A Heart of Hospitality In The Midst of Messy
I’ve always had a heart geared toward people, and hospitality is one of my gifts. Believing I was exercising this gift, for years I read entertaining magazines and watched TV shows to hone my hostess skills. At the start of my marriage, I could set the perfect table and fold pretty napkins. I’d invite large numbers of people over to our house and make sure everything was just so. I loved it and believed I was making good use of this gift of hospitality.
A New Reality
If you’ve read much from me, you know that a lot changed with the birth of our second child, Rachel. Autism brought a lot of things in our lives to a halt, including entertaining and hosting large events. My home was a disaster, and that is not an exaggeration. My sweet little Rachel dumped out every drawer, basket, cabinet, and shelf…daily. Gone were my beautifully set tables, organized drawers, and folded laundry. Gone was my ability to sleep, since Rachel only slept a couple hours at night and would amuse herself by re-dumping everything I’d attempted to pick up from the day. I was exhausted, depressed, and isolated.
On top of that, we moved far from home. With our new, lower income level, I couldn’t invite others to go out, and I certainly didn’t want to invite people over. A part of me started to wilt. What kind of hostess could I be knee-deep in toys, laundry, and sticky floors?
Deep Breath…Reality Revealed
Around this time, I began attending a library group for moms and preschoolers and became acquainted with another mom. After a couple weeks, she invited us to a playdate at the park. I tried it out since we were feeling so isolated, but that also was a disaster. Rachel would run off the second I let go of her. After chasing my girl around for an hour, attempting to converse as I jogged past my new friend, I decided to be brave and bluntly honest. I told the other mom that my house would be easier, except there probably wasn’t a clean spot in the house. With a shrug of my shoulders, I offered to shove some laundry aside, serve some chicken nuggets, and let the kids play on the swing set.
And thus began a deep and interesting friendship, since we were two very different people. After coming to my house a few times, she invited me over to her place. And you know what? Her house was not perfect either. While we boiled (and burned) homemade chai, she confessed to me that I was the first person to be vulnerable with her in our small two-country-club suburban town. Many of her experiences were of people with polished homes who entertained with Pinterest perfection, something she never felt able to live up to. She too had become isolated.
As I met other moms, I decided to stop focusing on being the perfect hostess and instead on how I could form relationships. I asked a few moms if they wanted to start a Funday Monday time with our preschoolers where we traded off houses and let the kids play while the moms talked. We all contributed food, so no one felt overwhelmed. Sometimes we also met at the local pool, sometimes at the library, and other times at the park (me with my running shoes on). As the kids started school, some of us moms switched to meeting at the local coffee shop weekly. Different people would come each week, but as long as a couple of us continued to be there, others would show up. During that time, I slowly switched from trying to be a perfect hostess to just being—listening, learning, and connecting.
My husband has changed jobs since then and we’ve moved back closer to home, but I have not forgotten the lessons learned during those early years of children and autism.
You see, I think I’d mixed up the ideas of hospitality and entertaining. Both are great. Both have their place, but I don’t think they mean the same thing. We can be hospitable without entertaining, and we can certainly entertain without hospitality.
Inviting people over and serving a beautiful HGTV-worthy dinner is great, but what if I get so focused on the perfection that I forget to focus on the people? I can be a wonderful hostess without having a heart of hospitality. My friend’s invitation to the park was hospitable—she was reaching out to me with the intent to connect and meet me where I was. My invitation to let her see my real self and home, messes and all, was hospitality. There was no pretention of perfection, but instead an intention of forming a relationship.
I believe that is the core of hospitality—relationships. Dictionary.com defines hospitality as “the friendly reception or treatment of guests and strangers.” Whereas entertaining is, in part, defined as, “to hold the attention of pleasantly or agreeable; divert; amuse.” There is also mention of hospitality in one of the definitions, and entertaining certainly can be hospitable, especially when there is a heart to welcome everyone, not just a certain group or kind of people. But there are times when it is easy to make entertaining more about the production rather than about the people.
And so I learned to focus on people, rather than my lack of perfection. There were times it was very difficult and humbling—one time I served a cake only to realize a certain Labrador had taken a giant bite out of it. Another time, a friend showed up unannounced and I felt the spirit of God pushing me to answer the door even though I was dying inside from the embarrassment of the state of my house—seriously, there wasn’t a toy-less spot on the floor.
There were times I felt rejected too. I endured a few comments about how my house was too small and too messy, but they were few and far between and reflected more on the commenter than myself. Through it all I learned to laugh and love and let go.
I learned that to be hospitable was to invite people into my life, warts and all, and to make time less about putting on a show and more about letting people know they mattered.
Hospitality isn’t about a meal, a place, or a show. It’s about the heart. Perhaps it can be best summed up with…
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I [Jesus] have loved you, so you must love one another.” (NIV)