Hospitality in the age of social distancing

March 24th, 2020
This article is featured in the Offering Hospitality issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Over last several weeks, the COVID-19 virus has turned the world on its head. The market approaches Great Depression level descent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ushered out the word “pandemic.” Kroger looks like a World Wrestling Federation event. And one woman in Memphis wears a self-made, whole-body hazmat suit.

Things are getting weird.

In truth, the chaos has demonstrated the interconnectedness of our world. A virus originating in China not two months ago now has spanned the entire world. The globe we once thought massive has become too small, too intertwined, too vulnerable.

The term “social distancing” has now entered common conversation. Every time we turn on the news or click a link, the experts tell us the way to slow this virus is through disconnection. The NCAA took the expert advice and canceled the postseason. The NBA has postponed the rest of its season. Churches have canceled their services, and some are secretly considering rubbing lamb’s blood over their doors just in case there’s an Old Testament angel behind this plague.

In all seriousness, the social distancing is wise and needed. We submit to the expert advice because we know, if we do not, the most vulnerable among us will bare the brunt of the consequences. At a time like this, we have to be aware that basketball games, concerts, Bible studies and church services are a privilege of the healthy. Should I get the virus, I am not likely to experience more than a few flu-like symptoms. The social distancing, however, isn’t for the benefit of people like me. I do not fear COVID-19; I fear its effect on my vulnerable neighbors.

It seems a bit ironic that during this time of social distancing I am also preaching a sermon series on radical Christian hospitality. With that theme perpetually on my mind, then, I ask these questions: What does it look like to be a people of hospitality in a world of social distancing? How can we welcome our neighbors in a world where they may be infected, or we may infect them? In a world where we’re more interconnected than ever, yet being instructed to distance ourselves from one another, here are a few thoughts on showing Christian hospitality:

Take the enforced quarantine as an opportunity for spiritual solitude.

Many of us have said things like, “I would pray more if I just had more time.” Well, now is your time. You don’t have to go in to work. You don’t have March Madness. You may not have the NBA playoffs. Baseball’s spring training has ended and no one knows when the season will begin. The experts have advised we stay home. The distractions are gone. Now is your time to make good on your spiritual wishes:

  • Now is the time to pray. 
  • Now is the time to sit in silence and meditate. 
  • Now is the time to reflect on the nature of Jesus’ identification with the sick, the vulnerable and the sinful. 
  • Lent is in some way the best time of year to practice spiritual solitude as an individual or a family. 

Do not waste this solitude. Use it for spiritual things you always wanted to do but never felt you had the time. There can be no hospitality toward God without first a silent, meditative, prayerful invitation toward God. You now have the time for it.

Check in on your vulnerable neighbors.

I have never liked my neighbor, Betty. I’m fairly certain she called the cops on me the first week we lived in our home because I was parking my car on the wrong side of the road. She can be a bit of a gossip and is up in everyone’s business on our block.

But Betty’s family lives all over the country. She has no one near us. She’s partially in everyone’s business because it gives her a sense of community. Knowing that she is lonely with no family members in a time of a major pandemic places on me the responsibility of demonstrating Christian hospitality toward her. The Book of James tells us “Anyone who sets himself up as ‘religious’ by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight.”

In the best of times, James advises the average Christian to be sensitive to the needs of homeless and loveless. Prior to this, Jesus directed us to care for the widows and orphans  the most vulnerable in his society. If these are biblical imperatives that should dictate how we spend our day-in-day-out lives, how much more should they be how we live our lives in a pandemic?

There are vulnerable people around you who may have been forgotten, ignored, or overlooked. In this time when people are fighting over toilet paper and Lysol, these are people who cannot fend for themselves. Hospitality in a world of COVID-19 looks like thinking of them when no one else does. It looks like letting Betty know I’m here if she needs anything and that I will check in on her, she can eat meals with us, she can share the latest gossip from the block with us.

Share your extra toilet paper.

I’m not sure how widespread the problem is, but I have seen people selling overpriced Lysol and toilet paper online. In a world trying to make a quick buck off of people’s needs, in a world of transactional relationships, the church has an opportunity to resist the fear and self-advancement and “have all things in common” like the early church.

The Book of Acts tells us that after the Holy Spirit fell on the Day of Pentecost, “all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.”

Resisting the urge to enter transactional relationships, the early believers sold their extra Lysol so that the vulnerable around them had all they needed. The church was, from the beginning, a community that made sure no one around them lacked basic necessities. They resisted the fear of scarcity and embraced the theological truth that their God can supply all their needs. This is God’s world of abundance, even in a time of scarcity.

Send prayers via text to people affected by COVID-19.

Some of you may feel that you cannot help your neighbors with your resources, but this does not mean you cannot be an encouragement to people who are living in fear. You can send text messages to people who are affected by the virus, whether they have it or not. You can send encouraging prayers via text to people cloistered in their homes living in fear. You can send prayers of healing for people who get sick. Just because you do not have financial or material resources does not mean God cannot use your faithful witness. There is no better time than this to reach out to your neighbors and simply let them know you are praying for them.

Think creatively about helping people going through financial hardship.

The shutdown over the COVID-19 virus will have long-term financial implications. The people impacted are not just stockbrokers. But they are retirees who have their money in stocks. They are people who work wage-labor jobs whose companies are shutting down. They are small-business owners who are losing massive amounts of business.

This shutdown is an opportunity for Christians to think creatively about helping people financially. Many of us are uncomfortable giving money directly to people, but there are other things we can do. We can buy people gift cards from local small businesses. This both helps people who are struggling financially and helps local businesses recover or stay afloat. Aside from gift cards, we can go to these small businesses with their skeleton crews and purchase from them. Whether it’s books to pass the time or the last toilet paper package on the shelf, these can be purchased from local businesses that will help stimulate the local economy. In the end, I think the current shutdown is an opportunity to think creatively about our spending habits.

In a world turned on its head, the church has an opportunity to provide an equilibrium. We can wisely follow the direction of our CDC experts and socially distance ourselves. However, social distancing does not mean we cannot live out the radical Christian ethic of hospitality. Wisdom, creativity, compassion, and fearlessness are all aspects of Christian hospitality that we can live out in the midst of a too small, too intertwined, too vulnerable world. This is our time to live out the very thing we have been talking about for the last three months. And, hey, you don’t even need a self-made hazmat suit to do any of it.

This post first appeared on Tom's blog.

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