While reading aloud The Lord of the Rings to my two oldest daughters for the first time, I have been repeatedly struck by something: the power of hospitality. The larger world that Frodo and company are thrust into can be perilous, even a bit grim, but it is never over much. Why, one might ask? They are weak and inexperienced hobbits after all. It is not overwhelming, because right in the midst of the hard times, when the mist rolls in thickly, or the black riders are right on their heels, or the trees of the forest are surrounding them in threatening ways, a door always opens. A hot meal is prepared. Songs and laughter are shared. Comfortable places are offered for sleeping. Hospitality spreads wide its arms and provides warmth and light in the midst of the hobbits’ darkness.
No one seems to show this spirit of hospitality more than Tom Bombadil. If you have read the books you will remember the moments before he enters the scene so unexpectedly. If not, I will try to paint them for you in a few words.
Frodo and his friends are on the edge of the Shire. They are passing into lands that even Merry Brandybuck has not fully explored. The black riders are pressing after them and in a doubtful decision, the hobbits decide to veer off the main road and head cross-country. They hope to make better time and make it harder for these riders to track them. After a time, they find themselves deeper and deeper in an ancient wood. The farther they go, the further off course they find themselves. They know what they want, but how to get to where they want to go is another matter altogether. Finally, they enter into a narrow valley on the edge of a river and without warning find themselves fighting with Old Man Willow, who has rotten wood in his heart. Suddenly all seems lost, and hobbits are half drowned, half swallowed, and in despair, and then along comes Tom, songs and all. Tom sweeps in to the rescue, but he does not just rescue them, he also refreshes them.
Then he says these words to them now that all is calm,
“Well, my little friends… you shall come home with me! The table is all laden with yellow cream, honeycomb, and white bread and butter. Goldberry is waiting. Time enough for questions around the supper table. You follow after me as quick as you are able!”
These hobbits are foot-sore and travel-worn, but they trudge along and follow Tom to an unexpected haven. They find that beyond Tom’s and Goldberry’s threshold are all the little things that make a house a home (even considering hobbits’ high standards).
Their hospitality was more than an open door to strangers; it was open hearts that made room for them. They created a simple atmosphere of peace and rest, a place of renewal on a hard journey. They did not offer these travelers hospitality cumbered with extravagance. They treated them to simple, quality ingredients, like kindness, consideration, fellowship, laughter, and time; all the truest things that bring real comfort. Their food was wholesome and as the hobbits discovered, their water was better than wine, and their bread and butter were better than a feast.
This little home in the middle of a dark ancient forest was not the end of their journey, but it was an important stop along the way. At the end of a few restful days everyone and everything was prepared and fortified for the journey that lay before them. This is a sampling of the power of Tom Bombadil hospitality.
This last year has been a lot like Frodo’s fated journey. Many unexpected events have happened. For most of us, the journey has not gone like we had planned. At times during this year there have even been decisions made more from fear than from faith. But our lives are not a random assortment of facts, they are in fact a story, being written by a good God. For this reason, right now might just be the time that we need hospitality the most. This might be when we need not just to receive it, but to give it too.
There seems to be something in human nature that shrinks from the virtue of hospitality during times of trouble, but just because a feeling is our inclination does not mean it should be our reality. As Paul writes to the church in Rome, a church in the midst of a cultural war inside and outside it’s fellowship, a church greatly in need of edification, God inspired him to write these instructions found in Romans chapter twelve verse twelve, “Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer.”
These are high words, grand ideas, ones that must be empower by God for us to fulfill, but God does not stop with inspiration and instructions. He does not leave us to contemplate the possibilities alone, he goes on in the next verse to give us practical means to help brings these ideas into our reality. “Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.” God knows our nature. He knows our tendency is to look inward right when we need to look outward the most.
God did not leave us alone in this world for a reason. He gave us family and church so that we might help bear one another’s burdens. Tom Bambadil shows us that one great way of doing this is by showing some hospitality.
The reader might say, “But what of lockdowns and social restrictions?”
God’s Word is not bound. If you are restricted to family, you have a great opportunity to learn that hospitality starts at home. Let us take the extra time these restrictions have given us, the freedom from extraneous parties and gatherings and the multitudinous programs and events that glut our lives, and hunker down at home and practice being more than doing.
If there is freedom to gather in small groups, let us open our homes. Good simple food, talking, and playing together is all that is wanted. We can be tempted to believe that extravagance is hospitality, but entertainment is not rest, and consumption is not celebration. As John Ruskin said once, “Quality is never an accident. It is always a result of an intelligent effort.” The first step we need for hospitality is not party favors, the perfect food, or a litany of activities; it is in fact inclusion. It is opening the doors of our homes so that we can rub shoulders with humanity, and be better for it.
In the next few weeks, whether we have the opportunity to open our home to outsiders, or we must simply settle into our homes as families, let us speak the words that Goldberry speaks to these weary hobbits,
“Let us shut out the night! For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree-shadows and deep water, and untamed things. Fear nothing! For tonight you are under the roof of Tom Bombadil!”