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I was sitting at the dinner table, and although I was physically present I was a million miles away. Things were kicking off at work; a major dispute had led to more than a dozen staff leaving the organisation. On top of that, I had just found out that my mother was dying of cancer. Church was proving difficult as my work colleagues attended with me. My sleep was disrupted and I lost interest in food because I couldn’t switch off from all the turmoil. I was not taking things well. I felt betrayed by the Church, by fellow Christians, by the whole machinery behind Christian ministry and even by God. I was also disappointed in myself. I should have had enough resources to cope with this. I had always believed that the God of the gospel was big enough to handle any problems we might face. And I thought I was pretty clued up when it came to under-standing struggles. I had been mentored by youth workers, trained by Christian university campus workers, apprenticed by church leaders and had even invested in theological education. I had a CV that included missionary, pastor and lecturer at a prestigious university. I had even written books. But all of this proved inadequate for handling what I was facing.

I always remember that dark period of my life when I hear otherwise shocking stories of the faith struggles of prominent Christian leaders. The recent public faith deconstructions of pastor Joshua Harris and Hillsong’s Marty Sampson may have reflected mine: let down on too many fronts at the same time, with a theology that seems to have answers to tragedy and disappointment but can’t really stand the rigour of circumstances beyond our control.

New life

The game changer for me was that in the middle of the lowest point in my life our family became foster parents. We already had three children aged 7, 6 and 5, and had just finished the necessarily invasive fostering assessment process. Suddenly, we received the call for our first placement: a newborn baby girl.

That little girl lived with us as our foster daughter for two years before we finally adopted her. As I nourished and nurtured her, she brought me back to life. On 11thSeptember, her status in our family became legal and permanent. It is a date that brings to mind the worst atrocities mankind can wreak against one another. But for me that courtroom date will always signify one of the highlights of my life. Perhaps it shines even more brightly because of the darkness that surrounded it: the darkness of 9/11 and of terrorism wherever it occurs; the darkness of a world where workplace bullying is allowed to continue unchecked; the darkness of a world full of cancer, mental health crises and children legally removed from parents who had not been protected themselves when they were young.

I never did rediscover my relationship with God. I say that because I encountered a whole new relationship with him. The developing relationship with my adopted daughter opened my eyes to the truth that God was my adoptive father, and that I was his adopted child. To be honest, it still surprises me how much this revolutionised my faith. But in researching my two latest books I have discovered that this link is plainly written through-out the pages of our Bibles.

I thought I understood the Bible pretty well – I lectured in theology around the world! But the experience of welcoming someone else’s child into our family opened my eyes to an essential aspect of Christian discipleship I had previously failed to notice. Whether you start with the story of Abraham inadvertently welcoming God into his tent for dinner, or with Jesus visiting Zacchaeus’ house, or with the kingdom of heaven being likened to a feast that was rejected by the establishment and offered to outsiders, or with Jesus’ explanation of the final Judgement Day in Matthew 25 swinging on whether we welcomed the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the stranger, it’s hard to avoid the simple and scary truth that hospitality is an essential part of Christian discipleship.

This is repeatedly illustrated in the worked-out examples of Naomi and Ruth, David and Mephibosheth, Pharaoh’s daughter and baby Moses, John and Jesus’ mother and countless others: invitation and inclusion, despite natural barriers. Somehow, I had missed it. I had reduced the gospel down to a set of propositions that needed to be believed about Jesus, sin, the cross and salvation. And by doing so I had managed to ignore most of what Jesus actually said and almost all of what he actually did for most of my Christian life.

Move to the table

Too often we have made the study the most important room in the house of Christian discipleship. We assume that it’s what you know that saves you, it’s what you believe that shapes you and it’s what you say that defines you. But I have come to discover that, biblically, the most important place when it comes to following Christ is the kitchen table. Who do we let into our homes and hearts? Who do we share food with regularly? Who is offered a listening ear, sustenance, help, time and hope, with a bit of food and drink thrown in for good measure?

I am passionate about helping children and young people make this connection from desk to kitchen table, and about giving them a vision for the normality of radical hospitality that could save lives, maybe even their own.

Teach about it

It’s surprising how much of Jesus’ most important work and conversations took place around food. Jesus’ first miracle was providing wine at a wedding. His last meeting with his disciples before the cross was celebrating the Passover meal with them. His first visit with his disciples after the resurrection was when he barbecued fish for them after they had been fishing and caught nothing. Why not look at the life of Christ based around meals, and not only teach it but model the transformational power of hospitality? My book God is Stranger looks at some of the most difficult-to-understand Bible texts and shows how hospitality lies at the heart of them. Why not use this as a curriculum for your youth and children’s groups, or discuss it together as a family around the kitchen table?

Practise it

When I was in sixth form, a youth worker challenged me to invite three of my friends over for a campfire barbecue, and to explain to them why I had become a Christian. It was out of my comfort zone. But while we were making s’mores I shared a little about my journey to faith. They were open to hearing about it, asked intelligent questions and – after a short evangelistic course – one of them became a Christian. I have loved being in churches where the young people have run their own Alpha courses: cooking food for their friends, doing the talks themselves and hosting tables. I have seen hospitality as a powerful opportunity for rich evangelistic dialogue and delicious conversation starters.

Welcome the stranger

I was definitely an outsider at my school. I was the brownest boy there. I was relentlessly teased about being from Pakistan (I wasn’t), my dad running a corner shop (he didn’t) and my mother growing up in the jungle (she didn’t). I was intrigued when one of my friends became a Christian and showed remarkable kindness and compassion toward me in my class. He often invited me to his home, where he shared his kitchen table with fostered and adopted siblings. I couldn’t articulate it then, but his home was a remarkable picture of the hospitality of God. His life and words brought me to faith in Jesus. In every classroom our children and young people study in there will be children like me. Those that feel like outsiders. Those who need to know and feel unconditional love. Those whose lives could be changed by an invitation to supper. We need to release our young people to demonstrate and articulate the welcoming grace of God to them. And we need to open our homes and share our kitchen tables.

My life and faith were transformed after welcoming our tiny little guest into our home. I understood something more of grace, unconditional love, hope and relationship with a new father. It wasn’t an instant fix, like some spiritual magic bullet. But it set me on a path from which I saw that practising the hospitality of God could make a real impact. It can open up something more of the riches of the Christian faith, give a deeper appreciation of the character of God and provide an immersive, life-transforming encounter with the mission of God. If our kitchen tables are among the simplest and best places for our Christian faith to find expression, we need to share this great secret with everyone.

Supporting documents

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