Putting Out the Welcome Mat

The spiritual practice of generosity, hospitality and belonging

by Evelyn Bence

“You’ve got the gift of hospitality.” It’s a compliment, I know. When my sister who doesn’t entertain much outside her family says this, I hear a hint of envy. But it’s overlaid with relief. She’s claiming she isn’t similarly graced, so she’s off the hook. It’s like my friend who shrugs away her inattention to names. “I just can’t remember,” she says, as if she was excused from noting a face and listening to an introduction. If it’s not my gift, I don’t need to make the effort.

But the New Testament includes hospitality in exhortations to all believers. In Romans 12, after listing spiritual gifts that differ from person to person, Paul commends more universal life disciplines, including generosity and its attendant practice of hospitality (v. 13). First Peter 4:9 adds an attitudinal qualifier: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” We could nitpick. Were the apostles referring to friends, acquaintances, or strangers? The Greek noun melds “brotherly love” with “strangers.” Was hospitality confined to the home? Maybe not. But it does involve a real-life, real-time welcome. And common usage of the English word draws our attention homeward.

Though living on a precariously tight budget, my parsonage parents practiced hospitality, usually on Sundays—an after-church dinner or evening dessert. My dad invited; my mother provided, in that she prepared and graciously served people beyond our family circle. Even as a seen-but-not-heard child, I banked memories of engaging, enlightening table conversations with outsiders that nourish my own hospitable efforts.

“Hospitality is its own reward,” a church friend recently commented—feeding one’s own soul while offering others physical or spiritual sustenance. “In giving, a man receives more than he gives,” said George Macdonald, pushing the parameters of Jesus’ “give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). In her memoir Lit, Mary Karr relates an encounter that breaks through her isolating and destructive self-pity. At an AA meeting someone affirms as “spiritual progress” her first efforts to make coffee for the group.1 In reaching out, she’s gaining ground.

Staying connected to virtual friends takes time, as did letter writing for our grandmothers. But such distanced communications aren’t encumbered with tangible expectations—cleanliness, cuisine, and conversation—that can keep us from extending invitations. Some of us temperamentally find satisfaction in at least one of these three tasks. Even so, there’s no denying that welcoming outsiders into our domestic spheres requires a conscious, disciplined effort. Some occasions or seasons lend themselves to being intentional about a new practice. Many people use the weeks of Lent, for instance, to open themselves to find God in new places. Consider stepping out of your comfort zone and inviting someone over, into your space, and welcome the reality of their feet under your table.

The Cleaning-up Factor
In Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life, Margaret Kim Peterson refers to housekeeping that “participates in and forms part of the infrastructure for nurturance and care.”2 Redding up the house, as they say in Pennsylvania, starts as a two-part clearance: dispersing clutter and dissipating dirt.

Let’s say you failed the basic course in clutter management. You don’t have vision or time to adequately address the collected treasures or accumulated trash scattered on your dining room table, heaped in your living room, or strewn across your yard. You can’t throw things away or put them in their proper places. But company’s coming. The chairs need to be available for derrieres, and guests should not be liable to trip over stray toys. Here’s my suggestion: go for a goal you’re comfortable with—one that reflects your best self without denying your real self. (“I like my stuff.”) Start clearing out in advance, and in small increments. Every time you go upstairs, take a handful of misplaced goods. Ultimately consider closeting extraneous items behind a closed door. It’s only a temporary solution, but it works.

Decluttering is one thing, and then there’s cleaning. Scouring vessels and sweeping floors are biblical tasks that most of us wish the Romans had conquered. But, alas, dirt could be the third universal certainty, alongside Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes. Some householders hire someone to scrub and polish. Others dig down dirty themselves: vacuum, mop, dust, disinfect the bathroom, sweep the sidewalk. It’s a never-ending, cyclic challenge that helps ensure the safety of your guests. Again, perfect isn’t the point.

Cleanliness isn’t a Christian sacrament—an outward and visible sign of an inward grace. But modestly clean and ordered front rooms, ready for guests, can quiet the heart of an anxious host—and guest. It’s as if all were welcomed into Mr. Rogers’s “slightly frayed but cozy little sitting room, where we can be ourselves.”3

The Cuisine Factor
Fr. Francis Wade notes that “a dinner party is not about eating but conversation.”4 He’s right, I said to myself, until I considered his parallel: that a symphony is not about playing but listening. Well, maybe this applies if you’re attending a gathering, but not if you’re making it happen. Across the world, inviting someone in calls for offering something to drink and often to eat: a crumpet or crudité, a soup or salad, a pasta or protein.

