A few days ago, while skimming through old files on my laptop, I came across one simply titled with the name of a friend. Opening it, I realized it was a powerpoint I’d created several years ago in an effort to more intentionally pray for this non-Christian friend. Some sections had prayers written on a nearly daily basis, other sections skipped weeks between prayers, but by the time the powerpoint fully loaded, there were more than a hundred slides of prayers spanning the last four years.
God has yet to answer any of these prayers. He has yet to answer many people’s prayers—the ones for sick loved ones, wayward children, unfulfilling vocations—and it only takes a cursory glance at the news to see he has yet to answer all (or even most) of our prayers for our nation or for peace abroad. Sometimes the silence of God in the face of our pleading is more than we can take; there’s a reason my powerpoint has long gaps in between. There is a peculiar and powerful kind of grief to praying for something over and over and over again with no measurable answer.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hospitality after finding that powerpoint. It’s one of those words we’ve managed to sterilize, and what is left intact is a mildly pleasant and generally risk-free image of inviting someone over for dinner. While there’s nothing wrong with cooking dinner for someone—a shared meal can be a powerful avenue through which true hospitality might occur—I think it’s far from encapsulating the actual meaning of the word. The Greek etymon for hospitality is xenia, and if you’ve read any Homer, you know that welcoming the stranger formed a vital part of ancient Greek culture. The epics are wrought with instances of hospitality, usually involving kings welcoming disguised characters into their homes for refreshment, storytelling and song.
I think there’s something profound about this inclusion of storytelling and song—it shows that hospitality is not simply offering physical nourishment but allowing someone to bring their stranger-ness to the table, so to speak, and partake in it with them. That’s what I understand hospitality to be: the host creating a space in which the guest enters in and the two then radically engage in intentional communion—giving and receiving, speaking and listening, self and other. The goal is not domination nor assimilation but generous participation. Henri Nouwen says it like this in his book Reaching Out:
Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion . . . But still—that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.
I’m beginning to think of prayer—the words themselves—as an act of hospitality. Each of those hundred slides on my computer is not simply a petition to God but an intentional space where the fullness of who I am can meet the fullness of my friend—even if I am meeting her in her absence. It is my attempt to play the host, offering words that close the physical distance between us, that hospitalize the wounds caused by our fragile humanness, that tenderize the sometimes polarizing rhetoric (“non-Christian,” “unbeliever”), and leaves us as simply human. It’s creating openness to remind myself of who God is and who God knows my friend to be, and of all he has done and can do with the emptiness we lay before him.
In a Madeline L’Engle book, a daughter asks her mother why she prays if praying doesn’t always produce results. Her mom answers that we pray because prayer is an act of love. I don’t know if my friend will ever accept the gospel. I don’t know if any of your prayers will have the outcomes you hope for. I hope she does, and I hope they do. I ache with the hope of it. But I am reminded today that perhaps prayer is more about its shape than its results, more about what it gives than what it asks. If prayer is an invitation into a sacred and creative space, toward hospitalizing the stranger, whether that be a beloved person or a turbulent nation, then surely it is worth praying anyway. God knows we could use more acts of love.