Planning for Spontaneous Hospitality

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We’ve all heard stories of the spontaneous hospitality practiced many in non-Western countries. Some of us have experienced it when travelling far from home and being welcomed into strangers’ homes. But when those warm people who’ve always opened their doors spontaneously come to the West, they too often don’t return home with stories of spontaneous hospitality. In fact, in our Western world they often experience a “hospitality culture shock” of sorts.

This difference in our hospitality styles can be attributed to our cultural differences - relationship-orientation verses task-orientation. I live in Germany, a very task-oriented nation…which is filling with immigrants from relationship-oriented nations. A North African student recently talked about his experiences in Germany with me. “Most of my friends here are also North African. We can drop in on each other at almost any time. But Germans, no. The Germans are busy and protective of their time.”

“Busy.” “Protective of their time.” Would our neighbours, coworkers and friends describe us in this way?

When I hear comments like these, I wonder: how can we mix more spontaneity into our well-planned Western lives? We appreciate it when someone offers it to us, but it’s hard to make time for it in our own busy lives. As I look at our African, Middle Eastern, or Asian friends here in Germany, I realize: spontaneity is their language of friendship. A true friend will be available to you when you need them. A true friend will let you drop in on or call without making an appointment ahead of time. How can we be true friends to our warm, relationally-oriented friends?

My husband and I are learning a few ways that we can plan to be spontaneous — is that an oxymoron? In our experience…

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality means keeping our evenings relatively unscheduled. 

We don’t lock ourselves into a Monday night jogging group — we can jog on our own if Monday night is free. We have only one night and one morning a week that are virtually always booked, and a few days a month where we usually attend certain events. But otherwise, we keep a lot of our weeknights relatively open, which allows us to be free on short notice…because nothing says “I’m too busy” like having to book a simple dinner date six weeks ahead of time! In the past year, keeping our evenings relatively open has allowed us to be more spontaneous — to invite a friend who passed an important German exam out for dinner on the same night to celebrate, or to quickly find time for coffee with a friend going through a divorce.

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality means limiting certain friendships.

We could hang out with our Christian friends or church groups almost every night of the week if we wanted to. But in order to build deep relationships with people of other religions and cultures, we have had to decide carefully how many church commitments or relationships to take on. We sometimes have to also limit the number of new relationships with cross-cultural friends we pursue, so we can be true, spontaneously-available friends to the foreign friends we already have. When we can, we try to plan events where friends of a variety of backgrounds can spend time with us together.

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality often means setting counter-cultural priorities. 

One of the main reasons that spontaneous hospitality doesn’t happen much in the West is because we are so busy with our “paid work” that we don’t have time for “unpaid work” like hospitality. It is good to regularly evaluate our standard of living and priorities, or to be willing to be counter-cultural in some of our decisions in regard to money, time and work. I am a freelancer, and sometimes people ask me why I don’t get a regular 9 to 5 job. “Wouldn’t you get extra benefits by working for an established company?” they ask. It’s hard to explain to them all the benefits we gain because my work-from-home schedule keeps me much more flexible.

You can foster spontaneity in hospitality by learning to:

1. hold your plans and schedule loosely,
2. keep a relatively organized, clean-ish home,
3. let people see your home even when it’s not organized and clean-ish,
4. always have something simple on hand that you can feed to drop-in guests,
5. offer guests simple fare or accommodations and not have to put on a show,
6. say “no” to some good things so you can say “yes” to the best things…
7. and much, much more….

The North African student I mentioned at the beginning of this post mentioned that one German student and his family have given him the gift he cherishes most: their time. That German student keeps in contact with him virtually daily. He invited the North African student to spend time with his family in their home. The North African student, who is a self-described “moderate Muslim” mused, “I don’t know if it’s because of their Christian faith that this German guy and his family take time for me. But they are the only Germans who have been so friendly and generous with their time.”

“Friendly.” “Generous with their time.” Could our foreign neighbours, coworkers and friends describe us in this way? Or are we busy running from task to task? Do they make the connection between our openness and generosity and our faith? Know that spontaneity doesn’t have to be as spontaneous as it looks. You can intentionally plan cross-cultural hospitality into your life by making some counter-cultural decisions. Let’s be known for our love — not our schedules.

This article first appeared as a guest post at Scraping Raisins on August 2, 2018. Follow Leslie Verner, the hostess at Scraping Raisins, and watch for her book about Cross-Cultural Hospitality releasing in 2019!

Making Conversation with Cross-Cultural Friends

When you are wanting to make friends with someone of another culture and background, sometimes it can be hard to find commonalities with that person. So often our friendships are built around a common interest or a common history. These friendships come naturally—but sometimes a genuine friendship with someone so different than you seems like it will have to come supernaturally. (Not a problem, we believe in the supernatural at The Serviette! 😉) What about when your international neighbour or coworker seemingly has nothing in common with you?

When I lived in South Asia, it amazed me how my American neighbour Harold made natural small talk with anyone from the man who cleaned the building or the driver of his taxi, to multinational business managers. Harold is in his fifties, but he befriended people of a wide variety of ages—taking men in their twenties or thirties out for breakfast or supper and chatting about sports scores, or visiting an elderly man in his home and reading with him.  

Talking comfortably with people who seem very different than you may not be a skill that you yet have. But it's a skill you can develop. Harold grew up in a very white, very rural American community and has learned over the years to converse with people of any and every background. I asked him to contribute ideas for this post, on how to build intentional cross-cultural friendships — both the basic conversation stage and the going deeper stage. I picked his brain for some thoughts about topics that are better to avoid, too. As I was creating this post, I got some reader input from our Instagram, and have sprinkled a few of your ideas throughout as well. I hope you'll find this post helpful! 

(Note: At The Serviette, we recommend that one-on-one relationships be with friends of the same gender. This can be especially important when interacting with people from conservative cultures. If you meet an international individual of the opposite gender that is needing friends, consider how you can introduce him or her to friends of his or her own gender, or invite them to events or gatherings where both genders will be present. If you don't have a "team" you can work together with to reach out to others, or if you have already started a relationship that you need to step down a notch, pray about it and involve some wise Christians.)

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Ideas for making cross-cultural conversation

  • Ask good questions and find something you have in common: Harold finds a topic he can discuss with someone and uses it to build conversational bridges. Some of the topics he often talks about are: soccer, basketball, cars, politics, weather, physical fitness, family, travel, or languages.

  • Talk about current events: Read the news and talk with people about a headline you saw, whether funny or serious.

  • Talk about family: People are often happy to talk about their family background, especially if they come from a warm culture.

  • Ask about cultural similarities and differences as they come up: foods, gender roles, clothing, celebrations, parenting....

  • Take up a new hobby or do an activity together: Maybe you've never been a gym person, but going to the gym might help you connect with people with whom you'd never connect otherwise. Sometimes when it's hard to find things to talk about, it's best to plan to do activities (like cooking, biking, crafting or hiking) together. Start making memories together and you'll suddenly have more in common!

  • Find something you can do for your new friend: If you have a skill or ability that you could use to help your friend, offer to help them. Maybe your friend needs a ride to the airport, or needs to borrow a tire pump.

  • Find something your new friend can do for you: If you are living in another culture, often asking someone from that culture to help you with something that comes easily for them (like translating something or helping you with an errand) is a way to develop the relationship.

  • Learn to listen and show a genuine interest in people: Ask about something they mentioned the last time you talked. It may sound nerdy, but you can even take notes on what you discussed so that you can remember and bring it up another time. Remembering a comment from two months or two years before, or remembering a preference or allergy, shows that you are paying attention and care about the relationship.

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Ideas for transitioning to deeper conversation

Some people are great at small talk (here's looking at you, North Americans) but they have a hard time turning those conversations into more meaningful conversations. As Christians, we know that life is much deeper than talking about jobs, family or hobbies. What are some tips for taking an everyday interchange and making it more meaningful?

