Last month I talked about getting my face out of a book and learning to welcome the person standing in front of me. It’s been an adventure (and generally fun) to pay attention to the person standing in line with me and the person knocking on my door. (I’m still working on the telemarketer trying to make a living by calling me!)
The next step is “welcoming the stranger.” Not often listed as a spiritual discipline, this practice was one Jesus emphasized by how he welcomed all kinds of people and identified with them: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me… when you did it for the least of these, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:31-35, CEV). Such welcoming is tangible and helpful, even offering them a cup of cold water (Matthew 10:40-42; see also Matthew 18:5 and John 13:20).
Who are our strangers? People appear to us as strangers for different reasons but they usually fit into one of these categories:
Outcasts. A person’s past didn’t disqualify him or her from being welcomed by Jesus. While most rabbis threw stones at lepers, Jesus welcomed them (Matthew 8:1-4). He touched the untouchables.
Wrong-doers. The immoral past of the Samaritan woman did not disqualify her either. In fact, Jesus went out of his way to extend himself: he had to go through Samaria (John 4:4). He welcomed this person who was also a stranger ethnically and gender-wise. He should not have had a conversation with any woman in public but he not only did so but also invited her to enter into a deepened relationship with God.
Anyone who isn’t like me. When we see or meet people who differ from us politically, ethnically or theologically, a little “ping” may go off in our head that says, Ooh, Different. Step back. I wonder what Jesus’ disciple, Simon the zealot, thought when Jesus healed and then praised the faith of a Roman centurion. Simon would have viewed the centurion as a prime candidate for assassination.
A stranger may just be someone of a different economic class. In a church full of homeowners, an apartment dweller often feels like a stranger. A disabled person is a stranger in the midst of fitness buffs as is a non-reader among well-read folks. Military kids or missionary kids, parolees or drug rehab graduates may all qualify as strangers among those without that type of experience.
Anyone we’re tempted to exclude and ignore. Strangers are often people in power-down positions: “children as opposed to adults, women as opposed to men, minority races as opposed to majority races, the poor as opposed to middle-class, the middle-class as opposed to rich, lower-paid workers as opposed to highly paid workers, less educated as opposed to more educated, blue-collar workers as opposed to professionals.” The elderly are easily overlooked. When my quiet 80-year-old mother-in-law came to visit, our other dinner guests never engaged her in conversation. I wept later to think of the many times I had neglected to speak to an older person.
Or we may avoid pushy people, people who talk too long about themselves, those who scream and pout for what they feel they deserve, know-it-alls, or people who let their kids run wild. In any “us versus them” situation, “them” are the strangers.
The shocking thing about Jesus is that he did not merely tolerate such different people. Jesus offered himself to them in self-giving love. I am able to do this only when I ask Jesus to reach out to others through me.
Excerpted from Invitation to the Jesus Life, ch 5. ©Jan Johnson
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Who are the “strangers” in your life?
What might be some small step you might take in welcoming one of them?
I am by nature a high introvert. Given my preference, I’d sit in a comfy spot reading a book for the rest of my life. But the second part of the Great Commandment tells me to love my neighbor (Matt 22:39). A “neighbor” is a person who is “nigh” (near) me, which might be the bank teller depositing my checks, the dejected teen boarding the airplane ahead of me, the beaming father holding his 6-month-old in the Home Depot line—or the person who wants my attention when I’m completely absorbed in my book. So I have simplified the second part of the Great Commandment to: What would it look like to love the person in front of me for the next 10 seconds?
To “love” the person in front of me does not mean I necessarily feel warm and fuzzy toward them, or that it’s my job to make them feel good (even worse, to like me). “Love” is simply engaging my will for another person’s good. So I often ask God, What does “love” look like here? Most often it involves being friendly or kind or helping someone out. Quite often such welcoming is no big deal.
My friend was in line to speak to a collection agent (so nobody in that line was happy). His previous experiences with the clerk were not pleasant so it was tempting to numb out and just “get through it.” But when he noticed that the gentleman in front of him didn’t speak English well which clearly annoyed the clerk, my friend quietly stepped in and helped translate for the man. It eased the situation considerably.
Some would say my friend did this because he is an extrovert, and that may be part of it. But more than that, he’s very intentional about welcoming people into his life (as is my husband). When he says “How are you?” to me, he waits for a real answer. I’m having to get used to that, since I’m eager to get down to business and address the matter at hand. What I liked best about my friend’s interchange in the line was that he lightened the load not only for the gentleman but also for the clerk who had been so brusque with him. He loved both people in front of him.
Indeed, the person in front of me that I might struggle to welcome might be someone who repeats himself a lot or who tries to convince me of a so-called biblical idea that I don’t think is in Scripture. I most often forget that the person in front of me really matters when I’m distracted by my own dilemmas or trying to make a decision. So the prayer becomes: Show me what it would look like to love the person in front of me for the next 10 minutes. And God usually shows me what to do.
Jesus, I believe, was like my friend. Jesus taught people: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Jesus laid aside deep grief over John the Baptist’s death to pay attention to the crowd in front of him (Matt 14:13-14).This is the essence of hospitality: welcoming the person in front of me:
We pay attention to others, inviting them to be at home with us as they unfold themselves before us (as God invites us). Then we wait for them to be able to do that. To merely welcome another, to make a place for them is one of the most life-giving and life-receiving things a human being can do. Hospitality is not limited to inviting others to eat with us or stay in our home. While cleaning, bed-making and food preparation are valuable gifts to offer others, the core idea of hospitality is being open and vulnerable to another person (Invitation to the Jesus Life, p. 70).
The more I welcome people into my life, the more I find life to be an engaging adventure in God’s company.
Join the Conversation
What “signals” do you send that indicate to another person that they are welcome? That they are unwelcome?
I have met weekly with a friend in a spiritual companionship/accountability relationship for over a decade. It has been a lifeline for both of us. We share everything about our lives, our children, our jobs. We know things about each other that no one else knows as we have practiced the discipline of confession with each other on numerous occasions. We have rafted the Grand Canyon together, cried over and celebrated our children, and have done spiritual formation book studies together. (more…)
There’s a compelling story that Adele Ahlberg Calhoun tells in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook about an entire French village that risked their lives during World War II extending hospitality by welcoming and sheltering Jews. When a local pastor was asked why the village responded in this way, he replied, “I could not bear to be separated from Jesus.” Indeed, that is the essence of hospitality, a virtue that reflects the belief that when we welcome others we welcome Jesus. (more…)
I don’t particularly promote myself as having the gift of hospitality. Although I am aware, that as believers in Jesus Christ I am expected to live hospitably. I am growing to see that hospitality and the experience of the stranger can arise in any place. My daughter and I had a rare opportunity to visit a lakeside retreat facility as the guest of a friend. It is one of those that offer in-suite kitchens so that you can prepare your meals should you choose. We decided to head to the nearest food store one of those big box kinds. (more…)
There is a wise saying by Fr. Hilary Ottensmeyer that goes: “Until you are convinced that prayer is the best use of your time, you will not find time for prayer.” A few years ago, I found myself in a place that was painfully true of Fr. Ottensmeyer’s warning. I was stressed on several fronts—work life, family life, social life, and dealing with a complicated set of health issues. I was so busy and distracted that my prayer life had completely dried up. (more…)