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Friday, March 06, 2015

By the Oaks of Mamre and Your Front Door

Dear Ones,


He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, 'My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.' –Genesis 18:2-5a


I have always been charmed by stories of travelers in certain parts of the world who encounter hospitality in ordinary households. I hear some recurring themes in these stories. The visitor is shown to the most comfortable place to sit, be it a nice chair or the better pile of skins. There is some bustling around, perhaps the assembly of something to eat or the heating of a pot of water for tea or coffee. Conversation is pleasant as both host and visitor without anxiety allow the time to grow and flower in conviviality. The food and drink are served and more pleasantness is sustained. At some point, the talk turns to whatever business has brought this meeting into being.

The fascinating and inspiring book of a few years ago "Three Cups of Tea" drew its title from the measurement of that point at which conversation could turn more purposeful in some households of Pakistan.

Have you encountered a practice like this yourself?

Do you have a habitual way that you handle visits, perhaps learned when you were little? I confess that I don't. I kind of make it up on the fly. It depends on who the visitor is, what else I'm doing, is this an expected visit or a drop-in, the time of day, and, perhaps most importantly, what the purpose of the visit is. I don't necessarily have to get down to business right away, but often enough, that's the most significant aspect of the visit for me and the strongest determinant for what hospitality I will offer.

That is very different from the stories of hospitable hosts that I find so charming.

Where does my habit come from? Where does yours? Do you consider your habits of hospitality to be Christian?

With that last question, you can hear me asking whether your habits mimic the practices of Jesus. We have very few images of Jesus' example or idea of hospitality as such. One that we should remember, of course, is the Breakfast on the Beach, in the Gospel of John, Chapter 21. Another story is the powerful moment, when in response to the query, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?" in Matthew 25, Jesus shared this startling and eternal insight, "…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

Do you root your practice of hospitality in those stories?

I am asking another question too. Are your personal habits of hospitality informed or drawn from the rich history of hospitality in Christian communities, such as churches, such as homes? Some of these are revealed in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters at the back of the Bible. Consider this instruction from The Letter to the Hebrews, in Chapter 13, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

The anonymous author of this book of the Bible is referring to the story excerpted at the beginning of this Note. That story is about Abraham, who is sitting outside the tent where he and Sarah are resting.

That story is the foundation of Christian hospitality, of Jewish hospitality, and, it turns out, of Islamic hospitality. The Pakistanis whose practice included those three cups of tea? Their cultural practice of hospitality is instructed by the hospitality of Islam. That hospitality of theirs is further illustrated by a story about one of Islam's heroes.


Abu Talha welcomed a hungry traveler into his home even though there was very little to eat. So he instructed his wife Umm Sulaim to bring whatever provisions they had and give it to the guest. As the guest ate his fill, these two devout Muslims pretended to eat in the dim candlelight.


Perhaps we should have a conversation about what practices we think are best, most welcoming, most nourished by the tradition we claim, and most holy. Holy? Why holy you ask? Well, here is the first line of Genesis 18, omitted earlier. It is a good verse to memorize today!


The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. – Genesis 18:1


Peace and Blessing,