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March 30, 2015

you look fat today

Not long ago, Eastern friends invited us for an informal supper on a weeknight. I had a small floral plate of theirs in my cupboard, which they'd forgotten at our place. Asia taught me not to return plates empty, so before our visit, I made a simple chocolate dessert to share. My husband tasted it at lunchtime and confirmed its deliciousness. I confidently packed both the sweets and the plate to take to our hosts.

That evening, we folded our limbs to fit into their small dining area, knees hitting table legs, and partook of oily eggplant and meat kebabs, served with rice and flat bread. The host had done the cooking because his wife was under the weather, and we showered him with praise for the tasty entree.

When it was time for dessert, my chocolate squares were placed on the table with the hostesses' other sweets. The man of the house sunk a thick finger into the corner of a square, and tasted my creation. Then, indicating his wife's berry cake, he declared to my husband, "Maybe once you have been married as long as I have, your wife will know how to make nice desserts like my wife makes, not this stuff." 

Inside, I grumbled, and was ready to leave.
Why do we hang out with people who insult me,
or waste a dessert that we like on people who don't like it?

A few days later, I was walking home in the evening with a fellow North American. We crossed a main bridge into the city centre and she asked, "What's for supper?" I should have known that it wasn't a good sign when my description of the food I had prepared (modifying it slightly to suit her allergies) was met with dead silence. As mealtime approached, she informed us that she had had a late lunch, and that she is the world's pickiest eater. 

For the next hour and a half, she sought to prove that true. She skillfully repositioned the food on her plate at least fifty times, and nibbled a grain of rice here or a piece of turkey there...but injested virtually nothing except bread, butter and coffee. Even the orange slices served as a side dish were nearly untouched. She didn't like the food, that was obvious. But she seemed pleased to spend the evening telling us about her background, interests, and accomplishments. Apparently learning to eat what she is served is not among those accomplishments.

Inside, I grumbled, and was ready for her to leave.
Why do we host self-absorbed picky eaters,
and why does she have to stay so late? 

It's one thing to write peppy posts about practicing hospitality, and it is quite another to live out hospitality with a forgiving and loving spirit. Our local Body is studying 1 Peter, and this week I came across Peter's admonition: "Be hospitable to one another without grumbling". The text was so obvious; I had to repent of grumbling about hosting or being hosted by people who aren't particularly easy to have around.  

Hospitality seems a strange topic for Peter to broach in an epistle that this focused on believers suffering with hope. Doesn't he have bigger fish to fry, like how to handle persecution or death threats? But in daily life, suffering comes most often in these little forms: bad manners, sarcastic remarks, and small insults that leave us with a bad taste in our mouths. Small irritations easily drive division between us and others, when we respond in the flesh. But when we respond in the Spirit, these mini-suffering moments train us to respond well to the big suffering moments. Through them we have the opportunity to advance spiritually in ways that we would never had developed had everyone been extraordinarily complimentary, accommodating and generous to us at all times.  

When we face circumstances tempt us to grumble, Peter shows us that we have the opportunity to look at the big picture: 
  • in the past, He patiently suffered for you, not returning insult for insult;
  • in the future, He's coming for you, and will settle you in your eternal home;
  • right now, "the end of all things is at hand"... (4:7).
The little things we grumble about, that keep us from a hospitable spirit, are temporary. Peter refers to our whole lives as "the time of your stay here", because this pilgrimage on earth shouldn't be wasted "revil[ing] in return" but instead, turning the other cheek.

The title of this post is a small insult, and direct quotation, from a friend in Asia. One day not long after we had met, she came by for a visit. After a short greeting, she announced, "You look fat today!" I was insulted, and I didn't know how to respond. But clearly her comment wasn't inappropriate in her culture, because she was a kind-hearted woman and didn't mean to hurt me. I had to overlook the slight, knowing she meant well, and perhaps throw out that horizontally-striped T-shirt. But I have never managed to throw her words from my memory!

These little slights are the stuff of life with one another, and especially of cross-cultural life with one another. Peter's first letter is full of lots of little gems about how to act toward "one another", likely because God knew that in suffering situations we often take out our frustrations on one another. The exact word pair "one another" is mentioned seven times in my English translation of 1 Peter:
  • "love one another fervently with a pure heart,"
  • "be of one mind, having compassion for one another;
    love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous...."
  • "above all things have fervent love for one another,
    for 'love will cover a multitude of sins.'"
  • "Be hospitable to one another without grumbling."
  • "minister [your gifts] to one another"
  • "be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility"
  • "Greet one another"
If you're sensitive and selfish like I am, your response when slighted is often to subtly distance yourself from the people who insult you, not to be hospitable to them. Or to grumble or gossip about them, not to have compassion and fervent love for them. We need His admonition, "Be hospitable to one another without grumbling."

Lately I'm learning that when I look at a perceived insult with an attitude of humility, letting love tenderize the hurt, usually there is something practical to learn from the insult. Such as:
  • Central Asians aren't used to peanut butter and chocolate no-bake squares, and might not like them. To serve them better, try something using flavours and ingredients they are more accustomed to.
  • Don't try exotic wild rice salads on Americans you don't know very well; standard Sloppy Joes with a white bread option might be better.
  • Watch how much you eat, and keep reasonably fit.
Furthermore, usually an insult only smarts because we recognize a kernel of truth in the words, and we are too proud to admit it. If someone insults us in a way that is completely untrue, we get over it sooner, because we realize that it was just a product of their fantasy. But these situations made me more aware of true weaknesses of mine, which is never a pleasant experience. Now that I think about it,
  • I had thrown a simple dessert together, just to have something to take along. I could plan the time to make nicer desserts or desserts better suited to the recipients. I have a tendency to choose the lazy way out, especially if I think no one else will notice the difference.
  • I had made the mistake of trying a new dish on a new person, and it honestly didn't taste super good, even to us. I can complain about her picky eating, or I can grow in being a selfless hostess by feeding people things that are less unusual. Again, sometimes I'm lazy or selfish, just not wanting to make another trip to the grocery store, or wanting to make something I think is good, no matter if my guests will enjoy it.
  • I was "looking fat" because I had been over-eating (that's called gluttony, folks), and needed to lose some weight and exercise more regularly. It just hurt to have someone acknowledge it so openly, but I knew it was true.
I don't say these things to berate or be unreasonable with myself, but to say that God is mercifully using these remarks to remind me of sin He had already shown me, in my heart.

What could have been an insult that brings division, when it is...
covered in love ("love always hopes" that they didn't mean to hurt me),
received with humility (recognizing that I too am sinful), and
followed with no grumbling (recognizing that this slight is valuable to me, as a teachable moment) a catalyst for growth in my life, because I'm able to extract the truth from careless words and even be thankful for the person who exposed that truth to me.

In the end, those unfiltered thoughts and brutally honest assessments are swifter teachers than ten friends who flatter me for years, and don't tell me where I could improve. In the end, hurts can often help. But even when I can't see any good or truth in hard words, "the end of all things is at hand", the command is still there: let's be hospitable to one another without grumbling.

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