“The Christian is not called to present merely another message in the same way as all the other messages are presented. We must understand that it is not only important what we do, but how we do it.” – Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality
“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” – 1 Corinthians 2:4, 5
God’s hospitality, the loving care and welcome he shows to all, is the basis and source for the hospitality the Christian is to show to others. When Jesus speaks of loving even one’s enemies, he points to the Father’s hospitality shown both to the wicked and the righteous. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45) This is the care the Creator shows. He does not coerce belief in himself in order to provide all that his creatures need. Perfect love is exemplified through the Father’s hospitable care for all that he has created, to those who bear his image, whether they love him or not. This is deepened further in the hospitality we find in the cross of Christ. God graciously welcomes all those who would come to him through Jesus Christ. In this way Jesus demonstrates that which he called the disciples and the Jewish audience to do, to show the perfect loving hospitality of the Creator. This he does by redeeming the whole of creation and by reconciling us to himself while we were yet enemies.
It should be no surprise then to find the importance placed on early Christians to show hospitality. “Practice hospitality.” “Offer hospitality without grumbling.” “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have even entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:2 – 4) The Christian was to remember that every person – no matter their conviction or circumstance – bears the image of God, and that all come the same way, equally, through God’s abundant forgiveness through Christ. Therefore by showing hospitality to others, the Christian would display the love that one has received from God in creation and in redemption.
Considering the weight that Scripture holds for hospitality, it is saddening to see so little of its demonstration by Christians today, for we are in a time and place that desperately needs a witness to the transforming power of the gospel. So many in culture are achingly lonely without a place to turn to, alienated between the rock of philosophical materialism and the hard place of the church’s institutionalism.
In spite of the attempts of ‘tolerance’ to give social cohesion to our fragmented society, people feel all the more lost within the faceless power plays of our mechanistic culture. This is because individualistic relativism, which arises out of our particular type of materialism, hinges a person’s self-creating identity upon what one looks like, thinks, does, or has: there is no transcendent reference point beyond the material and therefore dependent on “using what you are working with.” But this causes a person to be at constant risk with ‘the other.’ Each person is to be ignored, avoided, used, competed against, compared to, assimilated, or destroyed. ‘The other’ is a threat to my own Self, since self-determination is what stands at the center. What is lost then is true hospitality, a loving embrace of ‘the other’ as a fellow human being, since there is nothing larger to hold one another in that difference.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the popularity and success of “social utility” sites. It allows individualistic displays of opinions and presentations, without the nasty side effects of real disagreement in the midst of a shared life. Where is the unlike button? There in the world of Facebook, a person is at complete control to hide another “friend’s” posts, delete unwanted comments or tags, and secretly delete “a friend” altogether. The Internet is a perfect environment for any “success” of tolerance because it removes us as embodied beings, with warts and all. Such rampant relativistic individualism also exacerbates the way we function as consumers. We shop side by side as strangers, looking for products to give us ever-changing identities. This individualism has even shaped our domiciles as highly protected private spheres, safe from the busy pace of life, and in seclusion from unwanted or unknown guests. What has happened is that we have been duped into a simulacrum of social cohesion. Yet in experience, people have become all the more desperate to try to understand why they feel so alone and unknown in a world that seems to give them every option to discover themselves and find belonging.
The churches have sadly not proven a refuge to people either. It is true that historically churches have established helpful institutions such as hospitals, hostels, and homeless shelters to welcome people, and that they continue to create programs for those in need. Unfortunately history also shows that such initiatives, while very good, have led many Christians to be removed from the personal responsibility we are all meant to have in showing true hospitality to others. Christine Pohl’s wonderful book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition shows how this unfolded. In the 4th century, when Constantine began to show support to the Christian church, Christians like Basil of Caesarea were able to establish a variety of institutions to provide care for the sick, for travelers, and for the poor. Yet with the increase of public institutions, so came the decrease of personal hospitality. Just a few years later, John Chrysostom was begging Christians to continue to make a place for Christ in their homes, for those in need of a caring household. This gap between the Christian and the institution was only exacerbated throughout the Middle Ages where hospitality became increasingly a show of prominence by bishops and decreasingly an obligation of laypersons. The attempt to recover this lost practice of hospitality during the Reformation and among some later Protestants, like Wesley and his love feasts, helped some but was ultimately hindered by the individualism the Reformation encouraged and the Enlightenment heralded. This gap persists today. We have become less involved in the calling of what it means for us to be the church. We have become accustomed to a less risky and less costly gospel, which is no real gospel at all. With churches organizing themselves around the success of their own structures and not around the living expression of the gospel, they have lost the demonstrative power of God in their midst. It will not be until the transforming power of God is demonstrated in each of us as a people gathered in Christ that true hospitality may begin to be shown; for hospitality is not simply what we do; nor is it a technique; hospitality is the gospel we embody. It is how we welcome ‘the other’ in our own body, personally and communally.
