Words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians have been on my mind lately. Most days and evenings, my husband and I, along with our two working-from-home sons, move from Zoom to Zoom.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).
The truth is, I lean into the screen and see only dimly. Yes, I love seeing dear faces, but I long for the days when we will meet in person as colleagues, church, family and friends. Then we will all be more fully known.
Meanwhile, I am resigning myself to Zooming for the long haul.
If we must Zoom, how do we do it well and graciously? As someone who loves to think about in-person hospitality, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about what good online hospitality looks like.
While I’m still in beginner’s mind, I’ve noticed that good online hospitality is not magic. Nor is there one single formula for success. And while doing our technical best for any online gathering is an important sign of respect for our audiences — an important part of hospitality — technology is not the heart of hospitality. You don’t need a computer science degree or fancy equipment to provide it well.
Instead, online hospitality is the dedicated effort to create the same ethos as in-person hospitality — but in a new land. For Christian hospitality to work — in person or online — it needs to be grounded in setting a place for God, paying attention, honoring participants and expecting transformation.
First, warmly welcoming participants to a Zoom gathering reflects that the love of God is present. Three tiny ants crawled out of the crevices of my son’s laptop the other day. Where ants can go, my guess is the Holy Spirit can go as well! God is with us, even in virtual settings.
Though not the same as the gathered-in-the-same-room body of Christ, the gathered-over-Zoom body can still experience an embodied welcome through the host’s facial expressions, laughter and gestures. You don’t want participants to mistake your expressionless face for a frozen screen.
As a virtual host, be clear about what will occur in the meeting, how participants can access what they need, and who will help them with technical glitches. This information, set out at the start, helps participants feel safe and cared for, and less anxious about their technical skills.
Consider offering social time 15 minutes before your meeting starts. The energy and warmth generated by this experience of informal chatter and fellowship will set the mood for the meeting that follows.
I watched a worship service last week where different segments were set in the homes of various pastors on the church’s staff. Each had carefully set the stage behind him or her — a vase of flowers next to a cross, a special cloth laid carefully on a small table, a set of candles beside a bowl of water. These details conveyed hospitality; they expressed a personal welcome that said, “You are in my home, and this too is sacred space!”
Second, good hospitality is about paying attention. How are others experiencing the format? One participant in a church formation group stopped coming because she saw only couples in each Zoom box and it reminded her painfully that she was the only “singles” face in a box. She had to see her singleness the entire time. How might you change her experience?
Pay attention to power dynamics and ways to flatten that curve. For those whom society has often silenced, how might it feel to know that the host can mute you? The chat function helps mitigate this by giving everyone an always-open avenue of expression. The host can also invite everyone to speak and make sure that no one voice is dominating. Even if you’re good at this in person, facilitating over Zoom takes practice.
Likewise, after you’ve placed participants in a breakout room, don’t automatically cut them off after the designated time. Instead, as host, visit each room and remind participants of the time limits or send a group message. This is more hospitable and more like what a host would do if participants were in a room together physically.
Pay attention to the ways in which tangible elements can unify us and bridge the gap of physical absence. One of my colleagues sent a piece of cloth in the mail to each participant so that everyone’s laptop would be resting on the same fabric. Similarly, you might have everyone light a candle for worship or as a symbol of a unified space. Each person could share a personal object and describe why it is meaningful. Even a bark from a neighborly dog in the background can root us to reality and be grounding and humanizing in a virtual world.
Third, good online hospitality honors participants. For longer Zoom events, consider sending a gift box ahead of time, with nice paper for note taking, a coffee mug, a bag of trail mix or some other small gift. The boxes need not be expensive; rather, they are a signal that you honor the participants and recognize that life and gatherings are more difficult for everyone these days. A pastor friend of mine drives through her town and places bags of pre-Zoom activities on the front porches of her congregation’s youth.
A sense of timing is also important for honoring bodies in virtual gatherings. We can’t simply roll over onto Zoom what we would normally do in a room. Zooming all day is exhausting. Zooming for half the day is exhausting. Keep whatever you do as short as possible and add stretch breaks, polls, screen-sharing times, music, play breaks, small groups or silence. Teach people to do the wave!
Set up trust with your audience. Those with social anxieties have a double burden to bear in these times. Honor all participants though your kindness and patience, especially those who may need to step away from being looked at for the entire meeting. Be kind as internet connections go out, cats jump onto shoulders, and children decide they need mom or dad NOW.
