January was a slow month on the farm. It was relaxed and uncluttered, as clean and fresh as the sun glinting off the acres of snow. So on a Friday afternoon, my parents might telephone friends and ask if it was okay for our family to come over after supper.
It seems strange and a little forward, hospitality in reverse, but that’s how we did it in our community, and it worked. Our parents bundled up the kids and off we went. The grownups visited (what’s now called “hanging out”) while the kids went off to play in chilly upstairs rooms of old farmhouses where heat was mostly a promise. If there was nobody for me to play with, I lurked in a shadowy corner of the living room and listened to the adults talk. I picked up fascinating information from the ladies – personal histories, current family issues, who was pregnant, and who was not. The dads talked about boring things like grain prices, fertilizer, and cattle.
Around 9 PM our hostess brought forth “lunch”, or as it’s known in my husband’s family, “a little lunch.” It was the opposite of little, consisting of sandwiches, potato chips, homemade pickles, jello, popcorn balls, cookies, fudge, ice cream, and hot chocolate. Then we helped with the dishes and set out for home, full of food and friendship.
Hospitality often goes on the back burner in our busy twenty-first century lives. Inviting someone for dinner seems like a wonderful idea. We really ought to have so-and-so over. And then we start thinking of all the work it will take to clean the house and dig out a decent recipe and cook the food, much less find time in our horrendous schedule, and we give up.
It’s time to reset our thinking on this. Merriam-Webster says hospitality is “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests.” Let me paraphrase that – hospitality is simply making others feel at home. It often involves food, and it might involve your own home, but that’s not the only way to be hospitable. It could start with being friendly to that new couple at the end of your pew on Sunday morning and then, during fellowship time, eating your doughnut with them instead of your nice, comfortable clique. Or taking somebody out for coffee and putting your phone on mute while you pay attention to them. Down the road you could graduate to cooking a meal (or ordering a pizza) and inviting somebody into your personal physical space.
Here’s a fact: You can know somebody on a surface level for a long time, but having them in your home takes the relationship to a different level. Or you can hardly know someone at all and invite them to your home, and you will quickly cross barriers that might otherwise take a long time. Either way, when you invite someone to sit at your table and eat your food, you are offering yourself and your friendship. This idea has deep Biblical roots. Covenants were affirmed and treaties were sealed with meals eaten together. When we observe the Lord’s Supper we not only remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us, we share it with others, cementing the bond between us. Breaking bread together signifies trust and relationship.
We put too much pressure on ourselves to have perfectly clean and decorated houses and to be able to prepare perfectly incredible food, eaten with our perfectly charming families. But you know at least a few lonely or heartbroken or friendless people who just need you to say, “Come on over for dinner.”
The truth is that we’re all to some degree lonely, heartbroken, and friendless. We long for somebody to notice us and care about who we are and nurture us for a couple of hours. A woman my age has learned that guests aren’t coming to see your spotless kitchen or your faultless family, or your sparkling windows, even if you had them, which you probably don’t. You do have the ability to take what God gave you, even if it’s a little shabby and dusty, and offer it to others, and make them feel at home. When your six-year-old spills her milk and the roast is dry and the cat barfs in the kitchen, your guests’ hearts will be warmed. They’ll relax into thinking, “Wow. They’re human. Maybe I can be me. Maybe we can be friends.”
That is, after all, what Jesus did for us. He became like us, so we could become like him. If you want to practice real hospitality, follow his lead. Love, give, sacrifice, care for others. And in the process of nurturing them, they will nurture you.