  • Pray before you meet your friends, and during your meetings with them, for opportunities to talk about deeper things. Sometimes these kind of conversations happen on the first meeting, sometimes they happen on the twentieth.

  • Pray before a meal. If a meal is at our house, we almost always pray before it. If it's at a friend's house, we don't (unless they ask us to). If we're eating out with friends, we feel out the situation and decide whether it seems appropriate to ask to pray before the meal. I often wonder what our guests think about us praying before meals, and one of the rare pieces of feedback we got was this — one of our international guests told me that her husband went home and said to her, "We could pray before our meals like they do, if you want." They both come from culturally Christian homes and don't pray before meals, but had seen it done before.

  • Post Truth on your walls or in conspicuous places. If it's appropriate, talk about it. Harold would often read verses he had posted on his walls with his guests. Recently we had a guest who kept turning his head to read a verse on our wall, and a few weeks later my husband had a great spiritual conversation with his girlfriend.

  • Begin a habit of reading the Bible after each meal. Some families or individuals have this as a built-in tradition, that after a meal they always read a passage together or pray together. If your guest doesn't feel comfortable with this aspect of being at your house, I suppose they can find excuses not to come again, but most people are respectful if this is your tradition.

  • Share answers to prayer or ask to pray with your friend. When someone asks about something that has happened in your life, don't be afraid to mention praying about it or seeing God answer prayer. Or at the end of your visit, ask if you can pray with your friend for something you've been discussing.

  • Learn to ask deeper questions. These kinds of questions might feel funny coming out of your mouth at first, if you're not used to asking them, but if you practice them, they'll start to come out more naturally. At our house we have a cup full of interesting questions and sometimes we ask a guest to pull out a question and we discuss it around the table. A couple of ideas for spiritual questions are:

    • What do you think is the purpose of life?

    • Do you believe in life after death?

    • Where do you get your ideas about life and death?

    • Have you ever read Jesus’ teachings?

  • Pull out your smartphone. Yeah, normally we don't recommend using your smartphone while visiting with friends. But if you have the Bible on your smartphone, Harold suggests that it can be an opportunity to share a verse or story that relates somehow to your conversation. In some apps you can even show your friend the verse in his or her own native language, or in two languages side-by-side.

  • Invite friends to celebrate Christian holidays with you: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and other special holidays with Christian ties can be a great springboard into spiritual conversations through shared traditions like songs, readings, skits, or stories.

  • Share your personal spiritual journey: We have a friend who always encourages Christians to share with anyone about their own journey to faith in Christ. As he says, people don't ask for permission to share their story about how drunk they were last weekend or how fun their vacation was, so you don't have to ask permission to tell the story of how you found the One who gave your life purpose and meaning.

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Conversations to (perhaps) delay

There are some topics that are not usually best for a first conversation. Most of these will be obvious. However, take these thoughts with a grain of salt; they're not necessarily taboo topics, but perhaps areas in which to tread lightly until you see how your friend reacts. God has made people with such a wide variety of temperaments and interests — some talk about these sensitive topics from the first five minutes of the conversation, and some would never bring them up. 

  • Social status or finances: From your conversations and interactions, you will likely start to get a feel what financial or social level of society your friend comes from. But let them initiate any sharing of information about finances or social status. You'll usually start to get a feeling as you learn about the person, whether they're scraping pennies together for groceries and wearing the same two T-shirts, or talking about their private school education and flying to their home country several times a year. (I'm pretty sure I insulted a refugee friend by offering him some dishes we were getting rid of, because I eventually realized he is a wealthy man and hates receiving hand-outs!) But don't be too surprised if an international friend asks you direct financial questions; depending where they come from, they might think it's normal.

  • Religious background: It may be obvious right away which religion a new friend belongs to (hello, headscarf) but if it's not, you don't always need to ask. Sometimes I've found out after a few years that someone grew up in a Catholic or Buddhist home, that someone's mother was an angry ex-Jehovah's Witness, or that a person follows the Waldorf philosophy. Finding out these details often does help understand where they're coming from. But you might want to be cautious about how directly to ask about these topics. Harold suggested that a roundabout way of finding out what religion someone belongs to might be to ask what their favourite holidays or foods are, or what kinds of hobbies they have or clubs they belong to. (On the other hand, people from other non-Western cultures are often accustomed to discussing religion and it might be a topic that comes up in your first conversation — that is also OK.)

  • Political topics: People from Eastern cultures may be much more accustomed to talking about politics with new friends than we are. But sometimes even our different nationalities can make these topics sensitive, like when a Syrian hears that America bombed Syria last night, and is having supper with an American the next night. We have noticed that our Chinese friends have a wide variety of opinions about the Chinese government; the perspective you hear in Western news might be the opposite of what they're hearing from Chinese news sources. Be sensitive and tread carefully; don't burn relational bridges for the sake of a political opinion.

  • Dating / marriage / sexuality: In some conservative cultures, dating is not a thing, marriages are at least semi-arranged, and homosexuality is hidden. With anyone, these topics can be sensitive - maybe your new friend is divorced but many people don’t know about it, or maybe his family is pressuring him to marry and that’s why he moved abroad. We have an atheist friend who is probably involved in a homosexual lifestyle, but since he's never directly said so, we've never directly asked; it doesn't affect how we relate to him. Many of our friends or Harold's friends have shared really openly about these topics, but the conversation has usually started at the friend's initiative.

  • Children / fertility: In many cultures, a lot of pressure is put on couples to have children and to have no heir is virtually the worst possible fate. You know a person's ability to give birth is not what gives them value, so don't add to that pressure by asking too many related questions upon first meeting. Whether your friends have chosen not to have children, cannot have children, or have lost children, let them choose when or if they want to talk about it.

  • Weight: Did you know that in some cultures, your weight is a common topic of conversation? Not cool. Even if a friend is from a culture where weight is commonly commented on, I would not encourage you to comment on his or her weight. And please don't ask if a lady is pregnant unless she brings it up. I have one international friend with whom I talk about weight, and that's because he's been very open with us about his goal to lose weight, and I encourage him when I can see that he's slimming down. But that would never have been something we would have discussed at the beginning of our relationship.

Learning new styles of conversation

An interesting point that came up in the conversation on Instagram was that even the way we converse with our cross-cultural friends and what we consider "normal" in conversation may need to flex to accommodate our international friends' cultures. For example: 

  • What might seem to you like an awkward silence in the conversation might be completely normal to your new friend. Not everyone is accustomed to there being ongoing conversation for the whole visit.

  • If your new friend doesn't ask questions, this might also be a cultural difference. You can learn to share unprompted and not have to wait for a question to discuss a new topic.

Be aware that asking too many questions or talking too much might be overwhelming to your new friend. 

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Conversations with friends of other cultural backgrounds can be challenging. But not always! We have friends of completely different backgrounds who are much more comfortable to be around and talk with than people of very similar backgrounds. A kind and genuine way of living and speaking will be used of God as you begin to

  • make conversation,

  • go deeper in conversation,

  • avoid undue offence in conversation,

  • and learn new styles of conversation.

I hope you will find what Harold has found, what my husband and I have found, and what many others who have made friendships across cultural barriers have found: deep, supernatural conversations and friendships that transcend the boundaries of what seems naturally possible.

"Do not pay attention to every word people say"

It happened when we lived in our first apartment, shortly after we got married. As a friend was leaving our home, she asked why we had two last names on our mailbox at the front door. I teasingly stated the obvious, "Because my husband and I have different last names." Then I explained that I had not yet legally changed my name to my husband's, due to moving abroad eight days after our wedding, and not wanting to start something that might be tricky to finish before moving internationally once again.