Finally, good online hospitality affirms that whenever and wherever God is welcomed in, God provides transformation. God’s work is still being accomplished even with so many of us confined at home.
For example, I’ve discovered that online meetings in a quarantine provide the blessing of multiplied hospitality — the hospitality of the host and that of all the households into which we are welcomed. As host, you may receive joy and blessing through all the other hosts who welcome you into their homes for the hour. Let them describe the history of the quilt on the chair, that plaque on the wall or the garden shed into which they are scrunched, seeking quiet space!
Online meetings are here to stay. Post-pandemic, we’ll continue to have options to work at home, because it’s cost-effective. We’ll continue to have online church committee meetings, because attendance is up. We’ll continue to meet as friends on Zoom, because some are unable to drive, travel or be away from home. So we might as well get it right.
Meeting virtually can be more than “see[ing] in a mirror, dimly,” if we offer good online hospitality and understand it as sacred space.
The haenyeo — female divers who have been harvesting seafood off the coast of Korea since the 17th century — know the importance of exhaling before inhaling.
In her recent novel “The Island of Sea Women,” Lisa See introduces us to the life of the courageous haenyeo through the all-female diving collectives of remote Jeju Island and protagonist Young-sook. In this culture, while the men stay home to care for the children, the women spend their days diving. Sometimes 20 meters under the icy ocean waters, they hold their breath for several minutes at a time while searching for abalone, conch or octopus.
When the divers finally emerge for air, they first exhale, each emitting a distinctive cry, or sumbisori — a high-pitched, rhythmic whistle to expel carbon dioxide from the lungs. A deep intake of breath follows.
The chief diver of a collective listens for each sumbisori as the women — grandmothers, mothers and young teens — pop up all around the diving area. The chief knows each diver’s sound and waits anxiously for the full complement of sumbisori to confirm that every diver is safe and rested before resubmerging. In concert, the exhalations make a kind of music, a song of safety, life and rest.
Young-sook’s mother, the chief of her diving collective, tells her daughter, “I’m responsible for every woman’s safe return to shore. I listen for the sumbisori of all women in our collective. Together our sumbisori create a song of the air and wind on Jeju. Our sumbisori is the innermost sound of the world. It connects us to the future and the past. Our sumbisori allows us first to serve our parents and then our children.”
I recently shared this powerful image at a program for Christian institutional leaders in their 30s and early 40s. These leaders have increasingly intense roles in complex institutions, often have working partners and maybe children, and want to stay physically fit, civically minded and spiritually whole.
What might a restorative breath sound like for these leaders? Who is the “chief” listening intently for their exhalations?
The practice of taking Sabbath is deeply theological. Candler School of Theology Old Testament scholar Ryan Bonfiglio describes Sabbath as a part of our very identity as created beings, created in the image of God. The Sabbath, Bonfiglio says, is the first thing God calls holy — not people, not creation, but Sabbath.
Ceasing work in our culture may seem inefficient, but efficiency is not a fruit of the Spirit, Bonfiglio says. Christian leaders may do well to practice “the holiness of inefficiency,” what Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel called “a sanctuary in time.”
The chiefs of the diving collectives do this by teaching their divers from an early age not only how to breathe in to begin the work but how (and when and how often) to breathe out. That exhalation in community — a life-sustaining song, as Young-sook’s mother describes it — equips the women to serve.
For those of us who supervise other leaders, how do we teach the importance of coming up for air? Do we model how to set boundaries, to stay home when we are sick, to use our vacation days, to prioritize spiritual practices like prayer, a walk or centering breaths?
And for those who are bivocational or multivocational, like so many Christian leaders today, how do we learn to make room for exhaling before inhaling life-giving breath? When one task stops but another, overlapping task starts, how do we structure time for the breath in between? And how do we ensure that others in our communities or on the margins are not holding their breath until they pass out?
Traditions of breath prayer can help us practice and teach life-giving breath and praying without ceasing amid Christian vocational life. Many Christians practice yoga as a way of “returning to the breath.” When we are mindful of the God who in Genesis 2:7 breathed life into the dust of the ground to create humans, we understand our every breath in and out as bound inextricably with who we are as created beings and how we are to serve and love our neighbors as ourselves.
If we do not emerge and help others emerge from the deep waters for sumbisori, then we are betraying the very breath that is the gift of life from God. We are meant to inhale for the work and then exhale for our rest before inhaling again. This is the crucial rhythm of the Christian vocational life.
