Table Grace: Addressing Today’s Disconnection Crisis

by Timothy Shorey
September 9, 2020

Introduction

My first seriously attempted—but soon abandoned—book project was about hospitality. It would have gone by the name Table Grace, if I had ever finished it. It’s intended focus was not on “saying grace” over a shared meal, but on experiencing grace; the grace given and received through a shared meal. Convinced by Scripture, and inspired by real-life models of hospitality and our own experience, I believed then (as I do now) that those who bear God’s image well will practice hospitality. God is the Perfect Host who intends that we be like him; opening both heart and home to vibrant community life.

Gayline and I are not hospitality icons like Francis and Edith Schaeffer or Rosario and Kent Butterfield. Theirs is a rarified league in which we will never play. Still, we have practiced hospitality as a regular and enduring feature of our lives. Over our 42 years together we have provided refreshment and/or refuge for the abused, for recovering addicts, for lonely singles, and for the widowed and orphaned. We have housed and/or fed traveling missionaries, itinerant preachers, curious nuns, young disciples, troubled counselees, diverse neighbors, Muslim immigrants, Muslim clerics, confused gays, “recovering” derelict dads, straggling teens, and hundreds more assorted human beings. People hailing from all corners of the world have shared our table to the great enrichment of our lives, and we hope, of theirs. Through hospitality, a world of diversity and need has opened up to us as we have opened up to it.

Hospitality Imperatives

Welcome to another installment in my intermittent series on the “One Another” commands of the New Testament (NT). Peter’s command to show cheerful, non-grumbling hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:8-9) seems a good place to begin. It affirms a hospitality mandate with an appropriate mood to match. Apparently, grumbling hospitality is a thing, and not a good thing at that—and it’s easy enough to see why not. It’s hard to receive the grace that hospitality intends if your host is a grumpy curmudgeon who would rather not be bothered. Likewise, I’m not going to make people who walk through my door glad to be here, if in fact I wish they weren’t. In short: hospitality is the must. Cheerfulness is the mood.

Other NT imperatives add to Peter’s call to cheerful hospitality, by telling us that we:

  • should seek (i.e.-pursue or chase) hospitality (Romans 12:13)
  • should not neglect (i.e.-forget, carelessly overlook) hospitality (Hebrews 13:1-2)
  • should do hospitality without expecting reciprocity (Luke 14:12-14)
  • should practice hospitality with Judgment Day urgency (Matthew 25:35).

So Scripture commands that hospitality be cheerfully practiced, earnestly pursued, conscientiously remembered, selflessly offered, and eternally motivated.

Not content to command hospitality clearly, the Scriptures also commend it frequently. The beauty of hospitality is modeled by Abraham (Genesis 18:1-8); the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-16); the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:1-7); Job (Job 31:16-22); Boaz (Ruth 2:14-16); David (2 Samuel 9:1-13); true “fasters” rather than fake ones (Isaiah 58:6-11); Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13); Martha and Mary (John 11 and 12); the early church (Acts 2:46); Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-3); Gaius (Romans 16:23); and Philemon (Philemon 1:1, 22); and too many more to mention.

So what is hospitality? In the Introduction to my ill-fated book attempt I define it simply, as “the practice of welcome”—with a focus on “strangers” and those who may not be able to return the hospitality favor.  The Greek word translated hospitality in Scripture is philoxenia; meaning a “love of strangers”. This term, together with Jesus’ focus on the hungry (Matthew 25:35), on displaced strangers (Matthew 25:35), and on those who can’t reciprocate our hospitality (Luke 14:12-14) suggests that biblical hospitality is not a social gathering of good friends so much as a servant lifestyle in which stranger-love and neighbor-need feature prominently. A Biblical hospitality guest list is decidedly not clubbish, cliquish, or exclusive. Rather, it consistently includes people who are unknown (or less known) to us, and perhaps different from us; those who may not otherwise fit in or feel at home among us; those who may not have something to eat, or a safe place to be. With this understanding, one has to wonder: is there any better time than now to get started?

The Crisis of Disconnection

I believe that hospitality is one of God’s first-tier answers to the “feeling disconnected” crisis so common in human experience; perhaps especially so in this season of COVID-imposed isolation and racially-charged alienation. It is God’s response for those typically overlooked (Psalm 68:5-6), and his remedy for our deeply felt estrangement from others. I would go so far as to say—and I think without exaggeration—that what we need is not a grand scheme for racial understanding and peace. We need hospitality. We do not need another program. We need hospitality. We do not need more books. We need hospitality. We do not need more studies. We need hospitality. We do not need more summits and debates. We need more consistent, intentional, bold, cross-cultural, and barrier-smashing hospitality.

Hospitality invites people together and receives them in. Table grace makes people feel welcomed, wanted, and comfortable, as they sit, nibble, taste, chew, swallow, and drink together. The practice of welcome towards spiritual brothers and sisters, cross-cultural strangers, and even angry enemies draws them all in, to occupy safe space with us where they can share their story, reveal their humanity, express their ideas, unburden their griefs, mingle their laughter and tears, and whet their appetite—both literally and figuratively—for more. It is not too much to suggest that more can get done over a simple shared meal slowly enjoyed, than in a hundred hours of negotiation and dialogue.

Off Our Game

But I’m afraid that pandemic restrictions and current cultural crises may have knocked us Christians off our hospitality game (although in truth, many were never on it). We’ve allowed COVID, political disagreement, and racial alienation (not to mention our mad pursuit of cash, career, and comforts) to crimp our hospitality way of life at a time when it has been most urgent. It seems that when needed the most we have done it the least.

The trust- and affection-reservoir needed to relieve the relational stress of today’s pandemically, politically, and racially charged environment will sink to dangerously low levels without a renewed commitment to planned and purposeful hospitality. So it is time to get back on our game, whether we have a home and family, or not. This is something we all can do; whether safe-distanced around a big table with multiple leaves inserted, or by a TV Table at the end of the couch, or on the back yard patio or through invitation to an outside-seat restaurant. We can all extend welcome to someone.

Conclusion

But I will be the first to confess: Gayline and I feel out of practice. We’ve let COVID-forced isolation weaken long-held habits in our lives, and render us somewhat hospitality clumsy. Admittedly, in the face of so much confusion, need, and angst, we are now fighting for renewed faith-filled energy to revive our practice of welcome; to re-open heart, hand, and home however we are able. The Kingdom of God needs many hospitality outposts where welcome is practiced, and we want our home to remain one of them.

Subsequent blogs will offer practical hospitality advice to help your home become one, too. But there’s no need to delay. We can all get started this week, first, by thinking of at least one person or couple or family who needs a dose of good heartfelt welcome; and then, by planning how and when to offer him/her/them the real and precious table grace for which they hunger.

Friend: I am convinced that if the church—including all of its individual households—regains its status as the most welcoming place on earth, disconnection will start giving way to relationship, reconciliation will replace alienation, suspicion will yield to trust, strangers will no longer seem strange, and those we’ve alienated as “others” will soon feel very much at home with us.

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Tim is lead pastor of Risen Hope Church, a congregation in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. He is author of Respect the Image: Reflecting Human Worth in How We Listen and Talk; Worship Worthy: Alliterative Adoration ; and 30/30 Hindsight: 30 Reflections on a 30-Year Headache. He and Gayline have six grown children and 13 grandchildren. For more, scroll through this site  (www.timothyshorey.com).

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