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My explanation was not good enough for her. "Well, in Germany, if there are two last names on the mailbox, people will think you're unmarried but living together. It's not a good testimony to the neighbours." I tried to explain again that I understood her concern, but that with various pieces of paperwork pending, it would not be wise to start on a name change process. "Besides," I told her, "Anyone who comes to our house will see our wedding pictures in the living room."

She didn't pester me any further, but I was surprised how much her words bothered me for the rest of that day. Did we have a poor testimony with our neighbours (who virtually never talked to us anyway) because of a label on our mailbox? Did I not explain our reason well enough? Had we made the wrong decision in delaying my name change? I had felt funny about having my maiden name on the mailbox too, but because individual apartments here don't have numbers, the mailbox and doorbell had to reflect both names, in case we received mail in my legal name.

See, I'm still trying to justify our decision to you several years later.

On that day, I realized how easy it is to allow one person's comment to make me second guess something we did in good conscience, and virtually out of necessity. That same week, I came across Ecclesiastes 7:20-22, where Solomon instructed:

"Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
no one who does what is right and never sins.

Do not pay attention to every word people say,
or you may hear your servant cursing you—
for you know in your heart
that many times you yourself have cursed others."

By opening our home to people of all kinds of different backgrounds, we open ourselves to their comments, too. In the past five years, I've been told by international friends that my hallway is dirty, that my kitchen cabinets are cheap, and that the food I've made is not as good as my guest's wife's food. And yes, that I dishonoured Christ by delaying my name change.

Usually there's an element of truth in the comments. But as a person who has always been a bit too sensitive to other peoples' remarks, I'm trying to learn to process the truth in the statement (dirty hallway duly noted) without overthinking or second-guessing.

Solomon's reason for telling us not to take others' remarks to heart is perhaps not what we'd expect — he reminds us that we've all made comments or had thoughts about others that weren't right. Humility lets us overlook others' awkward or even sinful remarks, remembering that we are no more righteous than they are.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the paperwork was completed and we could finally remove my maiden name from our doorbell and thereby declare even to the mailman (who's never seen our wedding photos) that we are truly husband and wife. 

But now that the name label is fixed, I'm sure other disconcerting remarks are not far away, as long as we keep opening our doors to people of different opinions, cultures and backgrounds. Cross-cultural hospitality requires the wisdom to balance humbly paying attention to any kernel of truth in our guests' statements and yet humbly not paying attention to every word people say. 

Showing Hospitality While You're Suffering

The Biblical text about hospitality that has stood out the most to me in the past year is Peter's admonition: "show hospitality to one another without grumbling." You probably know the verse, tucked away in 1 Peter 4:9. This command caught my attention not because I had never seen it before, but because I suddenly noticed the context: 1 Peter is written to people who are going through intense suffering.

From a human perspective, hospitality seems like something to be done out of a place of strength and success. Hospitality is to be shown when you get the new dishes that match and buy that big table you've been eyeing, or when you move into your "forever home". The world teaches us that hospitality is for people who have an overabundance of money, food and time. Hosting is for people who are successful and have something to show off to their guests.

Hospitality doesn't seem like something to be practiced when you're broken, or when your home or your life seem like nothing to be envied. Not when you feel you might start crying while you're serving up soup, have little energy due to health problems, or don't feel like getting out of bed because you got some life-changing news the day before.

"God turns our way of seeing hospitality upside-down and calls us to serve others even in the midst of difficult circumstances."

But God turns our way of seeing hospitality upside-down and calls us to serve others even in the midst of difficult circumstances. In fact, hospitality is a tool God has given us to help both us and others during times of suffering. Here are three reasons why I think God commands us to show hospitality even in the times when we feel weak...and I am sure there are many, many more! 

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1. Showing hospitality while you're suffering helps turn your focus off of yourself.

When we are going through difficult circumstances, it's easy to become focused on ourselves and our problems. I realize now that during some of the hardest days of my life, one of the best things for me was having a guest living with me full time. Needing to cook supper for her or serve her helped my focus to not become too inward. Some of our guests may not care a whole lot about our problems, but it's OK to have that God-given reminder that the whole world doesn't revolve around us and our struggles. Knowing that someone will be appearing at the door expecting supper might be just what you need to help motivate yourself to get groceries, cook, and get through another day — to reinforce to you that you are living for a kingdom far greater than your own personal kingdom. That your "forever home" isn't built of brick and mortar.

2. Showing hospitality while you're suffering opens others to share their stories with you as well. 

When you are in the midst of what Peter calls a "fiery ordeal" and feel like you're almost smelling like smoke, it may seem strange to invite others to come eat with you. When your furniture or food isn't as trendy as your friends' or neighbours', it might be hard to invite guests in to see the simple way in which you live. But on our broken planet, no one's life is free from suffering. You'll be surprised how letting guests see your life as it is, even when it is difficult, often opens your guests up to share about their own trials, and leads to spiritual conversations.

One of my foreign friends literally said to me a few months ago, "Since you have shared so honestly with me, I will tell you something, too..." and proceeded to share about her own difficult experiences. A new friend told me recently that sharing about her struggles and losses has opened the most conversational doors with Muslim women. Showing hospitality even while you're suffering allows your relationships to get deeper, faster. 


3. Showing hospitality while you're suffering lets your guests see your hope up close.

Yes, there are days when we truly need alone time or a break from inviting others into our homes, when we are dealing with intense personal trials or grief. But for a Christian, keeping our doors closed during suffering should not be the norm. I hate to break it to you, but suffering, in some form, will always be with us until we leave this earth.

Consider this: if we hide ourselves away when we suffer, and then invite others in only when we're feeling comfortable, they don't see the strength of our hope. If we wait to tell others how hard our trials are until we burst into some sunny success story on the other side, they don't get to witness real hope in the midst of distress. And how can our friends better see what we are going through, and how we are going through it, than by being in our homes? Just the fact that you are thinking of others when you are going through difficult times is unique, and evidences that your inheritance is in heaven, as Peter writes, and "can never perish, spoil or fade." No earthly suffering can remove your hope, and your guests will notice that. A stylish house, a delicious meal, a well-dressed and healthy family around the table — there's nothing wrong with allowing guests to your home to see these things. But none of them can compare to inviting your guest into your house when your circumstances are difficult, and allowing them to see the eternal hope in your heart.

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These are just three ways in which I've seen Peter's command to hospitality that comes out of a difficult place make sense! And even when we can't see the results of obey His commandment of hospitality, there is blessing in obeying Him. We can count on that! God wants us to bring others into our homes and lives in the midst of our own difficulties, and not let our hard times stop us from helping others in their own hard times. How else have you seen hospitality during suffering benefit you and others?

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PS - Remember, there are always ways you can also show hospitality without opening your doors!

Hospitality Without Complaining

Recently some acquaintances had us over for the first time. As we settled into the living room, my husband kindly remarked that our hosts have a cozy apartment. The hostess’ instant response was to tell us why they don’t really like their apartment. Apparently the heating system is weird and the apartment is sometimes too cold, sometimes too hot. Later we also heard that the roof is not insulated. So much for cozy, I guess.⠀ ⠀

It struck me as unfortunate that instead of just responding with a “Thanks, I’m thankful for what God has provided for us! We do have a cozy apartment!” our hostess, whom we hardly knew, started off by telling us the problems with the apartment. ⠀ ⠀

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But then I realized that too often I do the same thing. When someone tells me they like the older style of our apartment, with its high ceilings, more often than not I tell them how expensive it is to heat in the winter or how chilly it is in December and January. Instead, I could just say, “Thank you! We like the high ceilings too - they make the apartment feel so much bigger! God saved this apartment just for us. We wanted something with a big common room and in the middle of the city, and when we saw this, we thought it was a great fit. And somehow the landlord picked us as his new tenants, even though he got about 100 responses to the ad.“ (True story.) ⠀ ⠀

After all, my guests aren’t usually asking me for a heating estimate for an old apartment, or wanting to hear complaints. They’re just trying to pay a compliment. I’m not sure if I somehow feel that I am being “down-to-earth” or “humble” by complaining about what I have when I receive a compliment?⠀ ⠀

If your first response to a compliment is also to complain about problems in your house or neighbourhood, maybe you can challenge yourself with me to stop complaining about your home's quirks to your guests. Instead mention to them how thankful you are for your nest! Thankfulness sets a much better atmosphere, and gives us a natural opportunity to praise God for His goodness!

