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hospitality challenge

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On Saturday I will be presenting a paper at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association conference. My topic is Theological Hospitality, and (spoiler alert) my main point is that we are all guests at the theological table, that we speak about God not from a place of ownership but as outsiders who have graciously been given access to divine mysteries. In light of this, we should adopt the same posture toward any who may act, think, and believe differently than we do about theological matters.

I love the idea of hospitality, of being open to others in personal, physical, and spiritual ways, but in practice, I find it rather difficult. Part of my research for the paper led me to a book by Jessica Wrobleski (The Limits of Hospitality) which cites several works by Henri Nouwen on the subject.  Because we are imperfect human beings dealing with other imperfect human beings, there is no such thing as totally safe or foolproof hospitality, but Nouwen offers wisdom on how to adopt a hospitable posture (which means embracing vulnerability and risk) in a grounded way.

He states that hospitality "requires first of all that the host feel at home in his own house." [1] This means that self-rejection, self-judgment, self-criticism, and complaining about our status in life make us inhospitable people; these habits keep us from making space for others. If we do not feel safe or welcome or comfortable in our own world, our own skin, how can invite others to share that space which we perceive as cramped and inadequate? Gratitude opens us up to the richness of God's abundant goodness, even in the most humble of circumstances, and reveals how much we have to give, to share, to celebrate. Nouwen writes that our most important movement is "not a movement from weakness to power, but a movement in which we can become less and less fearful and more and more open to the other and his world. This movement, allowing us to receive instead of to conquer, is the movement from hostility to hospitality." [2]

Celebration is another important part of hospitality, and Nouwen indicates that hospitality should create a space for guests "to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear." [3]

However, hospitality is not absolute openness or some form of passivity. Nouwen recognises that both receptivity and what he terms "confrontation" are necessary in hospitality. The receptivity creates the friendly space for strangers to be themselves, while the "confrontation" (not aggression) is the articulate presence of the host, the particular context of their home and their unique identity. The guest is welcomed not with empty walls, nondescript food, and a neutral personality, but a decor which reflects the taste of the host, a meal which displays the host's culinary preferences, and the opinions, attitudes, and viewpoints unique to the host. The "confrontation" is between two (or more) distinct personalities and this encounter is where things can sometimes get uncomfortable, but it also has great potential. Nouwen insists that the purpose of hospitality is "to offer a free and friendly space where change can take place." [4]

This is the scary part of hospitality for me: not the hard work involved in making meals and cleaning rooms and washing bedding, not even the time it takes away from work, the invasion of my home office, or the high level of social exertion required on my part. No, the scary part is that when I invite someone to share my world, when I invite them into my safe and comfortable space, I must be willing to be changed.

Hospitality is not simply giving someone a meal or a bed while keeping a professional distance from them. Neither is it offering a service to someone as if they are a client or a customer. Hospitality has the potential to change relationships between two human beings. It can turn a stranger into an honoured guest and an enemy into a friend. We never know what will happen when we extend a welcome to someone, when we open our lives and our homes and our dinner tables up to others. But we are called to practice hospitality because this is what Jesus did for us. When we were unattractive sinners, when we were unworthy outsiders, when we were making bad life decisions, when we were contentious and hard to get along with, when we were angry and sad and bitter, he invited us to sit as his table and taste his sweet goodness. How can we not do the same for others?

[1] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday/Image Books, 1979), 89.
[2] Henri Nouwen, "Hospitality," in On Hospitality and Other Matters, Monastic Studies 10 (Pine City, NY: Mount Savior Monastery, 1974), 3.
[3] Nouwen, Wounded Healer, 91-92.
[4] Nouwen, "Hospitality," 8.

Comments

Beth said…
So much said in so little space. Thanks for that Matte and have a great time presenting it....

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