When Edinburgh student Lucy Geake found herself caught in a rainstorm on the side of a remote mountain in Azerbaijan she encountered something else altogether unexpected.
I’m writing from Azerbaijan. A country so unheard of, a member of staff at Heathrow airport refused to believe it was my destination. It’s a country of oil, glorious mountains and outrageous generosity.
Our first journey in Azerbaijan took us through miles of empty houses under construction, dusty villages with colourful fruit stands and lambs hung upside down by butchers. We then reached the oilfields; pools of petroleum formed across the land, and tar weighed thick in the air. A wasteland of metal structures stretched to the distance, an eerie geometric pattern of oil pumps, moving in tandem as if they were attached to puppet strings.
Yet just half an hour from here, you find yourself in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, wandering down beautiful cobbled streets covered in Persian rugs.
But it’s the rugged mountains that got me thinking about generosity.
One day we hiked for 12 hours, across jutted ridges and up vibrant green slopes. We didn’t see a single other walker in all that time. Just forests, boulders, and shepherds.
Mid-afternoon we had still not reached our halfway point, and the mist began to push out the sunshine. Soon, we were well and truly in the clouds. And the rain began… Just the occasional oversized water drop at first. But soon the skies forgot their hesitation and it pelted down.
Wet to the skin and stuck in the middle of the mountains, we dripped our way to a small tarpaulin shelter we could only just make out through the rain. A shepherd’s hut. In the summer they move to the mountain tops for the grazing.
Sodden and unannounced we were welcomed into the shelter like old friends – even though we couldn’t speak their language. In the blue light of the tarpaulin roof the couple who welcomed us piled jumpers on us and sat us down. Underneath the leg of lamb hanging from the ceiling they brewed us tea, and within minutes transformed the floor into an absolute spread: flatbread was laid out on a cloth, and our host cut a section of mortale cheese from the corner of the shelter – it’s a pungent cheese they make by burying milk underground for a few months until it matures into mortale.
The Bible tells us not to forget to entertain strangers (Hebrews 13.2), and that we are to love foreigners (Deuteronomy 10.19). I was astounded by the hospitality the shepherds showed us, by the fact that they were willing to have us to stay the night if the rain didn’t stop pounding down in time to get off the mountain that day, by the warmth they showed us. Across Azerbaijan, in fact, we were shown startling generosity simply because we were outsiders.
It really challenged me about the way that we welcome outsiders and foreigners back in the UK. It should be something we are known for as Christians. What would it look like, for example, if our generation was dedicated to welcoming international students into our friendship groups? If we were known for loving the outsiders?
I love these words from Luke 6: 31-33 (The Message): “Live generously. Here is a simple rule of thumb for behaviour: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back?”
Let’s live generously, and welcome outrageously!