(Transcripted from presentation at ALCF Mom's Time Out; April 27, 2011)
“Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” I Peter 4:8-10
Our Lord refers to His church as the “Body of Christ;” so I like to consider acts of hospitality as one tangible way we can be the Lord’s arms reaching out to the people that He wants to touch. I find this a very moving picture, though I must confess putting it into action does not come easily to me. For one thing, my natural temperament works against me. Despite the fact that I like people and tremendously enjoy being in their company, I’m fundamentally a loner with a strong tendency to keep to myself much of the time. Then there is the problem of my so-called cooking skills. I don’t possess the skill of reading a recipe well, I’m not facile with my hands, and I seem to lack the necessary imagination to be anything more than a very pedestrian cook. The worst part is that I know these things are true; so, of course, I lack confidence in the kitchen, and the thought of a dinner party is guaranteed to put me in a tailspin. As a matter of fact, the best dinner I have ever served to guests was cooked entirely by my son, Zane the Good. Here's the happy guests and Zane in action with his wife, Daisy.
In light of these realities, I was astounded when your leaders asked me to speak on hospitality. I felt duty-bound to let them in on my “dirty little secrets” and emphasized that I’m not the right person for the job. I nominated Dottie, a very talented hostess, as a vastly superior choice. Nonetheless, Inez and Julie sweetly, but firmly, insisted that my difficulties are the very reason they were asking me to speak, instead of choosing someone for whom hospitality comes more naturally. Their theory seems to be that my little snaggle of misadventures in Hostess Land might be of some encouragement to those of you who share my anxieties. I hope they are right, because apparently we are legion. So, recognizing that hospitality is not only a spiritual gift, but also a command from our Father, “let’s reason together” on how to remove those barriers that are keeping us from having the open-heart and the open-home He desires.
Listen to some of my old excuses and see if any of them sound familiar to you. (And please believe that I am conversant in all of them.) “I’m too busy caring for the children to have people over.” “Cleaning and cooking for guests just overwhelms me.” “It’s too expensive.” “I’m too shy.” “I’m too introverted.” “I’m too boring.” And how about that most invidious of hospitality killers? Our overarching vanity -
Over the years, the Lord has had many a “little talk” with me about these very things. (I’ve even had to have some spankings.) He has pointedly and repeatedly urged me to take off that ugly old rag of vanity I insist upon wearing and urged me to put on His own garment.
“Well,” I thought, “Father wants this, right?” As you may know, it can be really hard to say “no” to Him, so I skeptically put on His coat, fully expecting it to be hot and heavy, with the hem dragging the ground and the sleeves hanging way past my fingertips. - - Afterall, it’s Father’s coat! He’s God and I’m Carolyn. I thought, “Sure, I’ve gained a few pounds, but really, can’t He see that we’re not anywhere near the same size?”
To my amazement, it fit me perfectly! The fabric was light and breathable, flexible, yet strong. More to the point, the simple lines made me look better than I really am. (I think it may even have been bulletproof.) I asked Father, “What's this made of?” “I was hoping you’d ask,” He responded, “I use a special thread for the weave that incorporates an open heart for the woof - - it creates that lightness you’ve noticed - - and a hospitable, stranger-loving attitude in the warp to provide the strength.”
I’ll bet you don’t believe God really talks to me this way. You’re right, He doesn’t, but He isn’t a silent God either. He talks to me through His spoken Word, the scriptures, and through the “still small voice” of the Holy Spirit in my heart. Because of my love for you, I would like to share His conversations with me. It’s my hope that they will bring you the freedom to be the obedient daughters of the King that you long to be. For today, I’m calling His lessons the “7 perfect Ways of the Hostess.”
Lesson #1 - Be sure Jesus is the one on display, not you.
For the first 10 years of our marriage, the dinners and after-church breakfasts we gave were a misery for me and, therefore, a misery for my whole family because, as you well know, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” This is a burdensome truth for us moms, but an entirely true reality for our families. It’s the mother that makes the emotional weather in her home.
Ill-equipped though I was to be a hostess, I still treasured a few fantasies of having everything just right - the place settings, the food, the children, and of course, me. (My husband, Steve, was on his own.) My attitude meant the family would be under martial law for at least a full day. And what was all this uptight activity really about? It was just some misplaced idea I had of what it means to honor a guest when they came into my home.