Setting out eats involves gathering food, presumably shopping, possibly gardening, and making the victuals edible, presumably tasty, possibly attractive. I enjoy this work, though I pace myself. I plan menus that feature salads and sides I can make the day before I serve them up. Snacks can be as simple as Girl Scout cookies, Boy Scout popcorn, or pistachios, which provide guests the tactile pleasure of playing with their food. Buy and prepare dishes that fit your budget, taste, and culinary acumen—even as you stretch yourself enough to feel satisfaction in your success. And if you’re disappointed with your results—say, if your cream puffs don’t bloat—take a deep breath, try to chuckle over your misreading of the recipe, and welcome your guests.

In my twenties, driving long hours from my parents’ home to my starter apartment, I sometimes knocked on the door of a college friend. Happy to see me, she offered a beverage and a cookie. “Coffee would be great,” I said. She didn’t have any but assured me that next time I came through town she’d be ready with the goods. And she was. Kind of. I watched as she proudly spooned ground coffee into a mug of boiled water. I drank it. Once, maybe twice, though eventually I gently explained the difference between instant and “real.” We both laughed, grateful for the personal connection that fortified us longer than a cuppa joe.

The Conversation Factor
When company arrives, hellos prompt questions and comments that segue into conversations that are nearly impossible to diagram topically, though I’ve known people who’ve tried. A host’s fear is that someone will monopolize or feel marginalized. Or that short pauses will stretch to embarrassing lengths, no mutual ground ever found. Tempted to micromanage this aspect of a get-together? Don’t even think about it. But the host does have a critical facilitating and moderating role.

As I take coats and serve drinks, I help people make connections, citing some mutual interest of unacquainted guests. I stay clear of traditional “ice breakers,” which rarely lead into meaningful conversations. But I often preplan several personal anecdotes—about a family recipe, a memorable character, a recent experience, conundrum, or insight—hoping to draw others out with some related, or maybe tangential, story. If conversation veers into uncomfortable territory, I try to steer it to a redemptive plain. “Let your speech always be gracious” (Colossians 4:6). At a recent dinner, after-dessert conversation unexpectedly turned to complaints about the church we all attend. Though I was a guest, I listened for a bit then turned a conversational page. “How about some thanksgivings?”

What It Takes
By the time people go home, I’m usually exhausted but strangely exhilarated. Do I, do you, have “the gift of hospitality”? If there’s one to be had, it’s not measured in ease or hours of effort. There’s an old German saying—that the gift becomes the work. And I would add: the practiced work involved in hospitality strengthens my community ties, draws me out of myself, and undergirds well-being for both host and guests. The welcome we offer mirrors the welcome God offers, and we see the way God knits us together for our good.

In his classic Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen proposes that “we discover our gifts in the eyes of the receiver.”5 I fondly remember a friend leaning in close as a well-laden buffet dinner wound down. “Thank you,” she whispered, gesturing in a circle from my kitchen to the dining room and then living room. “I know what it takes to do this.” I took a deep breath and smiled, choosing to ignore the reality of the pending cleanup. I went to bed happy that night, satisfied that a gift had been given and well received.

  1. Mary Karr, Lit: A Memoir (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 206.
  2. Margaret Kim Peterson, Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life (San Francisco: Wiley, Jossey-Bass, 2007), 156.
  3. Carol Zaleski, “Mr. Rogers,” The Christian Century, April 29, 2003, 35.
  4. The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, “Service for the Mission of the Church,” Virginia Theological Seminary Journal, December 2013, 43.
  5. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (1975; repr., New York: Image Books, 1986), 87.

 

Making It Yours”
Check in with how you feel about hospitality and spirituality, whether host or guest, by reflecting on these questions.

  • Make something that requires raw ingredients and/or some hands-on assembling. As you complete the project, consciously turn your mind to reflection and prayer. Can you imagine that even your hands are praising or conversing with God?
  • Whether hosting old or potential friends, how can you try to find common roots to help ground conversation?
  • In what ways do you—or could you—present the goodness of the Lord to others who might not have noticed it among the world’s many other offerings available to them?
  • Identify various aspects of a host’s or guest’s life story that might be evident in his or her hands (for instance, crippling arthritis, gnawed nails, oven burns, farmwork scars). Consider how these hands can help you see the wounded Christ in others.
  • Consider lighting a specially placed candle when guests arrive, reminding yourself of God’s presence in your midst.
  • Do you have painful memories of gatherings you hosted that “flopped,” as my mother would have said? How did you respond at the time? How did things settle out eventually? In a different context, have you tried or can you try to reach out again?
  • Reflect on your experiences as a guest. Can you identify times when you’ve felt “out of your league” or even humiliated? Have you possibly misread a hostess’s intentions? How can these experiences help you become a more sensitive guest or hostess?

Excerpted from Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality by Evelyn Bence. Copyright © 2014 by Evelyn Bence. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Upper Room Books. Bookstore.UpperRoom.org.

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