“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…”
This message is the crux of this week’s passage from Hebrews. Several ways of showing hospitality to others are listed. It’s not a complete list, but certainly a familiar one. Yet even when we’re faced with clear instruction and a set of recommendations for showing hospitality, we find a way out of it. The fact is that we have become adept at shirking this holy responsibility. In this week’s blog, Vernon summarizes our most frequent “impediments” to sharing hospitality and discusses what’s necessary to overcome them.
1 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.[a] 4 Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6 So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
The exhortations of these verses are common points of emphasis when calling us to live what we believe. The Christian ideals of mutual love, hospitality, remembering the imprisoned, honoring marriage and being content with what we have all fit squarely within the second half of the great commandment—’and love your neighbor as yourself’. Unfortunately, our ideals and our reality are often mismatched.
The real life problem is that in order show mutual love, we must be willing to enter the experience of another and we must rely upon God in order to sustain such care. Likewise, hospitality, (literally a lover of the strange) requires us to encounter the unfamiliar—to give up our certainties and to learn from others as children of God. In real life these ideals are surprisingly difficult to follow.
So I have been reflecting on the ordinary impediments to the ideals of mutual love and hospitality. The three that come to mind are (and I am sure there are others): 1) Often we do not have a wide enough personal experience to actually be empathic; 2) We often do not want to be bothered; and 3) Sometimes it is too expensive emotionally to enter into another person’s experience. In my view, facing our limitations is required reading if we have any hope of living a life of mutual love and hospitality.
When I was in my late twenties I was visiting a woman in her mid eighties. She was quite alert but had any number of physical challenges. She volunteered that the one of the kindest gifts a young person could offer to an elderly person was to ask about their health—and mean it. I’ve reflected on her comment many times since. I was certainly willing to listen but my lack of experience interfered with my good intention. As a younger man, it was nearly impossible to appreciate what it might mean to be viscerally aware that your body is in decline. Now in my seventies, I can not help but be aware my life can change on a dime. A simple misstep can mean a disabling fall. Now that I have a basis in my own experience to relate, I would like to think I can listen with more depth. But at the time, my capacity for the empathy was limited by my youthful inability to imagine a world beyond my own experience. Sometimes our best intention is frustrated by our lack of experience.
But just because we are color blind does not mean there is no color. It is just extremely hard to imagine if you’re own experience is shades of gray. In such circumstances, we have to be curious, we have to be taught. We cannot fall into the trap of believing that the world we know is the only world that is. If other people are indeed children of God, their experience must be respected as much as our own. What is unacceptable is a summary dismissal because it is outside our personal experience. It is important to learn to say: ‘How is that true for you?’ instead of ‘I can’t relate, that can’t be true’.
The second impediment, often to our embarrassment, is, it is too much of a bother to show mutual love and hospitality. Far too often the question “How are you?’ is asked with no expectation of an answer. It is frankly inconvenient to take the answer seriously. We were just being ‘polite’. (By the way, this is a very odd definition of politeness.)
If we become aware of what it means to be imprisoned (as if we are imprisoned) or aware of what it means to be tortured (as if we are being tortured), our faith requires us to wrestle with how we will respond. There are so many needs in our world that it is hard to choose where we will put our energy. Facing our own limitations is hard and choosing to say I don’t have the willingness to engage is harder still. Here are a couple examples of ways we are capable of knowing but avoid the responsibility of knowing.
People routinely complain about thin skinned political correctness. We don’t want to notice that the sensibilities of another are offended so we blame them for being over sensitive. That sexually inappropriate comment is ‘just boys being boys’, or that racial comment wasn’t intended to do harm. Why can’t we be who we are without everybody being so upset? But it really depends on whose ox is getting gored. And if we realize someone else’s ox is getting gored, we must struggle with how, or if, we will be mindful. Better to dismiss them.
Similarly, I have a friend who told me he always places his wallet beside him when he drives so that if he is stopped by the police, he does not have to reach. He does not want his behavior to be remotely construed as threatening. He is a well educated, middle class black man and he is afraid of the police. Never in my life have I felt the need to take such precautions. As a white man, my first reaction to such stories is they must be an exception—or an exaggeration. They are not. But if I can keep my own world view I do not have to face a darkness in this world I would rather not deal with.
And most inconveniently as a Christian, if I see that darkness, I feel a responsibility to respond. It is not ok for a brother or sister in the family of God to have such fear. If I know about darkness in any form, I have to decide how, or if, I will try to bring light. It is just plain inconvenient to really listen. Really listening forces me out of my comfort zone. And what makes it worse is that there is rarely, if ever, a definitive answer. If a new reality is acknowledged, our faith will trouble us. Better not to know.
The third impediment is that there is a great personal cost to entering the experience of another. Ask Jesus. When I listen to a forty year old whose life has been dramatically restricted by a rare health problem, listening requires a willingness to share his despair and helplessness. There is nothing to do. His life is grim. Sharing that with him is really hard. The same is true for every Threshold volunteer who encounters a hungry homeless person.
At its most personal, we must willing to feel the helplessness of the helpless in order to be present. You can’t get any more helpless than being nailed to a cross. But that is what God did when he wanted us to know he was and is present in every human condition.
The needs of those around us always outstrip our capacity to respond. Part of our human condition is our limited ability and sometimes active resistance to living a life of mutual love and hospitality. Knowing the ‘right’ is a far cry from being willing or able to follow through. That’s when we must trust God with our limited broken selves.
Hence the promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” The readers of Hebrews, across the ages, can only sustain mutual love and hospitality by keeping that promise in mind. We are not alone. “So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
Lord, be patient with us as we resist your call. Remind us that you stand waiting, even as we turn from you. Give us the courage to live in mutual love and with hospitality. Let it be so.