When Katie and I first got married, we decided we would invite people over. Well, actually, I decided we should have people over. For a meal.
Katie wasn’t so sure. With ten kids in her home growing up, and with her Dad’s very modest salary, I don’t think Katie’s mom had much time or energy for having guests. And as the seventh child, Katie turned out to be very good at ironing clothes and cleaning bathrooms. But cooking? Not so much.
On the other hand, I was a pastor’s son and grew up in a parsonage. I thought people were supposed to wander in and out of your house eating your food. So I started working on the cooking part, her cooking part that is, bringing home recipes from ladies’ magazine in the waiting rooms at the hospital where I worked, encouraging her to try new things.
Man can not live on a piece of meat and a canned vegetable. Or at least not this man. I was (and am) a fair cook myself; Katie says if she knew how well I could cook she would have married me sooner. But still, she wanted to get better at this. She understood the need to practice hospitality “as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” So I pressed the issue and invited a couple over for dinner.
Then I told Katie. This did not go well. Not the telling Katie part, but the dinner part. She served some frozen squash that turned out to have turned bad. And the juices spread through all the food, making the entire meal uneatable.
This was over 35 years ago. Now Katie is a great cook and we welcome lots of people into our home, sometimes as many as 15-20 people at a time. We can stage a big event if we want to—our kid’s open houses are the stuff of legend.
But we have learned true hospitality is a daily discipline. We host Bible studies and counseling sessions and college students. Our son and our boarders bring friends home for dinner, sometimes unannounced.
We have come to understand that our house, and our table, are the Lord’s. We want to share them as often and as well as we can. Learning to do this is a process, of course. And we have learned some things along the way, besides being careful to taste the squash before you serve it:
1) Start small. All Jesus required was a cup of water in his name, and we often find a cup of tea with some store bought cookies is entirely sufficient. College students are amazed to discover you can make popcorn without a microwave. You have to give up the notion of entertaining for the joy of serving.
2) Have a plan. You actually have to invite people, put it on the calendar, and look forward to it. It doesn’t hurt to have a plan. Except when you don’t. We plan for the unexpected. Someone’s spouse is out of town, you haven’t made a connection with someone you know, the kids have friends: these opportunities arise in the course of our lives. As it turns out, just enough is plenty. And people’s expectations are usually smaller than we imagine them to be.
3) Keep it simple. Modest expectations (yours and theirs) allow you to build hospitality into the rhythms of your lives. We have tea in the morning, and usually in the evening. We are going to eat anyway. We try to always have the stuff of a meal-sized salad. We focus on soups and simple suppers. We ask people to chop vegetable or set the table. Extravagance is not the point. The point is making people feel welcome and included.
4) Make it special. Find the right chair for someone who is elderly, offer to take a guest’s coat, set out a favorite teapot or a fresh flower. Use your every day dishes and add cloth napkins. Common courtesies and special touches are not expensive, nor are they unappreciated.
5) Be sincere. Our efforts to make people feel welcome and refreshed flow out of a willingness to serve them. And to listen. Being genuinely interested in others and alert to their needs or interests is more important than finding recipes or decorating the house.
In some way hospitality like this requires you to give up control. You can not control the guests. You can only love them. Be focused on them, not your place settings. Or your pride.
Yes, guests are sometimes rude. Sometimes their kids are unmanaged. Not everyone says thank you. Stuff gets broken. Even stolen. But we’ve been so much more blessed than we’ve been burned.
We are often encouraged, humbled, and moved by their stories. Or their sorrows. We may have set a place for angels, as Abraham did. More likely and better still, we have shared our table with the sons and daughters of God.
In the end, hospitality is a lifestyle that joins us to ancient practices and common need. Our world is too busy. Our conversations are too virtual. Our isolation too dangerous. Our pride too great. Our fears too unfounded.
That’s reason enough to slow down and welcome others, turning strangers into friends.