Hospitality is the virtue of a great soul that cares for the whole universe through the ties of humanity. — Hospitality, Louis, Chevalier de Jaucourt1
Lori and Mike first came to my table on one of those frigid November evenings where the light had seeped out of the day well before dinner and entertaining was the last thing I felt like doing.
I stood at the stove in day-two yoga pants and stirred the pot with my longest-handled spoon.
What was I thinking?
Just as I began hoping they might bail, they swept through the door. In a rush of biting cold, a swirl of cigarette smoke, and the tinny laughter of the anxious, they defied the good sense of this risk-leery world and showed up.
Before that night we’d shared no more than two minutes of conversation. We were complete strangers without a single degree of Kevin Bacon between us, and I was equal parts thrilled and terrified. The threat of awkwardness loomed large in the dark hours ahead of us. Sharing no common vocabulary and having life experiences that overlapped only in slivers, what on earth would we talk about? How would we possibly connect?
Lori handed me an eight-dollar coconut pie and a frosted blue votive holder. “I hope you like it. I didn’t know what your colors were,” and I was leveled, my pride and my stupid ideas about who belongs where falling in a heap on the kitchen floor.
As I passed plates and served salad, my dormant hostess jitters flared and sputtered. Was the pasta too sticky? What was their opinion on tomatoes (so polarizing!), and do they really prefer the garlic bread slightly burnt, or are they just being nice?
Across the table sat my eight-year-old daughter. Adjacent to her sat a man she had never seen before, with Gothic lettering inscribed across his Adam’s apple and the f-word emblazoned down the length of his forearm. For the first time in my life, I questioned the hours we’d spent honing our kids’ early reading skills. We spoke about small things, Lori’s blue eyes tracking Mike’s. Their hearts were undeniably kind, their souls battered and torn. My soul recognized theirs as world- weary kin.
From the perspective of my warm city kitchen and the goodness unfolding inside its walls, any risk it had required to get to that distinct moment was worth it. I always knew I wanted to entertain friends. It was fun. It was easy. But the abundant life asks more of us. I had no idea the leap from stranger to friend was only as long as the eight minutes it took to boil pasta, or that my life would be made richer once I yielded to the unifying power of the unfancy dinner table.
If community is the heartbeat of the Gospel, hospitality is the hand that opens the door and waves it in.
Like a thick slather of cream cheese frosting across a yeasty cinnamon roll, hospitality adds the sweetest layer. There’s no point in having one without the other.
The home I grew up in was the end of the line for many end-of-the-liners, a last-resort respite for unlikely sojourners and fugitives alike. Throughout my at-home years there were single moms with babies who’d been kicked out of their homes, a lonely near-stranger with sallow eyes on a rented hospital bed in the living room, lanky high school boys at odds with their parents, our own grandma with her wheelchair and fluffy curls who rotated among her children. None was more memorable than Carla, an eccentric woman on the lam from an abusive husband. We stowed her away, hiding her stuff in our shed, hyper-vigilant whenever we heard tires crunching up the lane.
God knew living together in harmony would sometimes feel like knitting a blanket with one broken needle and two skeins of steel wool, or like training a cat to keep banker’s hours. He likes us needy and maybe even a little frustrated. When we abide in the ordinary holiness of misunderstandings and disappointments, our own rough edges are somehow buffed down. In the close proximity to one another, He’s always among us. And nothing pulls us closer than passing dishes around the table or sitting hip to hip on the couch.
Jesus spoke about hospitality often, but trumping His words were His actual life and the way He spent it. He was the king of traipsing from town to town, eating with scandalous people and long-lost souls, mending their wounds from His seat at their table. Through the clatter of plates and the din of easy, grub-time conversation, hearts are fused and burdens lifted. He embodied hospitality in the precise way He is hope, mercy, wisdom, and justice. The fact that He was always inviting Himself over and showing up at parties points us to the significance of living hospitably and the vulnerability it requires.
As usual, Jesus disguises our most challenging work as nearly mundane.
Invite people — especially strangers — into your home. No big deal.
I can handle the “people” part.