For whose sumbisori are we listening this week or this summer? To whom can we “give” Sabbath? What music does our community’s collective sumbisori make? Is it music that mourns? That soothes? That celebrates?
Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
Help me to rely on your holy will.
In every hour of the day reveal your will to me.
Bless my dealings with all who surround me.
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day
with peace of soul
and with the firm belief that your will governs all.
Guide my words and deeds, my thoughts and feelings.
Teach me to act firmly and wisely
without embittering or embarrassing others.
Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day
with all that it shall bring.
Direct my will. Teach me to pray. Pray yourself in me.
— Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow, 1826-1867
For several years, this prayer has been one of my favorite morning invocations. I first ran across it in the small book “Praying Our Days: A Guide and Companion” by Frank T. Griswold, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and friend from a summer community in New Hampshire.
In “Tracking Down the Holy Ghost: Reflections on Love and Longing,” Griswold writes that he first came across the ancient prayer by the Russian Orthodox Church leader while serving as presiding bishop. “On many mornings,” he writes, “I would enter into the new day asking myself how I could best deal with what might lie ahead.”
Nearly 200 years after it was composed, the prayer still speaks to Christian leaders. The words affirm that God is in us, blessing, guiding and teaching us as we lead complex communities. God’s presence is embedded in our lives through our stories, experiences and relationships. Our job is both to notice God’s presence and to acknowledge, through our words and deeds, the difference God is making.
The prayer begins by asking God to help us set aside our worries and our anxieties about what the day might bring. We pray that we can place our trust and reliance not on our own strength but on God’s. Philaret’s reference to God’s will is less, Griswold writes, “about obeying an order and more a response to the joy of being loved.” It is a prayer to “sit lightly with my own expectations and make space for new insights or ways of seeing that may come from God’s desire rather than my own.”
In the third line of the prayer, we recognize that we will need reminding of our intention to greet the day in peace, “in every hour of the day.” In the early morning hours, seated in my Ikea happy chair, peacefully drinking my coffee and reading my morning devotion, it is easy to think that I will be able to take this peaceful spirit with me throughout the day. Instead, by midmorning I already realize that I need God to be more like time-release plant fertilizer, delivering sustenance not in one dose but in every hour throughout my day.
Serving as a parish priest and then a denominational leader, Griswold writes, he came to see the church as “a relationship to be lived,” and all those around him as members of Christ’s body, regardless of personality or behavior. Serving in a particular church was “an invitation to a deeper encounter with God mediated by interaction with the congregation.” Acting “without embittering or embarrassing others” became even more important with this realization. When he became bishop and so “a pastor of systems,” he writes, the qualities of “peace of soul” and the ability to act “firmly and wisely” became paramount.
Christian leaders need this prayer as they wrestle with issues that divide families, churches, communities and institutions. The call to love one’s enemies takes on new import as moral and political divides widen. What would it mean, then, for us to pray, with Philaret, “Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others”?
Griswold acknowledges that he inevitably loses his bearings in the course of a day. “Rather than judging myself at such moments as deficient or unfaithful,” he writes, “I find rest in the fact that the Spirit of Christ prays within me continuously below the level of my own consciousness.”
I like the beauty and simplicity of the last line of the prayer. These days, my list of intercessory prayers looks more like a spreadsheet for God. I am very detailed about what I want for each of my loved ones. The three petitions in this line strip away my need to control even God’s actions and remind me of what’s essential.
They also remind me that the Holy Ghost is actually the one doing the praying in me. Some translations of the last petition read, “Pray thou thyself in me.” I envision the Holy Spirit being poured into me, like water on a plant, so that I can absorb that life-giving stream to sustain my life and my work.
This past Christmas, I had a group of 14 over for dinner. My guests ranged from 17 to 60 years old and included old friends, their adult children, boyfriends, girlfriends, a few teenagers, an engaged couple and a hyperactive dog. A seating chart was going to be crucial.
When I had finished arranging the place cards, I hoped that everyone would be seated next to someone who made them comfortable and across from someone interesting to talk to. I placed those involved in cooking near the kitchen and those of a certain age near the bathroom.
The older guests were seated so they would face something pleasant to look at, like the nativity set on the buffet, while my 17-year-old son was consigned to straddling the double set of legs at the awkward junction where the card table met the dining room table.
