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a hospitality conference: eating, drinking, and changing my thinking



Image from anthonycoppedge.com

I was privileged to be a part of Society of Vineyard Scholars conference last week. The theme of the conference was Hospitality, Holiness, and the Kingdom of God. It was hosted by the lovely folks at the Raleigh Vineyard Church in South Carolina, and we all got a taste of Southern hospitality in the form of local favourites such as sweet tea, biscuits, pulled pork, and shrimp and grits. Yes, focusing on hospitality meant that we were offered kindness, meals, housing, and rides to and from the venue, but it also meant that we were invited to do a bit of hard work: the hard work of embracing the unfamiliar and the strange(r). Here are a few snippets from my conference notes.

Hospitality is more than inviting a few people over for a meal in the comfort of my own home. This is a limited form of hospitality because in this scenario I remain on my home turf and, for the most part, still make the rules. True hospitality challenges me to "play the game" on the field of the stranger, to not only welcome them but to rely on them for my well-being and growth. Hospitality or xenophilia (love of the stranger) requires that I give up those things commonly associated with the hospitality industry (privacy, comfort, and security) and instead, relinquish power and preferential treatment in order to take on the posture of a guest, to be a displaced person, so to speak.

Jesus practiced a form of hospitality which placed him in both roles simultaneously: he was a guest who relied on the kindness of strangers (today I am coming to your house, Zaccheus) as well as a host who generously offering himself through friendship, food, healing, and transformation to all who would accept his offerings. To continue the sports analogy, he was seldom on home turf and had no home field advantage to speak of. This was intentional. The gracious, generous nature of the incarnation indicates, in part, that God took on human form not in order to assimilate us, but to protect and enjoy the particularity of humanity.

Some of the talks at the conference included harsh reality-checks, such as realising how inhospitable we can be to different traditions of music, how limited we are in styles of preaching and leadership, and how we are slow to adapt to increasing multi-ethnicity. Instead, we expect the world to adapt to the way we are used to doing things, and make little effort to truly welcome others by becoming informed about their traditions and history and seeking to learn from them. Being hospitable in this way means we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with embracing different ways of doing things within our faith communities even when everything inside us wants to recoil and react because certain practices seem so foreign to us. Please note that I am not talking about changing core values of the kingdom of God, but ways and means. In short, hospitality is difficult stuff.

Christine Pohl reminded us that hospitality is not an instrument to an end, not a way to catch donors or members, not about return on investment, not a strategy for church growth and evangelism. Hospitality is related to holiness, and it is a place of vulnerability where we give people a home, a place in a community, a space to add their unique contribution. Hospitality means that we can no longer view our time and resources as our own, because most opportunities for hospitality arrive as interruptions.

Luke Bretherton said that if we are to be a hospitable people (for we have a very hospitable God), we must not only host others, but be in relationship with others, and foster a common life together. As followers of God, we strive to listen to God, but we must also listen to the cries of those among us. We are not only a community of faith (joined by our devotion to God) but a community of fate (part of the lives of those around us). For this reason, we must be attentive to the dynamics in our neighbourhoods, our work contexts, and our informal gathering sites. We must be careful not to define the world through our own eyes and history and experience, but to realise that we are meant to figure things out together. We need to learn to work and play together with those who do not look and sound like us.

These are just a few of the notes from the conference which ended up being a place of great joy and connection and challenge for me. I will close with a personal story. The venue where we had the conference was not really within walking distance of anything (that felt a bit strange to a city girl who walks everywhere, but hey, that's how things are down there). This meant that after I got a ride to the conference in the morning, I was pretty much stuck there for the day. There was plenty of food and drinks to be had, but I was missing access to some of my favourites like chai latte and Diet Dr. Pepper. I was wandering around the building on Friday morning, just checking things out, when a friend asked if I needed anything. I said, not really, I was just looking around. And then I jokingly added that what I really needed was a Diet Dr. Pepper, but there was no way to get to a store.

A short while later, while I was sitting in a session, someone plopped a bag down on the seat beside me. Inside the bag were two Diet Dr. Peppers. I glanced around and saw my friend slipping out of the room. I was stunned and didn't know quite how to feel. I was thrilled to receive the precious drinks. I felt guilty because I had whined about not being able to walk to a corner store. I wanted to save the gift because it was sacred and at the same time, I wanted to guzzle down the drinks because I was thirsty. I wanted to give back and I wanted to humbly receive and let that be enough. I just sat there for a bit, teary-eyed that someone had been so attentive, so willing, so selfless, and so hospitable to me. Being on the receiving end of loving hospitality can be very disorienting to someone who is in giving mode a lot of the time. Finally, I blinked my tears back and opened one of the drinks. The liquid was like an elixir to my soul which, after a very eventful and taxing term at both school and church, was somewhat depleted. Each sip was a reminder that all of us are guests of the Most High and of each other. Undeserving as we may be, we are constantly being offered good gifts in the most unexpected and often unfamiliar ways. May we be moved to gratefully partake.

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