I learned the art of hospitality at my Mamaw’s elbow. When I was young, her house was THE place to be. It was a little 5 room house in the middle of nowhere with no air-conditioning, but it seems there were always people there. For holidays, we just squeezed extra chairs into the little kitchen and made do. In summertime, everyone piled outdoors and we spent the humid, buggy evenings under the Catalpa tree or on the porch swing. Aunts, uncles and neighbors sipped coffee or iced tea while the children waded in the creek and my Mamaw swatted flies. It was the same way at my Great-grandma’s in eastern Kentucky, bless her heart, except the house was even smaller and she was much older. We never really DID anything, we just WERE, and that was enough for everyone. My grandmothers were experts in the skill of cordial reception.
I don’t feel like hospitality is a skill that comes easily for me. By nature, I’m a bit of an introvert. Okay, truth be told, I could probably become a recluse pretty easily. Given the drama of modern life, I could totally check out, lock the door, gate the driveway and spend my life communing with myself. But as hospitality is a quality synonymous with my Appalachian/Tidewater/Southern culture, I’ve made the decision that it’s a skill I’m going to learn, even if it kills me! So recently, I started studying hospitality and had what can only be described as a “Well DUH!” moment as I discovered that I had NO CLUE what hospitality was about. Despite the fact our culture uses the words entertaining and hospitality interchangeably, there’s a world of difference there. According to the Free Dictionary:
Entertain: To hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting.
Hospitality: Cordial and generous reception of or disposition toward guests.
Well now, those are very different meanings. It’s not hospitality I loathe, it’s entertaining.
Entertaining says “Look at me and what I did to amuse you! My house is spotless, I worked hours on your meal, I perused Pinterest for a solid day to find the perfect dessert recipe, I folded your napkins into little swans. Aren’t I amazing?! Aren’t you entertained?!” It’s about impressing people, and impressing people isn’t about loving them, it’s about loving you.
Hospitality says “You look exhausted. Why don’t you come over for supper tonight? We can have leftover pot roast.” It’s about taking the focus off self and placing it on others, who likely need the focus far more than you do! It’s a means to imitate Jesus, who fed the hungry, welcomed the poor and washed the feet of his Disciples. It’s worrying less about the place settings and more about who is sitting in the place across from you.
So why don’t we practice hospitality anymore? Several reasons come to mind.
- First, I think we’ve absolutely confused hospitality and entertaining. Hospitality is peace and comfort. Entertaining means stressing out over how the house looks, the meal we’ll serve and where the salad fork goes. Life is stressful enough without inviting more stress in so why bother?
- Second, we’re so stinking busy with work, school, kids, extracurriculars and volunteering, who has the time to add anything else to the schedule?
- Third, we live in a culture obsessed with perfection. We watch these silly DIY programs that show us how our homes SHOULD look with the perfect appliances, granite counters, expensive art work and perfect shade of navy blue paint on the walls; and our homes don’t look that way, so we’re loathe to have people in. But friends, it’s all an illusion. THOSE homes don’t look like that except through creative, deceptive editing.
- Last, we’re afraid. Of being judged. Of making mistakes. Of being too real. Of feeling awkward.
But as we can plainly see, it’s possible to offer a “cordial and generous reception” regardless of whether your carpet is stained, your place settings are mismatched or you burned the biscuits because you were too busy talking. Hospitality is all about being with people. Doesn’t that lift the burden of having people in?
If you’re a follower of Christ, the practice of hospitality isn’t a suggestion, but a command. We’re called to meet the needs of people around us, which can be a daunting task, especially if you confuse hospitality with entertaining. But let me make that task a little less daunting by offering these words to you: Jesus never said serve 5-course meals with fine silverware on an heirloom mahogany table. He said “Feed my sheep.” He never said, when I was a stranger, you rented a bouncy house, threw a themed buffet and had the cutest party favors. He said “You welcomed me in.” Isn’t that beautiful? Jesus just ate with people (fishes and loaves!), comforted the sick and the poor and we should do the same!
So for those of us (self in particular) who sometimes struggle with the idea of opening ourselves and our homes to strangers…what are some baby steps to help us learn the skill of hospitality that our grandmothers practiced so effortlessly?
- Start slow – What if you asked one couple to come over for coffee once a month?
- Keep it simple – Elaborate meals and presentation are not required. How about pizza on paper plates and cold iced tea? Or as the weather cools, a bonfire with marshmallows and spiced cider? Coffee and cake after church?
- Look to fill a need – Is there a new mom that could use a break? A house-bound neighbor? A college student just home from school for the semester? Feed them!
- Do it on the cheap – Don’t get hung up on elaborate ingredients, expensive china or new furniture. See: Keep it simple.
- Practice, practice, practice – Like any other skill, hospitality improves with practice and eventually it will become second nature.
- Accept invitations A simple way you can learn to offer hospitality is by accepting hospitality. What did your host(ess) do that made you feel warm and welcome? What would you do differently?
We all want to be world changers. We want to know that our lives count for something and that when we’re gone, we’ll leave the world just a little better than when we got here. Perhaps the most practical way we can effect that change in today’s hurting world is by opening up our hearts and homes and welcoming in a stranger. Til next time—-