How might we then recover this calling to be truly hospitable, in sharing what God graciously gives us as his human creatures and as a redeemed people? At L’Abri, we often reflect on two fundamental aspects to the loving welcome we extend to those who come into our homes. These two aspects are ‘true truth’ and ‘true spirituality,’ two phrases coined by Francis Schaeffer, one of the founders of L’Abri. Truth is that which we gather around and engage in our discussions, seeking out what is true of reality. ‘True spirituality’ is acting at each moment upon the truth of whom God made us to be, which can only be anchored in Jesus Christ and filled out by the power of the Holy Spirit. Both must be present in our hospitality in order for those alienated by culture to understand in mind and body the wholeness given to us in the gospel of Christ.
L’Abri has been organized around these two simple aspects since 1955 when Francis and Edith Schaeffer began the work in Switzerland. They welcomed anyone to come ask honest questions, and they would give honest answers. Those interested could come for a day or for months to study and help with the upkeep as they sought the truth claims of biblical Christianity. Some have thought this to be simply a rationalistic approach, but this is to misunderstand the whole nature of the hospitality of L’Abri. From the very beginning, the Schaeffers looked to God to provide at every point in the work and at every point in their own lives. They had to, since they were welcoming people into their family and into their home, often at great personal cost. Today at Canadian L’Abri and at all branches worldwide, we continue to live with this same inbuilt vulnerability in order that God might demonstrate himself in what we say, in how we live, and in how we are sustained; and in order that those who come into our midst may know the transforming love expressed in the lives of Christian fellowship.
The first aspect of Christian hospitality then is the pursuit of truth. This may appear strange as truth is said to be more divisive than inclusive. However hospitality, whatever form it takes, must have a moral basis for its expression, a truth commitment from which that welcome is extended. From out of the places of Christian hospitality then, the pursuit of God’s truth should allow welcome, since each person lives within God’s creation and bears the imago dei, thus giving anyone – even one’s enemy – the capability of having glimpses of that truth, sometimes truth that we ourselves need to hear. When we aim for truth, we are aiming to understand the conditions of our Creator’s hospitality, whether one knows him or not, and our place within it. So when guests come to our door with a handful of questions, or with at least a desire to know the questions, we welcome them into our homes, to a shared meal where we may all pursue the nature of what it means to be alive in God’s world.
Now, these discussions should not be exercises of Christian-ese or of the abstract. Rather discussions about truth should engage me as a full human being in this world, and if true, lead me to become more fully human in love and in purity by living well in this world toward God and toward others. Because of that, all aspects of our humanity – and not just the “religious” things – should be a part of our coming to understand what is true, whether in art, work, money, sex, humour, justice, or anything else under the sun. The abstraction is then further removed as we see the impact of our ideas within the context of sharing our lives together, within the context of a community and society. Not only do ideas of truth involve me as a person as I am in the midst of relationships, but the practice of them reveal what I truly believe and shape how I love and receive love.
This leads to the second fundamental aspect of hospitality, ‘true spirituality,’ which can never be seen as separate from the pursuit of truth. If these ideas of truth have any real weight in the world, we will see them be a demonstration of the Creator’s own character and have a redeeming impact on each aspect of our lives and on society. Truthful ideas must be demonstrated if they are to be believed, not in some sanitized Christian bubble, but before the watching world. We must live before others in such a way that begs the questions for reasons, for Peter says that we should be prepared to give a reason for the hope we have to those who ask. Are people being persuaded by the content of our lives? Do we demonstrate the certain hope we have in God by taking up our crosses daily, following our resurrected Lord in how we sacrificially love others and in how we welcome people? Truthful ideas must be borne out and have such demonstrative power that people desire to be in the midst of Christians and inquire. In the ordinariness of the home, in one’s daily life, and in the public sphere, people should see the power of the Holy Spirit at work. This is why hospitality was so important for the early church, for people to see it lived out in a real way, and it is why hospitality should attend any message of the gospel. It is the giving of our lives to demonstrate the redeeming power of God, not in our own strength, but in the strength of God.