As Paul wrote, "But if we have food and shelter, we will be satisfied with that!"

Christian Hospitality to Mormon Missionaries

A few weeks ago, we had some American Mormon missionaries who work in our city over for supper. I met them on a train here here in Germany, and as North American expats here, we instantly had something in common. After chatting for half an hour on the train, we exchanged numbers and they texted us the next day to ask if we wanted to meet up. My husband and I asked what they like to eat and invited them to come over for a meal about a week later. During that week we took in a lot of information so that we could have an intelligent conversation with them.

We were not sure what their plan for the evening would be: would they want to discuss Mormonism the whole time, or would they be happy to spend the evening small talking with North Americans and not proselytizing? In the end, they did both. We had a nice conversation during supper about our backgrounds, our families, and life as expats in Germany. Around the end of the meal, we started talking about more spiritual topics and they even shared an introductory lesson about Mormonism with us. We read a few portions of the Bible and the Book of Mormon with them, and interacted with some of their ideas. The conversation was pleasant, but by the end of the evening they could see that we were not planning on giving Mormonism a try. 

Overall, we thought it was a really profitable evening, and would encourage well-prepared, prayerful Christians to consider the next Mormon missionaries they see as potential supper guests! After all, it's their job to hang out with people, right? Why not with you? 

I don't want to make this a "how-to" post because we've hosted Mormons only once. I just want to share some thoughts about why inviting Mormon missionaries into your home might be a valuable investment of your time. 

Here are a few things that make Mormon missionaries easy to have over for a meal:

They're young and unintimidating.

I knew that Mormon missionaries always look young, but I found out from our guests that people older than 27 can't "serve a mission" with the Mormon church. Many Mormon missionaries, like the ones who came here, go on their mission almost directly out of high school. Our guests were about 20 years old.

They're mannerly.

Our guests asked polite questions throughout the meal, had good table manners, offered to help clean up afterward, and didn't really force any of their "church talk" on us. I think this probably comes from their family upbringing but maybe also from training they receive before being sent out. Mormons are known for their good manners and our guests were no exception; I've had Christian guests who had much poorer manners than these two.

They're probably lonely.

While Mormons are serving their mission (two years for guys, one-and-a-half years for girls), they're only allowed two phone calls home...per year. They can email their families on Sundays only, and I think they have limited access to the internet. Not only are they moved far from home for the mission, often to a foreign country, but they may also be moved around to various cities during that time. Our guests had lived in a variety of places in Germany and every time they switch locations, their missionary partner changes, too. I'm sure their being cut off from their families and friends (not to mention being hassled by people who don't appreciate having their doors knocked on by Mormons) makes them sincerely glad when someone reaches out to them in friendship.

They're fairly genuine. 

We didn't find our Mormon missionaries hard to talk to. They had never met my husband until he let them in the door, but they laughed openly and told us about their siblings, vacations they had taken, what they like to cook, and more. They helped themselves to a third round of burgers. One in particular had such a sweet smile on his face when he talked about the privilege of serving the LDS church. I didn't sense that they were intentionally seeking to lure us into a religion that they know to be false. 

They're comfortable discussing spiritual topics.

We are always glad to have guests who want to discuss spiritual topics, and few are as eager for those conversations as Mormon missionaries! One of the missionaries offered a hearty "Amen!" to my husband's prayer before the meal, and after my husband asked a question or two that led in a slightly spiritual direction, they asked each of us our religious background and allowed us to share our individual stories of coming to know Jesus. They didn't interrupt us or look bored when we opened the Bible with them. They're trained to chat about religious topics all day—this is their thing!

They have a predictable worldview.

Most worldviews are not as easy to pin down as the Mormon worldview. There's no way to research "What does a Hindu believe?" and really have a handle on your particular Indian guest's beliefs. Likewise, it can take many conversations with your atheist coworker to find out what he or she believes on different topics. However, Mormons believe a specific set of doctrines and have been drilled in their basic tenants and how to share them. They have a particular routine and an entry-level conversation with a Mormon missionary will probably hit a certain range of topics which a Christian can be prepared to talk about. Their goal is to do an introductory lesson series with people whom they meet, and I'm sure you can find the lessons online if you want to prepare for a discussion.  

But here's what you need to watch out for when having Mormon missionaries in your home for a meal:

They're trained to make their gospel sound as similar as possible to yours. (Newsflash: it isn't.) They're also trained to handle any objections smoothly. 

Our guests were very smooth and approachable in the way that they shared their beliefs with us. They welcomed our questions and gave us well-prepared answers. We told them several times that the Bible contradicted things they shared with us in their introductory lesson, and we showed them verses or information that contradicted their words exactly, but it didn't seem to concern them (even though they claim to hold the Bible in high regard.) At the end of the evening, one of them was still smiling sweetly at us and telling us that "basically we believe the same thing".  You really must be careful entering into conversations with people who are preaching another gospel, to be sure you know how to explain the true gospel.

Because of the last point above, I suggest the following:

Christian hospitality to Mormons needs to be offered with wisdom. It should not be offered:

...alone, especially not with missionaries of the opposite gender.

Mormon missionaries come in pairs, and it only seems wise that they should not outnumber the hosts, if at all possible. Also, my husband and I hosted together, but I would not have invited the Mormon guys over if my husband were not home. As a single, if you want to invite Mormon missionaries over, ask a wise Christian friend to join you and host guests of your own gender. (I don't suggest the gender rule just because they're LDS; when I was single I didn't invite guys who were not related to me to come over for meals unless there was at least another girl present.)

...by new Christians (at least not on their own).

I heard the story of a young man who had become a genuine Christian, but almost "accidentally" became a Mormon because the Mormon missionaries whom he met were so kind and convincing, and he thought that they believed the same things as he did. It's dangerous to expose yourself to false teaching while you're still learning basic elements of the truth. We were politely asked if we would "pray and ask God if the Book of Mormon is true."  I told the guests that the Bible already has made it clear that it is not—no need to pray about it. Even when my husband disagreed with them, they had smooth wording to try to erase our differences. While we were not deceived by them, obviously many people are. Exposing yourself to teaching that twists the truth is not something to be careless about.

...without prayer and preparation.

If you are planning to invite Mormon missionaries over for a meal, pray before, during and after, and also ask friends who will not be present to be praying with you. 

As I mentioned, it's not hard to find resources about what Mormons believe or resources contrasting the Bible and the Book of Mormon, etc. There are hundreds of resources and testimonies online for a Christian who is preparing to talk with Mormons. One of our favourites was this one-hour video by Unveiling Grace. Micah, one of the guys who is interviewed in this video, had a life-changing encounter with a gracious Christian on his Mormon mission. This former Mormon also shares a few good points if you're interacting with Mormons. Many of the resources online will also point you to Bible passages which clearly differ with Mormon teaching, like the book of Galatians, or Romans 3-5.

...in a way that makes others think that you are endorsing the Mormon message.

