One Saturday morning in Ohio years ago, I dragged two friends from their beds to head east in the pre-dawn hours. Our destination: Freeburg, Pennsylvania, the location where I found the drop-leaf table of my dreams in a small furniture outlet. "Tea table for two, dining table for eight," the online description read. Several lattes, miles, and two tanks of gas later, the table was home.
If furniture were a financial portfolio, one might say we're heavily invested in tables. There's the black round pedestal table in our kitchen, recently scarred by an exploding whiteout pen. There's the extra-wide, extra-long kitchen table in our dining room, which comfortably seats our family of seven, and can be expanded to accommodate sixteen (when we squeeze). Then there are the two dining tables in our basement I bought off Craigslist. Though they most regularly play host to puzzles and sewing projects, they can also seat sticky-fingered children for our larger dinner gatherings. And finally, there is a cherry-wood Pennsylvania Shaker table and my grandmother's blond oak drop-leaf table—as beautiful as the Pennsylvania cherry, but more maternal in shape.
Altogether, we have the capacity to seat 56 people for dinner.
Upon reading this, you may want to reason that because my home is large enough to accommodate 56 people, I must be exceptionally gifted in the ministry of hospitality. And perhaps because you live in an apartment and claim ownership of exactly two chairs (one of which is designated for your desk) and a cat, you cannot possibly be expected to welcome guests to your table. But hospitality isn't measured by the capacity you have for seating guests—it's measured by the warmth of your welcome.
Making do with what you have
We haven't always lived in a big house. When we first moved to midtown Toronto several years ago, we rented a 1920s center-hall colonial whose first floor consisted of a galley kitchen, a modest dining and living room, and a small converted porch just big enough for a desk and a love seat. The dining room barely fit our extra-wide, extra-long kitchen table—never mind its two leaves—and the galley kitchen had less than three feet of usable counter space.
Nevertheless, our first Easter here, we invited 21 people to our home for dinner: We moved the microwave to the basement, clearing premium counter space; we planned an egg hunt for outside, praying for good weather; in the renovated porch area, we put up the Pennsylvania table (one leaf only), and sat two of the teenagers on the love seat, one on the swivel office chair, and the fourth on a borrowed folding chair. The youngest kids we crammed into the basement with paper plates. And finally, seated intimately in the dining room, with barely room for our elbows, were the adults.
All of us feasted.
Lacking the Martha Stewart elegance
My husband and I have been married more than 17 years, and each of those years has been committed, in its own particular way, to the ministry of hospitality. Our practice of hospitality has changed as much as the contours of our lives. Before children, we regularly invited other couples over to our apartment for dinner, lingering over dessert and coffee. When our first three children were very young, we hosted weekly potluck dinners for our church small group. In the first years after our twin boys were born (and the three became five), we hosted far fewer dinners. But the guests kept coming, if only to pull up a stool in the kitchen and pour their own cup of coffee.
If there is much I cannot do in the kingdom of God, I have reckoned I can do this: throw open the front door and offer a place at our table, even if I have not ironed a tablecloth or made dessert. When the din of our dining room rises to uncomfortable levels—especially when one of our five children begins loudly whining about the vegetable served—and guests notice the lack of Martha Stewart elegance, our gathering will still serve as sacred an occasion as Moses standing before the burning bush.
Because, around the table, we are enflamed with the presence of God.
Fostering holy hospitality
In Scripture, the meal has holy significance. It is not exclusively about the food—though good food is central to God's story too. It is also about the sacrament of gathering and the holiness of God's community. Heaven itself is pictured as a wedding feast.
In the opening chapters of Genesis, for example, Adam and Eve are invited to share in the delights of God's table. Rachel Marie Stone, author of Eat With Joy, insists that the Garden of Eden illustrates how "we eat because God, having prepared for and welcomed us honored guests, loves to feed us." In the Garden of God, our human parents discover the delight of being fed by the hand of another. Food is love.
In the book of Exodus, the Israelites are also invited guests. They lament the meals they left behind in Egypt, but despite these bitter complaints, God, the most gracious of Hosts, feeds them. "What is it?" they ask as honey-sweet flakes fall from the sky and feed them in the wilderness. "It is the food the LORD has given you to eat" (Exodus 16:15). Food is love.
In the New Testament, we greet the night that Jesus, Lamb of God, played host to the disciples, breaking bread and offering wine. This is my body. This is my blood. The narrative of our salvation is written in a holy meal. God's table is redemption, and grace, once again, makes us welcomed guests. Food is love.
Every time we practice hospitality, we re-enact grace. You and your story are welcome here. This is what we say to the bedraggled humans who enter our homes. They come weary. Life is hurried, and our anonymity and isolation from one another numb us with exhaustion. Each of us, busied to near-death, is famished for companionship. A meal around a table can be the means of a salvific slowing. It becomes a holy occasion for listening, for knowing. Every time we gather for a meal, letting conversation (even wine) flow, we feed the profound hunger each of us has to be loved.
An intentional ministry
A ministry of hospitality is sacred work indeed. But like the late Dallas Willard has written, spiritual endeavors "rarely if ever succeed by accident, drift or imposition." A ministry of hospitality seems like a wonderful idea and can be regularly conceived with good intentions. Yes, let's have the neighbors over for dinner. But without intentionality and planning, hospitality will remain as just another great idea that never happens.
There is never a convenient time for hosting a meal. The house is always messier than we'd like, and the week is always busier than planned. I can personally be counted on for lacking the necessary energy to peel potatoes. We will want to talk ourselves out of hospitality (and the dishes) because our houses are too small and our children too noisy, but the theology of the meal is too insistent to be ignored: Jesus is known as his people gather and break bread.
Here are eight tips for practicing intentional hospitality:
- At the beginning of every month, review the calendar and block out an evening or Sunday afternoon for hospitality. Then, find someone to invite!
- Consider what you currently need in order to host someone for a meal. Another chair? Another set of silverware? A beautiful mug? Save for and invest in hospitality.
- Consider what it is about your living situation that keeps you from inviting guests. Too small? Too messy? Separate reasons from excuses. And if you legitimately can't do the inviting, offer to bring and share a meal with a friend.
- Double a recipe on Saturday when there is potentially more time for cooking. Set your table on Sunday morning with extra places and bring guests home with you from church to eat the leftovers.
- Collect no-fail recipes for the practice of hospitality: easy brunch casseroles, yummy soups, homemade marinades for grilled meat.
- Simplify the meals you serve. You'll host more often when you don't feel obligated to prepare time-consuming recipes.
- Involve your children in the practice of hospitality: have them decorate place cards, fold napkins, and cut the fruit. And teach them to practice the courtesies of host.
- Make wise use of your freezer. Frozen soup, garlic bread, and cookie dough can make for a wonderful impromptu welcome!
Hospitality will produce dishes, to be sure. And it won't ever seem there is enough time or energy for extending a welcome. But after a meal where we've gathered with the people of God, we can—and will—find ourselves fed and full of grace and love.
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Jen Pollock Michel lives in Toronto with her husband and five children. She writes regularly for the devotional publication, Today in the Word, and Christianity Today's Her.meneutics. She is publishing a book about desire with InterVarsity Press next year.