Scruffy Hospitality

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.

28 thoughts on “Scruffy Hospitality

  1. I definitely agree. Rosaria Butterfield speaks on this very subject quite a bit. She and her husband have a large table and eat dinner at the same time every evening and they never know who will show up. Its pretty much an open door policy. They are big advocates of hospitality. You can hear her speak on this topic here: http://graceandtruthconference.com/app/media#!/77713 You might even consider posting this as a separate blog post.

  2. So the odd cobbled-together dinner with harried and disorganised parents and their noisy offspring makes up for a lifetime of celibacy and compulsory singleness, does it?

    Wow. Talk about grasping at straws.

    • Wow. Talk about diminishing the value of a shared life and dumping all over someone’s genuine joy. Bitter much?

      You know what? It doesn’t make up for it, because joy and sorrow are not zero-sum games. What shared fellowship, shared joy, shared sorrow DO is sweeten the difficult times.

    • I understand your skepticism! I experience the same sorts of doubt frequently. I admit I have a deep-seated fear that I will always have to settle for what’s left over of my friends after they fulfill their ever-growing and ever-competing commitments to family and career. And to be honest, I guess my answer to your question is no! No human hospitality can make up for a lifetime of the burdens related to celibacy and compulsory singleness.

      However, that being said, my faith tells me that that compensation does not need to happen here and now. My God knows the cost of what he’s asked of me, has felt it himself, and will not let the cost go un-repaid.

      I think what is suggested in this post, and perhaps this whole blog, is not that celibacy or singleness can be made easy, but that it can be made beautiful. The loneliness of celibacy in our culture (or at least my Southeastern US culture) cannot be satisfyingly resolved at this time, but community can come into it and teach us about grace and love. What catches my heart most about hospitality is that it says, “you belong here.” What three words sum up heaven better? Indeed, these may be the three words my soul longs most desperately to hear. The beauty I see in “odd cobbled-together dinners with harried and disorganised parents and their noisy offspring” is that it says “you belong here” far more powerfully (in my opinion) than grand, impress-your-socks-off hospitality. I get that we’d like to pull out all the stops in order to make someone feel special, but when only grand hospitality is offered it easily says “you are outside of my life and must be presented with a facade. You are Other. You are a guest here, not part of the family, that is why I had to clean the house like I never clean for myself and cook like I never cook for myself.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a clean house and extraordinary food! But when I think about it, I actually feel most honored and wanted when I’m welcomed in spite of the messiness of life, when my hosts don’t have much time and energy to spare. That’s when I most truly feel like I belong, which is beautiful and reminds me of God’s disposition toward me. So, no, it doesn’t make everything OK but it reminds me that everything is going to be OK.

    • I saw your post in another place on the website about walking away from the Church and the capricious sort of God. To be honest, I did too. I come back to places like this to see if maybe they can convince me I was wrong to walk away and comment here and there, but otherwise I am pretty much where you are at on this. I can understand what you might be feeling I think.

      I realized when I was gay in my late twenties when I fell in love with another man. When I read things like this it sometimes feels they are sort of addressing me and I can feel it rouse my ire. In fact, I sometimes do respond with a bit of an edge to people who seem to be attacking my love or misrepresenting my experience. But this website exists for these folks who are going to live without that connection or completeness in a soul mate. For them, these small bits of companionship and table-scrap affection are all they will have.

      Giving up that completing sort of love, regular affection, and someone you can grow old with for a God who will offer no affection, no words of reassurance, and no real comfort outside of what they create for themselves in the garden of their own minds and hearts is not an easy thing. In the case of gay men like Wesley, their lives will likely be shorter as a result of that lack of companionship. It isn’t something they do lightly and not something to be flippant about. I suspect you are angry more for them than at them and for what they will suffer with, but don’t lash out at them.

      They are still our brethren, regardless of the roads they choose to take. When those roads inevitably bring them pain then they will need our compassion/support, not our misplaced anger.

  3. Wesley, thanks for commenting on the post and sharing your personal stories about friendship and hospitality. It reminds me of the gift I received as a single person before marriage when friends gave me a regular invitation to their family meal time. The unscheduled, spontaneous nature of that invitation was a great ministry of the Holy Spirit extended to me. Interestingly enough, that experience happened while I was in ministry in the UK, enjoying some of the budget wines at Tesco as well. Thanks for sharing the selection from Lauren Winner’s writing, too. It’s encouraging to discuss ways of persevering in the call of koinonia in our local communities.