If you have LDS missionary guests visiting your home more than once, especially if the guests are males wearing white shirts and name badges, neighbours who observe this may start to think that you are a Mormon. Be aware of this possibility, and if you know that someone else has seen (or will see) them coming or going from your home, you might want to talk to that neighbour about why the Mormons visited you. Bringing it up might even provide an opportunity to discuss with your neighbour why you are not LDS! Having Mormon missionaries in for tea or a meal a few times is different, too, than allowing them to stay in your home for an extended stay, which might look like you are supporting them. In our case, neighbours might have seen our guests come to the front of our apartment building, but it would be hard for others to know which home in the building they were visiting. 

If having Mormon missionaries in your home might be difficult due to extraordinary circumstances with your very-observant neighbours, meeting the missionaries at a coffee shop where acquaintances are less likely to spot you might also be an option, to engage them in meaningful conversation outside your home.

I hope this post encourages you to wisely consider opening to your home to Mormon missionaries. There are probably some in your area, as they are sent to most countries in the world. Because Mormons tend to spend a lot of time with other Mormons, your invitation might be be the first time your Mormon missionary has a meal with Bible-believing Christians. (One of our guest's ancestors have been Mormons since around the time of Joseph Smith.) What a great opportunity for true Christian hospitality!  Mormon missionaries in your home get to see that—contrary to what they have been taught—there are genuine believers outside the LDS church.

In the secular West, it's unique to have American strangers in our homes with whom we can so easily talk about the things that matter most to us. We thought it was important to make it clear to our guests that we did not agree with the gospel they were preaching, but in so doing we were able to explain how their teaching contradicts the Bible.

We are still praying for our Mormon neighbours, but I thought that our part in their story was otherwise over, since they knew we were not easy converts. However, today—about three weeks after our meal together—I got a text message asking if we want to get together again. Maybe another meal with the Mormon missionaries is in store for us? I'm not sure yet.

Edit: I forgot to mention their dietary restrictions in this post. As far as I know, Mormons are not supposed to drink anything with caffeine (mainly coffee and white, black or green tea) or any alcohol. 

Of Pie and Pain

Last summer in the middle of blackberry season, a Syrian friend came over to help us eat pie. My husband phrased the invitation as a cry for help, "We have too much pie and need someone to eat it with us." Our friend came to our assistance and I teased him when he arrived, "If the pie is good, I made it. If it's not, my husband made it." But actually, my husband and I made it together.

cherry-pie-1241372_1280.jpg

When our friend stepped into the kitchen, he saw the pie sitting on the table, with its woven lattice top and blackberry-apple goodness oozing from inside. He said, 
"It has been a long time since I have seen a dessert like this." 

When I piled vanilla ice cream on top of his slice, he said, 
"It makes me happy even to look at this." 

When he drank homemade iced green tea, he said, 
"My mother always made drinks like this."

Maybe these phrases just sound like those of a mama's boy who is far from home. But when he asked for photos from the day we met on a lovely hike, he said, 
"Sometimes when I feel like dying, 
I like to look at pictures from happy times."

"Sometimes when I feel like dying..."?
These are the real emotions of a man escaping war.

In the past year, I have heard too many painful stories. Breast cancer, marriage problems, financial crises, a flood of refugees...hurt after hurt. Not to mention the sorrow of our friend who came for pie. His family is still in Syria, in danger, and every day he knows pain like I have never known.

"There is no glue-on patch that we can offer to friends in pain. In fact, what we can do seems so basic."

There is no quick fix or glue-on patch that we can offer to friends in pain. In fact, what we can do seems so basic. We pick berries and make pie and send invitations and light candles and eat together and wipe the table again and and wash dishes. We pray and share hope as we are able. Then we go to bed and another day, we do it all again. Sometimes our efforts seem so simple and small, in the face of huge suffering.

After all, doesn't faith do big things? I grew up on stories of great men and women of faith.
"By faith Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going..."
"By faith Sarah bore a child when she was past the age..."
"By faith Moses refused to be call the son of Pharaoh's daughter..."
"By faith we...made pie?"
One of these things is not like the others.

"By faith we do the small things set before us, asking Him to do the big things."

But it takes faith to believe that God is powerful enough to take earthly elements like flour and shortening mixed with prayer and conversation, and somehow weave them into His eternal plan. It takes faith to believe that He was "acquainted with grief" so that we would not need to be grieved eternally. Isaiah's "Man of Sorrows" went through those sorrows so that He could transform wounded people into whole ones, hurt people into healed ones. "By His stripes we are healed." In this world bowed down with troubles, it takes faith to believe in and to point others to the only One who can bind up their wounds.

By faith we do the small things set before us, asking Him to do the big thing: to take this pie, and use it for the pain.

Safe Sundays in Korea - Sharing Hope through Hospitality

Today we have a cross-cultural Sunday hospitality story from Kara, whose American style of hospitality has been stretched as she has practiced hospitality in China and now in Korea. In Korea she's seeing how simple hospitality gives people the opportunity to open up about their hurts and find hope. Her story provides insights for anyone seeking to connect with a Korean friend or a friend of another culture at a deeper level.

"Kara realized that Asian hospitality is more formal than American hospitality."

Kara grew up in the middle of America, where hospitality was casual and comfortable. Meals were plain and desserts weren't fussy. The important thing was simply that people were always welcome around the table. Moving to China after college to teach English, Kara realized that Asian hospitality is usually more formal than American hospitality. However, she carried her more casual American style of hosting with her to China, often inviting students over to her tiny apartment to speak English and eat platefuls of brownies or banana bread. (Hint: both desserts are almost always a win in any culture!)

When Kara married her Korean husband Peter, whom she met in China, they wanted to create a home that would be open to people needing a safe place to talk, to laugh or to cry. Their first home together was in China and later they moved to her husband's home town in Korea, where they started both their family and a small English service at the church next door. 

 Peter, Kara and their children

Peter, Kara and their children

Korea is a place of great beauty, as seen in the rolling hills, in the art of the traditional food and in the faces of the gorgeous people. But the beauty of Korea is often weighted down by what Kara describes as a photo filter that increases the shadows, darkening everything. It took a while for Kara to put her finger on the overwhelming oppression in Korea. In fact, it was only when she felt the oppression come over her, too, that she recognized it for what it was. There is a deep, undeniably heavy hopelessness that hangs over the country. Kara sees it on the subway, on the street and on the playground. Hopelessness peers out from under forced smiles and concentrated faces.

"There is a deep, undeniably heavy hopelessness that hangs over Korea."

This hopelessness stems from the stressful everyday life of Koreans. From the time children are able to walk, they are placed in a school environment and shoved into literacy and achievement. By high school, students study from morning to midnight. It's a gruelling schedule that seeks to open up opportunities to attend the best universities, and therefore to get the best jobs in Korea. Once students graduate, they are pushed into an even more gruelling workforce where most people work 12 to 14 hour days, 6 days a week, just to make ends meet. This hectic schedule means families rarely see each other. There aren't many alternatives to this extreme way of life.

 A Korean church building

A Korean church building

You would think that for churched Koreans it might be different, but unfortunately for many, the church has become a place that increases stresses instead of providing a refuge from them. Competition and deep hierarchical divisions from outside the church are perpetuated in the church as well. Many churches are more like social clubs than places of worship. For some, church attendance is another guilty obligation. For others, church is an unsuccessful formula for a happier life. For most, church doesn’t offer a real solution to the hopelessness.

"In Korea's honour-based culture, being served can be an especially powerful way to feel loved."

Koreans tend to consider pastors (including Peter, since he is an ordained pastor) as more holy and elite. In contrast, the Bible says that Jesus Himself “came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The implications of Jesus’ example of servanthood are profound for people of any culture, but for Koreans, whose society is based on understanding honour, being served by someone who is above them in the hierarchy carries a deep significance. Being served can be an especially powerful way to feel loved in Korean culture. 

