Hospitable habit

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2)

Hospitality is a big word, used often in church settings but not exclusively there. Take away the suffix and you have hospital -- and everybody knows what that is. The etymology of both words takes us back to a root that means "guest." In many cultures of the past, treating a stranded wayfarer as an honored guest is part and parcel of normal behavior.

When you are the recipient of hospitality from a previously unknown party, it has the effect of ramping up a desire to extend it to strangers yourself.

Last weekend, my family was in Springfield, Mo., for a job-related conference. Because of my spouse's business obligations, we drove to the conference separately. When she left two days before the event was over, she inadvertently took the car keys to my 1997 Honda. She was nearly back in Cape Girardeau by the time we both realized what had happened. It didn't seem a good idea for her to make a nine-hour round trip just to ensure I could get home. I called FedEx.

"Sir, we can pick up the key first thing Monday morning from your wife and have it to you before 1 p.m. that day." Great! How much? "$557." OK, we're not going to do that.

I began to call around to locksmiths. Keep in mind it is a Sunday afternoon and nearly every advertisement in the Yellow Pages displayed Monday to Friday hours. Several calls resulted in no pickups, until the fifth call. I heard a tentative "Hello?" Yes, it was a locksmith. No, he's not open; it is the weekend. He was available to handle emergencies. After I pleaded my case, he offered to be there in two hours. He was as good as his word.

He said he could cut me a key based on my vehicle's VIN number. He quoted me a price, which seemed reasonable, and I went back to my conference. The locksmith quickly discovered what I had forgotten. Some months ago, my mechanic replaced my ignition module, rendering the VIN number moot when it came to replicating a replacement. The locksmith asked my teenage daughter to call my wife back in Cape Girardeau.

He needed a photograph of the ignition key so he could fabricate one for me to use in Springfield. She took a photograph of both sides of the key and shot them to the locksmith's cell phone. By this time, he had nearly disassembled my steering column. With the photos in hand, he consulted his laptop to come up with a key that would work. He returned to his shop and fashioned a key (with a spare) and called to inform me the job was complete.

He has spent five hours on a job that normally takes less than half an hour. I was prepared for the shock of the bill. "It's the same price I quoted you on the phone, sir." How can this be? All the work you did, all the hours, on a Sunday no less? "Well, you see, I'm a preacher's kid." He then told me how his dad, whom he had lost many years before, had made a habit of helping folks down on their luck.

From father to son -- the practice of extending hospitality was reproduced and extended to a middle-aged guy from Cape Girardeau who was too stupid to check on his car keys before his wife left town. I will remember the angel named John. He answered my forlorn call on a Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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