Listening as hospitality

May 31, 2018 | Matthew Steem

Word morphing

In our culture, words have a strange way of morphing into meanings that they really don’t imply.

Take the word hospitable, for instance. For me, hospitality has come to be connected with an industry that provides food or lodging in exchange for money. However, this word has an entirely other meaning that I often miss.

Hospitality should be especially interesting to me as a Christian because I am supposed to be startlingly good at it. Being hospitable is not just a suggestion, it’s actually a requirement. It’s supposed to be a way of Christian living.

Indeed, according to the apostle Paul, for anybody interested in a leadership role in the church, it is a prerequisite (though it’s really for all of us). In fact, while I might be able to quickly remember the verse, “do not repay evil with evil” and another well known one, “bless them which persecute you,” am I similarly mindful of hospitality? Perhaps I should be since all three are from Romans chapter 12. Other well-known ordinances include treating one another with brotherly love, being patient, and weeping with those who weep. Who knew that being hospitable was in with those? (Not me, anyway, until recently.)

What is hospitality

So just what is the full meaning of hospitality, or being hospitable? Definitions of it include something akin to being “disposed to receive or welcome kindly.” It also encompasses being open and generous in disposition.

Finally, it also means “the reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers, with liberality and goodwill.” The Greek translation which is philoxenia, simply means “love of strangers” – not that loving strangers is somehow simple by any means.

As we can see, being hospitable and showing hospitality in general has virtually nothing to do with an exchange of money between us as weary travellers and the person at the till of a motel: possibly for a smelly room, some cheap soap and a “free” breakfast which might end up being stale bagels, with old butter and artificially flavoured juice. Like, totally not at all.

We would be closer in meaning if we want to think about hospitality in terms of how we treat a good friend coming over for a meal and going to a good deal of effort to create something delicious to serve them. Then, adding our most favorite and expensive organic bbq sauce.

Over the top hospitality

But really, hospitality goes further than that. True hospitality will treat the stranger, the person we don’t know, in a similar way as we treat our friend, and that is precisely why it’s so culturally subversive. It’s not natural.

It’s an act of meaningful love and affection towards someone who isn’t even necessarily deserving of it, such as our beloved friend we have known since childhood – and who also just happened to set us up with their cousin. We likely don’t know the stranger. They have done nothing to prove that they are worthy of receiving such liberality and goodwill.

Of course, this kind of generosity is hugely attractive! Sometimes we have a great hospitality bestowed on us, and when we do we will retell the story for years – such stories stick in our mind because it is rare.

Additionally, God treated us this way – with wild generosity.

Hospitality is utterly non-transactional. It’s kind of like a Christmas gift that a parent gives to their kids. They don’t give it because it’s some kind of bribe. It’s a gift with no strings attached. If the parent said, “ok Bartholomew, now that we gave you this, you had better hold up your part of the gift.”

Did you see that? The last word shouldn’t have been “gift,” it should have been “deal.”

Hospitality isn’t a deal, it’s a gift.

How can I be hospitable?

Here is a thought I have found myself pondering.

Is it possible that the people we are trying to reach out to, at university or wherever, might feel more comfortable with us Christians if we had a reputation of receiving others with liberality and goodwill? If when approached, we were generally of a generous disposition towards them? Do little children like cotton candy? The answer is fairly obvious for both.

Following is an additional thought, and something that is equally tangible: listening as another form of hospitality.

Could we as Christians be hospitable in our listening?

In the same way that we can share our food with someone we don’t know, or even offer a space for them to enter into in our homes (something I haven’t done enough of), what if we were known to offer them our attention? Possibly even with “liberality” and “goodwill”.

A novel concept, perhaps?

Giving the gift of listening

Now keep in mind the earlier connections of hospitality with words like “entertaining” and “generosity”. Here is something I have been thinking on a bit too: when I pay attention to a friend or a prof or whoever, am I not demonstrating to them that I am “entertaining” their thoughts? Am I not giving something of myself when I “pay attention”? Is it not, in a way, a gift from me to them in terms of attention being shown?

