Reflections on Hospitality
If you go to Paris and walk around the left bank, you will discover an old somewhat dilapidated book store entitled “Shakespeare and Company.” By the way, they have a similar book store with the same name on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. The one in Paris was featured in Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris.” What makes this book shop important is that it’s owner, George Whitman recently died at the age of 98. His store and his apartment above the store was a magnet for writers, poets and tourists who came to see it, perhaps before or after they visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame which it overlooks on the Seine River. If you ever walk in it, it is a bit of a mess with books stacked everywhere and narrow aisles filled with more books.
What I didn’t know is that Mr. Whitman for decades provided food and makeshift beds for young, aspiring novelists or writers. He would always let them spend a night, a week or even months among the crowded alcoves of this rather claustrophobic place that sometimes smelled of old paper. He had a wishing well at the center of the store with a sign that said: “Give what you can and take what you need.” I found this interesting because it’s not often that you find a person that can open his life, his store and even his wallet to help people. But he did reach out to many and his visitors were like a list of who’s who of the literature world. People like Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlingetti were often seen in his book store. Actually it was estimated that he lodged some 40,000 people over the span of time that he was the owner and proprietor of this store.
The more I thought about this, the more I was amazed because it is not often that you find people that are so hospitable in our very hostile world. Most of the time we read about hostility, not hospitality. In fact, we live in a world of terrorists, angry protestors and brutality. Nations do inflammatory things to each other, we have seen dictators fall to angry mobs, we witness enormous cruelty every day in our newspapers when we read about the epidemics of bullying and domestic violence. It is enough to make you very cynical and even fearful as more and more Americans find themselves vulnerable to angry acts which may include random killings, kidnapping and other violent crimes that make us all possible victims.
It is interesting that when you read the New Testament, Jesus’ ministry was really about hospitality. Chapter after chapter he is dining with sinners and others. Time after time he breaks bread with those who are despised by society, and are on the edge of life with no one to care for them. It is Jesus who is always inviting people into a better life of community and of relationships. It is Jesus who encourages his disciples to embrace others, not to blame them or point your finger at them.
There is a passage in the bible from the Book of Hebrews that says: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: For thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
When I think back in my life, I have been enriched by those who have been welcoming and generous to me. When you are involved in various situations and you feel on the outside, you really can be encouraged by people who go out of their way to welcome you into their lives. Hospitality has a lot to do with moving outside of your comfort zone and reaching out to others. You may never know what a smile can do when it’s coupled with the words “Good Morning” or “Would you be available to come to our house for dinner this week.” I can always remember taking my children to school on the first day, they were always a bit afraid walking into a new classroom with a new teacher. A welcoming smile, a kind word and a friendly gesture can make a big difference. When you look at Christianity, it is really the story of God’s hospitality to the world. If you interpreted our faith through the eyes of Martin Luther, you see in another way God’s graciousness that is transforming and even redemptive. For us to be understood as Christians, we have to hear the words: “See how they love one another.” These are the words Tertullian noted (Apology [39.7]) in the Third Century, as spoken by some of the non-Christians of the time regarding Christian communities. The “love” they are referring to is the way in which the early Christian churches cared for each other, especially the poor.
Christian community is great, but it’s even greater to welcome those on the outside who we might not know. People come to the church as visitors. It takes some energy and even courage to walk through those strange new doors into a congregation where you don’t know anyone there. People have told me over and over again of how they were won over into our community by a person going out of their way to be welcoming. Perhaps they were entertaining angels unaware.