It is a table full of sarmali that took hours to wrap and the sweet tang of locally grown elderflower juice, and salata de boeuf with homemade mayonnaise. It is a table made beautiful, not by the money spent on knick knacks, but rather, by the beauty created in spite of a lack of money.
True hospitality is so much more than the Martha Stewart concept of decorative precision and craftiness. It is a radical right turn from the concept that my home need be picture perfectly impressive to receive guests. In wealthy cultures, it seems that opening our homes has much to do with an express my decorating prowess mentality. In the homes of Eastern Europe, the guest’s step across the threshold sets into motion a beautiful and quite humbling display of being honored, appreciated, and revered. The host is lavish in their preparation of food and lavish in their attention to the needs of their guest.
In Russia, one arrives to find a bulging table of varied salads, all of which have been prepared without the aid of any sort of pre-made mix. To the giddy joy of the hostess, foreigners mistakenly fill up their plates only to find that a soup course, a meat and potato course, a desert course, and a tea course are all lined up to follow.
In Albania, Tamara Hudson reminisced that their first experience as guests in an Albanian home started at 6:00 in the evening and finished at midnight. The food never stopped flowing.
In Bulgaria, one is whisked into the family’s sitting room and served delectable delights that have often been created on a stove that is tucked into a cold balcony. The hostess will rarely sit down and the host will not allow your plate or your glass to be empty. This catering to every whim will go on for hours.
Last night, tucked into a small village in the heart of Transylvania, Pastor Magda Cini and her family prepared and served us traditional Romanian specialties. I even heard a rumor that they butchered a pig to create the meat platter.
Hospitality has become a domesticated, materialized concept in our western cultures that renders it impotent for its actual purpose in our life. But, true hospitality is nothing less than salvation. God, our host, has prepared for us, lavished upon us, sacrificed for us, and invites us into his very heart.
From personal experience, I know that being a guest, the recipient of this overwhelming attention, is a humbling experience. In some sense, you relinquish control. In some sense, you recognize that you are receiving something you do not deserve. In some sense, you understand that the host has sacrificed for your enjoyment and benefit. In some sense, you know that you can never repay this pouring out of love. And, it is all so very humbling. We are not good humble. We are not comfortable with being humbled, not even by God. Perhaps, our Sunday worship would be different if we recognized that our presence in the temple is as a guest and not the host.
Hospitality is also a spiritual gift. It has nothing to do with the art of decorating a home or creating themed snacks or the over indulgence of a lavish party. Rather, the gift of hospitality in its tamest form, is the welcoming of strangers into the very center of our life and the focusing of our attention, our time, our finances toward their well-being even at great sacrifice to ourself.
In the face of conversations about homosexuality and immigration and racial tensions and even politics, a plate of sarmali in a Transylvanian hillside might be a great place to begin. Our journey as believers is dependent upon learning the self sacrifice of giving hospitality to the stranger, the foreigner, the other that is so much unlike ourselves. How difficult is it to serve somebody that speaks in ways you cannot understand? How challenging is it to pour out your precious time and sacrifice your most intimate space for someone who values foreign concepts and lives by a different set of standards?
As I soak in the early morning pressure of a Carpathian mountain embrace, smoke rising from a hundred hillside terra-cotta roofs, and a strong mug of coffee at my side, I am more than a little convinced that the needs of our world can be met and indeed, our world transformed, by the re-imagining of the gift of hospitality. Would you begin this new year with a plate of sarmali? Open your life, open your home, make room for the stranger, the foreigner and the dialogue that our world is aching to have.
In Hungarian, the host pronounces a blessing as he welcomes you to the table: