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Receiving the Gift of Hospitality

I can still hear the words of my mother in the back of my head as we drove up to the home where we as a family were guests that evening. Her firm reminder: “we eat whatever is placed before us.” And for me, the great dread was turnips! Surely nothing so traumatized my eating sensibilities as this root vegetable that these misguided adults presumed to put before us children on the assumption that it was (or is) edible. But my mother’s intent and the abiding principle remains, because she taught us well: part of being hospitable is knowing what it means to receive and accept the hospitality that is offered to us.

We arrive for dinner with a gift for our host—whether it is flowers, or a bottle of wine, or chocolate treats. We come inspired by the example of the magi from the East who came bearing gifts for the Christ Child. We do not come empty handed. Of course, we only bring a gift that is within our means. But more than once along the way I have been in the situation where I had nothing to offer. I just showed up, and my hosts asked for no more from me. And yet, it all brings to mind the question: what does it mean to receive the hospitality of the other—whether in a home, a church community or a neighbourhood?

Consider three examples that provide us an opportunity to raise the question. First, the traveler. The difference between the tourist and the traveler is surely this: a tourist so often as not is merely hoping to get certain benefits that they will purchase, and as often as not expect that their needs and desires will be met. (They will get these because they will pay for them. So, frequently they assume that they do not need to adapt to their local culture and its mores, but that the local culture will adapt to them.) But a traveler comes to learn and will be eager to honour the local culture and its ways of connecting and fostering community. A traveler is eager to eat local, will attend to “how they do things here,” and will be resolved to learn and adapt and respect what it means to be here—whether it is eastern Canada, northern Italy or central China. We will tread lightly. And further, as a traveler, we will leave a place better than how we found it: the campsite is spotless, the hotel room is disturbed no more than necessary, and we will honour and thank the cleaning staff. The country we visit is the better for our visit (and not merely because we brought foreign currency.)  Sometimes this will put us in an awkward position, perhaps. To be in Pakistan where all the men eat first and the women after, everything in us screams that this is not right or just. But, we are gracious and patient and recognize that it is not our place or responsibility to change those practices, and that if and as we might have opportunity to speak, we earn that right by, in part, accepting the hospitality that is given to us.

Another example. You are a guest speaker or presenter in a church or university classroom or seminar setting. Always ask: what are the terms of the invitation? If they say that for them a sermon lasts 20-25 minutes, then honour this parameter; they are receiving you as a guest speaker, so then be attentive to the terms of that invitation and speak for only 20 minutes. If you are a guest presenter in a classroom or church, come as a contributor to something bigger than yourself: you do not disrupt or leverage the invitation as a way to force your views on this place. They have invited you; they are being hospitable. So ask: what is the most helpful and gracious way I can contribute to this community? And how can I honour the terms under which I have been invited?

Or, when I come into your home, your office, your space (that is, your physical space). You welcome me; thank you. But I know that I need to honour the terms of that welcome. I read the room—whether it is the living room or the dining room or your office, I read the space and ask or consider how I can be seated or locate myself in a way that honours the desire of my host. Where would the host like me to be seated? But more, I note the space: perhaps comment on the art on the walls, express appreciation for the opportunity to be in this space and, if it is a group meal, resolve to contribute to the conversation without dominating or controlling what is said or not said. And this is the crucial piece: I let the host be the host.

No doubt we are teaching our children what it means to be a guest—in this country, in this neighbourhood, and in this home. And yes, I agree with my dear mother that this means bringing something—do not come empty handed, if at all possible—and learning to eat whatever your host places before you, praying all along the way that the host will be someone who is eager to put before you a meal you are keen to enjoy!

Monday, November 15, 2021
Dr Gordon T Smith