In the early 90s an American seminary student visited Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa treating lepers—and was surprised at her advice. The student told Mother Teresa that upon graduation, she intended to enter medical school so that she could return overseas and help treat lepers. She thought this would please Mother Teresa, but instead she replied, “Why do you want to do that? There is poverty in your country that is just as severe as our poorest of the poor.” The student wasn’t exactly sure what she meant since India seemingly had more poverty than America. Mother Teresa continued: “In the West there is a loneliness, which I call the leprosy of the West. In many ways, it is worse than our poor in Calcutta.”
Many would agree that the modern West struggles with social isolation and lack of community. Yet to think of our relative loneliness as a means of suffering on par with extreme poverty is quite a statement to unpack.
Is social health really as important as having the basic essentials of food, shelter clothing? Is loneliness in America really as serious as a life-debilitating disease such as leprosy? Why are we lonely, anyway? How can we prevent it, and why does it matter?
The advice in 1 Peter 4:9 says Christians are to “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” In the original language, the word “hospitality” is translated as philoxenoi or “loving strangers.” Yet what would make someone hesitate or “grumble” about being hospitable? Did the Christians Peter was writing to have misanthropic or anti-social tendencies? That sort of uneasiness about unpredictable social situations makes people stay in and watch television. But there is a way Christians can practice loving strangers and fight against loneliness.
One Bible dictionary defines hospitality as “reception and entertainment of guests without expectation of reward.” What would entertainment and reception of guests look like in 2012? It would look like having a party at your apartment. It would look like a room full of people, a table decked with food, games and conversation and all-around good time.
This doesn’t necessarily sound like a holy event, but what better way to practice biblical hospitality—for both those within and outside the Church?
Yet in some ways, Christians, like the ones Peter was writing to, grumble against such ideas or make excuses for the trouble of loving strangers and meeting new people.
And there are excuses to be found, as Peter himself identifies a lifestyle of partying as a form of destruction. Earlier in 1 Peter 4, the writer warns against “lust and drunkenness” and “wild and reckless” living. Likewise, Christians today often distance themselves from the word “party” because of its connotation of an over-the-top fraternity kegger. But notice that in response to “wild and reckless living,” Christians are not instructed to be anti-social but instead to be hospitable and not to complain about it. Rather than rejecting parties completely, Christians should be confident that the party host defines the tone and vibe of their own event. If we are unhappy with the seemingly artificial or intimidating kind of “partying” we see on television, we should find our own way to socialize. We must be both creative and brave.
The fear of hosting a party that fails is perhaps more of a barrier than moral reservations. The risk that your party will be a flop is a legitimate fear. The idea of 5 people (who feel sorry for you) out of the 50 you invited on Facebook may keep you from ever hosting a party.
The second fear that makes some hesitate to throw a party is the collision of friend groups. What happens when your church friends are standing awkwardly in your kitchen with your friends from your part-time job? How will they mesh? Will a glimmer of panic come to their eyes, searching for a way to turn in early? Our imaginations can create the worst outcomes. Yet a party is similar to a science experiment in which you don’t know which friends are going to mesh and which friends need some kind of mediator.
Hospitality should never be labeled as safe or easy. Parts of our worst fears may play out before our eyes. Yet our own excuses not to throw a party might be exactly what Peter was talking about when he advocated hospitality “without grumbling.” Our grumbling is often motivated by our own fear of our social status being put on the line by trying to do something positive.
But for those who do choose to throw a party in the name of Christlike love and community, they will create the opportunity to connect those who are unconnected. Their home will become a hub for the community, where strangers can become friends, and where those outside the Church can be welcomed in.
Those who risk their personal fears and comfort levels for the sake of hospitality slowly make an anonymous Western world a bit smaller and a lot less lonely. All this can happen at a simple gathering.
But none of this happens without someone who sets aside a Wednesday night, and tells themselves “Alright, let’s do it. This weekend, we will have people over.” That is the weekend where Christian community will be strengthened, church strangers will be welcomed and made at home, and perhaps, we will all be one step closer to a world where loneliness is replaced with a new vision of Kingdom community.
Nathan Branson teaches freshman English at Guilford Technical Community College in Greensboro, North Carolina.