Hospitality and Strangers | Part 2 of 2

by Elouise

My first, most formative adult experience of hospitality was in the late 1980s.  I began attending 12-step program meetings.  I was a stranger.  I was desperate.  My life seemed to be falling apart.

In 1993, I met with my parents and told them I did not deserve to be shamed, humiliated or silenced with harsh punishment when I was growing up.  This was one of my first attempts to begin exercising the spiritual practices I learned in 12-step program meetings.

My father and some of my Bible teachers taught me several spiritual practices, though they didn’t call them that.  They included Bible reading, Bible memory work, memorization of hymns (all verses!), prayer (especially confession of my sins), and going to Sunday School and church every week.

They weren’t necessarily wrong.  Some were weighted to favor habits especially important for little girls:  obedience, submission, not being loud or argumentative, always being good and nice to people.  Most of the people I knew agreed with these.

When I got to my 40s, I became painfully aware that something was wrong.  I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD, and began rethinking many areas of my life.   Out of that came three spiritual practices I still exercise daily.   Not always with excellent results.  Though mistakes can be great learning experiences when I’m willing to risk going there.

Psalm 23 says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  These three spiritual exercises are necessary if I want to take my place at this table.  A table prepared in the presence of my enemies, all of whom aren’t necessarily God’s enemies.  They’re just people I’d rather not sit down with at a table right now.  Here are the three practices.

First, I must keep company with strangers.
What if I don’t feel safe when I see who’s already at the table?  I have a choice.  Will I sit down with them?  The answer isn’t automatic.  Maybe I don’t feel safe enough.  Maybe it isn’t safe.

When I sit down, it’s because I feel safe enough.  Sometimes I decline.  God doesn’t demand a knee-jerk response from me.  I’m still learning to weigh opportunities, listen to my body, and do what I decide to do.  God knows me from the inside, out.  It isn’t about whether I make the ‘right’ decision or not.  It’s about trusting God won’t abandon me no matter what I do.

Second, assuming I sit down, I must listen truly.
This means giving up my need to be right, to win.  It means listening in order to understand the stranger sitting next to me.  It doesn’t mean having a running dialogue in my head as you’re speaking.  Or listening for weak points so I can skewer you and your weak points.  It means getting interested and wanting to know more.  I want to know you.  Which will help me know myself.  It’s about our relationship.

Finally, I must also speak truly.
Who am I?  How do I feel today?  What am I thinking about?  It doesn’t matter whether I understand everything.  I’m part of the conversation!  That means I might be caught in the act of saying something that offends you.  Am I willing to let you know how and why I disagree and/or agree with you?  Am I willing to do this without using words and ideas as ammunition?

This is about you and me and whether we can find a way to be friends.  Can I describe what I’ve learned from you, and how it has changed me?  This isn’t about whether we agree with each other.  It’s about our relationship.

Henri Nouwen has a wonderful description of hospitality.  He says, It’s “…the creation of a free and friendly space where we can reach out to strangers and invite them to become our friends….”  (p. 79, in Reaching Out, Doubleday 1975)

This isn’t easy.  It won’t change the world overnight.  It won’t make everyone happy, healthy or wealthy.  It won’t solve every problem in our lives.  Yet it will make a difference, beginning with me.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 31 January 2015