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The Heart of Hospitality

How I learned it has absolutely nothing to do with having a home worthy of Southern Living.

My second Sunday in Charlottesville, Virginia, I wound up at Christ Church, where I knew exactly two people. One of them was my mother, and what single woman wants to get stuck at coffee hour eating donut holes with her mom?

Few situations make me as uncomfortable as being a newcomer in a church. Everyone else knows when to stand and sit, and everyone else has someone to talk to during coffee hour. In contrast, I just stand there awkwardly, my inner introvert yelling at me to go home and curl up with a novel.

After the service ended that morning, I managed to silence my introvert long enough to introduce myself to a couple sitting in the pew behind me. I complimented the wife's shoes, the husband asked if I'd enjoyed the sermon, and then they said, "If you don't have plans for New Year's Eve, please come to our party."

This unexpected invitation struck me as exceptional, even though I was back in the friendly South. In the coming weeks, though, I came to see that in the Charlottesville Christian community, the opening of one's home seems to be the norm. To wit, the experience of my friend Suzanne: Suzanne found herself with a gap between leases, and within two days she received three offers of spare bedrooms from fellow church members.

Or consider my friends the Hanovers: So often do they have guests for dinner that when they are guestless, eight-year-old Julianne asks, "Mommy, why is no one in the guest chair tonight?"

Or my favorite example of Charlottesville hospitality: One evening, I attended a training session for lay leaders in my church. There were maybe nine of us at the meeting, and only two were this side of 50—me, and a tall blond man with a Georgia accent and the improbable name of Griff Gatewood. At the end of the meeting, Griff came up to me and said, "Do you have community here with people your own age?" And then he invited me to have homemade pizza with him and some friends that night. (The true-confession slice of this vignette is that the tall blond man is now my boyfriend. But that didn't happen for months and months, so I stand by my vignette as an example of hospitality, not flirtation.)

After a year in Charlottesville, I've grown so accustomed to the ubiquitous hospitality that I almost don't notice it anymore. But it's noteworthy, because it's part of what the church is supposed to be: a community of people practicing hospitality.

Hospitality isn't, of course, unique to Charlottesville. I first learned about real hospitality from my Jewish roots, especially the Orthodox Jewish community in New York. I moved to Manhattan when I was 16 and was embraced by several families who knew little about me other than that

I was new, my family was far away, and I needed somewhere to eat lunch on the Sabbath. The Farmer family, in particular, held me to an open-door policy—turn up, sleep, eat, talk, shower, hang out anytime, no need to phone ahead.

In Hebrew, this is hachnassat orchim, literally "the bringing in of guests." Scripture is thick with this practice. More than once, God instructs his people to welcome the stranger because "you were strangers in the land of Egypt." And there's story after story of Hebrews and Gentiles alike doing just that. In Genesis 18, Abraham gives food to three strangers who turn out to be angels come to announce Isaac's birth (it is to this event that Hebrews 13:2 refers when it instructs, "Do not forget to welcome strangers; for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."). Rahab, a prostitute, was blessed for giving shelter to Joshua's spies (Joshua 2). And in 2 Kings, we read of a Shunammite woman who welcomes the prophet Elisha into her home.

The apostle Paul placed such a high value on hospitality that he listed it—along with temperance, sobriety, and gentleness—among the characteristics required of church leaders. Sixth-century religious writer Julianus Pomerius insisted that hospitality took precedence over other spiritual disciplines; he enjoined his readers to break a fast and "unbend one's self" in order to break bread with others.

Christians and Jews hold in common one theological basis for hospitality: the Creation. Creation is the ultimate expression of God's hospitality to his creatures. In the words of one rabbi, everything God created is a "manifestation of his kindness. [The} world is one big hospitality inn." As church historian Amy Oden has put it, "God offers hospitality to all humanity … by establishing a home … for all." To invite people into our home is to respond with gratitude to the God who made a home for us.

Despite this, I can find many reasons for not inviting others into my home. I'm busy, my kitchen is too small, my apartment is always messy.

But in that list of excuses is a set of pointers about what hospitality is and isn't, what it does and doesn't require. It does require a bit of intentionality. My lease is up next month, and I've decided to move. I need an apartment where the space is configured differently. A tour of my home will show you why. I have a huge office, and in that office sits a wonderful old picnic table, and on the picnic table sits my computer. I have a tiny kitchen, and against the kitchen wall is a writing desk that used to live in a college library. My apartment is, in other words, a great place to work, but a lousy place to eat or entertain. My new apartment, I hope, will have a smaller office and a larger kitchen. I want to create a home in which friends are welcome, and my current home simply isn't that. So I'm moving. (Meanwhile, if you drop by for a piece of pizza, I'll crouch with you on the floor.)

Intentionality, however, isn't perfection. Let's consider my insistence that my apartment is never tidy enough for guests. Sure, I shouldn't have curdling milk in the fridge if I'm inviting someone over for tea, and it might be nice if I didn't leave dirty clothes all over the bathroom floor. But to be a hostess, I'm going to have to surrender my notions of Good Housekeeping domestic perfection. I'll have to set down my pride and invite people over even if I haven't dusted. This is tough because my mother set a high standard. Her house is always immaculate, especially if she's expecting company. But if I wait for immaculate, I'll never have guests.

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.

Not too long ago, Griff and I were at a party, attended, it seemed, by just about everyone we knew. People were happily sipping mulled cider and playing charades. At one point, a curvy, redheaded 20-year-old, who happened to have known Griff for a million years and who also happened to be one of my students, threw herself into Griff's arms for an entirely innocent hug.

The next day I was chatting about some school matter with the redhead (let's call her Rita Hayworth). I was in mature, professional mode—my hair was even in a chignon—and wasn't expecting Rita to ask, sweetly, if I'd felt uncomfortable about The Hug. I wanted to blandly laugh and say, "No, not at all, don't be ridiculous." But some instinct told me to risk transparency with Rita H. So I told her that actually, when she flung herself into Griff's arms, I felt old, uncool, and insecure, and had wanted to kill them both. This truth-telling didn't change the world, but it did push Rita and me a bit closer to real knowledge of each other.

Standing there with Rita Hayworth, I understood why Pomerius spoke of hospitality as unbending one's self. In this unbending, there was a genuine return to hachnassat orchim, to an inviting of guests. The irony is that the unbending requires inviting my neighbors into the very places where I am most bent.

So you see, asking people into my life isn't so different from asking them into my apartment. Like my apartment, my interior life never is going to be wholly respectable, cleaned up, and gleaming. But that's where I live. In the certitude of God, I ought to be able to risk issuing the occasional invitation.

Adapted from Mudhouse Sabbath. 2003 by Lauren F. Winner. Used with permission of Paraclete Press.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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