Monday, September 27, 2010

The Importance of Being Hospitable

This devotional piece on hospitality includes an insight from the late Henri Nouwen, the priest who left academia to care for the mentally disabled:

Hospitality...means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.
In spite of the penchant of some Christians and churches to tame their faith into a domesticated religion of niceness and stagnation, there is actually an availability to constant change which we Christians embrace for ourselves.

Christ has changed us from enemies of God to friends of God. Each day, we submit our lives for examination by God, seeking correction, reproof, and renewal so that, in spite of our inborn impulses, God will make us over increasingly into the image of His Son.

Because of the new life that Christ has given to us, we desperately want to introduce our family, friends, and others to Christ. We want them to experience the warm welcome of the ultimate change agent, Jesus, Who died and rose for a world of people who are not strangers to Him, even when we regard the One Who made us as a stranger. We want others to know and trust in Christ. We know that doing so will change their lives today and for eternity.

Christ's commission compels us to share Christ with others and make disciples.

Christ's compassion, living inside us now, motivates us to share the Good News of new life through faith in Jesus that is available to all people.

Jesus made clear the consequences of choosing to spurn Him. He was utterly honest about how the person following Him would suffer indignities in this world. And He (along with the first Christian disciples) made it clear that all who trust in Him are surrendering their lives, allowing God's Holy Spirit to undertake a radical makeover of our priorities, habits, beliefs, and relationships. Following Jesus is no walk in the park, as they say.

But Jesus also made clear that following Him is the only way to real life: abundant, eternal life, a life in which God sets us free to become our true selves...
the selves God had in mind when He formed us in our mothers' wombs, 
the selves God designed for us to be long before He scooped up the dust into which He blew the breath of life to make the first man, he selves Jesus died on the cross to reconstruct from our current distortion to ultimate perfection in eternity. 
Nouwen's quote reminds us, as does God's Word, that faith in Christ cannot be coerced. No matter how wonderful we who trust in Christ know it is to be in relationship with God through Christ, beating people over the head with Jesus, guilting them into following Jesus, proof-texting them into accepting our version of Christian faith, imposing our specifically Christian ethics through political pressure, is not how people are called to faith in Christ. Christ never coerced people into following Him. Indeed, He couldn't do so.

Coerced confessions in Christ are as worthless as confessions induced from prisoners through torture are in courts of law.

Coercion, shame, peer pressure, all these things may get people to sing Christ's praises. But that won't mean they trust Christ. No change will have come to them.

Instead, to be faithful to our commission to make disciples and to display the compassion for our Christ-less neighbors that Christ's love creates within us, we need to be hospitable. We need to welcome people into our lives. Hospitality is not about changing people through the force of our effort, but providing the place in which the God we know in Jesus Christ can create the change God sees need to be made within all of us.

In order to be able to truly trust Christ and to embrace "the good news" of new life with God, we must, of course, repent for sin. Jesus said, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). Sin stands as a wall between life with God and us. Repentance, authentic turning to God, can bring that wall down. David wrote of his experience with repentance:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:3-4)
Sin is real. Sin, when unrepented, will separate us from God forever. (Of course, being human, we're incapable of remembering every sin we've committed. God isn't interested in a catalog of particulars we can't provide; God wants to be our friends. Repentance makes that possible.) No Christian who is truly hospitable will fail to respectfully, lovingly convey the truth about sin and the need for repentance with those they welcome into their lives. (And not necessarily on the first or the first fifty meetings, either. Christian hospitality, like Christian love, entails patience.)

But remember this: "God's kindness is meant to lead to repentance" (Romans 2:4). As a Christian, I can look back over my thirty-plus years-walk with Christ and see the patience and kindness God has exhibited toward me time and time again. There have been many instances when I've sinned knowingly--saying unkind things, harboring hateful feelings for others, failing to take a stand for what I knew was right, doing things that I wanted to do instead of what God wanted me to do in particular situations. God would have been justified in those moments in taking my life from me. Or in giving up on me. But God's kindness created a space in which God could work positive change in my life. God still has a lot to do in making Mark over. I only pray that I'll prove a more surrendered Christian in the future, whatever future I have left on this earth, than I have often been in the past.

All of us need the kindness of God.

We Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, the body of Christ, as the New Testament puts it. We are called to hospitality. We are called to create the spaces--not just the physical spaces, but the spaces in our everyday lives and schedules--in which those we encounter each day can begin to experience the Lord Who has come to work eternal changes in people's lives.

May God teach us--may God teach me--the true art of hospitality.

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