Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A couple of stories about hospitality

I read a blog post today about the difficulties and joys of practicing hospitality when you have a houseful of small children.  Last week, I had a conversation with two moms in my church about opening their homes and I shared the potato story with them.  I offer this story and another, from my own experience, today as an encouragement to anyone who struggles with opening her home to others ...

The Potato Story

Way back in the early 80's and again in the early 90's, Coty and I lived in Nairobi.  We loved our life there, loved the way that Kenyans and our expatriate friends at Nairobi Baptist would invite us to their homes. Over cups of tea and biscuits (cookies, in American English) , we had long, rich conversations.  We shared meals, too, but the food never seemed to be the main point of the visit.  The point was the people.

One of our friends in Nairobi told me this story of a visit she once had - a visit that changed her life and her mindset about hospitality.  It changed mine, too.

My friend, Margaret, and her family were invited one Sunday after church to the home of someone they had never met.  Upon arrival, they sat in the living room and shared a cup of tea with the rest of the family while the mother went into the kitchen.  A short time later, she emerged from the kitchen with a steaming pot of boiled potatoes and invited everyone to the table.  The guests all expected that their hostess would return to the kitchen for more food, but she sat down at the table.  Their host gave thanks and the plates were filled with potatoes.

"I hope you enjoy the potatoes," the hostess said.  "We'd love to serve you more, but this is all we have right now.  My husband will get his paycheck this week and we will go to the shops, but we didn't want to miss the opportunity to share a meal with you today."

Margaret said that those were the best potatoes she ever ate, not because they were a culinary masterpiece, but because the hospitality was the most genuine she had ever experienced.

Cobwebs and Company

Years ago, when we lived in Massachusetts, I hosted a church women's gathering.  I no longer remember anything about the content of the meeting, the refreshments that were served, or who was there - except for one woman - who later shared her own story of that evening.

M was at that time functioning as a single mom.  Her husband was in prison and she had three young children.  She lived in a small, old duplex and though she always joined in church activities or gatherings that were held at other's homes, she never invited anyone to her home.

She was afraid.  Afraid that because her husband was in prison, people wouldn't want to come; afraid that with her food stamp money she wouldn't be able to provide a meal that others would enjoy; afraid that her cramped home with peeling wallpaper and musty basement wouldn't be clean enough.  So, she never invited anyone to her home.

Until a few months later ...

And then I learned the reason why she had decided that she, too, could offer hospitality.  She told me that on the evening of the gathering at my house, she had glanced upwards toward the skylight in our family room.  There were cobwebs - not just a strand of spider silk, but thick cobwebs - in the corners of the skylight and hanging down, catching the light from above, waving in the slight breeze from the open window.  Then she looked to the corners of the room.  More cobwebs.  While the women talked, M was watching the cobwebs and thinking, "If Beth can open her home to all of us and not worry about those cobwebs, well then, maybe I can invite someone to my house."  And she did.  Those cobwebs gave her courage and she began inviting women over, then families. She stopped worrying so much about her house and instead, delighted in serving and caring for the people who, all along, would have been happy to visit.  It was the cobwebs that did it.

The funny thing is I, a mother of six little ones, had never, ever looked at that skylight.  After M told me her story, I went home and looked at it as I had never looked at it before.  Sure enough, the cobwebs were still there - probably more than had been there before.

You are thinking that perhaps I left all those cobwebs there as a reminder that our oversights and imperfections may be just the thing that encourages another person.  Well, I thought about that, but no, I cleaned them.  They had served their purpose for that time.  And of course, there would, and always will, be plenty of imperfections, messes, and oversights in my home.  But if they ever keep me from welcoming someone, then surely I will have forgotten the lesson of the cobwebs.

As Ashley says in her post, "entertaining is about the host, but hospitality is about the guest."

In answer to the question she poses, here are a few things we do to make people feel welcome and loved:

-cook one of our family's favorite meals.  I often do fish tacos, serving them not in tortillas but over polenta.  The preparation is very simple, the meal delicious and colorful, and something I've done many times so I don't stress about it turning out right.  It's tried and true and always enjoyed.

-sit on the porch after dinner.  Light a couple of candles.  Make a pot of coffee or tea.  Relax and let the conversation flow.  Even the silence, with cicadas and owls in the background, is sweet ... on the porch.

-not fuss too much with cleaning our work spaces - Coty's office, my sewing room.  We live and work in our house.  It's not always convenient to put all the books or fabric away.  If a project is out, someone is usually interested in knowing what it is.  I don't worry about fabric strips all over my cutting table.  This would not work, however, if I did all my cutting and sewing on the kitchen table.  Still, it's not necessary for the work to all be hidden away.  This is our home.  This is what we do.  Welcome in.

-put out a few books that people might enjoy.  We've kept the book Hungry Planet out for a long time. Adults and children peruse that book and conversations are often sparked about what we eat, poverty, other countries, and more.

-I ask, "what do you like to eat for breakfast?"  If they normally eat and enjoy cereal, that's what I put on the table.  I usually keep the breakfast simple - fruit and yogurt, some good bread or muffins, an egg if they want it.  Coffee or tea.  Then we sit down together.  When we still had four boys at home, we once had a visitor that remarked at how long they had all sat at the breakfast table after the meal, listening and talking.  Of course, that couldn't have happened if they'd had to rush to the school bus.  One of the perks of homeschooling - lengthy breakfast conversations with guests.

I can't say that we've ever entertained angels, but certainly the guests that have been in our home over the years have been God's gift to us.  We've given a little in cooking a meal or putting clean sheets on a bed, but what we have received is so much greater.

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