I was an adult before I realized that not EVERYONE sets the table the day before a holiday meal, meticulously arranging dishes and serving spoons and place cards for every guest. And when I say every guest, I mean all members of an extended family totaling maybe 15 people. And when I say all members, I mean you were born in or married into the family. Otherwise, you weren’t invited.
Until I was exposed to other families and other homes, I didn’t realize how formal my family gatherings actually were. I simply thought it was how hospitality worked. Hospitality meant fine china and quiet children with impeccable manners and polite conversation with unspoken rules. Hospitality meant a beautifully set table and being allowed the annual entry into the formal living room that was otherwise off-limits.
These were Pinterest worthy gatherings before Pinterest was even a thing.
I still fight against this mentality when it comes to having people over and putting our best foot forward.
But, I’d like to think I’ve come a long way. I’d like to think I’ve moved from stiff and immaculate to a Velveteen Rabbit approach to hospitality, where people are invited to be real. Where people can walk through my door and help themselves, throwing off their coats along with their pretenses.
My greatest discovery about real hospitality is that it invites authenticity. Real hospitality says you belong. It says welcome, exactly as you are, with whatever struggles you have and whatever burdens you carry. Real hospitality makes room for being genuine, requiring no dress code or masks. It clears off the fine china and says sit and stay awhile to be refreshed.
In the biblical story of the sisters Mary and Martha, Martha was the one busy in the kitchen making everything presentable. Mary was the one who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened. Martha was making a fuss and wanted her sister and guests to fit into her ideals. Mary stilled herself to give her full attention to her guests. Mary knew true hospitality. She knew it had nothing to do with how the meal tasted or the table looked.
I grew up with the idea that hospitality meant fitting into the expectations in order to be included.
I’ve learned that hospitality means belonging, exactly as you are.
Over a recent meal with my friend, Shelly Miller (author of Rhythms of Rest), she made this distinction between fitting in and belonging. My heart sang with the freedom of it. I delight in the crystal clear distinction between the two.
Hospitality is when I visited my paternal grandmother, and she made me feel embraced and accepted. She would marvel at my latest art work and plan fun outings. She even kept a cabinet of toys for when we came to visit. She would jump up from the couch to make a bowl of ice cream at bedtime, and she still makes me feel as if she delights in who I am, exactly as I am.
Hospitality is when my aunt invited me into her little cabin at family camp and she cried with me for over an hour, as I sobbed beyond words. She joined in the release of emotions, as we soaked each other in our tearful embrace. Finally, she pulled back, dabbed her eyes, and asked, “Why are we crying?”
Hospitality is saying there is always room at my table. Or on my couch if my table is too cluttered. Real hospitality throws open not just its front door but also its heart and says you belong right here because your company brings me delight and pleasure. It’s not being tolerated or putting on a happy face or behaving a certain way. It’s not a carefully chosen menu with perfectly folded napkins.
Real hospitality says you are welcome in my chaos and dust bunnies because this is who I really am, and you can be who you really are.
Considering from whence I came, I couldn’t have been more thrilled when my teenage son recently asked if we would host a cast party the following night after their last performance.
But of course, dear child.
I loved that he wanted to welcome his friends into our home where our living room was piled up in our entry way, our master closet was in the dining room, and our dining room was in the kitchen — smack dab in the middle of our remodel mayhem.
Never mind the mess, teenagers. Come on in.
I fell asleep with a sense of triumph that night, listening to a dozen teens singing karaoke to ’80s classics while eating hastily purchased pizza off paper plates.
Real hospitality cares more for how you make people feel than it cares about the impression it left.