I always like seeing this emphasis in discussions of hospitality:
After seven years of marriage, my wife and I have welcomed numerous friends into our home. Once we decide to host friends for an evening, we usually kick into get ready mode, a fast and furious sprint in the days and hours before our friends arrive. We divide and conquer the to-do list: select a menu, complete grocery shopping, mow the lawn, sweep the floors, run the vacuum, clean the playroom, wipe the bird crap off our lawn chairs (we have lots of trees), set the table, clean the playroom (again), and somehow, someway, pray all that happens before the doorbell rings.
Over the years, that to-do list has prepared us for hosting company, but it has also prevented us from welcoming friends in our home. Unwritten Southern rules of offering hospitality with excellence have affected how often we invite people in our home. ‘We should have the __________s over sometime.’ And then we delay or postpone the invitation. Why? Because the to-do list is always there, the gap between our day-to-day home and the presentable, acceptable-for-hospitality version of our home.
But over the past several months, Emily and I are learning to lay those conventions aside. Why? Because inviting friends into our lives when we are only ‘excellent’ isn’t friendship. Sure, there are still times we like to go all out, spruce up the house and cook a huge, Jamie Oliver style meal. It can be fun and it’s enjoyable to do things well. But that standard of excellence is rarely possible with two children under the age of 3. Friendship isn’t about always being ‘excellent’ with one another. Friendship is about preparing a space for authentic conversation. And sometimes authenticity happens when everything is a bit scruffy.
As I’ve commented here on the blog before, when I think about the hospitality that has meant the most to me as a single person, when I think about the kind of hospitality that has actually “worked” to drive away my loneliness, I think of arriving at my friends Jono and Megan’s small apartment after a day of work. Megan had had the kids to herself all day and was usually exhausted. After a chaotic dinner with them and other friends, I started washing their dishes while they put the kids to bed. Then we all, tired and sometimes irritable, would collapse in the messy living room and drink cheap wine that we found on offer at the lowest shelf at Tesco. We’d often talk about meaningful things, such as the challenges of parenting or how good the Harry Potter books were and whether the final movies would ever live up to them, but sometimes we’d just turn on the TV and go cross-eyed.
Or I think of being invited over to my friends Mark and Ruth’s house every Monday night for dinner. They had teenaged children at the time, so there was less overt chaos. But I was usually walking into some amount of stress. Ruth had usually just arrived home from work at the hospital. The kitchen table was strewn with half-finished homework assignments and coupons to take to the grocery store. A quick curry was heating on the stove (no ingredients that hadn’t been purchased in bulk at Costco and couldn’t be cooked in less than half an hour), and everybody seemed slightly harried or distracted when I first arrived. Often there would be a long-term houseguest of theirs who joined us too, such as the young woman who was staying with them because her solo life had become unbearable due to some truly horrific circumstances. Point being, this wasn’t posh, big city high life with the clink of champagne glasses and arcane conversation at dinner parties about what was in the latest issue of the New Yorker. This was, rather, me being welcomed into untidiness, both physical, emotional, and spiritual. And that is what made me feel like I belonged. Believe me, in those moments I wasn’t pining for some high-flown “social life.”
I like this passage from Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath:
As Christians, we aren’t meant simply to invite people into our homes, but into our lives as well. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, isn’t an imposition because we aren’t meant to rearrange our lives for our guests—we’re meant to invite our guests to enter into our sometimes-messy lives. It’s this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining (i.e., deadly dull parties at the country club) into hospitality (i.e., a simple pizza on my floor). As writer Karen Burton Mains puts it, “Visitors may be more than guests in our home. If they like, they may be friends.”
I don’t find inviting people into my life that much easier than inviting them into my apartment. At its core, cultivating an intimacy in which people can know and be known requires being honest—practicing that other Christian discipline of telling the truth about where we live and how we got there. Often, I’d rather welcome guests into a cozy apartment worthy of Southern Living. I’d rather show them a Lauren who’s put together and serene. Often, telling the truth feels absurd.
As I say, I love hearing this note sounded. We need more of this—de-mystifying and grounding of the practice of hospitality.