Friday, April 9, 2010

The Discipline of Hospitality

Hospitality is something we practice in our hearts and reflect in our homes. The spiritual discipline of hospitality is not one that is mentioned as often as others, but I think it is a critical one. We practice hospitality in our spirits and are transformed by the presence of our spiritual Guest. Out of that spiritual discipline, we practice hospitality to others and offer an opportunity for transformation for ourselves and for those we invite into our lives.

Hospitality is about welcoming. In Scripture, we encounter many metaphors that describe how God welcomes and invites us. God creates places for us to be in communion (the banquet table, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…,” “by the side of your altars, O God,” the temple, etc.). Likewise, we human beings are commanded to create a place for God to dwell in our midst. God commands the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness to create a tent and the arc so that God can travel through the wilderness with the people. God commands Solomon to build the temple and then after the exile gives instructions for it to be restored. Every sanctuary built by human hands is a place where God is invited to dwell with us. We make places where we can meet and be with God.

We also create places within ourselves where we can welcome God. Welcoming God into our lives may be an obvious effort that we make when we enter into an intentional relationship with God, but it is not always that straightforward or simple. We might tell ourselves that we want God to be present, but when we actually experience that presence, we find ourselves convicted, frightened, overwhelmed, or confused. We may invite our Guest and then forget about the invitation or get distracted. Perhaps we don’t know how to create that space within us where God can be at rest. Creating that place is something that we must learn and practice. With practice and discipline, we get better at it. We begin to live together. As we get to know God better, we learn what kind of place will make God feel at home and welcome. Over time, we ourselves and God as well, become more familiar dwelling within each other. We learn such things as God’s desire that this dwelling place within us be furnished with love, truth, beauty, joy, faith, and hope. With practice, our efforts at furnishing this dwelling according to God’s wishes improve.

Hospitality to God, which is part of the interior spiritual journey, is paralleled in our outward expression. We can develop hospitable hearts towards others. Each of us has different relational practices that we feel are particularly important and welcoming. For me, having a heart of hospitality towards others means that I pay attention to developing certain relationships and put some time and effort into them. I like to make regular time to be with friends, so I gather with a group of friends over a glass of wine every Wednesday afternoon. I have another group of friends that I get together with for short trips a couple of times a year. I visit with my parents every Tuesday for a few hours. I reserve every Sunday just for my husband. We invite our children for dinner from time to time and speak with them regularly. I think that hospitable relationships require our attention: they don’t just happen. I also try my best to be generous and nonjudgmental in my relationships. After all, we are, every one of us, basically in the same boat. I’m not any better than anyone else and no one else is better than me – or worse for that matter. We’re all in this life situation together. I do my best to speak the truth in love (that’s hard to do!) and clear up any misunderstandings as quickly as possible. These are just a few things that I think are important to having healthy, hospitable relationships. I try to arrange my life and relationships with these things in mind.

Our physical dwelling places reflect our attitudes and disciplines around hospitality and relationships. Look around your home with guests in mind. (The following examples are all great metaphors for spiritual hospitality as well) Is there an area where they can be graciously welcomed when they visit? Is the house number easy to see from the road and well lit? Are pets well behaved? Is there enough seating and is it arranged for comfortable conversation? Are there any obstacles that might make your home difficult for visitors? Is your home tidy and orderly? There are many aspects of a home that either say “Welcome,” or “Stay away,” and it is helpful to aware of what they are. For example, my “front door” is on the side of our house, which some people find confusing, so we put out some subtle indicators to help first time visitors find the door. The house number is very visible on the front edge of the house that leads to the door. There is extra lighting on the door side of the house. The deck wraps around the house and leads to the door and the entrance to the deck points in that direction. The area of the deck on the front of the house in the direction opposite the door is marked off during the summer time with a canopy and sitting area. Even though we have sliding glass doors that are on the front of the house and immediately obvious, visitors seem to pick up on the cues and find our “front door” with no problem. I also like to provide a sense of hospitality by paying attention to details: for example, having cut flowers around the house, lighting candles, or providing a simple snack. These things are easy to do and make your guests feel at home.

One of my favorite offerings of hospitality is “Dinner on the Deck.” When a friend or family member receives an invitation for dinner on the deck at our home, I hope they feel like it is a special invitation. During the summer, when the Denver area is wilting in ninety degree temperatures, our mountain evenings are cool and beautiful. We have a large wrap around deck and it is very pleasant to relax in the quiet, surrounded by woods and wildlife. My husband and I prepare a special meal. We have appetizers and wine on the deck in the informal seating area. On the other wing of the deck, we have brought out a table and our upholstered dining room chairs. We have a white table cloth, crystal, china, and silver, cloth napkins, candles, and wild flowers from the yard for a centerpiece. We dine on the deck as the sun goes down. If it gets cool enough, we may have dessert sitting in front of the chiminea with a fire. What a pleasure it is to entertain and provide a pleasurable experience for everyone. It’s the details that make is special.

How we provide hospitality to those we love is a reflection of how we provide hospitality to God in our spirits, and how we provide hospitality to God within is the foundation for that outward hospitality. The conversation between these two actions, both inward and outward, can be informative and enlightening. You never know what you may discover about your interior living space by having a look at your exterior space.

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