Cultivating Hospitality

A few years back, after reading Uniting Church and Home for the first time, I was struck with how much of my married life was spent busy in formal ministry. Ministry was often the reason or excuse I was much too busy to spend time cultivating hospitality in my home, too busy to reach out to neighbors or extended family.

[Side Note: My thought process has been on the move for the past several years. The simplicity of living whole-heartedly for the Lord (serving God all the time in a de-compartmentalized fashion and pouring my heart and soul into the things He has clearly given me as priorities) woos me with the excitement of new – and real — life. I warmed up quickly to the idea of my life being a Series of Divine Appointments (in lieu of a Series of Busy Entanglements). I have attempted to slow down to catch them.]

Honestly, though, I didn’t think I had a hospitable bone in my body. Part of my problem was that I thought hospitality was to be equated with entertaining, and it is most-definitely true that I do not have an entertaining bone in my body (unless you count being a goofball as entertaining). Somehow, I had the idea that to be hospitable meant I had to become some sort of concoction of Mrs. Cleaver, gourmet food server, keeper of a spotless house, and sharer of “cultured” conversation.

Reading Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition opened my eyes to what the word “hospitality” has meant throughout history. Hospitality, once an integral part of the Church, used to mean welcoming strangers into our homes, and taking care of the poor and homeless. As we have given these responsibilities over to institutions, the individual has ceased to feel ownership over the task of “hospitality.”

Making Room opened my eyes to the wonderful hospitality my parents have passed on to me. My dad worked at the Union Gospel Mission, practicing his heart for the hurting and needy. Mom and Dad invited at least half a dozen homeless men to live with us for extended periods of time. Dad even found one poor soul wandering at a gas station, and this man ended up staying with us for a few weeks before he disappeared (there is still talk that maybe he was an angel, although as a child I wondered if angels could possibly smoke cigarettes :)) My parents gave rides to smelly strangers often, and always stopped to help someone with a broken-down car. Some of these hospitable practices are just too much for me to try, in this day and age, as in giving strange men rides if Ron is not with me. I do try to listen to God’s Spirit for discernment over individual situations, and have found ways to reach out that are not as dangerous as asking someone to live with us.

Beyond ministering to the needy, there is another hospitality ministry given to us Christians that involves reaching out to each other and our neighbors through our homes — and this ministry is not identical to entertaining others. Recently reading Open Heart, Open Home by Karen Mains, I was struck again by the difference between hospitality and entertaining:

ENTERTAINING V. HOSPITALITY

Secular entertaining is a terrible bondage. Its source is human pride. Demanding perfection, fostering the urge to impress, it is a rigorous taskmaster that enslaves. In contrast, scriptural hospitality is a freedom that liberates.

Entertaining says, “I want to impress you with my beautiful home, my clever decorating, my gourmet cooking.” Hospitality, however, seeks to minister. It says, “This home is not mine. It is truly a gift from my Master. I am his servant, and I use it as he desires.” Hospitality does not try to impress but to serve.

Entertaining always puts things before people. “As soon as I get the house finished, the living room decorated, my place settings complete, my housework done — then I will start having people in.” The So-and-so’s are coming. I must buy that new such-and-such before they come.” Hospitality, however, puts people before things. We have no furniture; we’ll eat on the floor.” “The decorating may never get done. Please come just the same.” “The house is a mess, but these people are friends. We never get to see them. Let’s have this time together anyway.”

Because we are afraid to allow people to see us as we really are, we welcome the false ideal of entertaining. To perpetuate the illusion, we must pretend we love housework, never put our hair in rollers (does anyone do this anymore? I get the point, though!), our children are so well disciplined that they always pick up their toys. We must hint broadly that we manage our busy lives without difficulty. Working hard to keep people from recognizing our weak points, we also prevent them from loving us in our weakness.

Because hospitality has put away its pride, it doesn’t care if other people see our humanness. Because we are maintaining no false pretensions, people relax and feel that perhaps we can be friends.

Entertaining subtly declares, “This is mine — these rooms, these adornments. This is an expression of my personality. It is an extension of who and what I am. Look, pleaseeeeeeeeeeeeee, and admire.” Hospitality whispers, “What is mine is yours.” Here is the secret of community that is all but lost to the church of today. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common”(Acts 2:44). The hospitality of that first-century church clearly said, “What’s mine is yours.”

