Gerhard Kittel said, “Strangeness produces mutual tension between natives and foreigners, but hospitality overcomes the tension and makes of the alien a friend.”
Strangeness. Though I think this word often receives negative press, to be “strange” is simply to be foreign. Unfamiliar. Uncomfortable. In the presence of strangeness, there is mutual tension. In other words, when two people or two parties are alien to one another, both feel a certain tension. Awkwardness. You know the situation. Two people meet. They exchange names and pleasantries. Perhaps they share where they currently live, where they are from, small talk about the weather or their families. But then the surface talk runs out. The well is dry… and there is tension. Even though there has been an introduction, they are still strange.
At this point, some have the boldness to ask another question. A deeper question. But to be honest, deeper questions require an uncommon courage.
Strangeness, on the other hand, often suits our culture well.
I believe this strangeness can be a hindrance to the celebration of wider and varied enjoyment.
To enjoy is simply to experience joy; to have joy burst forth. How on earth can we experience joy in the midst of strangeness? In the midst of tension and awkwardness?
Personally, I prefer joy to discomfort. I don’t think I’m alone in this preference. With regard to people, then, there are two options – one framed in the negative, the other in the positive. I can avoid awkwardness, or I can pursue a varied joy. Could it be that a great deal of our lifestyle is determined by our response to this choice? If we choose to avoid awkwardness, we will likely hold close our existing friendships and relationships, and we will experience joy. I honestly see nothing wrong with such a decision. But I also see potential, occasionally desirable, limits with such a decision.
The pursuit of varied joy will often include the pursuit of awkwardness in order to break through and, on the other side, find reward. If you can withstand the strangeness, that is.
Michael Horton, in his challenging book Ordinary (see that one-word review?) argues that quality relationships are not born in quality time – as our culture (read: Disney World) so often depicts – but rather in quantity time. A wealth of time spent together will often mean a depth and breadth of both common and uncommon experiences. Bonds will be forged in the crucible of everyday life, not the pocket-draining effort of a ten day vacation. Like Andy Dufresne’s love of geology, all it takes is pressure and time… (that and a big *** poster.)
If this is true, then the pursuit of varied joy through relationships will involve time. Loads of time. Awkward time. Loads of awkward time. Sounds like fun, right?
Take a moment to consider your best relationships. Your closest friendships. They may have been instituted or strengthened in a moment of quality time, but the truest depth has likely come because of a commitment to quantity time. You’ve likely done life together.
My wife and I set out this spring to pursue varied joy through relationships. I had read a blog post somewhere (my apologies to the blogger who deserves recognition, but because of my faulty memory will receive none) about a couple who chose to open their homes one night a week for a meal to any and all who might attend. The post was written after one year of meals, discussing the wide array of blessings, expected and unexpected. I was challenged by the story. I shared the information with m’lady and we decided to jump in. We devoted every Friday night this semester to an open house dinner.
It’s safe to say we invited over 600 people each week. It sounds overwhelming, but I knew better. Jesus shared a parable once of a dinner party (Luke 14:12-24). Widespread invitations were offered, but very few decided to attend. Obviously he was speaking of something much greater, but he chose the example of a dinner party because he understood human nature. Even at the offer of a good thing (I am severely biased at this assessment), people often have other things going on! I knew the crowds would be manageable.
Over 15 weeks, we hosted 13 dinners. (We skipped Good Friday and one other because of illness) We handed written invitations to neighbors, colleagues, church family. We emailed local folks who were beyond a short walk. We utilized facebook to invite the rest. We averaged 5-7 guests per week. Some weeks we had one. Some we had ten. Only one we had zero. (my vanity was challenged… what becomes of my fragile ego?!) Our family of six bolstered the overall meal size regardless! We served pasta each week – four rotating recipes throughout the semester to keep it interesting. We served bread & butter, and usually a mildly addictive dessert, coffee & water. Super simple. Honestly, not that expensive.
The objective was to take the emphasis OFF the food and put it ON the people. We have no desire to impress people with the cleanliness of our home (four young kids?), or even our prowess in the kitchen. But we had every desire to get to know more people, expecting to find varied joy in relationships.
I am a pastor. My wife is a college professor. Our guests, at times, included friends, neighbors, colleagues, and students. Oh, and children – many children. Fifty-eight individuals stepped inside our home this semester, most for the first time, many more than once. People who would never normally sit down together shared laughter and conversation around our dining room table, which reasonably seats 10. We have another little kiddo table right next to it that seats 5-6 young ones. As the weather turned, we enjoyed each other outside. Evenings ran from 6pm (except that one time someone showed up at 5:57?) until 8:30-9. Because we used many disposable items (my apologies to the sustainability crowd), the house was often relatively tidy and the kiddos in bed by 9:20.
I give the details to say that it’s not as difficult as you might think.
The decision to host meals was a decision to pursue the awkwardness of pushing through basic conversation to get to something better. From assumption to understanding. From strangeness to friendship. At the very least, we pursued the awkwardness because we believe people are better off knowing each other, existing in community rather than as a collection of lonely strangers. Conversations almost always started on the surface, but after three hours at a table, we were pressed to find something more.
The dinners are a stepping stone between quality time and quantity time. Dinner is an ordinary event. Open house dinner is an ordinary event done in an extraordinary way. Weekly open house dinner is an invitation to quantity time for any who are also seeking varied joy in relationships.
My thoughts on hospitality have changed. In former days, I believed hospitality was about putting on the finest exterior and inviting people to look on. Fancy food. Sparkling home. Perfect behavior. I have come to realize that hospitality is not so much about the veneer, instead venturing to the core, the actual substance of relationships. Hospitality is engaging the strangeness in order to find relationship, pushing through the awkwardness to allow oft-messy quantity time to trump the elusive perfection of quality time.
For the past 3+ months, we’ve sought to be a vehicle of hospitality. I would do it again in a heartbeat. (We likely will after a summer of R&R!) To some, and understandably so, I know this would seem like crawling through a river of “less-than-palatable-contents”. But I believe you come out clean on the other side.