To be fair, I just didn’t know any better either. I was re-enacting some version of my own Mother. She was a skilled hostess, and as I’ve told some of you before, a natural-born lady. For example, if she were expecting a guest from Louisiana, my mom would study-up on it before they arrived so that she could talk about things that might interest them. As an executive’s wife, she always showed well for my father. She set a beautiful table, was highly groomed, and served a balanced meal that often featured a pot roast and a delightful dessert. This was the way I saw my path, too. It was all I knew - except for the part about how to make a pot roast.
In the course of time, the Holy Spirit whispered a question into my heart. “Carolyn, exactly who is on display here? - - You or Jesus?” and I began to think about that. Would Jesus be personally embarrassed because the table setting wasn’t perfect? Would He have cared if an over-cooked casserole exposed Him as an incompetent cook? Would He grump around and make excuses if the children were all smudgy? The answer is obvious. The Spirit wanted to help me understand the kind and the kindness of the hospitality Father really wants. He doesn’t want performance art, or some form of personal marketing. Very simply, He wants us to offer a friendly reception and the sort of generous treatment that will represent His heart to strangers. It’s about Jesus; it’s not about us.
Lesson #2 - Everything is fine.
My first epiphany about this arrived in a flash when I was 15 years old. Walking home from high school with a bunch of other kids, I noticed that everyone, including me, was only thinking about him or herself and vying for attention. Not much else was receiving any notice. These many years later, this observation still ranks very high among my most comforting and freeing pieces of found wisdom, and while it may not be obvious at first, it has a very salient application to the subject of hospitality.
I don’t wish to step on anyone’s toes or to be too controversial, but there is such a thing as a home that is too clean. I’m in real estate, so I can recognize “show time” when I see it. Certainly cleanliness contributes to a comfortable home, but when someone obsesses over it too much, it makes the home psychologically “uncomfortable” both for the family and the guests. I believe it is a false pride that makes us fret if the floor isn’t vacuumed or there’s a little dust here and there. If it’s reasonably ok, - or even just short of being an actual danger to someone - don’t worry, be happy. (I Thessalonians!)
Please believe me when I say that because of our inherent sin-nature, it is typical for most humans to be absorbed with thinking about their own appearance, what they’re saying, and when they’ll get their next chance to talk. The effect of this is to render them nearly blind to their surroundings. Furthermore, judging by Jesus' (who did not have a sin-nature) comments to Mary and Martha, I doubt if He spends much time concerning Himself over your housekeeping either!
If by some crazy longshot, a visitor shows up with white gloves to run along your baseboards, just give them a smile and gently explain that this is your ministry to help other women feel good about themselves. Your guests will remember you and bless you forever - because it’s about Jesus, it’s not about the house.
Lesson #3 Plant a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).
Fortunately for us, and our woeful efforts at hospitality, the Lord mounted a rescue that involved sending Steve on a long business trip. It was 1981, and he was sent to the Florida panhandle to consult on an Air Force project. If you have ever experienced a long business trip like this, especially to the hinterlands, you know that the hotels are sterile, smelly, and lonely; so he was thrilled when one Air Force family invited him to stay with them and sleep on their couch. Every night, that Florida family would barbeque and serve my husband hot dogs and Kool-Aid for dinner. He loved it! It really tickled him to see this whole family, including the mom and dad, sitting around after dinner with cute little Kool-Aid mustaches; but the real pleasure for him was the way they treated him like family. They were just themselves - wearing their old sweatpants, saying a homely grace, swatting mosquitoes, and playing the usual games of Candyland and dominoes.
Steve returned from this trip a born-again host! He’d had a wonderful, relaxed time with this family, and never once felt like a burden to them. He informed me that this was going to be our new M.O., too. I was to scale back the hosting efforts until it was simple and easy for me, even if it meant serving spaghetti for dinner, and showing overnight guests where they could find the cold cereal and OJ for breakfast. The best result of our new style, (besides busting the kids out of jail!), was that we began to have people over more often.
Ultimately, we even gained enough confidence to begin hosting Wycliffe missionaries on furlough, and boy was that great! I can’t recommend it highly enough, as in blessing-upon-blessing. We met giants of tremendous faith, heard amazing stories from all over the world, and our children even learned to give up their bedrooms with grace - because it’s about Jesus, it’s not about style.
Lesson #4: Don’t let possessions possess.
This simply means, don’t let your “things” - either the lack of them, or their preservation - prevent you from opening your home to others. Every single thing you have is on loan to you from their rightful owner, the Lord God, for “the earth is His and all therein”; therefore you will have your stuff as long as the Lord wants you to have it, in the very condition He desires it to be in. The Lord absolutely does not want the stewardship of His possessions to derail us from obeying His command to be hospitable. He wants us to share His gifts freely with others, so don’t spend a second worrying about whether your things will be damaged, broken, or stolen. They’re not yours anyway.
