(The second of two posts on Rom 12:9-13.) In a previous post, I admitted to being an introvert. In fact, I’m a fairly strong introvert, though I’ve learned to adapt over time, given the very public roles I perform. Nevertheless, one of my least favorite things to do is to walk into a roomful of strangers where one is expected to be outgoing and sociable. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being with others–but small gatherings of people whom I already know are much easier to deal with than large gatherings of people I don’t know, no matter how friendly they are.
It’s nothing personal. And I’m far from alone in this. For example, witness how Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, recently made the cover of Time magazine, to the gratification of introverts everywhere. (If someone decided to ride that wave of interest, and organize a national conference for introverts, would anybody come? Hmm.)
When Paul tells the Roman Christians to practice hospitality (Rom 12:13b), I hear his words through an introvert’s ears. I know that hospitality was a highly valued virtue in the ancient world. People who traveled found themselves constantly among strangers, not all of whom could be counted upon to be friendly and welcoming. Travelers often hoped to find some of their own people living in the lands through which they passed, and to enjoy the warm and safe shelter of their hospitality.
For the Jews, this practical concern was amplified by moral demands of God’s law:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:33-34, NIV)
Essentially, God says to the Israelites: “Do you remember your days in Egypt? Remember what it was like to be treated as a stranger in a strange land? Then show what kind of people you are–show what kind of God I am–by the way you treat the stranger in your midst.” To do what God commands here is one concrete way to be a people of justice, mercy, and humility (Mic 6:8), the qualities God demands from his people.
Hospitality is the capstone of Paul’s exposition of a sincere and unhypocritical love. Again, think back to Kinnaman’s claim (see previous post) that many avoid the church because they perceive Christians as unloving hypocrites. Dare we ask ourselves how many would make that accusation because they’ve experienced an obvious failure of hospitality? In our own church? From us personally?
Again, I hear Paul’s words through the ears of an introvert. There are two sides to this. On the one hand, of all the people in the room, I may be one of those who, by virtue of temperament, would be least inclined to walk up and welcome a total stranger. Some people are naturally outgoing; I’m not one of them. Welcoming strangers is definitely outside my “comfort zone,” and takes energy that I don’t always feel I have. I understand why, on a Sunday morning, people would prefer to just hang out with the friends they’ve already made.
So imagine you’re at church, standing around with one or more friends, talking. You look up, and see someone you don’t recognize, someone who seems new, maybe even a little lost. And then you pretend not to notice, and go back to talking to your friends. Intentionally, or by unintentional default, you decide to let the stranger take the initiative, or to let someone else take care of it.
I get that. I’ve done it myself.
But on the other hand, I’ve been the stranger, the one who felt and probably looked like a lost puppy. It’s not fun. And truth be told, I wouldn’t want people swarming me either–introverted folks need a little more space than that. Yet someone has to take the time and energy to help me feel welcome, or I’ll look for my first chance to high-tail it out of there and never go back.
Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt (Lev 19:34, The Message). Let love be unhypocritical; practice hospitality. Look up from your social group and notice who’s standing there alone. Reach out. Do something. For I am the LORD, your God.
Lord, teach me compassion for the stranger among us; may I experience your welcoming grace as you welcome others through me. Amen.