 A Korean church steeple

A Korean church steeple

Kara and her husband have found that inviting people from church into their home helps to break down hierarchical barriers. When church friends come into their apartment and see her husband playing with their kids or doing their dishes, it powerfully illustrates how Jesus turns human ideas of hierarchy upside down and calls believers to serve each other. Eating and sharing mundane aspects of life with a pastor's family has a powerful effect on guests, and puts them in a safe place.

 Peter and Kara's entryway on a Sunday afternoon

Peter and Kara's entryway on a Sunday afternoon

Almost every Sunday,  Kara and Peter invite the small English congregation to join them for food and conversation in their home after their 2:00pm service. Ten to fifteen people slip off their shoes and gather around the table. Peter and Kara joke that they are "boring" people, and that their intention is not to entertain or impress anyone with their hospitality. They simply want to provide a safe place to serve and be served. Their goal is to have conversations that offer hope.

 A Sunday afternoon gathering at Peter and Kara's apartment

A Sunday afternoon gathering at Peter and Kara's apartment

"Using English as the common language opens unexpected conversational doors."

The conversation in their home on Sundays is in English, although most of the guests are Korean. Interestingly, Kara and Peter have found that using English as the common language opens unexpected conversational doors. This is because the Korean language is deeply tied to the cultural concepts of hierarchy, age and status. It can be difficult for Koreans (Peter included) to talk freely about deep, heart matters in Korean. But around their table they've noticed that guests often over-share when speaking English. Speaking English with Koreans in their home breaks down barriers.

For Kara, one of the most significant Sundays so far was when a new church friend sat at their table and shared with her husband that he doesn't believe in God. It was not faith but obligation and habit that had led him to serve in the church. In Kara and Peter's home he finally felt comfortable enough to admit this. Through simple hospitality, he found a place to unload, disarm, and just be without needing to impress people or compete for attention. He continues to come regularly to the Sunday service and to the fellowship time afterward.

Hopelessness still hangs heavy over Korea, but Kara and Peter are learning how Christian hospitality provides hope to the oppressed. Cross-cultural hospitality doesn't take fancy desserts or a fully adapted cultural understanding. It doesn't even require fluency in a common language. There is something significant about welcoming people into what seems insignificant: our everyday lives. Sometimes the most powerful way to bring hope into hopeless situations is simply to open our doors and let people in. 

How We're Reclaiming Sundays for Hospitality

In my last post, I wrote about a few reasons why we've been trying to have guests over more often on Sundays. The Bible commands hospitality, but it doesn't command Sunday hospitality. However, I wrote about why we are trying to have more Sunday guests. It's because: 

...eating together is a long-held church tradition. 
...Sunday is a day when we see others at church anyway.
...Sunday is a day when people often have spare time.
...it makes Sunday a distinct, fellowship-oriented day. 
...spiritual conversation comes up naturally on Sundays, and
...it starts the week on a positive, encouraging note. 

We've also been thinking about how to turn our good intentions into actions. Here are a few things that are helping us make Sunday hospitality a reality more often than not.

We're not making a lot of other Sunday plans.

Reserving time on Sunday afternoons to give or receive hospitality is something that is possible when we we make it a priority. We try to limit how many recreational weekend getaways or activities that could be done at other times keep us from being regularly present with other believers on Sundays. We know that if we choose to spend every other weekend out of town, Sunday hospitality and fellowship won't happen much. Thankfully, neither of us have jobs that require Sunday hours, although we know that for some believers that poses a challenge to sharing Sunday meals.

We're attending (and encouraging others to attend) the monthly Sunday potlucks at our fellowship.

Our fellowship usually shares a meal together every first Sunday of the month and we do our best to be there. In the last few months, the potluck attendance was waning, and so we encouraged people to put reminders out ahead of time, and tried to take along a bit of extra food in case people forgot to bring something. We can encourage people who plan Sunday meals by attending and helping out. If your fellowship doesn't have a regular time to eat together, this might be something you could easily organize.

We're trying to keep our Sunday hospitality simple. 

"When we keep the meal simple, having Sunday guests doesn't have to mean exhausting ourselves."

This is something I have to constantly remind myself (especially in Europe, where our guests may be accustomed to fine cuisine): our guests aren't coming primarily for the food, they're coming to spend time with us. The food is secondary. If I come home from church and rush around frantically, Sundays will be stressful. When we keep the meal simple, having Sunday guests doesn't have to mean exhausting ourselves.

(Note: we might assume eating out rather than in would be the best way to keep Sunday meals simple. However, we prefer to eat in rather than out, because our home sets a better stage for freer, more intimate fellowship than a restaurant does. That said, we do what we can with our time and resources. Some Sundays we haven't taken the time to prepare a meal at home, and we invite others to eat out with us. If we aren't offering to pay the whole tab, we try to go somewhere affordable so the price won't stop our friends from coming along.)

We're trying to intentionally host people from our church whom we don't know very well. 

When making invitations, we try to think about who might be encouraged by a visit with us, not just whom we would have fun hosting. When we have the same guests over and over, it's easy for the conversation to move toward common hobbies or recreational topics, but adding a less-known person or two to the group (or hosting accquaintances on their own) can help keep the talk from turning to trivialities. Recently we had several guests that we didn't know very well, and we asked them to tell us the stories of how they came to know Jesus. Learning how God reached into their lives and rescued them was one of my favourite parts of the afternoon.

We're not having guests every Sunday. 

It sounds funny to say that we're reclaiming Sundays for hospitality by not having guests every Sunday! But for us, every Sunday can't be a have-people-over Sunday. Some weeks are just too busy,  and a long Sunday afternoon nap is in order. We're trying to make sharing Sunday lunch a rule rather than an exception, but sometimes we need a quiet Sunday to rest and reconnect to God and to each other in a way that isn't possible when we're serving guests. (Today was one such Sunday.) Not having guests every weekend affords us the energy to enthusiatically host guests when they do come. 

"Not having guests every weekend affords us the energy to enthusiatically host guests when they do come."

Hosting guests always makes our Sundays more beneficial and constructive than they would have been otherwise. We feel more connected to our local fellowship and to the family of God. We hope you'll find the same thing, as you generously serve through Sunday hospitality. How are you reclaiming Sundays for hospitality? 

Why We're Reclaiming Sundays for Hospitality

If you grew up in a church setting, you may have known people whose homes were regularly open to guests on Sundays. However, if you're still part of the church today, you've probably noticed that most of us fill our Sundays with—well—not hospitality. Once the formal gathering time is over, we shake a few hands and then we're off to shop, watch a movie at the theatre, take the kids to soccer, or catch up on housework. Lest you think I'm pointing fingers, I've done all of the same things on Sunday afternoons as well (except take my non-existent kids to soccer) and there's nothing morally wrong with such activities. But lately we've been  asking ourselves if there is a better way to spend our time on Sundays.

Paul wrote, "'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything'—but not everything is constructive." Sure, we can do many things on Sunday. But for us, we're realizing that one of the most beneficial and constructive way to invest our Sundays is by giving and receiving Christian hospitality. Here are a few reasons why we think reclaiming hospitality on Sundays in particular is worthwhile. 

(Note: Please don't get stuck on the word "Sunday". I know that for some of us, Sunday is not the day that we meet with other believers. If "Sunday" doesn't work in your context, please apply these ideas to the day of the week when you are able to meet others to worship God together.)

We're reclaiming Sundays for hospitality because...

...eating together has been a tradition of the church since its early days. 

When we read about the early church in Acts, sharing meals in homes was a regular part of their practice. To this day, eating together remains an important part of fellowship in your local gathering. Sure, it's not a command, "Thou shalt eat together after worshiping together." But if it is something the church has done for thousands of years, there must be something to it. Besides...

...Sunday is a day when we see others at church anyway.