It’s the “stranger” bit that makes my pits sweaty. I happen to love inviting friends over for dinner. I’ve hosted everything from brunches to baby showers to season premiere dinner parties. (“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”) There have been innumerable elaborate dinners with close girlfriends where I hauled out the thrift store china and unabashedly displayed my culinary chops with multiple courses involving whole vanilla beans and obscure grains. But strangers? No one does that. It’s weird, God. I’m just being honest.
Our path toward Jesus’ heart was the length of a dinner table. It was there that we began to come face-to-face with a Rescuer we had never known, one who hunts His kids down in the dead of night, ready to stop the world and street-fight for them.
This Jesus adored the ones we despised.
When He said, “The last shall be first,” He was not being cute. He’d take us split and bleeding, reeking and raw. He preferred it that way. Until we began to make friends of strangers and see the ways we so cleanly aligned with their frailty, I hadn’t considered that it might actually be true.
And yet. Four years later, it’s honestly still hard for me. It’s still not second nature, or even fourth. I know I’m not alone. We tell ourselves it’s because our homes are not enough — big enough, clean enough, cute enough. We might even begin to believe our home is too much. I can’t absorb the jab of regret quickly enough when someone mired in poverty says my home is pretty. Quick to tamp it all down, I tell the truth — almost everything in it is on its second or third life. I want to wave the compliment away, change the subject. It makes me so uncomfortable.
Regardless of the visitor, whether I’m feeling the itch of scarcity or abundance, I can’t shake the feeling that hospitality is somehow, secretly, about me. Chief among my troubling, me-centric excuses is this — I’m an introvert. I like life quiet. Hospitality isn’t my spiritual gift. Many show hospitality with more skill and ease than I do, and they should use that gift for all its worth.
But loving our neighbor isn’t optional. It’s imperative.
Jesus tells us this is how we love Him (Matthew 25:40). Peter encourages us to “cheerfully” share our home with others (1 Peter 4:9), and it’s all I can do some days to serve my own unpredictable brood with a half-smile. All this means is that I need to keep practicing, and spread out against this long life, I’ve got time.
Last year a woman we’d recently met arrived at our door fresh from jail, a few minutes after midnight, her life in a black Hefty bag. A recovering addict, she’d spent most of the previous three years separated from her young children, cycling in and out of incarceration as she cycled in and out of mainlining meth. Finally free, anxiety radiated off her in shock waves. I showed her to our guest quarters, which happened to be Silas’s mattress in clean, mismatched sheets, hauled down to the floor of the cluttered toy room.
There was a time I would have been horrified to offer so little. It would have mortified me to make this my offering. I might have said no.
But it seems the best way to welcome a broken neighbor is by hanging up the charade that we are somehow more whole.
We don’t need bigger homes and better furniture to do this well. If anything, we need less stuff that’s more frayed at the edges. Central to the way I steward my home and love my neighbor is my willingness to expose my messes, scars, and the stubborn humanity I can’t seem to keep at bay. And if I’m willing to go there, what’s a stack of dirty dishes or Aunt Lon’s ugly, hand-me-down sofa? When we grip our ideals about hospitality too tightly, we risk withholding what is actually needed.
What our friend needed that night was encouragement, a hot bath, and a glass of iced tea. What she needed for the nights that followed were space to process a future that finally belonged to her, and a cherished place of acceptance among a very imperfect family. That’s the essence of hospitality.
Who cares if you burned the soup or if the guest is incomprehensibly averse to garlic? So what if the floors are swept or if I opted to stay in my yoga pants? We’re all a mess, but while a bunch of messes should amount to more than we can stomach, it somehow has the opposite effect.
Where two or more jacked-up lives are gathered in the holy name of loving like Jesus and telling the truth, there am I in their midst.
Real hospitality is more like the widow’s mite than Solomon’s purple robes. It’s the sharing of manna — that ordinary miracle — and the faith to believe we can love big with just a little.
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1. Louis Jaucourt, chevalier de, “Hospitality,” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, trans. Sophie Bourgault.
Excerpted with permission from Falling Free: Rescued From The Life I Always Wanted by Shannan Martin, copyright Shannan Martin.
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Maybe you don’t feel like you have the gift of hospitality. Maybe your home is too small, or needs work, or is dirty, or like me and Shannan, you’re wearing yesterday’s yoga pants. Let’s open our doors anyway, even to strangers, and see what it’s like to be like Jesus! Come join the conversation on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full