Practicing Hospitality

November 23, 2013

When I was a pastor, we had people over. A lot. For dinner, for dessert, for coffee, for conversation. We were often opening our home to people. Christmas parties, Superbowl parties, pizza parties, BBQs, lasagna suppers. There was one young couple in Illinois who ate dinner at our house several nights a week. And in Illinois, I often made dinner for a girl I was discipling, even though dinner was often just Hamburger Helper.

I can’t seem to help it. I like to have people over. I like to cook. I like to set the table. I like to plan. I like the conversation over long meals.

But recently, with my son’s arrival and my movement into a new season of ministry, using that gift hasn’t been as much of an option. For starters, the ready pool of people we could have over shrank with no longer pastoring a church. And then there was the baby I tended to that demanded more attention that would take from guests at my table. And the exhaustion. And something more- something that is harder to define and identify. There was a shrinking back from this gift of mine. A pulling away from hosting and inviting, inviting and hosting. A pulling inward.

For a long time, I thought it meant I was being selfish and that there was something wrong with me. But I’ve realized that that’s not the case. Instead I think the season of closing my door and keeping our family more isolated than before was for some other reason.

In that time I have learned some things about hospitality. That is is more than a nice meal, a table set for display, an open invitation and an open door. Here is what I have learned:

1. That hospitality is more than an appearance or making someone feel important and comfortable in your home by doing a lot of detail work. Sure the details mean something, but it is so much more important to make someone feel comfortable in your life, not simply in your home. Too often we make hospitality about the house, the dishes, the meal- and those are no small things. But hospitality is more than that. It is an invitation for someone to not simply admire your cooking or possessions, but to let them into your heart. Into the places you might normally decide to hide. True hospitality is an openness to others that allows them to know who you are, not simply what you can do.

2. That hospitality isn’t about my terms. Henri Nouwen, a brilliant writer in Christian spirituality who had the uncanny ability to make words on a page grab the soul of the reader, speaks of hospitality as an open response to the dignity of others. He says that it is about letting a stranger approach you on his or her own terms and not by your terms. The only people who can be this hospitable are the those who have found the center of their lives, he says. So often hospitality is about our terms- our turf, our plans, our boundaries, our lives, our schedules. But practicing true hospitality, as Nouwen states, is about our openness to whomever may come and how they might come. Until I learned to stand in the center of who I was and let others come in, no matter how comfortable I made my guests, no matter how impeccable my recipes, no matter how bright and cheery my home, I was not practicing the fulness of hospitality.

3. That hospitality is more than a meal. Meals matter. Coffee matters. Desserts matter. Meetings without food in the center matter. But it’s so much more than that. I began to wonder what it meant to have a spirit of hospitality at the grocery store, the gym, the park, and the hardware store. What did it mean to practice hospitality to the cashier, the other mothers at the playground, the people I notice on my runs around my neighborhood?

4. That hospitality begins at home. I think my son’s birth brought this to reality. He was very much wanted, but the truth is, any time we welcome our children, we are welcoming a stranger. This tiny human who is a completely other person and yet so demanding on our lives and time. This person who grows up to invade our space, our thoughts, our hearts, and before birth, our children literally invade women’s’ bodies. My son is was a welcome stranger the night he was born. And yet I had no idea the demands that sort of hospitality would make. As I’ve learned to parent, I learned to welcome his cries in the night and not ignore them. I’ve learned to be open to his world and the strangeness of his views. I’ve learned to be hospitable to vomiting without warning, broken dishes on the floor, messes carelessly left for us to clean up, and all around invasion of any privacy I used to take for granted. Parenting, in all its forms, is indeed a radical form of hospitality. We don’t often think of it that way and very often mainstream parenting defies this practice of radical hospitality in some ways. But it is. Hospitality begins at home. Being open to the otherness of those in our own family and respecting the dignity, worth, and createdness of that person. If we cannot be hospitable at home, are we truly able to be so elsewhere?

This season of stepping away from dinners and parties, coffees and conversations has been a rich one. I miss using that gift and am thankful for the few times it works out to host a guest or two. But I’ve enjoyed the season of rest. In that season, I believe God has given me a grander view of what it means to be open to and welcome the other.  And to truly be hospitable to those around me. One day, I hope to practice this sort of hospitality in radical and intentional ways. We are waiting on God to open that path to us.

Until then, I’m still learning and practicing and realizing the depths of God’s open hospitality to me. To us. Always.

One Response to “Practicing Hospitality”

  1. Susan Miller said

    Nice job!

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