and be the giver and not the receiver, she did the most inhospitable thing in a Near Eastern culture. She asked Jesus to intervene between her and her sister, which was terribly inappropriate in that context. And that's such an irony. She was trying so hard to be hospitable that she wasn't.
Another reason I love the story is Mary, when she wanted to receive from Jesus, gave Jesus what he needed most: her attention.
What about personal and family safety?
Some examples of hospitality in the Bible were done in safe, public places. For example, the widow of Zarephath, who provided hospitality to Elijah, met him at the city gate—a safe place.
It's all right for us to practice hospitality in safe ways. So if I feel God calling me to a specific hospitality ministry to the homeless, then I do it at the homeless shelter, where there are people working all the time. The problem is if we choose never to provide hospitality because we think all strangers are scary and not worth the risk.
How can we get started practicing hospitality daily?
Make little goals for yourself: write one encouraging note a week, once every two weeks have somebody over, or say yes to an invitation. So that you're not overwhelmed, don't do everything. Don't say yes to the homeless shelter and the food pantry, for instance, but you can say yes to one of those things. And pray that God shows you the people whom you aren't letting host you.
Part of hospitality is sheer presence. Because we're doing it in the name of Jesus, we are just with people, and then Jesus is with those people. And what seems so simple—sharing a peanut butter sandwich and being with somebody—can give them hope at just the right time. The funny thing about hospitality is it seems simple, so basic. But when we do it in Jesus' name, Jesus multiplies it. That's biblical hospitality.