Come in, sir, for you are weary
And the night is cold out there
Though our lives are very humble
What we have, we have to share…
These simple yet remarkable words are sung by the bishop in the musical Les Miserables (kudos if you recognized it!). I experience a jolt of conviction each time I see this show– and am reminded of the high call on our lives to open our homes to strangers, wanderers, and the needy around us.
What kind of story would Les Miz be without Valjean’s redemptive meal at the bishop’s humble table? There would be no story at all– no rebirth of his identity, no adoption of Cosette, no peace for Fantine, no rescuing of Marius– the dramatic difference an act of kindness has is at the crux of Hugo’s story. Valjean’s personal transformation is the only argument against Javert’s unyielding legalism. And it all started with the opening of a single door when all other doors were closed.
These are challenging times for those of us who desire to be hospitable. We fear for our safety. We prefer relational stability. We desire to have friends in high places. We gravitate towards serving those who can serve us in return.
But this is only the beginning of hospitality– a starting point of learning to share. Over the years, Aaron and I have entertained many good friends, and our cooking skills have benefited from it. Gathering our favorite people around the table is one of our staple weekend activities. It’s become a habit for us.
The challenge of true hospitality
Entertaining good friends, however generously, is elementary, and I desire to expand on my definition of hospitality. Hospitality is not just entertaining friends on occasion. Hospitality is the continuous opening of our space– our homes, our schedules, and our hearts– to friends and strangers alike. It is choosing generosity and risking suffering. It is being brave with our resources.
As you might know, Valjean (a former thief who spent 19 years in the chain gang) takes advantage of the bishop’s generosity and steals away in the night with all the silver tableware he can find. Dragged back to the bishop’s door by police ready to send him back to prison, Valjean finds himself at the mercy of the man he had just betrayed.
What happens next is truly shocking: the bishop defends the thief and adds to his plunder. Exhorting the former thief to see beyond his desperation to the promise of a better future, the bishop invites Valjean to start over. And he does– the story that follows is one of heartache, redemption, suffering and survival.
Where does your hospitality end?
My hospitality doesn’t extend so far as to bless an offender with a second chance. My hospitality hardly extends to those who, if I’m honest, make me feel uncomfortable. I would much rather open my space and my resources to those who are like me– people I naturally trust.
But the magic of hospitality is that it gains power as we yield to it. The more we allow hospitality to shape the way we live, the greater impact our generosity is bound to have on people we share our lives with.
One of the bravest things we can do is to take the same risk as the bishop in Les Miz. He had no guarantee– no reassurance whatsoever– that his “investment” would turn out for good. But rather than living within the confines of an economy of scarcity, he chose to live in an economy of abundance. Whatever he had much of– love, kindness, hope, and vision– would only increase with each openhanded sacrifice. The same is true for us.
Steps towards more openhanded living
I understand that such radical hospitality is no easy feat. But our journey towards building a better world requires this.
We can begin with educating ourselves. We can seek to understand systems of injustice in our town, our country and our world. We can choose to undermine the stereotypical responses of privileged individuals who turn a blind eye to the inconvenient realities of vulnerable communities.
One of the best books I read this year was More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity by Jeff Shinaberger (here). Jeff tells of a homeless man named Clarence who showed up at his doorstep one day asking for employment. Jeff and Clarence become friends– not without moments of awkwardness and misunderstanding– and Clarence changes Jeff’s life. The rest of the story (which brought me to tears), you’ll have to read yourself.
Perhaps someone like Clarence will show up at my doorstep one day. I want to be willing to open my door and find him work. I want to work towards a habit of hospitality that becomes a second nature.