As an inveterate note taker, I come across quite a lot of material that I have no recollection of ever having written in notebooks I can’t remember buying. And I am appalled at the rate with which I get through the cardboard-and-spiral bound day books in which my school life seems to be housed.
But this week I came across a notebook I remember distinctly buying in a bookshop in the West Edmonton Mall, reputedly North America’s largest shopping mall, in Alberta in 2012. It contained the notes of a sermon I heard at St Aldate’s Church in Oxford at the start of 2014 by Phil Atkinson, which got me thinking. I have been concerned with the issues around hospitality in churches and at school for a long time. We all want to be thought of as hospitable, but somehow we find it harder and harder. We are in the middle of International Langar Week, where Sikhs all around the world give out free food to the poor, the needy and to passers by. Theirs is a culture and faith that revolves deeply around food, and we have much to learn from them. If you are fortunate enough to be Sikh or if you have received free food at their hands, then you will know what a blessing, a breaking down of barriers, a cultural anomaly even, that this is. Enjoy the week and the food.
Before we get to the sermon, I have again been reading one of my favourite political books, Tony Judt‘s Ill Fares the Land, written just before he died in 2010. It is a beautiful piece of writing from a historian who knows 20th century history very well (his Postwar is the widely-accepted best account of European history between 1945 and 2005). Judt points up in it the degree to which we as modern westerners have been seduced by a political philosophy of a minimalist state and free markets as though this was the norm, and he demonstrates elegantly that it is not, and, following its widespread failure as a political and economic model, it need not be again. He argues for a political and economic social democratic consensus that militates against individual greed and corporate gain and for a willingness to allow the state to play the collective part that it must do to maintain a contented citizenry who feel able to contribute to their society, knowing that that difference counts – in his words, of “how to live the confident civic life”. The book is a polemic principally against inequality and a dissection of how that within-state inequality has arisen directly as a consequence of the abandonment of social democracy in all its various forms in favour of the small-state, market-driven model we now think is standard since Milton Friedman and his Chicago group “rediscovered” the work of Friedrich Hayek and others who had lived through the humiliation of Austria between the wars. Where Judt differs from others is where he places the responsibility – directly on us, and particularly the “us” aged below 40 whose desire and conviction that we can live better than we do is a motivating force, possibly containing better hope than those of my generation who have tended to grow up, since Thatcher thinking of human flourishing only in terms of how much stuff we can get.
There is much in Ill Fares the Land that speaks to the current state of English education as well, even if indirectly. That will have to wait for another post. But the social arc of his work is towards the graces we need as a society to live the way we know is better and therefore possible, and that begins in many ways with hospitality to each other.
Back to the sermon. Phil Atkinson begins with (hooray!) an examination of philoxenia, the Greek word that means love of strangers and which is the standard word for hospitality (often translated entertain in the AV) in the New Testament. It is the exact opposite of xenophobia the fear of strangers/foreigners. This is good place to start for us at the moment, given the debate here about the relatively small numbers of people who are coming to the UK as refugees in need of our hospitality.
The New Testament call to hospitality revolves around the idea that we imitate God’s hospitality. If we are challenged by the breadth of hospitality shown in Middle Eastern cultures, for instance, it is worth pondering the extent to which their kindness is rooted in a very ancient cultural imperative of hospitality shown to the stranger because this is what God was like. The roots of our hospitality are thus related to that which God showed us, whether as ancient Israelites:
To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deut. 10: 14-19)
or as those in the early Christian community
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household (Ephesians 2: 11-19).
The key NT commands are:
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:1-2)
Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality. (Romans 12:13)
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in (Matthew 25:35).
In Romans 12, the verb for practise is dioko — this means pursue (or in other contexts, persecute) and Peter uses it in 1 Peter 3:11 when he tells us to pursue peace. It also means follow. This indicates that in the practising of hospitality, there is a way to follow, and that way, of course, is the hospitality that God, in Jesus Christ, showed us.