Some might accuse me of overthinking. But to me, such attention to seating is a necessary part of the hospitality we offer others. Setting tables with intentionality is a holy practice that demonstrates not only our care for the people and the event but also our expectation that God will be present in the coming together.
This same care is needed whether we are gathering people in our homes or at a church or another Christian institution.
How can the ways in which we convene reflect our goals and Christian values? Setting a good table requires attention to at least three important considerations: managing power dynamics, cultivating crucial conversations and caring for people’s comfort.
Managing power dynamics. Dynamics of power — in the form of race, gender, sexual orientation, denomination, profession, role, and so on — are at play whenever people gather and must be carefully managed.
For instance, I usually seat denominational leaders at tables with others of similar power, perceived or otherwise. Uneven power dynamics can change the ways in which participants feel able to contribute. Likewise, I try to ensure that those whose voices have traditionally not been heard have allies at their tables who will support and sustain them.
When we attend to power dynamics around the table, diversity of all kinds becomes a leaven for good conversation. When we meet and talk with others who are not like us in some way, we are opened up to a fuller image of God, we learn humility, and we are required to listen more deeply. If your event involves multiple tables, does each table reflect the most diversity your group has to offer?
Another power dynamic relates to who is seated near the front of the room and who is in the back. Perhaps you can place people who have traditionally not been heard near the front of the room. Some introverts may appreciate being near the back.
For longer events, changing seating every few hours gives people a variety of experiences and partners in the space. Perhaps you can send the speakers to the other side of the room for the “second half,” the way basketball teams switch baskets halfway through a game.
Cultivating crucial conversations. What kinds of conversation need to take place? Who needs to talk? Who needs to listen? Who needs to overhear? Which people need to connect or meet? Perhaps they share a concern, live in the same city, or could be of help to one another. When we arrange a thoughtful seating chart, we are acknowledging the importance of such conversations.
In her book “Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future,” Margaret J. Wheatley writes: “Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. … Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.” A thoughtful seating chart can facilitate conversations that matter.
It’s also important to consider the energy level at each table. If you know your guests, you can balance extroverts, introverts and ambiverts to keep the energy flowing. Is there an enthusiastic talker who needs to be moved around a bit, so that no one table gets cranky?
Caring for people’s comfort. Finally, creating a seating chart honors the fact that we are embodied people. For whatever reason, you have gathered this group of people in a room, not on Skype or a conference call. One way to acknowledge that this is a gathering of bodies is by showing care for those bodies.
Be intentional: Who tends to be restless, jumping up to get more coffee? Whose bad back requires him to stand every hour? Which new mother needs to slip away to pump? Who is likely to be expecting a call from his child’s school? Who is arriving late or leaving early? These variables may require placing particular people near the door, the wall or the refreshments.
I begin my reflection on these concerns in prayer and continue in prayer as the seating chart unfolds, respecting each person and his or her reasonable needs.
Sometimes my prayers remind me that I am not in control. Things happen. Flights are canceled, people show up late, and someone just sits somewhere else to see the dry-erase board better. Seating charts can be thrown off for a number of reasons; perhaps God has something else in mind.
Leonardo da Vinci knew that seating charts were important.
In his famous painting “The Last Supper,” he arranged the 12 disciples around the table in four groups of three. Starting on the left we see Bartholomew, James the Minor and Andrew. The second trio from the left is Judas, Peter and John. The trio to the right of Jesus includes Thomas, James the Greater and Philip. The final trio on the right is Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon.
Some scholars say that the four groups represent the four Gospels, and the groupings of three, the Trinity. All the lines in the painting lead the eye to the center of the table, to Christ.
Da Vinci used his seating chart to reflect important aspects of the Christian faith. We don’t have to be great artists to take similar care.
If theologian Sarah Coakley had one message about power for Christian institutional leaders, it would focus on “the power that comes through transparency to the divine.”
In an interview on living prayer and leadership, Coakley, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, said such empowering transparency is cultivated best through an intentional life of prayer.
“Often even ministers don’t think enough about how Christian life is magnetized and electrified by being lived prayerfully,” she said. “When you meet a priest or a minister who is living prayer, you never forget that person. That person may be bumblingly inefficient on the budget, useless about remembering to come to appointments, all other kinds of things that they’re meant to do right, and yet have the most fantastic impact on people’s lives. …
“Prayer has to be at the top of the list of what we’re training people to do in ministry.”
Most seminarians study various forms of prayer. But once they are immersed in congregations or other institutions, the distractions and busyness of the work make it more difficult for them to be leaders who are “living prayer” — “magnetized and electrified” by an intentional practice of prayer.
