Last night, my wife and I were treated to an iftar dinner at Afrah, a Mediterranean restaurant in Richardson, by a family I had never met before.
Earlier in the week, a man named Armogahn contacted me by email, saying that he had heard the radio program and knew Yaseen, and that he would be honored if we would be his guests for dinner. I’m getting invitations like this all the time now, and as much as possible, have responded affirmatively.
The meal was incredible – a buffet spread containing naan and hummus, falafel, chicken kabob, Greek salad, and so many things I’d never tried before.
But the company was even better. Armogahn and his wife, Teemat, were a delight. We took turns asking each other questions about our faiths, our traditions, and our perspectives on life. His two teenage daughters were also present, and, when they looked up from their cell phones, took part in the conversation.
Every time I accept an invitation like this during Ramadan, I rediscover a virtue which Muslims, Christians, and Jews all value and prize highly – hospitality. For some reason, I think we American Christians have largely lost sight of this virtue, blinded by the fast-paced society in which we live.
But hospitality is supposed to be a central characteristic of our faith. Abraham, beloved and respected by all three faiths, set the standard when he extended hospitality to three strangers who happened to pass by his desert tent.
Last week, a new Muslim friend told me that very story after I’d expressed my gratitude for his invitation to dinner. He responded by saying, “Haven’t you heard the story of Abraham? Do you know what he did for the strangers? He roasted a whole cow for them! They couldn’t have eaten the whole thing, but he gave them all of it. Just for them. That’s hospitality!”
A well-known Arab Muslim proverb says, “The guest is a guest of God,” and another, “God comes to us in the person of a guest.” The practice of hospitality is a form of spiritual discipline, then, as it shapes one to assume the posture of service towards everyone and anyone.
So far, my experience of Islam has been one big lesson in hospitality, a lesson which I need to re-learn in my own tradition. This is not a stretch, because Jesus exuded hospitality; it was an essential part of his personality.
Once I read about an Arab Christian who thanked a Muslim for his hospitality to him. The Muslim replied, “Don’t forget that as an Easterner, Christ was very hospitable. He took his obligation as a host seriously and fed the five thousand.”
I had never before thought of the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes as an example of hospitality. Maybe that’s because the American lifestyle is molding us in another direction, pushing us toward being anti-hospitable, of ignoring the guest, and of rushing around in self-obsessed circles of worry.
Many of the world’s cultures still prize respect for the guest. I will never forget the day I visited the United Methodist Church in the town of Sa’a in Cameroon. While working there, I liked to pop in on different churches without announcing my arrival, to observe how the work was going. When I walked into the church, the pastor was clearly surprised but pleased to see me. After the service, he invited me to his home, and forced me and my two guests to sit down at the dinner table. His wife then fed us a beautiful dinner of chicken and plantains.
I noticed that he and his family were not eating, and I asked him why. He politely evaded the question, but it became obvious to me pretty quickly that his wife had served us the meal that she had originally prepared for her own family. I felt extremely guilty about this. I felt as if I had taken food from the mouth of his children!
But he assured me, again and again, that it was his pleasure, his duty, his joy to serve us.
I learned more about hospitality on that day than I ever had before.
I still find it hard to be as giving and generous as that. I still worry about what will be left for me. I operate so much of the time from a perspective of scarcity, rather than abundance.
I am praying that during this Ramadan, I will learn to be as generous and hospitable as the many Muslims I have met over these last few weeks. I want hospitality to become a part of my own personality.
Oh, and I learned one more valuable thing last night – buffets are a dangerous way to break a fast … I ate so much that I’m still in pain this morning!