“making room for the stranger, not reciprocal, expecting nothing in return – this is normative, biblical practice, learned by doing it”
Because the call to hospitality is shown within the Godhead (see Rublev’s icon of the Trinity – relationship, hospitality, conversation, mutual reverence and love, around a table in an atmosphere of embrace, love and acceptance), and through the Godhead (see the Deuteronomy passage above), it is a fundamental command to God’s people. Be hospitable. We are aliens and strangers to whom God expressed hospitality. We were foreigners to the covenant, and we have been brought near as God made provision for us through Jesus. John Piper has said “everyone who comes to Jesus finds a home in God”.
The “way in” to hospitality is by considering:
- Godly hospitality is different from English hospitality! it will be more open and selfless.
- Godly hospitality draws people into a sense of God’s hospitality: how often do we articulate that in our homes and churches as a welcome?
- What is it that we are inviting people into? What have we already created in our home?
- Who is it we invite – not those who will invite us back, apparently.
- Godly hospitality is infectious and transformative, as it is meant to be. It starts in the heart, in the desire to bless, loving those whom we might otherwise fear.
- Godly hospitality requires time and planning: Eugene Peterson’s comment that “we face an epidemic of inhospitality in our life” (from The Pastor, p.189) means we have to be “intentional and imaginative”
- Godly hospitality undermines busyness and is a good example of what Albert Borgmann called a focal practice.
I hope I have done Phil Atkinson justice here. It was a great example of how you can challenge, inform and encourage deep learning in a congregation in 35 minutes. I wonder whether he ever evaluated the impact of his words.
In a post on hospitality written when I was in Koln in 2014, I began addressing the implications of hospitality for us as a school, and we have made some progress. These were the points I made then, and some comments on how we have done to date:
- Are relationships between staff to be professional or amateur? Or can they be both? Can we be familial in the way we address and serve each other? Can the equality that this implies be created, and what would be required from those in leadership to do this? We have made some progress here, in the way we allow access into each other’s lives. I think we have made particular progress in the “amateur” field, where people do things for one another because they are in the same family. Not sure if we have extended this to children and families yet, but we are on the way.
- What would homeliness – hygge – look like in a school? is it all cushions and candles or are we presenting ourselves differently? Conclusion here is that we present ourselves differently: we are automatically “open” to others, and this is growing.
- If work and the love of work are important to us, how do we extend the invitation to others to come join us in this work? Not much progress so far, BUT the way we interview and welcome, and the way we advertise, are beginning to show this.
- What barriers exist within us as teachers that need to come down? What challenges are we prepared to countenance? Would we accept the use of our first names by parents and expect to use theirs? By children (as we already use theirs)? Would the world fall down? The world would not fall down, but the culture is deeply ingrained. We use some first names for parents, but many still choose to keep a professional “distance” which I do not find that hospitable, though fully understandable.
- How do we speak of work? If our work is valuable to us, do we speak of it as valuable? Or do we get into the “longing for the holidays” thing? Is perhaps a monastic model more preferable – where work is honoured, where faith is honoured, and faith underpins work? Amongst those who love what we do and are, this is changing. Holidays are appreciated but the work has rich value in school, and it is a delight to see.
- If we are building sanctuary and community, what does this mean for homes near to us that have no children? What does it mean for local businesses? Do we have a responsibility to support them? Big questions this – possibly one for the Christ the Sower Community Friends to think about.
- What about us as adults in school – do we invite our own families into school and make them welcome? Should we? Could we? This is changing slowly, with a welcome of partners and children to events, but a more explicit message is required.
- What about the environment of our school? If we are making our school more homely, what does this mean for the land we sit on? Should that be more of a garden? This has been a big success. The garden we created and the kitchen we have built have brought food to the top of the agenda. Turning the garden into a place both of beauty and of production (for the kitchen to use) is the next goal.