As a result, institutional leaders hunger for simple, effective ways to support their spiritual lives. They ask: How can we feed ourselves while also feeding others?
For these leaders, praying with beads is a practice worth trying.
This calendar year, I’ve been experimenting with the practice of praying with beads. Twice a day, whether I am at the office, at home or traveling, I take my prayer beads out of my bag — and a sense of calm and focus comes over me.
As I finger my prayer beads, crafted out of blue stone beads from New Hampshire, a Russian bead from a friend and beads from one of my mother’s old necklaces, I am able to get in the “zone” of prayer, despite the fragmentation of my day. I have come to look forward to these centering moments.
My practice started in Lent, when I was seeking to grow by trying a new spiritual discipline. Making prayer beads and praying with them combined my love of art with my love of spiritual practices. I had several boxes of old beads and another full of old necklaces waiting to be upcycled. And I remembered my Roman Catholic grandmother years ago having a rosary. Exploring Protestant prayer beads seemed to be an act of traditioned innovation for me.
Prayer beads offer a variety of ways to pray. I started with Kristin Vincent’s ideas in “A Bead and a Prayer: A Beginner’s Guide to Protestant Prayer Beads.” Vincent suggests making a circle of 33 beads representing the life of Christ, along with an invitation bead and a small cross.
Using the ACTS format (adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication), the supplicant fingers the beads in four sets of seven, expressing one thought for each bead, and beginning and ending each set with a bead for the Lord’s Prayer. This method challenged me to examine how much time I normally spend praying in each of those areas.
After practicing this format for several months, I turned to “Praying with Beads: Daily Prayers for the Christian Year,” by Nan Lewis Doerr and Virginia Stem Owens, which provides a brief liturgy for morning, noon and evening each week of the liturgical year. My love of liturgy and the church year attracted me to this method, but I also like that the repetition in the format becomes a meditation.
I’ve also experimented with using my prayer beads to pray the Psalms, fingering one bead for each verse. I’m hoping that this technique can help me memorize more Psalms, something that I usually am able to do only when I sing them.
Finally, a friend at a local Baptist church has taught me her church’s practice of making a simple prayer bead string customized to each member’s prayer concerns — a certain bead signifying a specific child who needs prayer, another an ongoing personal problem, another prayers for a partner, etc. Between each bead is a knot, representing our “knottiness,” or sinfulness.
As I have practiced these methods of praying with beads, I have begun to understand more of Coakley’s words about “living prayer.” And I have seen increasingly how praying with beads can nurture the spiritual lives of Christian leaders:
- Praying with beads provides a steady discipline — a shape and a frequency for a life of prayer. Beads are rooted in a long-standing spiritual tradition for many religions, yet they can also keep us growing as we experiment with new types of prayer.
- Prayer beads offer a physical, tangible tool that fixes our attention on prayer, when so much that is intangible distracts us as leaders. They can help us pray even when our minds want to wander. They can keep us grounded and connected to God. Their tactile nature can have a settling effect, be an antidote to anxiety and act as a physical touchstone like the breath in yoga or meditation.
- As we attempt to cultivate our leadership, praying with beads can become a metaphor for other things. Rough and bumpy beads can represent the times when our prayer or work life is rough and uneven, difficult to hold and stay with.
- Prayer beads are aesthetically pleasing — their shape, size, color and feel. Their weight or clinking sound can serve as a cue or an entrance into a time of prayer.
I’ve also witnessed the benefits of prayer beads for laypeople. I’ve helped teach two congregational workshops on prayer beads. The participants included laypeople from a variety of economic and social backgrounds, only some of whom were familiar with praying with beads. But in both settings, the adults as well as the children were drawn in by the process of selecting and stringing the beads, which became a form of meditation itself, as people had to narrow their focus to concentrate on the tactile procedure.
And they appreciated a chance to learn a new way to pray, many of them sharing that they were not very good at praying. One woman hoped that the physical reminder of the beads would help her turn to prayer, rather than CNN, first thing in the morning. “I would be a lot less anxious,” she told me.
Prayer beads are available for purchase on the web, but it can be valuable to make them yourself. You learn about your prayer habits and needs when you have to make decisions about bead color, shape and size.