Sunday is the day when we usually meet with our local fellowship. We currently live within walking distance of the hall where our fellowship meets, but others ride or drive 30 minutes or more to meet us there. Inviting people over after church is often more convenient and natural than asking them to come to our home another day of the week.

...Sunday is a day when people often have spare time.

I asked my husband to help me with this list and he stated the obvious: for many of us, Sunday is a day off, which means that most people have a bit more time to enjoy a meal together. Also, for those who are struggling with temptation, loneliness or anything else that seems to be accentuated when he or she has hours alone with no plans, being invited to spend time with believers on Sunday can be a lifeline.

...it makes Sunday a distinct, fellowship-oriented day. 

Another thing we like about inviting someone to "come 'round" on Sunday (as our friends from New Zealand say it) is that it keeps church from becoming just one of many pitstops on a day that is like every other. Many churches feel like spiritual gas stations, where people drive into the pews for an hour or so, get a quick spiritual fill-up, and drive on to do the rest of their Sunday errands. But one hour of being preached or sung at doesn't top up a soul running on empty after a long week in the world. Sunday hospitality can make Sunday a uniquely edifying day, also because...

...spiritual conversation comes up naturally on Sundays. 

When you've just heard teaching or sung good songs together, it's natural to steer the conversation in a spiritual direction. It can be as simple as asking, "Did you learn anything new in the message?" or "What is something you heard that will help you this week?" Recently a friend joined us for Sunday lunch, and within minutes of arriving he was telling my husband about the sermon at his church that morning. The words he and we had just heard set the tone for our afternoon together. 

...it starts the week on a positive, encouraging note. 

The people in our German fellowship have faced many discouraging circumstances in the last year, and some Sundays our gathering is small. We haven't received a lot of invitations to Sunday lunch, and so we know that others probably haven't either. There are some kinds of ministry that we cannot have because German is not our native language, but inviting people over is something that doesn't take advanced German skills. Through sharing our Sunday afternoons, we can remind people that God is going with them into the new week, and that we are, too. Sunday hospitality encourages us and others.

 As I was preparing this post, I remembered these words from Rosaria Butterfield, one of my hospitality heroes. She says that Sunday is the perfect day to allow people into our lives, even uninvited.  "Why do we make certain days ‘family days’? Sunday is the Lord’s Day. It is not ‘family day.’ It is the day for God’s people to be in each other’s lives without invitation." Those of us who are Christians belong to a family much wider than our blood families, and our homes should be open to that wider family.

We're not Sunday hospitality heroes. Actually, we're just a few weeks into our goal of being more regular about Sunday hospitality in particular. I'm not sure how often we'll have guests on Sundays, but our goal is to make it happen more often than not, like the early church and many godly people before us. Articulating some of the reasons why hospitality is a worthwhile investment of our Sundays (which belong to God, after all) has been helpful to me. In the coming weeks I'm looking forward to sharing a few ideas about how to reclaim Sunday hospitality, with stories from people whose lives were changed—or are still being changed—through giving and receiving Sunday hospitality. But before we get to that, who will you have over this Sunday? 

New Year's with Yang Tao

Today is Chinese New Year, which makes it a good day to share this story from Theresa and her husband Craig in Florida. They are long-time friends of my husband's family, and started the A Candle in the Window Hospitality Network to help Christians show and receive hospitality. But their hospitality isn't limited only to Christians, and this story of how they invited a Chinese acquaintance to join them for their American New Year's celebration illustrates that. I love Theresa's emphasis on including your guests (whether they're Christians or not) in your everyday activities. —Julie

“How does one say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?” my husband Craig asked the Chinese waiter.
“Xie xie,” smiled the young man.
“Xie xie?” he attempted.
“No, xie xie,” the waiter said patiently.
Xie xie,” our daughters echoed. The waiter beamed!

From that moment on, a chorus of “xie xie” followed every movement he made toward our table. Thus began our friendship with Yang Tao.

It seems that wherever we have lived, we have chosen a restaurant or two as our “hang outs”, returning to them time and time again. In the process, we have gotten to know the waiters and waitresses. I suppose we're easy customers to remember. We were always a party of eight—my husband and me, five kids and Grandma, plus a wheelchair and for many years, a high chair. (I'm almost surprised any restaurant welcomed us back!)

Anyway, that was how we got to know Yang Tao. Soon he began to give little gifts to the children whenever we came in...handkerchiefs embroidered with panda bears or the Great Wall of China, little dangling Chinese thing-a-ma-bobs, or a piece of jade with engraving on it. Once when we came in, he slipped out the door for a few minutes and came back into the restaurant with M&M's for the kids.

Knowing that Chinese New Year is such a big celebration, we invited Yang Tao over for an American New Year’s Day. He arrived promptly at the time we had set, doling out little gifts for each child. We had a traditional Southern New Year’s meal of roast, mashed potatoes, greens and black-eyed peas. The girls asked him lots of questions about China, his family, and how he came to be here. A student at first, he was now only working and his return to China was imminent. We were amazed at his surprisingly broad knowledge of US History. (His favorite president? Richard Nixon and “that Bill Clinton, he been very good to us, too!”) 

After dinner, Craig got out the Bible and explained that in our family, it is our habit at meal’s end to read together from the Bible—and that we call it “family worship”. Yang Tao smiled and nodded eagerly.

I don’t remember exactly what we were reading at the time, but I do remember at the end, that Yang Tao took the Bible and fingered it. We told him he could keep it and take it back to China. He thanked us profusely.

Yang Tao came over a few times after that. He taught our daughters some Chinese calligraphy. Once, he brought a girlfriend along—a Chinese-American with whom he said  was "considering marriage". Craig took the opportunity to share with them the Biblical concept of Christian marriage—a covenant before God and not something to be entered into frivolously (or in hopes of remaining in America)!

And then he was gone.

About a year later we received a note from him, a New Year’s greeting: “...I always talking about you to my family...” he wrote. I pray that in our brief interactions, he experienced more than just a cultural exchange with an American family. I pray that he got a taste—as imperfect as it was—of God’s love for him, and that the Bible he took back continues to speak to his heart of the God who is there.

"Invite others in and just include them in what you’re already doing."

We never saw him again, but our friendship with Yang Tao encouraged us to reach out to others. You can do this, too! Invite others in and just include them in what you’re already doing. That’s what we did with Yang Tao. We read the Bible we always did. We asked if there was anything he wanted us to pray about, and prayed for him. 

Look around for those whom God has placed in your life—even a waiter at your favourite restaurant—who might have little or no interaction with the people of God. Your hospitality might be the conduit through which God chooses to reach into a heart with His love.

Why we eat in, not out

Since this blog is in its early days and the lot of the conversation here will be about meals in our homes, I want to talk about why we believe opening our home is so valuable. I recently  heard  that  "43% of every dollar that [American] millennials spend on food is spent outside their home. Boomers spend between 37% and 38% of their food budget that way...." We don't live in America, but seeing those numbers reminded me that the culture my husband and I have chosen, of eating in much more than out, is unique. Of course, we eat out from time to time and taking people out can also show hospitality. But even as millennials ourselves, we believe that regularly inviting people in instead of out is even betterhere's why! 

reasons not to eat out.jpeg

1. It's almost always healthier.

When we prepare the food, we can control how the food is prepared and use reasonable amounts of salt, fat, etc. We're far less likely to get food poisoning. And if I do find a hair in my soup, at least it's my own. 

2. It's better stewardship of our money and possessions.

Here in Europe, eating out is particularly expensive, unless you want a Turkish wrap. Occasionally we choose to spend a bit more money rather than the time it takes to eat in, but in this season we usually eat in with our friends. It is good stewardship of the space God has given to us, too. Rent or mortgage is usually one of everyone's biggest monthly expenses. Whether or not we have guests, we would need a heated, furnished home. When we share that with guests, it is time and money doubly invested. 

