God: A Lover of Strangers
by Aimee Spurlock
A lot of ink has been spilled over the years about hospitality and etiquette. And we might even agree that Emily Post has written the etiquette bible. But those of us who claim the title of Christian only have one Bible, and in it are special nuances of hospitality, particularly with how God expects us to receive strangers that distinguish His kind of hospitality—Christian hospitality—from any secular notions, no matter how authoritative they may seem.
Growing up in South Florida, my formative years were shaped by the practice of hospitality. My earliest memories include helping to host and serve at family gatherings. As early as five years, I was taught to include a napkin with a beverage, to always bring a gift to the hostess of a party, to be attentive to our guests and to welcome and serve them graciously.
I was the youngest of five children with brothers and a sister who were never at a loss for friends who thought of our home as an extension of their own. After school or football games, my mother would often cook dinner not just for our normal seven, but for the friends each of us kids would bring home with us, sometimes swelling dinner to a grand total of 21. My mom was unflappable, and in her element. “Just set another place!” was her ready reply to unexpected arrivals.
The planned events were even grander; the most memorable held every year on New Year’s Day, come rain or shine. My father prepared 40 pounds of ribs, chicken and burgers. Mom prepared all of the side dishes and ordered an immense whipped cream cake from the Austrian baker. Everyone was invited: neighbors, school, work and church friends, teachers, pastors, the high school band even showed up one year! I was taught to be given to hospitality.
In contrast, my husband Michael, coming from a family of three, has different memories of hospitality. Other than an occasional party for his dad’s colleagues, his memories of hospitality revolve around intimate family dinners and holiday meals. Though some could be large gatherings, they were rarely marked by guests outside his family.
As nice as these memories are for us, our Christian faith demands us to think deeper about practicing hospitality. No matter how beloved the memory, if we are given to hospitality to friends and family only, what credit is that to any of us? (Luke 6:32-35)
One of the most transformative experiences in our lives was an encounter with a community of refugees from Burma—complete strangers who showed up at our church door one Sunday. I was the first person to greet what, on that day, was a small contingent from a larger community. I had no idea the tremendous journey God had in mind for our church when we willingly “set another place” for those people at our door.
Very soon, when over 65 additional refugees began attending our church, we had the privilege of watching as members of our existing congregation began to open their homes and lives to members of this very different, and to us, strange people. Their language, experiences, customs, worldview and outlook were all different. Was it awkward? Was it intimidating taking such steps, extending such invitations? Yes, it was. But in time, the initial discomfort was replaced by a growing mutual understanding, then affection, followed by bonds of Christian love that persist today, even though some of us have since been separated by geography.
Apart from showing hospitality, we also learned that hospitality must be received with as much grace as it is given. Though our congregation might have initially welcomed the Karen community into our church, we began to be invited and welcomed into their lives, too. And to graciously receive hospitality from strangers requires humility. It may not look like we think it should or be as grand as we think it ought to be, but we should be attentive to the love and sacrifice that lies behind hospitality, and be prepared to honor it by receiving it graciously and gratefully.
Unbeknownst to us, some women from the Karen community worked very hard to make me a traditional Karen garment. One Sunday after church, they made a special point to surprise me with it. The language barrier was very real, but as they led me to a shady spot at the edge of the fields that we farmed on our church property, the women surrounded and together dressed me in their gift. With this simple act of dressing me, they were showing me the ultimate act of hospitality; they were accepting me as one of their own. I understood this welcome into their “home” very perfectly, and received the hospitality with a humbled and grateful heart.
When Christians practice or receive hospitality, we are at once adorning another person, be it family, friend or stranger, with the love of God. And when we receive hospitality at the hands of another, we ourselves receive the love of God in the same way.
But remember this: when the word “hospitality” is mentioned in the Bible, the other word most often associated with it is “stranger” or xenos in the Greek (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 4:9). That’s the word from which our xenophobia, or fear of strangers, derives. God is not xenophobic. He is philoxenos. This word combines brotherly love and stranger into a single word that means “lover of strangers.”
God is a lover of strangers, most particularly reflected in His will for Israel (Deuteronomy 10:18-22; Leviticus 19:10, 33-34). If we are to be holy even as He is holy, our practice of hospitality must include a love and regard for more than just our nearest and dearest. We must be prepared to welcome and include those who are nothing like us at all, and maybe not even near and dear to our heart. What credit is it to the Christian if we love only those who love us? After all, even the heathen do the same? Jesus calls us further along His way than we might at first be inclined to go. But if we are going to claim the title Christian, we have to be prepared to claim the deeds of Christian as well.
Aimee Marcoux Suprlock is an award-winning reporter, and classically trained singer. She and her husband, Rev. Michael Spurlock, live in New York City where Michael pastors at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan. Their work with refugees is the subject of the new movie ALL SAINTS, released nationwide on August 25.
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