Therefore true spirituality must be a constant act of vulnerability, looking to God, as our Creator and as our Redeemer, to provide all that we need so that his gospel may be proclaimed through us in his way. At L’Abri we look to our Creator through prayer to provide us with sufficient finances to pay for our bills, and with guests, volunteers, and workers to fill our homes. We do not expect everyone to live as we do; we are not proclaiming a super-spiritual lifestyle. Nevertheless, by constantly looking to God to provide, no matter how much or how little we have, we have come to see our homes, our time, our possessions, and even our lives as gifts we have received from him. We are then free to extend the gifts we have freely received. Our hospitality grows out of God’s hospitality. This breaks down the idea that we are hosts providing a service. Instead, when we welcome people into our home, we see that at a profound level we are guests as well. In extending the gifts God gives to us, we are expressing the content of the gospel in how we do it.
Hospitality should in fact be demonstrated not just from our homes and churches, but in every aspect of society. If businesses adopted a form of Christian hospitality, we would begin to see people not as numbers or objects on spreadsheets but as persons of dignity, and to press our businesses toward ways of humanizing and living hospitably in today’s culture. We must not just be ethical in our business transactions but consider the whole way we “do business.” Such hospitality also informs and transforms our economics, as it did for the Hebrew people under the Deuteronomic law. Sabbath laws around land use, manual labour, and households hinged on being faithful to God’s creation. They were to allow the poor to glean from the remainder of their harvests and to welcome foreigners into the land and into their way of life, for they needed to remember that they too lived as aliens in the land God had given them. How might this inform our current economic practices? How might we extend welcome to the poor and the homeless and the foreigners in our own land? Christian hospitality, in the 1940s, also touched our practice of medicine. Tommy Douglas, a socially minded Baptist, recognized the dignity of every person in realizing that no one should be denied basic medical care. Hospitality, under the lordship of Christ, should shape every aspect of life, for it involves not just the welcome of individuals into our own spaces but the hospitable care that God desires to show to all of his creation.
Yet in spite of this wide call we cannot become triumphalistic, for hospitality is a messy and costly affair. Considering that for Christ to welcome us into his divine fellowship that he had to suffer and die on the cross, we should understand that a gospel-shaped hospitality will often be costly to any who care to extend it. One reason is because we desire to show hospitality in and to a culture that is bent against its Creator, which can be seen in its mechanistic ways of being. We have become a culture of bottom lines, year-end goals, and stats. Therefore to try to create places of welcome in such a culture will prove far more difficult than we might imagine. We must be personally involved with our time, our space, and our possessions, and not just dependent on an institution fulfilling our good intentions.
Hospitality is also a messy and costly affair because, if we are honest, we are selfish. We are inconsistent, frail, and sinful even under the best of circumstances. It has become all the more difficult to open our homes, because we have continually succumb to what Francis Schaeffer called “the middle class values of personal peace and affluence.” We seek our own personal happiness, before seeking the good of another, and we seek the security and luxuries of material wealth. With so much chaos in the world and with the frenetic pace of our lives, we look at our homes as refuges for ourselves. Hopefully they are places of peace, but let them not be at the cost of cutting ourselves off from extending true hospitality. Jesus challenged his listeners and us not to show hospitality just to our friends, but also to the lame, the beggars, the crippled, the marginalized. How hard it is to cut against our own creature comforts to extend the welcome that God desires for us to extend! How short we fall to show the grace that has been extended to us!
Nevertheless we may look to our Redeemer and his grace as we attempt to extend the hospitality we are called to do. Through him, our hospitality will be deepened to the very core of what it means to be in right relationship with all people. Instead of trying to put on a perfect appearance in order to garnish the gospel, we may stand before our guests and before one another as those in need of God’s infinite mercy in Christ; and therefore, reveal that our value and our identity do not rest on anything or anyone but Christ. We become living witnesses of the gospel in our very selves, and invite a real welcome. We are secure enough to love even our enemies, and welcome all those who desire to come into our midst. People will be able to look at our lives lived together within our homes, within our fellowship, and within the public sphere, and taste and see that the Lord is good.
In a culture where people are desperate to belong as full people, we must become hospitable by opening up our homes and our lives so that people can see that even in our weakness, it is God who works powerfully in us and in all of creation. And as we submit ourselves to the steadfast forgiveness of our Redeemer, as we continue to act upon the truth of his mercy in trying to love a culture that stands against the Creator’s design, we will not be shaken. And those who come into our midst will stand as humans fully bearing the dignity that God has given each of us and stand not just before truth claims but before God himself in his people.