Tucked into the Wednesday evening shopping-center buzz, we hover between the French grocery chain, Auchan, and the Swedish everything-for-your-hygge-home, IKEA. I take a welcome bite of KFC chicken, savor the flavor, savor time with a daughter. We discuss the really nice Hungarian teen who just took our order.
“You can speak in English, if it’s easier,” he says. And of course it is — both easier and a humbling testimony to my rough Hungarian. I compliment him on his English and ask where he learned it. He says with an impish grin, “On my own by watching tv.” I can see he’s proud of that. We chat a bit more and he is eager to talk but a line of chicken-hungry Hungarians begins to form. Dinner served — we grab and go. That’s how fast-food works in our cultures.
Mid-sentence, mid-bite, mid-meal, I sense a presence at my elbow, watch an older lady covertly open her large purse with a conspiratorial and circumspect wink. A world of Hungarian words have just rushed to my ears and I understand nothing yet I understand everything. The boxes of Gucci perfume, sealed and fresh off the shelf tell me everything. “No thank you,” I say, “I’ve no cash with me.” This is not an untruth. She tries again. I repeat my answer. She moves on and I watch her survey the room before opening her purse to the next table. A coldness grows in me — I suppose that she’s stolen these perfumes from a shelf or maybe they’re blackmarket. She obviously fears being caught.
The neighboring table is even less interested in perfume so she finds her way back to my elbow. The Hungarian words are different this time and I ponder my response as I take another bite of chicken. “She says that she is hungry.” I follow the voice and find our friendly, English speaking, KFC server — he has suddenly appeared at our table but now in street clothes. His shift is over and he has sought us out.
We scoop some chicken into a napkin and the woman slips away. She pops a morsel in her mouth as she walks. We eagerly ask the young man named R to sit and to chat. The conversation flows, we laugh, we talk, we invite him to youth group, we exchange facebook information, we spend time and promise future connections.
On the way home, I proclaim into the silence of the car. “That was awesome to see how the Holy Spirit is working in R’s life — it was no accident how that all happened.” Daughter nods her head, shifts in her seat, “Yeah, it was. But you were mean to the lady, Mom.” My reaction is swift, “Mean? I wasn’t! I politely refused the perfume — it’s probably stolen. And we gave her chicken. How was I mean?”
The Holy Spirit stirs something in me, underlines Daughter’s words, draws my mind to clarity: Two Hungarian humans came to us tonight but my responses to them are not the same. How easily I see the Holy Spirit at work in the life of a pleasant teenager who speaks my language, represents all of the potential for the Gospel, and is eager to laugh. How slow I am to even consider that the Holy Spirit was also at work in the life of the old woman pedaling perfume. Why do I miss the layers of meaning in her, “I’m hungry”? One is invited to sit. One is dismissed with a napkin of chicken. I am Jesus to one. I am cold to the other. You see, I love the God-job of assigning human worth to individual people.
This tendency in me needs to be confessed. I need to confess it, because I’ve missed the heartbeat of Christ tonight. Too easily, too quickly, too irresponsibly, I weave my perceptions and expectations of God’s work around my lens of people, situations and their value. I am sluggish and unversed in perceiving the real work of the Holy Spirit. God says, ‘See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?’ “No. No. Too often, I do not.” Too often, I do not want to be bothered. Too often, I decide who deserves to be helped, who deserves compassion, who deserves an invitation, who deserves to be valued.
Choosing to treat an individual as though they are precious, valuable, and worthy simply because they carry the image of Christ within them is the essence of hospitality. This is a humanizing act in a world that tears at our humanity. It is a radical act against the sin that pervades the created order. This hospitality has nothing to do with the chicken nor the gourmet meal nor the hygge home that we create. Our understanding of true hospitality requires a theological shift: Hospitality is not what we do for people, it is how we choose to perceive them and how we frame our attitudes towards them. True hospitality, ancient-church hospitality, Jesus-hospitality is about creating space — at our tables, in our lives, in our hearts — in such a way that people know that ‘this is a place where I belong and where I have value.’
In fact, it might be true to say that when we understand hospitality as ‘what I do for you,’ it easily develops into an unhealthy savior complex: People become objects or projects to be fixed. Comparatively, when we understand hospitality as a means of humanizing people and creating space for them, we find that we undergo transformation and experience growth in our own lives. We become better versions of ourselves.This realistic, true, and oh-so-difficult, oh-so-unglamorous understanding of hospitality is revolutionary. It sits at the core of so many of the social issues that we face today. Our Biblical narrative is clear that the table is an oasis of equality irregardless of ethnicity, age, talents, gender, addictions, sin or smell. Everyone is welcome. If we are honest here tonight, we like that in theory but in practice …
Missions is messy. Hospitality is hard and costly. People stink and they steal our time and they are inconvenient. And it all feels dangerous and uncontrolled and often it is an interruption. It’s not at all the way a Wednesday night at KFC should feel.
The heart of hospitality takes its first beat in a garden where God walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. And even when Adam and Eve strip off their innocence and clothe themselves in leaves, God comes. He visits. Do you see? Do you perceive? As the body of Christ, our role is to create space, to make room at the table, but we do not have the God-role of deciding who is invited, who sits, who is served, who is worthy to receive grace and mercy.
Take a long look around you, right where you are in your own little garden and find the bony finger of God pointing towards the naked of soul, the wretched of heart, the one who wears different skin or speaks words that you do not understand. Invite them to sit, make a place, learn the words of peace and speak them with your life.
This invitation, this hospitality, this Table is our role, not the consumption of media and the raging over words and the hating of the politicians and the people that don’t think like us, and not the God-role of assigning worth. Do we forget that the call of God on our lives begins with ‘For God so loved the world …’? And a God-man in Galilee gave both voice and feet to that proclamation; Love God. Love your neighbor. Fulfill the commandments and you will live.
Christ-body, the way forward with the social upheaval in our cultures is not more politics or more picketing or more posts. The way forward is a Table and He always has been. The heart of our very proclamation of faith that is the kingdom breaking in, even now and yet not fully is that Table unto Whom all are welcome, remember? ALL are welcome at the Table.
This is part of a missiology series that I am doing on HOSPITALITY in preparation for a workshop that I’m presenting: Strangers At Strange Tables. I invite your responses — constructively critical, thoughts that push me further forward or push back, requests for clarification as I openly process in preparation for the workshop. Your responses become part of my theological wrestling in this open forum — a coffee table chat.