And if I listen especially well – paying close attention – mightn’t that even be kind of like expressing generosity? After all, I am paying something to them: I am paying attention. In our culture most people are leery to pay attention to much of anything. I don’t even think that we are necessarily cheaping out with our attention spans, it’s just that there is so much out there to attract our attention. So if listening is a rarity, maybe we should be better at it?

Here is what listening means: “To hear attentively; to give ear to; to pay attention to”. Another definition says that to listen is, “To give attention with the ear to some sound or utterance; to make an effort to hear something”.

To me all this sounds similar to hospitality in that it implies being in a posture of receptivity. Now forgive me for adding one more definition. To be receptive is to “have the quality or capacity for, receiving; able to receive; pertaining to, of the nature of, reception.”

God, the greatest host

This seems applicable to both hospitality and listening: we receive someone else in our homes; or we are receptive to what they have to say to us. Moreover, this is exactly what our heavenly Father is to us: he listens actively and he is hospitable; and he does it with abundant liberality and goodwill.

This shouldn’t bother or surprise us either, after all the Bible tells us that it is the goodness of God that leads people to repentance. Not the threat of hell (have you ever heard of salvation as receiving “fire-insurance – i.e. a “get-out-of-hell-free card”?); not the threat of living under the wrath of an angry God (which he isn’t).

Can I listen to the stranger?

But back to listening. When I listen to someone I know, that is one thing, but when I “give ear” to a person I don’t know, I am being hospitable. At least I feel that way when someone listens to me when they have nothing to gain. I know that they are being generous with their attention.

And so I wonder how I can better listen to strangers – how I can demonstrate hospitality in providing a listening ear. Moreover, in addition to hearing about their lives, can I also listen to their gripes about Christian experience – and without trying to be defensive?

Can I be willing to engage them in conversation with no ulterior motive? Instead, just listening with liberality and goodwill. Can I be like our heavenly Father who is so good that he sends life-giving rain to the good folks and the nasty ones (who don’t even want “fire-insurance”)?

After all, hard as it might be, this good-naturedness is part of hospitality. It’s the part that isn’t looking for anything in return. We are told, in fact, that we should have this same mindset “that we may be children of our father.”

Hospitality has no ulterior motive

If it had one, it wouldn’t be being hospitable. If I am being truly hospitable, it won’t matter if the guest isn’t particularly interested in me or what I have to say. That’s not why I was hospitable. And if they are interested, that’s just a happy bonus.

And so, I am left with the careful warning to monitor my own motives. We must know our own motives, I think, if we are to be known for being authentic – that oh-so-cool word. If I am being authentically hospitable I may need to ask myself why am I paying attention to that stranger on the bus? Am I merely waiting my turn so that I can offer them Jesus?

Herein lies the secret genius of God’s hospitality and its potent effect on its recipients. The power of genuine hospitality has the potential to be startlingly attractive in a culture that is starving for it.

Listening, the cure to epidemic loneliness?

Now as concerning listening, here is a final thought. We know that loneliness is a serious issue in Western culture. One news headline claimed, “Loneliness Is As Bad For Your Health As Smoking 15 Cigarettes A Day.”

In the UK, the government is actually creating a Ministry for it! So along with the Minister of Health and the Minister of Defense there will be a Minister of Loneliness. True story! And what is one aspect of being lonely? Not being listened to. Every person you come into contact with  could desperately use a person like you who will listen, and listen well.

Early historians – both Christian and non – tell that part of the reason why Christianity spread so quickly was because of their generosity during difficult times. Back then, this meant providing food and compassion to the hungry and the sick. Is it possible that just as a culture that suffered with hunger and illness came to increasingly value the hospitable nature of Christians, so too a culture starved for true listeners might begin to increasingly value a group of listening Christians?

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About the Author

Matthew Steem

Matthew Steem is passionate about exploring the intellectual, imaginative and emotional vibrancy at the heart of the Christian tradition: a tradition all too frequently perceived, from both inside and out, as drab and bereft of true joy. Matthew has written for Our Daily Bread, Relief Journal: Art and Faith Unbound, Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice, and many more publications both online and in print. You can find more at www.elicitinsight.com

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