A Culture of Hospitality

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If there’s a list of values to prioritize, hospitality probably wouldn’t be on top of most people’s list. It’s a value-add, definitely a nice to have. Like a hospitality suite. Or snacks and coffee after a church service. It’s not core to the experience but definitely nice to have.

Is hospitality core to the gospel or a nice to have? What is Hospitality?

In the dominant culture, being hospitable means when you come to someone’s house or church, you are welcome to eat and drink what they have to offer. There’s usually a good spread of food and drink. “Help yourself.” “Make yourself at home.” That is being hospitable.

When I was a college junior, I went to the Philippines and lived in a squatter settlement for a couple of months. One day, the pastor of this squatter church and our team visited one of the poorest families in the congregation. This family lived in a small one-bedroom shack. When we arrived, the family was so happy to see us. They scrambled to find us a good place to sit. The husband and wife never sat down, but proceeded to serve us food and drink – and would not let us stop eating. I was humbled knowing that meant they themselves will have nothing to eat and drink that day, because we were eating the only food they had.

In some cultures, including the one I came from, Pilipino culture, hospitality means not allowing guests to help themselves. Rather a host does all she can to serve her guests, offering them food and the best of what she has, even if it means it’s all that she has.

These are two very different practices of hospitality. Is hospitality culturally subjective then or is there a biblical view of what hospitality is?

A Sinful Woman Washes Jesus’ feet

In Luke 7, we see Jesus at a dinner party. The Pharisee who invited Jesus gave him food and drink. And then, an uninvited guest, a woman in the city, comes in and washes his feet with her tears, kisses his feet and anoints them with expensive oil. Then she dries his feet with her hair.

The woman did what the Pharisee didn’t do: welcome Jesus properly in that culture.

This is what Jesus said, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:44-47, NRSV).

A few things we see from this passage:

1)      Jesus valued the woman’s acts of hospitality highly. He recognized how “above and beyond” she welcomed him, the costs she paid, and called it “great love.”

2)      She loves much, because she’s been forgiven much. Hospitality is a heart condition and speaks to how much one knows they have been forgiven a great debt.

3)      Hospitality, love and forgiveness seem to be intimately linked. Since love and forgiveness are core to the gospel, how can hospitality be optional? Hospitality is core because love and forgiveness are core.

This story also gives us a biblical view of the practice of hospitality. Hospitality is not “self-serve, a help-yourself-to-some-food” type of hospitality. Rather, the Pilipino practice of hospitality resembled the biblical view more closely.  Those cultures whom little is forgiven, loves little. Those who have been forgiven much, love much.

How would Jesus describe YOUR hospitality? Is it more like the Pharisee or the woman? Is it more like the dominant culture or Pilipino culture?

We don’t prioritize hospitality because the dominant culture doesn’t prioritize it.

Here in the Pacific NW, we have a term called “Seattle Freeze.”

Here’s the definition according to the Urban Dictionary:

“It’s not that people here are unfriendly, they will hold the door for you and wave you into traffic and stuff like that…The attitude is ‘have a nice day, somewhere else.’ It’s easy to get along but making friends is almost impossible.’ Most people don’t like or dislike you, they’re totally indifferent.” – posted by SmellsLike Victory, November 23, 2010

“What obnoxious out-of-towners call it when we cultured, refined, artistic Seattleites feel annoyed and bored of them.” – posted by Seattletron, February 10, 2013

Seattle Freeze is real; I know because I have experienced it myself.

I had been working at Microsoft several years in Los Angeles when I felt God’s call to pursue my calling to business people more seriously by moving to Seattle. So we left the land of 72 and sunny to come here.

A month after the move, I sat in my office looking at the lunch I just bought from the cafeteria. I bent my head in resignation, I couldn’t believe I was eating lunch alone. Again. For the fifth day in a row. I tried to invite people to lunch, but they all said no. Too much work. Got a meeting. It was like this almost every day. Started doubting the move. Was I really sent here?

Seattle Freeze is real, but it can thaw in time if we’re persistent.

Hospitality is intentional.

I am a high introvert so to me, inviting people to lunch or Happy Hour is a way I intentionally extend hospitality and openness to relationship. It doesn’t come naturally but is a value and a discipline. Over time, it has become second nature, like making coffee every morning.

Prior to coming to Seattle, I used to have a candy dish on my desk at almost every company I worked at. Everyone – from the lowest paid to highest paid person in the company – needed some candy sometime. So they came to my desk and I chatted with them, and over time built relationship.

Moving to Seattle, I felt like I needed to speak the language of the culture. I realized very quickly my candy dish wasn’t going to work because people were more health conscious here.

So I upgraded and got an espresso machine in my office that I regularly stock with craft beans. And everybody, everybody needs some espresso sometime. My co-workers would come, get their shot of espresso and just shoot the breeze.

Five minutes, a shot of espresso…and people feel human again.

Hospitality is vulnerable.

In the passage, we see a woman who’s completely vulnerable. She makes herself vulnerable in front of others. Driven by love, she went all out in her scandalous public display of gratitude. There were some haters in the crowd watching, but she didn’t care.

What’s the alternative?

C.S. Lewis wrote this in his book, The Four Loves:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

When I practice hospitality, I open myself up to relationships. I hear people’s stories, their hopes and dreams, their daily struggles. And I share mine. My heart becomes exposed to the elements – good and bad. It’s vulnerable. And it has been broken many times.

Hospitality is contagious.

My office has become a hang-out spot for my co-workers. Every morning they come in two’s or three’s to check in with each other. One co-worker voluntarily buys snacks every week and leaves them next to the espresso machine so others can eat them.

It has built a stronger team culture, because we’re not just relating on a work level but also a human level. It also changed the culture from purely “What can I get?” to “How can I serve others?”

Teams and organizations want to be known for their hospitality, but hospitality doesn’t just happen. Leaders have to model hospitality to create a culture of hospitality. As Christians, we can lead in practicing hospitality. We have been forgiven much, let us love much.

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