Hospitality as Sacred Space {The Grove: Sacred Spaces}

Hospitality as Sacred Space The Grove

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve moved around a lot. In fact, I’ve lived in transitional church housing longer than I have lived in any other location, and when you are in a state of constant motion, having a singular space take on sacred meaning is not likely. In a mobile, nomadic life, sacred spaces tend to be mobile as well.

There was the rooftop in Outer Mongolia, the journal in California, the kitchen table in Idaho and the bright orange couch in Indonesia. These were spaces that I regularly met with God, spaces where I felt connected and able to pour out longings from my heart to God’s ears. But none of these spaces are ones that I could take with me. When I moved on from each of these homes of mine, I left behind my meeting places as well.

Except for one.

Last month I was invited to join a women’s church group to speak. I truly didn’t want to go. I’m not a person who sermonizes and I was already feeling emotionally raw and angry with God. I didn’t want to lie, I didn’t want to put on a smile, I didn’t want to pretend that God and ministry and mental health were fine.

But I went and I told the truth of my trauma and my broken faith and my anger. I was expecting there to be pushback to what I shared, I was expecting to be corrected, redirected and pitied but I wasn’t. Instead, what I shared was received with respect, it was acknowledged with empathy from women who had struggled in life themselves.

This space, the one in which we can expose ourselves in relationship to others and there is no judgement or shock or furtive need to change people and their feelings or beliefs, is a divine space.

Henri Nouwen, in his book, Reaching Out, refers to this space as hospitality. “Hospitality,” he says, “means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place…It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way.”

I’ve never thought of myself as a hospitable person. I don’t like to cook and my homes are a hodgepodge of random furniture. I’m not very clean or funny or particularly entertaining. There have been times of inspiration when I’d pick up a magazine or pull up Pinterest on the browser and I end up both overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the prospect of hosting an event.

Maybe that’s why I love Nouwen’s definition of hospitality.

I imagine we all know hospitable people who can create this sacred space. We feel safe around them and renewed in spirit when we say goodbye. I imagine we know people who create the opposite space too. In that space we feel on edge and guarded. We are careful about what we say and do in their presence, intuitively knowing that they are not trustworthy.

I think it is a danger we can all easily fall into, to believe that we are called to change the people around us. We assume that our journey is at its pinnacle and we know how others ought to live. We did, after all, sell all in order to go, on the assumption that we had something that others did not.

Yet, we have no power to change the people around us and I don’t even believe we truly want to change them as much as we want to be affirmed in our own faith and choices. It’s insecurity that breeds such narrow absolutes and the inability to allow others to live out their own journeys in their own ways. 

In order to create this space then, we have to let go of our need for control and recognize that we are also on a journey that isn’t perfect. We have to trust that God is at work within the lives and hearts and minds of us all and that our journeys may never intersect but they are both equally valid faiths.

It is easy for us to believe we know what is best. It is easy to believe that education has given us the best theology or the best strategy in cross-cultural work. It is easy to believe that our personal experiences provide absolute truths. It is easy to ‘come alongside’ in mentorship, placing ourselves in a position of authority. Our advice and rightness can become so reflexive that we can’t conceive that we may be wrong or that there may be more than one right way of being or thinking or living.

It is hard to let people make their own choices. It is hard to sit and listen to the wrestling. It is hard to see faith thrive in those who believe differently than we do. But this sacred space of hospitality is a precious, beautiful and holy space. This is a space where we get to meet God and each other in peace. A space where we can get in the dirt and wrestle with God, a space where we can praise him for what he has done, or even a space of comfortable silence.

Because life isn’t about getting more people into church or turning more people into evangelicals or converting people from one religion to another. It’s about knowing our Creator and knowing ourselves and helping others find their way home in their own ways just as we try to find ours.

I love that this sacred space is one we can cultivate in ourselves and that it travels weightlessly. It doesn’t require a home, it doesn’t require food, it doesn’t require extra schooling or advice and when we embrace it, we can breathe easier, trusting that God is the one leading each of us on our journeys home.

Do you know someone who creates this sacred space? Can you create this free space for someone in your life?

Photo by Tomáš Nožina on Unsplash

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  1. Ellie January 24, 2020

    Joy this is amazingly beautiful and helpfully puts into words something that is so dear to me. Blessings to you friend.

    1. Joy Smalley January 24, 2020

      Thank you, Ellie. Blessings to you too.

  2. Amy Young January 24, 2020

    I love you and then you went and quoted Henri Nouwen, so it turns out the heart can expand to hold even more.

    The idea of creating spaces is so powerful . . . and one of the ways we create the Imago Dei. Thank you, today, for creating this space. With a virtual high five to you and a prayer for perseverance in this less than pleasant phase, Amy

    1. Joy Smalley January 24, 2020

      Ha Ha, I love you too, Amy. I have recently adopted Henry Nouwen as my new guru. When I first picked up his books it was as if I was reading my own soul to myself, lol. Thank you for your prayers and blessings upon you, my friend.

  3. Lisa January 24, 2020

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m wondering though, what is meant by “Because life isn’t about getting more people into church or turning more people into evangelicals or converting people from one religion to another.” Does that mean the author doesn’t think people of non-Christian faiths need the gospel/to be saved? Just seeking clarity.

    1. Joy Smalley January 24, 2020

      Hi Lisa. I absolutely believe that salvation comes only through Christ and that the good news is a gift to be shown, expressed and given. My intention in that statement you quoted is simply to say that relationships with only the intent to convert won’t be safe relationships. I’ve found that relationships with a set agenda to change someone becomes a relationship that can’t flow freely. It puts me in a place of inauthenticity and authority as opposed to a peer who is also seeking out truth and faith and God. I truly believe that when our faith flows freely in relationship with others, without the pressure to convert, save or change, I find God interacts within that space to do a supernatural work that I could never possibly do. I hope that clarifies my point. Blessings to you, Lisa.

  4. T January 25, 2020

    Reading this, I saw that I was not hospitable yesterday when listening to someone talk…thank you!

    1. Joy Smalley January 25, 2020

      Hi T, blessings to you, my friend.

  5. Kathleen January 31, 2020

    Just pondering all my Meet-With-Him places:
    Washington DC: set of steps by Key Bridge
    Florida: beach near Sharky’s restaurant
    Jamaica: Kingston- green chair by the window
    Highgate: on the porch
    Scotland: brown couch
    Northern England: chair by the window
    Connecticut: wooden floor by wall of glass window
    London: balcony
    Surrey: chair by window in conservatory

  6. Chloe June 21, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this! As someone who thinks of herself as “hospitable”, I am also learning to stop “doing” and be more “being” when someone shares her problems with me. Thank you for reminding us to create the sacred space, and to surrender the control to God. I am going to order Henri Nouwen’s book to find out more.


    1. Joy Smalley June 23, 2020

      Hi Chloe, thanks for sharing! I love all of Nouwen’s books and hope that you find them life-giving and thought-provoking as well. Blessings!

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