I have a niece who has taught me more about God from a distance than I ever learned in seminary. We’ve never lived close, and unfortunately my time around her has been limited to holidays and funerals. She is twenty two years old, and has spent all of it overcoming more physical and developmental obstacles than I can count, most recently open heart surgery. By necessity my niece’s medical conditions have required her to be under constant supervision and kept her from doing most things others her age did all of her life. She has a way of seeing things and making comments that leave you thinking about God in a new way, and a few years ago she did it in a powerful way for me.
We were at a water park with some youth and college students from church. My sister and brother in-law had just moved near the water park with their family and they joined our group. One of the young men in our group knew all about my niece and her condition, and still invited her to join him and his friends as they enjoyed the park. For several hours my niece spent time with a group young people her age. It was one of the few times in her life that she didn’t have “adults” hovering over and around her.
The following week she commented about how special those few hours were to her. She said, “If it never happens again, it was enough.” She went on to explain that she knew that one of the young men was still “watching out for her,” like everyone does…but said “he didn’t make me feel like I was being watched.” She described how he treated her just like everyone else in the group, and how the group didn’t seem to notice she wasn’t like them. She said, “For once in my life, I knew what it was like to fit in and feel normal.” Hearing that filled me with pride for our college students and youth.
As I continued to reflect on it, I realized there was a deeper truth being conveyed by my niece. The whole incident reminded me of Abraham in Genesis 18, who when he saw three strangers ran out to meet them and did all he could to make them feel welcome. There is even an old tradition that speaks of Abraham opening all four sides of his tent daily so that he could search for sojourners to welcome.
And it’s not just Abraham. The Bible is full of passages and examples that speak to the duty of making people feel welcome and as if they “fit in.” Leviticus 19:34 talks about treating foreigners as friends and loving them as if they were one of your own. It’s not simply talking about people who are not of your nationality, it includes anyone different from you…socially, theologically, politically. It especially includes those who live philosophically different from you, with whose actions and lifestyles you may disagree.
Jesus demonstrates the power of this “spiritual hospitality” in John 4 when he treats the Samaritan woman with kindness knowing that her lifestyle was not ideal. Scripture calls us to be welcoming and treat everyone with love and respect. In that act we demonstrate and live out the power of a relationship with God. Jesus always treated people with love and compassion even when society and religious people cast them out and treated them as worthless. Each time Jesus made the person feel welcomed and as if they “fit in.” When that happened they experienced God and their lives were changed. Of course this is also the time of the year when we celebrate the sacrifice Christ made for everyone on the cross regardless of who they were or were not. His death and resurrection make it possible for us all to have opportunity to be welcomed into God’s Kingdom and presence.
When you welcome someone they also have the opportunity to feel and meet God. When you don’t they only feel judgement…your judgement. It’s not our place to draw lines in the sand. It’s our place to love as we’ve been loved. When we do that, God changes people. When we don’t…well there’s a bible passage that speaks to that as well. It goes something like…”judge not lest you be judged.”
Thinking about what my niece said makes me wonder if I ever show enough hospitality to leave someone saying “If it never happens again, it was enough.”