When the Lord’s people say to someone, “Make yourself at home,” He wants them to mean it with no hidden agendas or concerns - because it’s about Jesus, it’s not about the things.
Lesson #5: Devise a hospitality budget.
Steve and I were committed to keeping me home to raise our children, which in our two-income world, means we were poor for quite a long time. We needed to figure out how much we could afford to spend on hospitality because it has the potential to be expensive. If you want, or need, to make your hospitality expenditures a sub-portion of your regular giving, I’m positive the Lord will bless and approve of it. If you find yourself in a situation like ours and can’t afford much, try making a batch of cupcakes or some warm gingerbread, and having folks over for dessert a couple of times a month.
Some years ago, we invited Pastor Paul and Meredith over for dessert, and I served them burnt gingerbread, which I had carefully made from scratch and burned to perfection just before they arrived. They were so nice about it. They looked a little quizzical, but they didn’t say a word - - just ate it politely and still became our friends. The best way to honor guests isn’t with expensive food, burned or un-burned, or glitzy serving pieces; it’s through seeking their company and offering yourself generously. This is what it means to be cordial - because it’s about Jesus, it’s not about money.
Lesson #6: No excuses.
About a year ago, I gave this lesson the ultimate test. I had invited the other Mentor Moms over for our usual pre-season dinner, but as the day drew near, I found that I had a few “problems.” My oven wasn’t working, the dishwasher had suddenly gone on the fritz, and I couldn’t go grocery shopping because I had no transportation. Late on the night before the dinner party, I was toying with the idea of just ordering a pizza, as I was also inquiring, “Lord, should I just cancel this?” But then, mostly because I’m so distractible, I turned and picked up a copy of Sunset Magazine to leaf through. (I can just imagine the Holy Spirit saying, “Uh-oh, We lost her!”) Amazingly, the Lord had sent a solution to my problem tucked within the magazine covers, and based upon His speedy response, it seems that He is really serious about this hospitality thing. Within that August 2009 issue, just as He had planned in distant ages past because He knew I was going to be in this pickle, I found a whole page of recipes designed for when it’s too hot to cook! Each was based upon store-rotisserie chicken, so I didn’t even need a stove. I chose one with a sauce made from some quirky fresh ingredients that didn’t require any heat, and I was back in business. After work the next day, I trotted to a nearby Whole Foods, and they kindly let me borrow one of their shopping carts to get the groceries home. I had a whole two hours left to prep the meal, and as usual, I was super blessed by spending time with my sisters - because it’s about Jesus, it’s not about the excuse.
And finally -
Lesson #7: You never know from whence help will come.
I’m sure you think about this every day, but have you ever noticed that the success of the Roman Empire was based entirely on its ability to steal every good idea they came across? It’s true! The Romans weren’t the most creative thinkers on the world stage, but they had a good eye for a great idea. I’m kind of like that myself, and I encourage you to be, too. I find the picture of my Roman-self happily raiding Greeks for their all their good stuff amusing and apt. For an application of what I’m trying to express, let’s take the realm of party games. I’m not the kind of person who particularly enjoys games, nor am I a competitive person, so naturally I’m hopelessly clueless when it comes to devising one. If I’m called upon to produce a game, my inner Roman will immediately seek out a Greek, as exemplified by the writer of this ancient little book of party games.
When I found it, this book had three obvious strengths to my trained Roman eye: 1) it was cheap (most likely free); 2) it’s so old that it’s almost guaranteed that no one plays these games anymore, which makes them - fresh; and 3) some clever, social, long-gone person has done all the thinking for me. All I need to do is seize one of the ideas this Greek has so kindly made available for any enterprising Roman to grab, and I’ve got game! Best of all for me, using it meets Steve’s directive to keep hospitality easy!
You don’t need to personally “invent fire and the wheel” to share yourself and your home with grace. Creativity is not necessary, nor even desirable, if it becomes an impediment to opening your home. Whether you are using a game someone else devised, or faux (aka paper) plates, or even if someone other than you made the food, it is of no consequence because a warm, welcoming attitude is the only real necessity - because it’s about Jesus, it’s not about anything else.
That last statement is a good summation of all the lessons the Lord had for me. Father refers to His children as the sheep He shepherds, never as His beasts of burden. While the Bible lays down hospitality as a very important part of the life He desires for us, the Lord has said, His “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light.” Be on guard not to allow anything to be a stumbling block to your obedience - because it’s about Jesus, and Him alone.