The Surprising Secret at the Heart of Hospitality

A Central Asian woman pours tea for guests

It’s summertime in Central Asia. The streets hum with the sounds of squealing children, street sweepers, and the vegetable man’s megaphone advertising summer produce. It’s also dust season. Dust on the floors, the counters, the shelves. It blows in through open windows and follows people through the door. And in summertime, a lot of people come through our front door.

Today is Sunday, the day our house church gathers. Close to thirty pairs of shoes are lined up by the front door. Shedding shoes in the entryway is a local custom that helps with the dust problem. At dinner my husband reminds me that in a couple of days, twenty-five people are coming for a cookout. He wants to make sure I’m still okay with the plan.

On this particular day, I’m really not okay with it. I’m tired. I don’t want to deal with the dust and the dishes, with another day on my feet, and an evening of awkward conversation with strangers.

But how can I say no?

Loving the Person Right in Front of Me

In the end, I agree, but my response is not very joyful. Internally I grumble about the cost, the mess, and the energy needed to host another houseful of people. I remember 1 Peter 4:9, “Offer hospitality without grumbling,” and I grumble about Peter too. He probably didn’t have to shop, cook, and clean up. At the heart of my grumbling is fear: what if I don’t have the energy and resources to host well?

“Hospitality is grace extended in a genuine welcome, and grace received when I’m the one needing welcoming.”

Two days later our guests join us for the cookout. And I survive. When the beautiful summer evening turns dark and stormy and all of us squeeze into the house, my teenagers pitch in and entertain the little ones. The men wander off to talk while the women sit and drink tea in the kitchen.

We talk about books we’ve read, about babies who never sleep, about trying to discern good from evil, and about Jesus’ reminders that he will sort it all out in the end. Meanwhile kids come in and out, some grabbing pieces of cake and others breaking open the leftover hot dogs to see which ones have cheese inside.

It’s messy. All of it.

I try to ignore the trail of cake crumbs across the floor. I want to stand at the edge of the conversation, making myself busy by cleaning up, but I force myself to sit, to engage, to open my mouth and talk about something real.

One Necessary Thing

This is my “Mary/Martha” moment. Luke’s gospel tells us that Martha prepared elaborately for Jesus’ visit and welcomed him into her home. Martha was busy, while Mary sat with their guest and listened. When pressed, Jesus told Martha that Mary chose the best part of hospitality. She was present with him: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice” (Luke 10:41–42a, HCSB).

This is where hospitality rubs for me. I try to honor others by doing the hard work—by cooking a meal, by making the house presentable, by setting a table. However, those details ultimately mean nothing without love. As Jesus told Martha, what matters is relationship.

How do I love those we welcome to our home? How do I ask good questions in order to get to know our guests? How do I bless them by opening up my life to them—letting them see the dust on my shelves and in my heart? I’m slowly beginning to understand that hospitality is less art and more grace. Hospitality is grace extended in a genuine welcome and grace received when I’m the one needing welcoming.

Receiving and Extending Grace

Many years ago when I first packed up to move halfway across the world, no one talked to me about hospitality. At twenty-two years old, straight off the plane in Central Asia, my first stop was my team leaders’ house. I still remember the borscht and fresh bread they served me in my jet-lag fog. If they hadn’t fed me, I wouldn’t have eaten that day. I was completely dependent on the hospitality of others.

Since then, our Central Asian friends have mentored us in hospitality, extending this grace to us as a cultural value. They have welcomed us to their tables and taught us how to linger. They have dropped by our house unexpectedly, giving us opportunity to lay down our plans and focus on what really matters: the person right in front of us.

In this sojourning life where home is nowhere and everywhere, Christian workers live by the kindness of others. We depend on hospitality when we travel to minister in other cities, when we travel to the United States to visit family, when we send our grown children to college half a world away. Likewise our door swings open constantly for friends and strangers. Just as we receive grace from God and others, the essence of our calling is welcoming people into our lives for the sake of showing them Jesus.

While I have moments of grumbling in exhaustion or selfishness, God persists in patiently teaching me. He reflects the ultimate grace of hospitality in his willingness to sacrifice everything in order to welcome me into relationship with himself. And so I am called to persist in welcoming others. Authentic hospitality moves me beyond selfishness and heals my isolation. As I stretch to welcome one more, I am reminded that God has grace enough for all of us.

Sarah Alexander and her family serve with IMB in Central Asia. She has been writing about the region since 1991.