The October 2015 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research is devoted to the theme of friendship and hospitality. One of the articles, by Ruth Padilla DeBorst is called “’At the table their eyes were opened’: Mission as renouncing power and being hosted by the stranger”. DeBorst “explores hospitality as a metaphor embodied in the practice of the mission Dei”. She reminds us of the discussion of Jesus and the two disciples as they walked along the road to Emmaus. Jesus opened the Scriptures to them, beginning with stories of Moses and the prophets. And the disciples were intrigued and invited him to stay with them and, upon recognizing him and after he suddenly left, took what they had learned back to Jerusalem and the other disciples. He treated them as friends.
The article reminded me of many times and many places that our table has been the center of hospitality. I suppose that it started mainly in Papua New Guinea, both at our Center (Ukarumpa), where we sometimes lived, and in our two village houses located among the Kewa people of the Southern Highlands. For fun, and to help us remember who ate with us, we kept guest books. We are now on our eleventh book and, as we examine them, there are many, many people whom we do not identify. Nevertheless, they were once our guests and we tried to display Christian hospitality and treat them as friends.
Our guest books don’t record everything: I recall one instance in the village of Muli when we invited two national policemen to eat with us. They were overnighting in a small village house built principally for the government patrols that infrequently passed through the area. The two men were obviously ill at ease and most probably had never sat at the table of “white” people before. We had a delightful evening but, as they were leaving, each wanted to leave us a one pound note (the currency of the day) to pay for their meal. They could not believe that we had simply invited them to get to know them and expected no remuneration.
On another occasion in Dallas, we invited a young man from our church (a black church), who was an auto mechanic, for a meal at our house. We had good conversation but late in the evening he said something to the effect, “Why did you invite me?” We replied that we only wished to make friends, upon which he replied “No one ever invites me unless they want something fixed on their car”. We assured him that our car was running fine—we became friends and he visited us a few years later when we were living in Australia.
Still in PNG, but this time on a road not far from our center, my car went into one of the deep ditches along the dirt road. Soon some men stopped and pulled me out so I attempted to give them some mone for their trouble. “No,” one of them said, “I have been to your house and your wife gave us a cold drink and treats.” Our house was located near the entrance to our center and young men and women from the neighboring National High School would often stop by for a cold drink. Many we knew, but others we did not and clearly the man who refused the money from me was one who had benefitted from Joice’s kindness.
Joice’s gift has been one of hospitality and friendship and she has used the gift well. We do not live far from our daughter, her husband and family and we have also seen how she has had the gift of hospitality as well.
Carolinni White, in an essay called “moving beyond friendly to friendship” (in the Baylor journal called Christian Reflection) captures the idea of what true friendship entails. She notes that “What distinguished the early Christian view of friendship was its focus on God and the belief that this shared focus brought friends together and indeed brought all Christians who were committed to God together.”
More recently we have become friends and shared hospitality with a number of students from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. We have found the best place to forge a friendship is around the meal table, where stories are told that invite the listeners into our lives.
Of course, friendship does not need to be solely with Christians: two of my friends for many years are an agnostic and an atheist. We correspond often and we understand and respect each other’s viewpoints. Although I pray for them, I realize they have made commitments and decisions that are different than my own.
We need friends and we want people to be friendly. I am reminded of homesickness and how it makes us feel that we do not belong in a particular place or situation. A young man from Korea told us about living in Canberra, Australia for the first time and that he was terribly lonely. He mistakenly thought that it was a Christian country and that he could find some Christians by carrying his Bible and walking through the streets of the city. He thought someone would at least smile at him, but no one did, and he ended up going to the Bible Society building in the city try and find some help (and friendship).
The idea of “friends” can also become absurd: I don’t know who first got the idea of befriending roads, but questionable sources say that it originated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that city of brotherly love. Often in that urban wasteland the garbage collectors would go on strike and the pollution of the inhabitants befouled the streets. It happened in such abundance that neither rats nor cockroaches could dispense with the little that was edible. In addition, government subsidies for food and basics were so abundant that neither the hippies, who once lived there, nor the bums who still do, reclaimed the excess furnishings that are piled in mounds along the alleys and streets. Clearly Philadelphia needed friends if every a city had and the notion of befriending roads and streets was born.
At another extreme is the notion of a friend and firendship in the Kewa language in PNG. There a friend is an ame, the same word that is used ‘brother’. A friend can also be a visitor who shares the house and food of his host. Someone designated as a friend therefore has certain privileges and obligations: gifts are exchanged and brothers are required to protect their sisters and unite with other brothers in clan activities. It is not strictly a blood relationship.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis has a chapter on “friendship”. He reminds us that “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it” (87). Apropos to todays culture, he prompts us that “It has actually become necessary in our time to rebut the theory that every firm and serious friendship is really homosexual. He states that “Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever [talk] about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest” (91).
Finally, in John, chapter 15, Jesus announces to his disciples that they are now his friends and, by extension, so are all believers. True friends would lay down their lives for each other and that is of course what Jesus has done for us. We further prove our friendship by obeying him.