3. It puts us in a position to control the atmosphere.

This is one of my favourite reasons to eat in. Restaurants are at best full of distractions. Who hasn't been interrupted by annoying music, a sleazy TV show playing nearby, or an immodest or crass server with more ice water? In our homes we can virtually eliminate these kinds of distractions and create a peaceful environment conducive to good conversation. 

4. It makes our home a teaching platform.

Our home teaches others about what we value—and hopefully, about what God values. Our home is full of words and pictures that are meaningful to us. But other things speak, too, like how my husband and I relate to each other, how clean or messy our home is, the kinds of foods we serve...and more. When I was single, I remember a friend telling another guest in our home, "This computer screen is the only screen you will find in this house! Julie doesn't have a TV!" I had to laugh at his gusto, but he and his friend were both learning about my values by seeing that I didn't own a TV. Obviously, we can teach with words, too, when we have opportunity to set the tone and guide the conversation. Sometimes we read the Bible and pray with our guests, or sometimes we just pursue good conversation. Hospitality teaches something; make that something worthwhile.

5. It's interesting and it expands my world without even leaving home.

You probably saw this one coming! Since being married, we've had guests from Syria, India, China, Pakistan, Brazil, Germany, Ukraine.... Their stories are each unique and teach us about the world. The news comes alive when a Ukrainian or a Syrian friend talks about how recent events have affected their families, and we often have conversations about values and morality.

6. It reminds everyone that eating is a community affair.

Eating is something we do together. This might be a minor point, but in a restaurant we usually order what we want individually and have our own personal food experience. At home, we eat what we are served and share the same eating experience. Homemade meals remind us, in our ultra-customized society, that the universe does not exist simply to please us individually; we are made to contribute unselfishly to community. 

7. It allows people to get to know the real us.

Our home puts us in a place of vulnerability, because it is a personal space. Sometimes I'm afraid my home is too grand for the guests we're inviting. Other times I've felt my home is far too simple. We know our guests may make value judgements after seeing us in our home. But it's a good reality check, to remind us to be our real selves—even if those real selves forgot to wipe out the sink or still haven't fixed the latch on the bathroom door. Our sincerity is much more important than our status, or lack thereof. 

8. It encourages us to keep our home clean.

I'm trying to be better about cleaning consistently, whether or not guests are coming through. But nothing makes me scramble for the vacuum or the mop like knowing that someone else will be seeing our space. (OK, who are we kidding, I only mop if I must. But the vacuum, that I use quite frequently). 

9. It's an outlet for creativity.

I believe the home is a perfect place to express creativity. I like to keep an arsenal of colourful serviettes, placemats and banners on hand. And I admit it, I do like theme parties, coordinating decorations....and (not surprisingly) cooking foods from around the world. 

10. It encourages others to do the same.

Lastly, hospitality is best taught by example. The easiest way to learn it is by watching others who do it well and sincerely. I've found that hospitality is a bit contagious, if I invite people over, they often do the same in return; sometimes it just takes one person to get the ball rolling. 

The Super Hostess I am Not

When it comes to hospitality, it is easy to think that's someone else's super power. We watch a grandma graciously feeding 30 people Thanksgiving dinner without breaking a sweat and we're sure she was born with those skills. We see a friend who engages guests of other religions in spiritual discussion and forget that he's spent years honing those conversational skills. If we want to sound spiritual, we excuse ourselves by saying that hospitality is a gift—a gift that we don't have. We make up reasons why hospitality is just something we can't do well.

"We excuse ourselves saying that hospitality is a super power or a gift that we don't have."

At one point in my life, the people around me who were hospitable all seemed to fit a particular genre: they were clean, organized, excellent cooks, lived in nice homes and possibly decorated with floral patterns before floral patterns came back into style. I don't fit that stereotype. Actually, a lot of my traits don't lend themselves well to being someone who opens her home regularly. Maybe you can relate.

I am not super clean.

I wish I were neater and probably my husband wishes that, too. But the natural me collects clutter, vacuums around but not under, and delays going to the laundromat as long as possible. Before guests come over, I often have some serious cleaning to do. While I'm learning to acknowledge laziness in my heart and develop systems to keep the house cleaner, I'm also realizing that the core of hospitality isn't about how clean I am. 

I am not super organized.

Sometimes people who don't know me too closely think I must be organized, because the final product I produce (a party, an event, a blog) can look well planned. However, when they work closely with me, they see what a tangled path I take to those organized-looking ends. I really have to force myself to do tasks in order and make lists. I'm the hostess who remembers one hour before the guests arrive that I wanted to make cold tea, but I haven't even steeped tea bags yet, let alone chilled them. 

I am not a super cook.

Well, you can taste my cooking and let me know what you think, but my cooking skills are a work in progress. No one is born knowing how to make the perfect pot roast or when to take cookies out of the oven to keep them chewy. Some people have a head start, because their parents were enthusiastic cooks or their grandmothers taught them all their best recipes. But as for me, sometimes I still take things to potlucks and—let's just say that they aren't crowd favourites. But ultimately, cooking well just takes practice. I'm acquiring more confidence with each meal cooked,  realizing that I can become a better cook than I'd imagined.

I don't live in a super house.

A friend from Canada visited us in Germany and when she walked into our dining room, she said, "This is small!" She was trying to understand how we could fit ten people around our dining room table, like in a picture I had sent her. Nothing about our 47 square meter (500 sq. ft.) fourth floor, no-elevator apartment with a tiny fridge and freezer makes it a super hospitality house by Western standards. But to most people, a real invitation into a real house matters much more than a future invitation into the super house that we don't have yet. 

I am not super girly.

Floral dishes, pearls, collector spoons, bone china? So not me. Pink? Please, no. But I've realized that being hospitable or being feminine are not the same as being girly. In fact, in the Bible one of the qualifications given for men who will lead in the church is that they must be hospitable, which means it's something men should pursue just as much as women. Hospitality is about meeting the needs of your guest, not about being girly. And besides, it's easier to host when I don't wear high heels.

"The more we have our international neighbours or lonely locals over, I realize they're just glad we invited them."

I could have used any or all of these reasons to decide that hospitality is not for me. I could have started a blog about why I don't show hospitality, instead. But the more we practice hospitality, we realize that our guests aren't running their fingers along the countertops to see if I wiped them down, or questioning the size of our dining room. They're just glad we showed some un-super hospitality and invited them in. 

Hospitality isn't for supers, it's for servants.

Introduction: Hello World!

Hello world! This is the first post at The Serviette. I am well aware that in 2016, if you start a blog, it had better be unique. So, this is a blog I've never seen before: a space dedicated to encouraging people to make intentional, cross-cultural hospitality a regular part of their lives. 

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The Serviette exists to provide ideas for opening our doors to people who think differently than we do, through stories from people who are doing or have done exactly that. Whether those "different" people are Muslims, Hindus, refugees, atheists, members of the LGBT community....or even just someone of a different age or status, The Serviette wants to explore what it looks like to serve them through hospitality. The Bible provides a robust theology of hospitality, and in church history there is a strong tradition of hospitality, but we could probably all use help knowing what being hospitable can look like in today's pluralistic West.

The Serviette exists to encourage people of every culture to open their doors and engage the world in purposeful conversations.

For all of us, serving close friends is easier than inviting in someone who seems very different than us. I want you to picture your most intimidating possible guest in your mind. For me it might be our tattooed European neighbour who is friendly but informed us upon first meeting that he hates religion and has nothing to do with the church. For you it might be inviting over the Syrian family that moved into your neighbourhood or having coffee with a Buddhist coworker. I hope through your readings here, you'll be encouraged to open your doors and engage the people in your world in purposeful, valuable conversations—conversations that can change lives and bring hope. Hello world!