If hospitality is an inherited gene, I should have it. Whenever we visited my grandma on the West Coast (Grandma Washington, we used to call her), the topic of conversation from about Wyoming on was what kind of pie would be waiting for us on her blue–marble countertop.
We were never disappointed. After a long round of hugs and hellos, we kids made a dash for the kitchen to find the faithful spread of pies—fresh–picked huckleberry pie, straight–from–the–garden rhubarb pie, cherry pie with crisscrosses like only Grandma can make them. No matter what time of day we arrived, we'd have a slice (or two) while the kitchen buzzed with a dozen conversations.
My mom is no slouch herself in the hostess department. She's one of those fabulous people who has two sets of china—and uses both! Her formal dining room isn't reserved for holidays or the bridge club; it's a regular gathering place for family and friends and children.
As a child, I had my share of courses in hospitality school … making homemade donuts and cookies while standing on a chair in Grandma's kitchen, helping Mom set the table and make place cards for dinner guests. I guess I always figured my life would look a lot like theirs when I grew up—dinner parties with friends, brunches after church, homemade cookies in the oven, and a houseful of kids to eat them.
But at age 29, I'm realizing just how different my life looks from both my mom's and my grandma's. By this age Grandma had two kids, and Mom had two plus another on the way. They had full–time jobs all right, but not the kind you get paid for. Their days were filled with neighborhood play groups and church activities, volunteering and taking care of their homes, husbands, and children. My days are consumed by a full–time career, and the only living things I take care of are my houseplants. Without the perk of a wedding registry, my kitchen boasts an assortment of hand–me–down dishes and garage sale items. Somewhere in the bowels of my cupboard there's probably a pie tin, but I can say with some certainty that a homemade huckleberry pie isn't in its near future.
As sad as I am about the state of my hospitality department, I don't think it's just me. For our society as a whole, hospitality seems to be a relic from another era, gone the way of Tupperware parties and June Cleaver. We're busy, for one thing, and this hospitality business takes time. Sure, there are many more shortcuts to food preparation these days, but there's no such thing as drive–thru hospitality. And if I'm perfectly honest, face–to–face hospitality can be downright intimidating. I feel vulnerable when I let people see the dust bunnies in the corner of my living room, when I let them taste my attempt at dinner, and perhaps most of all, when I let them into a part of myself.
So why bother? I have a backlog of excuses to cover every day plus leap year, and I could get over the disappointment of failing to carry on a generational trait. But what I can't shrug off so easily is the thread of hospitality woven throughout the Gospels—especially in Jesus' life. I'm astonished at how many times Jesus gave his important theological messages not from a pulpit or at the temple or in a scholarly tome, but at a supper table. Sure, there were occasions when he preached at religious venues (Mark 1:21-22) or gave sermons to the masses (Matthew 5). But the bulk of his ministry seemed to take place in intimate dinner settings, in the homes of friends. He kicked off his first miracle at a wedding reception (John 2), he went to dinner at Zacchaeus's house (Luke 19), and he ate with a bunch of Matthew's friends (Matthew 9). Of all the things he was accused of, one of the recurring complaints was the company he kept for dinner (Mark 2:16).
Even on Jesus' last night, when you'd think he might be ironing out some last–minute theological issues with his followers about eschatology or predestination, he chose instead to have dinner with his friends (Matthew 26:17-30). And even as they were eating, he reminded them this Last Supper wasn't really the end—there would be an eternal dinner party to look forward to someday (verse 29).
Of all the pictures Jesus could have painted to explain heaven, he chose the intimacy and joy of a communal table. It should be no wonder, then, that there's something sacred about inviting people into our homes for a meal. It's hard to pinpoint the connection that takes place over the passing of casseroles and the lingering over dessert and coffee, but that interaction just might be every bit as "spiritual" as reading a commentary or spending an extra twenty minutes in quiet time. In some mysterious way, the dinner table serves as a catalyst for an everyday miracle, a tangible expression of grace.
So when my favorite excuses pop up for rationalizing away hospitality (I'm too busy, I'm not my grandmother, I'm not sure people really want to come, I'm afraid it will be awkward), perhaps I need to be reminded that my role model in this hospitality gig isn't Martha Stewart; it's Jesus. Hospitality isn't really about the physical interactions around the table with food and flatware settings (although those things certainly have their place). On a deeper level, it's more about the spiritual transactions that occur within the context of a shared home and a common meal. By this I don't necessarily mean evangelism, although that may be part of it. More than that, I want the people who cross the threshold of my home to experience a taste of Christ before they leave: a word of encouragement, a listening grace, the warmth of acceptance, an attempt at unconditional love.
So as much as I've learned from Mom and Grandma over the years, I suppose my best lessons in hospitality come from a 30something bachelor who had no fine china and no dining room—and no home to speak of, for that matter. I anticipate the ultimate dinner party he'll host someday, but until then I have to be content with my own bumbling attempts at imitating his hospitality.
And for now, I suppose there's nothing else to do but break out the store–bought pie in my freezer!
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