Back in 1990 the seminary where I taught as a visiting professor sent its faculty to Belize to research the viability of a partnership there. It was an eye-opening cross cultural adventure for most of us. Like many school trips of this nature, it was funded on a shoestring. To save money, some in the group were hosted in homes to avoid the expense of a hotel. Inclement weather caused part of the group to be stranded in Belize City rather than traveling on to the planned outlying destinations. In response to this change in plans, one of the home hosts invited four of us to dinner at her house.
A charming host, a radiant individual, and a fine cook, she felt honored to have us in her home, and we were grateful recipients of her hospitality. To properly recognize the occasion, she included turtle soup among the items on the dinner menu. It was, she informed us, considered a delicacy there and reserved for special occasions. Knowing that it could be an acquired taste, she also fried a chicken in case any didn’t care for the soup.
Turtle soup. Now that was to be a different experience for me. I had known people who accidentally caught turtles while pond fishing and wondered what to do with them. Where I was raised, children were warned that if a snapping turtle bit their finger, it wouldn’t release it until it heard thunder (I have no idea if that is true!). There was even local wisdom that said a terrapin in the middle of the road meant rain was coming. But nobody I knew ate turtle – not stewed or grilled or in soup. Sitting at our host’s dining room table waiting to be served, this had the feel of a Dr. Seuss green eggs and ham kind of moment.
Steam rose from the soup’s surface as our host placed an oversized bowl in front of me. As my spoon swirled through the hot liquid it actually looked quite appetizing. My optimism was initially rewarded, as the first spoonful emptied a flavorful broth into my mouth. The meat had a texture reminiscent of a pot roast. The word “delicious” would have been an overstatement, but the bite was definitely worth savoring. That changed with the next spoonful! It was as if someone had switched bowls while I wasn’t looking, or in its own version of transubstantiation the body of the turtle had become something else altogether. This second mouthful had the texture of blubber rather than pot roast. Honestly, it seemed that the more I chewed, the bigger it got. Eventually I had my own Roberto Duran moment where, at least to myself, I declared, “No más!” and switched to fried chicken. It wasn’t as adventurous but it was easy to swallow and pleasing to my palate! Fortunately, our host had made it comfortable to try something new, but also to change without embarrassment or fear of offending if necessary.
A visit to Bolivia in 2011 provided another opportunity to travel across a different country meeting with various Friends leaders and members. We met many dedicated individuals – studious and devoted to the work that called them. One evening, a family of a friend of mine invited my wife and me into their home for dinner. At meal time we sat down to a bountiful table that included ribeye steaks. Beef is one of my favorite meats, and I could hardly wait once I learned what was in store for us. Three things in particular stood out about those steaks. First, they were probably the thinnest ribeye I had ever seen, barely larger than a thick deli meat slice. It would be an exaggeration to say you could see daylight streaming through it, but just barely! Second, it had been several days since I had had beef of any type so this was a treat regardless of the portion size. That is especially true since some financial sacrifice had probably been involved in providing these for the whole family plus guests. But thirdly and most importantly was the joy this family had not only in eating their own steaks but in knowing they had shared such a delicacy with these two people whose only connection with them was my friend, their relative. Whether for the sake of their guests or their family, they intended for their hospitality to rise to the occasion.
Moments like those remind me of the adage “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It is a sentence that floats around in our culture. Attributed to Jesus, it has taken on a life of its own. Whatever wisdom he may have intended by it, these days this phrase seems usually to be offered as something other than spiritual advice. It is a handy solace to convey sympathy to the one forced to contribute something they had rather not relinquish, or an arrogant taunt from one who has won or taken something in one of life’s many transactions. Neither of these was in play in the two incidents shared above. Rather they were occasions where individuals shared, perhaps out of abundance or perhaps out of meager resources, as a means of welcoming strangers into their orbit for a brief time. In the process they built a stronger web of connectedness with those who passed their way. With no promise of a return on their investment, not even the guarantee of good karma, they created a context for joy to abound for others as well as for themselves. Those involved experienced the gift of being blessed by the exchange.
Blessing discovered through giving is often rooted in the embrace of hospitality. Interestingly, hospitality, host, guest, and stranger, all derive from the same Indo-European root, ghosti. It is concerned with provision and protection of those who pass through your territory and are in need. Hospitality considers it a joy, a privilege, even a divine mandate, that one offer assistance to those who knock on their door. That expectation creates all sorts of complexity for dealing with those who might intend to con or harm others. It can be difficult to remain civil, not to mention welcoming and good-intentioned, toward those set on taking advantage of us. Taking hospitality seriously could lay an interesting lens across questions of migration and immigration when strangers desire to settle among us rather than merely pass through the area. Those topics merit detailed discussion in another forum beyond this blog. The point is that hospitality can be demanding. Even so, we can sit with the idea as an example where blessing through giving is the reality experienced.
It seems to me hospitality is often not on display in social interactions. I don’t mean to slap a negative label on society in general, but some combination of things like fear, apathy, hostility, impatience, and self-absorption run frequent interference with the blessing of giving and hospitality. When I fear something, I avoid it. When I am apathetic, I ignore it. When I am hostile, I am threatening. When I am impatient, I am unpleasant. When I am self-absorbed, I likely fail to even notice my surroundings. None of those conditions encourages me to acknowledge a sense of duty to provide or protect the guest, stranger, or other in my midst. Hospitality, or even a modest welcome for that matter, would be unlikely. Thank goodness there are positive examples who model a different way to go through life.
A few years ago, I was driving to Illinois to speak at a gathering. The rental car had a flat tire just a few miles west of Indianapolis. I managed to exit and park in a convenience store lot to call for assistance. It would take the tire repair service a couple of hours to arrive. When I discovered the vehicle had a full-sized spare, there was no need to wait that long. Before I could even get the jack situated to raise the vehicle, a stranger came over and volunteered to help. I thanked him for the offer and told it wasn’t necessary but he insisted. Actually, he did more than help – he wound up changing the tire while I watched. Changing tires is something I have done plenty of in my lifetime. I didn’t really need any help. While it remains a mystery as to why he was so willing to lend a hand, I did appreciate it.
Sometimes, it is important to accept the gifts others offer us – be it turtle soup, the thinnest of steaks, or changing a tire—any of those can be good for the soul. We may not need the thing given but the other has a need to offer it; our gift to them is our willingness to receive from them. Or perhaps the other sees a need that we ourselves have failed to notice and is being faithful to an inner nudge to provide in that moment. Hospitality benefits the giver and recipient alike. When we can open ourselves to the good efforts of others, those moments become conveyors of gifts and graces. And at least for a moment, life is a little easier and richer for all involved.