Do you want beads that are calming? Stimulating? Beads that keep you mindful of other cultures, people and places? That are simple and wooden, or shiny and colorful? That reflect the bumpy, prickly or craggy aspects of the spiritual life? That are smooth and cool to the touch? Do you want to incorporate beads or a cross repurposed from other times and places in your life?
Whatever your prayer beads look like, they can help you cultivate an intentional life of prayer. And if we are to become leaders who are “living prayer,” then we need such practices that will magnetize and electrify our Christian witness.
When my family prepares for guests, we tend to sweep the clutter off the counters, light a candle, set out homemade salsa and chips, and contain our frisky dogs. My mother would gather newspaper clippings of articles she thought the guests would enjoy. My mother-in-law is always ready with kaffee und kuchen(coffee and cake). We all prepare to welcome people into our homes.
But we may have more trouble translating this hospitality to our work. Do we offer similar hospitality in the meetings, workshops or retreats that we lead? I think we would if we understood event design and planning as related to the core of what we are about as the church.
What does event design have to do with God? And what are the theological reasons that hospitality should be at the heart of Christian event design?
Houston pastor and filmmaker Marlon Hall talks about the importance of knowing the “why” of what we do. I understand Genesis 18 as the heart of event design in my own work.
In this chapter, Abraham and Sarah receive three visitors to their tent at the oaks of Mamre, rushing immediately in the heat of the day to wash their guests’ feet, lead them to a shady tree under which to rest, prepare cakes from the finest flour, and assemble curds and milk and a tender calf to eat. Abraham then stands by the strangers in case they need more.
All this hospitality before they have been introduced, much less mentioned a meeting agenda or action items! Abraham has not even recognized that these visitors are divine beings.
Sister Joan Chittister says that Abraham’s rush to welcome strangers to his table is “one of scripture’s most powerful icons,” calling us to be “keepers of an open tent in the desert.”
What does it mean to be “keepers of an open tent”? What does the story teach us about the importance of Christian hospitality in our own work? I use this story as a foundation for thinking theologically about Christian hospitality and event design.
First, the story reminds me that offering deep hospitality is a sign that we are making room for God in our gatherings. How do we clear the space and set a place for the divine? How might that preparation guide our conversations and our responses to one another? What kind of room do we make for the divine strangers in our midst, those on the margins or those who are wandering thirsty in the desert?
Preparation that makes room for God might include asking careful questions before a meeting or an event to clarify participant needs; practicing deep listening during the meeting or sessions and responding as important issues arise; and paying attention to the event’s setting — elements such as the location itself, as well as the room setup, lighting and temperature.
Second, when we offer hospitality in our events, like Abraham, we invite God into the work that we do. We make it clear that God doesn’t just belong in the sanctuary; God also belongs in the nitty-gritty of our daily work running the church and serving the world.
God is our vision and our compass. Inviting God into our work might mean offering a prayer or Scripture reading or a longer worship time before or after each meeting. The way we present times of worship sets the stage for the tone of the work that follows. Inviting God into our work might also mean incorporating into event materials an image — such as a grain of wheat, a shepherd or a dove — that prompts people to think theologically about the gathering’s topic.
Third, when we offer good hospitality, we say to our attendees, “We know that you are children of God. No matter how humble, how proud or how annoying, you are worthy of respect, love, honor and good-quality coffee.” Do we offer opportunities for participants to share their crucial stories, to be listened to? Or are we simply offering a “sage on the stage”? Hospitality fosters a sense of belonging for all of God’s children who duck into our tent for a spell.
Such hospitality includes time to rest, think, move our bodies and absorb what we’ve heard; fresh, local food; and gracious details such as a small takeaway gift, bookmark or thank-you note. These elements celebrate participants as children of God but need not cost a lot of money. They simply indicate that we care.
Fourth, when we pay attention to hospitality through our design, we convey that we expect transformation to occur. This is not business as usual; something important is happening here. How will we harvest what we learn in the meeting? How will we offer mutual blessing as participants depart? How will we follow up to show that we take what happened seriously? Author Peter Block says that carefully built community can shift the context from “one of deficiencies, interests, and entitlement” to “one of possibility, generosity, and gifts.”
Last, Abraham’s welcome was the inspiration for the artist Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. Rublev understood that God’s triune life is a life of sharing and hospitality, welcoming and making room for the other. When we show hospitality in our homes or at our events, we participate in and witness to this triune God.
If we believe in a God who can transform lives, then we need to keep an open tent, to set the table of our events with intentionality, generosity and expectation.