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The Hospitality of Oaks
Abraham, the three strangers, and the generosity of God
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” —Genesis 18:1-5
This past winter, my daughters and I drove East of the city, along cypress oxbows, past the hulking blue and gray expanse of an Amazon distribution center, and down a gravel road to a complex of buildings. With the showing of our receipt, we were directed to a barn with a sliding door, where a man in tall rubber boots met us. While we waited outside he went into a huge, silver, walk-in refrigerator. A few minutes later he emerged with two long brown paper bags, stamped with the seal of the Arkansas Forestry Commission. Inside were trees—bald cypress and black gum, redbuds and dogwoods. The tree I was most excited about, however, was perhaps the most prosaic—oaks.
I live on a lot with no mature oak trees, even though my land, if left to its own devices would certainly be an oak anchored forest. I’ve often looked longingly over the fence at my neighbor’s large oaks; and their absence in my own yard has felt like a kind of deficit. To return the trees to this place would in some way make it whole, but more so it would be an act of hospitality.
Oaks are the most hospitable trees. They provide acorns, of course, to feed birds and squirrels and even people, if we wanted. But their generosity extends far beyond that. Oaks are the exclusive larval host plant for over a hundred different butterfly and moth species. That means that the caterpillars of these insects can only eat the leaves of oak trees. Such an abundance of caterpillars also means an abundance of food for birds, many of which rely on them to feed their young.
The bark and branches of the oak is also a growing place for other life to grow, from lichen and moss to mistletoe and ferns. My favorite oak anchored plant is Pleopeltis polypodioides, whose curled fronds look dried and dead until they burst to life whenever it rains. It is aptly named the “resurrection fern.”
The hospitality of oaks is not only on the outside, either. As they mature, oaks tend to hollow out, a reality that does not mean disease, but instead the provision of a space for animals in the enclosure of the tree’s healthy and living outer layers. Animals as small as flying squirrels and as large as bears often make their homes in the safe circle of a mature oak.
Given their generosity, it is fitting that it was a grove of oaks that were the host of Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre. The story in Genesis is often titled the “hospitality of Abraham,” but as I read and reread this story over the past few weeks, I found myself thinking that perhaps it could be better named “the hospitality of oaks.”
Hospitality is one of those words that is often overused and underdefined. It would be easy to think of this critical act only in terms of dinner parties and festive receptions, of attentive hosts and lavish welcomes. And all of those things could be a part of hospitality. In its roots, however, we find a more dangerous reality. The word hospitality means, most literally, welcoming the stranger, and the stranger in the ancient world was as often as not an enemy. The word host, in fact, comes from the Latin hostis which means enemy as well as stranger. To the ancient understanding an encounter with some unknown person could end with a curse as much as blessing. And yet, in the vulnerable world of nomads in the arid lands through which Abraham traveled, reliance on strangers was as necessary as it was perilous. Good hospitality, then, was a way of welcoming a stranger so that instead of ending up enemies, both parties left as friends.
In Genesis, Abraham becomes a great exemplar of this work. Instead of sizing up these men who come into his camp, he immediately goes about setting up a feast, inviting them to sit beneath the trees and rest. In doing this he is engaging the essence of hospitality that Henri Nouwen describes as “the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” But what Abraham is doing here is not really creating space, so much as offering it. He is inviting these men, who turn out to be a manifestation of God’s presence, to share in the gifts that Abraham has already received—the free space of blessing offered by the oaks.
What’s important about this is that as soon as Abraham goes to offer something, to give a gift, it turns out that it is a gift he has already received. He seeks to give some hospitality to a stranger who turns out to be God, and yet in the form of oaks, God he has already offered hospitality to Abraham. And this is a reality that we find all through the story from Abraham to Jesus to our own experience of God—that whenever we have found ourselves strangers to God, enemies even, God has already been at work offering hospitality, drawing us in to become friends. From the very fabric of creation, in which rain falls on the godly and ungodly, to the sending of Jesus for our sakes, God is always at work making the first move of friendship and blessing.
What this means for us is that like Abraham, we don’t have to worry about achieving our security or defending ourselves against enemies. We don’t have to guarantee our blessings through any acts of our own achievement, ensuring our own joy and happiness and fulfillment. The result of those things is an ever more exploited world; lives unbounded from the rhythms of rest and dependence and embodiment that were always meant to be means of grace in our given lives. Instead, we are invited to live into the free space of God’s gifts that are already present if only we could learn to see and receive them.
That God created oaks and oceans, bodies and bread; that God called a man named Abraham whose only quality to recommend him was his ability to say yes to God’s gifts, all of these are acts of hospitality that extended from the heart of the creation. And our work in response to this hospitality, that began even before human beings existed, is not to try to turn it into something that we can manipulate and control, a reality to enclose in an economy of earning. Instead, our work is to be like the oaks as sites of blessing, and like Abraham pointing toward them with an invitation to share in their rest.
As I worked on this essay, in my writing shed at the back of my yard, I looked out its big window at the oaks my family planted in the cold of the winter. They are young, hardly three feet tall, and yet already I’ve seen the marks of caterpillars on their leaves. In several decades, they will become mature, only increasing the hospitality they have to offer, welcoming an ever larger host of strangers among their branches. For now though, they are signs of hope and reminders of the gifts that God has already so generously poured into our hearts. Like those oaks of Mamre, in them I can see that whenever I seek to offer some blessing, to do some good in the world, such love and goodness has already been given to me. My work is simply to receive it and let it grow, realizing that God is always tending the soil of this blessing, bringing new life to all who will stop their efforts at earning and manipulation to let the gifts of grace take root.