By Karen Wingate
Years ago, the word hospitality instantly put a knot in my stomach. To me, hospitality was serving a gourmet meal to a houseful of guests I invited to my clean and uncluttered home. With two small children, a smaller budget, and a lack of talent in the art of small talk, I felt like a perpetual failure. Then I met Lester Hostetler.
One icy winter day, my husband, an on-call chaplain with our local hospital, phoned me from the hospital waiting room. Earlier that afternoon, a postal truck skidded on an ice-strewn highway and jackknifed across the road, causing the death of the driver in an oncoming car.
“The postal worker wasn’t injured, but his truck was totaled. He lives 60 miles away and he can’t reach his family,” my husband explained. “Can I bring him home?”
I looked at my stove simmering with scents of supper, and shook my head in amazement. I had not planned for guests that evening, yet I had prepared more food than our family needed. I had done other things out of character for me, like buying ice cream in the middle of winter, taking time to make homemade biscuits, and putting fresh sheets on the guest bed within the last week. God knew a guest would be coming to my home. He and I were ready.
“Of course he can come,” I answered.
On my own, I would not have invited Lester into our home. I didn’t know him. He was old. He smelled. He was so dazed that night, he couldn’t carry on a good conversation.
What in the world was I exposing my children to? That night became a turning point in all of our attitudes about the ministry of hospitality. By sharing our home with Lester, my family learned that hospitality is partnering with Jesus to use our home and its contents to care for others.
My parents and my husband’s parents rarely invited guests for dinner. Early in our marriage and ministry, we determined we would be different. Eager to practice hospitality, we combed through the church directory, looking for people to invite. Often we found ourselves doing it just to be doing it, and we ended our evenings feeling empty and frustrated. We had missed the point.
In Cross Cultural Servanthood (InterVarsity, 2006) Duane Elmer says, “[Hospitality] is the idea of being gracious to all people, welcoming them into your presence and making them feel valued.” Hospitality is inviting others to invade my comfort zone so they can be comforted. It’s sharing my space with a stranger.
The Greek word for hospitality is a combination of two words: love and stranger. The word translated “love” is not agape, the common Christian word for love, but philos, a word used to portray affectionate love in the home. A warm meal and a clean bed are merely tools we use to include the stranger as part of our family.
John, a homeless man, spent many cold winter nights on the couch in our den. He had a way of showing up for supper just as we were about to sit down. I learned to let down my standards of perfect meals with plenty for seconds, and share what we had.
Our greatest gift of hospitality to John came, however, when my husband and I were both flat on our backs with the flu. John moved in for the day, took care of our preschool-age children, and served us tea and toast in bed. It wasn’t easy to let someone besides my mother see me sick in bed, yet I realized we were practicing hospitality by allowing John to see us at our worst.
A Safe Haven
Why should we welcome the stranger into our private space? Jesus wants us to go beyond the cultural norm of reciprocal entertainment so his grace, exemplified through our welcome, will shine brightly to people accustomed to an uncaring world.
We reach out, not for the personal pleasure of associating with new acquaintances, but to provide the security of a safe, loving environment to those overwhelmed by life’s perils. Christ asks us to step beyond the externals of a bed-and-breakfast mentality to determine the core needs of those he sends our way.
Alone at Thanksgiving during my husband’s two-week stay in the hospital, I accepted Alice’s invitation to dinner. So tired from caring for my husband, I’m embarrassed to say I fell asleep at the table. Alice encouraged—no, insisted—I take a nap on her bed. She practiced hospitality by giving me what I really needed: a safe, undisturbed place to regroup.
Practicing hospitality often means putting daily tasks on hold so we can give full attention to our guests. A hospitable attitude focuses so much on the person that a clean house, enough food, and well-behaved children become secondary. Our guest’s need for food, rest, security, companionship, or a listening ear motivates us to divide our family life into more pieces so God can provide for them through us.
My friend Pam has that attitude. The day our infant daughter was diagnosed with a genetic defect, Pam brought dinner to us, then encouraged us to come to her home “so you won’t be alone tonight.” Later, as we sat on her couch, still reeling from the news that our baby would face two immediate eye surgeries, my husband expressed what I felt. “It’s so peaceful here,” he said.
Pam laughed, gesturing toward the toys layering her living room floor and her two rambunctious boys bouncing from one end of the room to the other. “This is peaceful?” she asked. Yes, it was. We had a haven where, for a few short hours, we didn’t have to be responsible for anything. Experiencing that safety net, where Pam and Bryan allowed us to express our fear and pain, infused us with strength to face the next few tumultuous weeks.
Protecting a guest with one’s very life was a sacred duty in Old Testament days. Although we may take issue with his actions, Lot behaved as he did in Sodom to protect the angelic guests under his roof (Genesis 19:1-10). We protected Lester that icy night by working with the sheriff’s department to make sure his postal truck was impounded, a task Lester was in no shape to handle by himself.
The prospect of widening the family circle to include others different from us, to give up family resources for those whose needs loom larger than life, can be downright scary. Should I deprive my family to help a stranger? As I discovered in welcoming Lester, God knows about our unexpected visitors long before they enter our lives. He will give us more than enough to care for them.
Paul assured the Philippians of that very principle when he commended them for the generous offering they gave to meet his needs. Philippians 4:19 says, “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (NIV, 1984). Warren Wiersbe said, “If the Lord calls you, he will equip you for the task he wants you to fulfill.”
In spite of the many people who have sat at our table, my family has never gone hungry. In fact, my daughters say they feel richly blessed because of the variety of people they have been privileged to meet.
Everyone needs to know someone cares. Everyone needs frequent reenactments of God’s grace. Hospitality—using the resources of our homes to provide acceptance, safety, and healing—is one of the most effective tools we have to mirror God’s grace to those outside the circle of our daily lives.
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer in Roseville, Illinois.