…The model for entertaining is found in the slick pages of women’s magazines with their appealing pictures of foods and rooms. The model for hospitality is found in the Word of God.”

I have been the recipient of much hospitality, to which I am so grateful. I believe the time I felt most welcome in someone else’s home was the time we stayed a few days with our friends Ross and Wendy Neilson in Portland, Oregon (if you know the Neilsons, you know they are a blessing!). Their apartment was teeny-tiny, and a little bit on the messy side (don’t kill me for saying that, Wendy, it helps make the point!). They gave up the master bedroom to my husband and me — what a inviting retreat! They let our three boys stay in the living room, while Ross and one of his children took up residence outside, camped in their VW van, and Wendy and their other child slept in the kids’ room. They made sure we were warm, clean, and well-fed. We felt so welcomed, so loved, so part of the family. From the instant we arrived, our hosts did not seem at all “put out,” but happy to bring us into their home and squeeze us right in. For the first time, it clicked in my mind that I DO NOT HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL MY HOUSE IS PERFECT BEFORE I CAN SERVE OTHERS BY WELCOMING THEM INTO OUR HOME.

It wasn’t a pristine house from the pages of House Beautiful that ministered to me (truth be told, pristine houses can be stressful when one brings three boys under 6 into them) but the comfortable put-your-feet-up-and-stay-awhile atmosphere. It wasn’t the lavish meals set before us that made us feel welcome (we ate along the lines of hamburgers and mac ‘n cheese) but the fact that our friends shared what they had with laughter and ease. It wasn’t the quiet retreat (try sleeping on the 4th of July in downtown Portland) but the love that surrounded us that made us feel we were getting away to a haven of peace.

Mom and Dad, thank you for being willing to open your home and family to people that needed you over the years. Thank you for opening your home to strangers. Thank you for sharing with those less fortunate than you, even when you were in poverty yourself. You have helped teach me that people who are a bit “different” than me are so worthy of love, you have helped me see others as Christ sees them. You have taught me that I can love others through hospitality in unexpected and ancient ways.

Ross and Wendy, thank you for not always having a perfectly clean house. You have helped to teach me to care more about people than things, to serve rather than impress. When I get stressed over the state of my laundry before company comes, I remember the wonderful weekend we were welcomed into your little apartment, and set my priorities straight.

Everyone Else, I still hold on to the dream of wanting my home to be organized, clean, and not chaotic. I want my home to feel warm, and lovely — from the decorations to the personalities inside. I want to have fresh, yummy, healthy food at my fingertips, with my tea pot always ready to go. I want the Spirit of Christ to radiate from each of our faces. But the fact remains — we are not fully there yet. Almost every day there is some glaring discrepancy in my Great Big Plan of Heart and Home.

So…come on over anyway, while we are in process. Push the laundry out of the way and find a seat on the couch, ignore the overdue-for-a-bath doggie smell, or better yet — grab a rag and wash a few dishes or share your tips for organizing the pantry while we chat (thank you to so many of my friends and family who pitch in while you are here – you are a blessing!).

I hope you’ll all help me learn to be more hospitable! I know I am an oddball who likes change for change sake, but this move toward hospitality warms my heart…and I can’t wait to become more skilled at blessing others in this way.

Addendum: Check out JavaDawn’s post on hospitality and the ensuing comments…full of encouragment and tips on cultivating hospitality! I am so thankful for what I have learned from Titus 2 mentors from CyberSpace!

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6 thoughts on “Cultivating Hospitality

  1. Deb,this article is beautiful. I have never thought that I had hospitality because I never had had the house to entertain. But we did have a few visitors at our house over the years – didn’t we?

    I still think that John was an angel! Angel’s don’t get cancer and he smoked outside so we wouldn’t get it. So why not having an angel smoke?
    Love,
    MOM

  2. Deb, I keep coming back and re-reading this – I just love the challenge it presents to me. I love that it keeps turning my face again and again to the REAL reason for extending hospitality.

    There were some seasons of my life when my father did just what you’re talking about – picking up “stray” people from the rail road station. It was always most interesting when they couldn’t speak any English (something that happened SEVERAL times. LOL) It was not an infrequent event, since we lived not too far off the main train track in Chicago. The folks who got lost in downtown ended up in our wee little burg…and eventually in our home. (I think in many ways it made my mom crazy) ; )

    I think I’m going to have to simply print this off and keep it in my prayer journal.

    Thank you for being so bold and yet so gentle and humble in sharing!

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