Words and often the absence thereof can be a powerful ministry to those we welcome into our homes and lives. Scripture has much to say about the power of words in our practice of hospitality. They can wield pain or bring healing. Proverbs 16:24 tells us, "Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body." While Proverbs 18:21 profoundly states, "The tongue can bring death or life." We all know this to be true—we've spoken, or been on the receiving end of painful, damaging words. We've also been profoundly ministered to by words of hope, truth, encouragement, or kindness.
The absence of words can also minister; listening itself can be a profound act of hospitality. Scripture implores us to be people who are "quick to listen, slow to speak" (James 1:19). This not only paves the way for wisdom and prudence in our speech, but it also creates space in which others can open up, verbally lay down burdens, and experience the joy of telling their own story.
Listening goes much deeper than nodding our heads in ascent of what we're hearing. We need to listen for the movement of the Holy Spirit. We need to focus in such a way that our own agenda gets put on the back burner and all distractions are set aside. We need to follow Jesus' model of asking engaging and meaningful questions. If we could see Jesus speaking to the woman at the well, for example, I believe we'd see him sitting and leaning forward as he listened to her story (John 4). I imagine Jesus listened with his whole being.
That's what I felt like one August night as a ten-year-old. I can still picture myself sitting on the stairs, eavesdropping on a conversation between my father and Rob, a young man who had just returned home from his tour of military duty in Vietnam. It was a beautiful picture of mutual hospitality. Rob's ministering words flowed to my father (and to my eavesdropping ears). My father's hospitality came in the form of listening.
"Reverend Fore," Rob said. "I want you to know that I faked all those times I pretended to be asleep as I sat in the balcony listening to you preach when I was in high school. I heard every word. On more than one occasion when you gave the invitation to commit my life to Christ, I resisted God with everything in me." Rob went on to tell his story of rebellion toward God. He spoke of his fear while serving in Vietnam, and finally of his surrender to Jesus, when he couldn't resist any more.
The words flowed for at least two hours. As Rob got up to leave, I raced down the stairs and into the kitchen. I asked my mom if I could give Rob a loaf of homemade bread that she had baked that day, because I had been given a gift in Rob's words. I remember saying to Rob, "I want to give you something. I was listening in, and your story was amazing. Here's some of Mom's homemade bread."
We had opened our home, our hearts, and our ears, and Rob gifted us with the hospitality of ministering words. The listening and the speaking—they were both acts of ministry. And I continue to experience the ministry of hospitable words today. In fact, some of the most significant experiences I've had of receiving hospitality as an adult have not been at someone's home or around a dinner table—they've been coffee-shop moments with friends who have welcomed me with loving and wise words or who have ministered by listening as I poured out my heart.
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Anita Lustrea is a popular speaker at women's conferences and retreats, co-host of Midday Connection radio broadcast, and co-author of Shades of Mercy (Moody Publishers, 2013). Her deep desire is to communicate freedom to women, and to help them nurture and care for their souls.