  4. I really appreciate this blog. I long to enter into a families life that is capable of such hospitality. While it isn’t the full or complete solution (in reference to Etienne’s comment above), it is a start to a much needed change and development of the church learning to live life together.

  5. Wes, following on from Lauren Winner’s comment that, “As Christians, we aren’t meant simply to invite people into our homes, but into our lives as well”, I’d want to say the following:

    That the reverse of your examples above of “scruffy hospitality” should be true as well. For example, I find that I am often in the homes of Christian friends like the ones you describe – messy, but comfortable, full of noisy kids, food, fun, chaos etc. – but that very often, from among my Christian friends at least, I have no one who wants to inhabit and share bits of *my* everyday life with me. So it can end up being a one-sided-hospitality.

    For example, in my work, I’m often cooped up all day with little inter-personal interaction (and somewhat un-glamorously in jeans and a t-shirt). And so, sometimes, after a day like that, I feel like getting dressed up and going out to one of my (usually non-Christian) friend’s art exhibitions at some trendy gallery in the city, or to a friend’s book lanuch at some indie bookstore, but can rarely find a Christian friend to go with me. Even, sometimes, to one of the clubs in town because another friend may be DJ-ing there.

    These things are a part of my life too – along with the pizza/tv-dinners at home in my comfy pants – but I never seem to manage to bring the gap between these two aspects of my life with my Christian friends. My friendships with them often seem to be on their terms – to either come to their house and play with their kids, or to not seem them [don’t get me wrong, I do love to do this – but I want it to be a situation of both/and and not either/or]. It often doesn’t happen even among those friends who don’t have kids, and would find it much easier to make the effort to go “out into the world” with me – where we could meet new people, and I (especially) could make new friends. Sometimes I wonder if its a bit because they have already found their spouses (therefore they’re happy to sit at home in their company) – and because I’m gay, and often they think (probably) that I should be single anyway, and so shouldn’t really meet anyone new…

    At the same time, this, therefore makes it more difficult to be a credible witness to my non-Christian friends – because I’m usually the lone Christian in the group, and they – the non-Christian friends – never, therefore, get to see me interact with other Christians in front of them, and so don’t see the love between us, which (hopefully) would make the Gospel appealing to them (as Jesus said it would in John’s Gospel).

    Basically it often seems to me that I’m out of step with many other Christians in my love of art, fashion, music, design, wanting to go out etc. Many of the Christians I know always seem to want to stay at home with their partners and other couples. And that’s often not an environment that is easy for a single person – especially someone who’s gay. And why they may be hospitable and very warmly welcome me in to share their lives – they seldom share my life in the spaces which I often find myself.

    I guess it comes down to what hospitality/sharing one’s life looks like in the day-to-day, because to be honest, some days I just want someone to walk around the grocery store with me as I buy dinner.

    • Man, I sympathize so much with this! It’s SO GOOD for me to hang with my married friends with kids and just live life with them, but because of the season of life they’re in, it’s so much harder for them to come live life with me. Good news, though — because I’m in my 30s, some of my friends are getting out of that baby/toddler crazy stage (even some of them to the stage where their kids can fend for themselves for a few hours!) and can actually come work out with me or whatever. It’s so hard, though, when they’re all in those super-intense early parenting stage.

      I think there’s just so much to be said for patience, that there will come a time eventually when my friends’ lives can shift back toward a less kid-centric rhythm, and when that happens, I will be there with restaurant and gallery recommendations and fancy dresses they can borrow. 🙂

    • Good thoughts, Wes and @ladenheart. Being married and hosting a number of gay friends, I relate to a lot of this. I think of Romans 1:12 and Paul’s anticipation of *mutual* encourragement. I do think it’s easy for married couples to think they are getting their friendship needs met by hosting, but there is deep grace in being hosted, too. As much as Abraham was blessed to welcome his divine visitor(s) in Gen 18, every holy communion I am thankful to be welcomed at a single man’s supper table; biblical/theological events which bless our daily human events with our imitation of them, scruffy or not.

  6. Reblogged this on That Happy Certainty and commented:
    As someone once put it, “What’s the difference between hospitality and entertaining? You can do hospitality with baked beans on toast.”

    I loved these musings from Wes Hill on scruffy hospitality, over at the Spiritual Friendship blog, based on an original post from Jack King.

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  8. This is so me, I feel that I can’t have people round unless I do a mega tidy up. My husband has told me that I need to relax about it as it’s starting to affect my children. This weekend sees us having a couple of 3 year old for a play date with my youngest – wish me luck. Jean

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