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Hospitality for the Domestically Challenged

Three women discuss the truth behind welcoming people into our homes.

What do you do if you want to practice the spiritual discipline of hospitality, but feel as though you or your house is never clean enough, good enough, fill-in-the-blank enough? Kyria met with three women (Carla Barnhill, from Minnesota; Tricia Goyer, from Arkansas; and Caryn Rivadeneira, from Illinois) to find out how they practice hospitality and what it really means to them—in the midst of homes that will never be on the cover of Better Home and Gardens.

How would you describe your house right now? Is it company ready?

Carla Barnhill: Oh no, no. As soon as you step onto our front porch you'll see three big duffle bags of soccer gear and a seat from our van. Then when you enter the house, there's a big pile of shoes. It gets no better when you keep moving. I've started to feel like maybe it's appropriate to keep it like this, because then it sets your expectation so you don't walk in thinking you're going anywhere else.

Tricia Goyer: It depends on which rooms they go into. Some of them are company ready. I keep a main area clean, and then they all have to go straight there.

Caryn Rivadeneira: Mostly I have toys and dog hair everywhere. But if somebody calls and gives me about 15 minutes, I can quickly get the first floor company-ready.

So do you welcome or dread the drop in?

Tricia: There are definitely times when it's just disaster. Because I work at home, I may still be in my pajamas at 11 o'clock. And it's like, Oh please, let that only be the UPS man and not a friend who wants to come over.

But also I've learned that it's okay. If I'm comfortable with it, if I'm like, "Oh, come on in, the house is a mess," most people aren't going to look at me and think, Oh my gosh, look at how she's dressed or Look at her house. If I'm at peace with it, then it puts other people at peace too.

Carla: I'm a big fan of the drop in. Sure my house could always be cleaner, but if I spend the whole time shuffling and moving things around and neither of us can relax, it creates an inhospitable environment for both of us.

For me, hospitality is about the relationship and not about the beautiful scones that I baked this morning and the fresh made coffee and the big, fluffy couch. I feel like the hospitality part is who I am and who they are and the conversation and relationship we have.

So for me the drop in isn't a stressful situation, unless I decide to make it that way. I've chosen not to make it that way anymore, because there's no point. Then I miss out on this visit with a friend who popped over. Sometimes I feel bad that I don't have decent food to offer them. I've got a cold Diet Coke and some chips and salsa. That's the best I can do.

If someone comes to my house and they're going to base their opinion of me on how clean my kitchen floor is, we probably aren't going to build a deep relationship anyway.

Caryn: I'm horrified sometimes by my house. But I got to the point where I decided, you know what, they're either going to love me or not. This is who I am.

I had a friend once say, "I don't ever want to be somebody that people feel like they have to clean for. I don't want to be 'company' at somebody's house. I want them to know I love and care about them, not the look of their house." That struck me. I think, Do I trust this person enough to let them see me as I really am?

When you look at the house instead of celebrating what we have to offer one another, then we miss the whole point of biblical hospitality.

What should we be aware of as we practice hospitality?

Tricia: Motivation. For years I wanted to look good, because I was the teen mom who didn't think I could have success. Look at what I'm doing. Look at how good I am. Look at the meal I put on for you. It was more about me than about caring for people. Over the years I've come to realize that God loves me for exactly who I am. I don't need to have a perfect house or put on the perfect meal. I need to enjoy my relationships. When we try to put on that mask, it builds a wall between us and others and God.

Carla: I think you really have to know yourself. You have to ask yourself, Why am I doing this? Why does this matter? Who am I doing it for? Are my relationships better or worse because I'm doing this? My relationship with God, is it better or worse? It keeps coming back to motivation.

Too often when we think of hospitality, we think, She makes the most perfectly browned cookies. But that's not the gift of hospitality; that's a gift of being able to bake great cookies.

Caryn: I recently read that you know you have too much stuff or that stuff is a problem in your life if it's getting in the way of relationships. That resonated with me. We have too much, and it's getting in the way of drop-ins and such. Because all of a sudden I get stressed. For somebody to come over means I have to do all this work, and it's ridiculous. It does get in the way of relationships.

How should we think about hospitality?

Carla: Take the biblical story of Mary and Martha. Mary chose the relationship and Martha chose the work. But which one of them was tuned into what Jesus needed? Jesus needed a friend; he needed to talk to somebody.

It's not just figuring out whether you're Mary or Martha. But it's really considering what is it that people need from you? Do they need your heart, your ear, your attention, your care, and your compassion? Or do they need your food and your clean dishes? That to me was an interesting way to rethink that story.

Especially in light of how I grew up. My mom can't sit still and just hang out. She's always busy, busy, busy. It's like this internal restlessness she feels, as though something's always expected of her.

Caryn: My husband's aunt is a caretaker. For years she loved cooking for a Jesuit community because it was a way for her to love on these people who didn't have family nearby. It was just incredible. On the outside it looks like she's caring for other people, but it really is caring for her too. That's the great thing about hospitality: when you offer it, you receive it.

So the house really doesn't make a difference?

Carla: Sometimes I wish people could come to my clean, neat, beautiful. But I really do think, ultimately, it's more about our relationship and how I treat them. Hospitality is welcoming other people into your life. And you know what? My house is not who I am; my house is where I live.

Hopefully people see and know that, and feel loved and welcomed in my house because I make them feel loved and welcomed, not because my couch has no dog hair on it.

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

Ginger E. Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba is the author of Desperate Pastors' Wives and The Old Fashioned Way. Connect with her on Twitter @gingerkolbaba.

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