Hospitality is a long term commitment. Anything that is a command of God is a long term commitment. Sanctification slowly changes and improves us, forming us into the image of Christ. All of God’s commands are given for His glory and our good. Hospitality comes with numerous blessings from God to us, and is also one of the ways that we reflect him by being welcoming and generously giving. Also, I would argue, it is part of our worship, and one of the ways that we keep God’s good gifts to us from terminating on ourselves. Hospitality is one of the immediate ways that we, “put shoe leather on the Gospel” as the old preacher would say. It is incredibly practical, but also deeply spiritual.
All of this said. The lofty spiritual language that often gets attached to “Biblical Hospitality” sometimes belies the hard realities. While I, in no way, hope to give excuses or discourage anyone from jumping in to being a hospitable Christian. I do hope to set out something of a roadmap for what is ahead of those taking up this charge. My goal will be to balance the joys with the disappointments, but there is a part of me that says you can go get any number of books about the joys, and I would kind of like to get down to the brass tax.
You Must Give Generously
If you are not generous then brace yourself, you will be. Food alone costs money, though it sometimes does literally grow on trees. In being hospitable you must be willing to give nearly everything. We give our, homes, food, furniture, linens, dish wear, time, emotions, and money. All things that God has first given to us. Francis Schaffer once told the story that after the first year of operating L’Abri all of the house-wears that had been wedding presents to he and Edith were destroyed by use. At one point someone had even set bedroom curtains on fire with a lit cigarette. Whenever a guest breaks something, I consider it my gift to them. This isn’t to say that I hope people will come and break my things. Part of stewarding what God has given me is taking care of those things. But I am not to hold them in too tight of a hand. In practical terms, if you are able, just buy two of everything the first time knowing that at some point that thing will get broken. And if this seems a steep price keep in mind the principal: Christ gave everything so that He could host you in His Father’s house… You can loose a few dishes or allow a throw pillow to be squished.
Don’t Overthink it
This one comes from my friend Lauren. She has been coming round my place since she was in high school. She met her husband at the weekly Reading Group I host. And we two disagree quite a bit on the nuances of what counts as overdoing it. But Lauren is a master at being hospitable on a budget. She knows the difference between what needs to be done to be welcoming, and what is just icing on the cake. She knows how to stay in budget. And frankly I have to credit her. If you are just starting out, or happen to have a passel of kids, high end hospitality for you may look like paper plates and napkins, full stop. I can remember growing up with a family with five kids and a tight budget, out in the middle of nowhere Mississippi; but they had my singe mom and us three kids over once a week for the day, lunch was always, ALWAYS, boiled hotdogs. And you know what? I loved it.
Put in an Effort
There is a time to stretch yourself. Laziness is a sin. Garrison Keillor* once told a story of being a young man who tried to cook a goose for Christmas dinner and have real candles on his tree. Only to burn the top of the still frozen goose and then inadvertently getting shards of glass in it, right before the entire tree burst into flame. And if anyone has overreached the first time in being hospitable then that story is not so funny. But there is something admirable in the aspiration. Good hospitality, like sanctification, should be progressive. Fine china may not be possible but aspire to dishes that match and are not disposed of at the end of the evening. Be prepared to invest, and do so with others in mind. Honoring guests by giving an evening or event that, “little extra oomph” communicates that they are valuable to you.
Think Long Term
Going with my previous point, while you have to start somewhere, as you learn and plan think ahead. As opportunities present themselves make a part of your decision making a filter of future hospitality. Invest in dishes and flatware that is durable and can be replaced easily and affordably. So guests are not afraid it will break if they hold it wrong. If you are looking to purchase a new piece of furniture consider it’s functionality and sturdiness, can it handle a lot of use from guests, perhaps white is not the best color because someone WILL be spilling food or drink on it. If a new home is being considered, think through things like sufficient parking, are there places for people to congregate? Perhaps delay purchases and save up for the more long lasting item than what IKEA just dropped the price on.
Nothing makes hospitality function like regularity. One of the frequent problems with hosting people on a consistent basis is the tyranny of the urgent. Everyone is busy, and finding a time to have someone over can sometimes take over a month when schedules sync. Rhythm is a solution. If you can create a time when it becomes known that, not only are your doors open, but there is a regular function it becomes something that people begin to rely on. Paraphrase the Post Office motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these hosts from the faithful opening of their doors.”
The Church has know this for years. We gather regularly on the Lord’s Day to worship. The Clapham Sect then added Sunday School. It is interesting to me to notice the long run that the institution of Sunday School has had, as well as it’s large numbers. And then to contrast that to the current small group in the home. These groups seem to flounder more often than not. They always seem a struggle. I wold suggest that part of the problem is the fit of starting and stopping, or constant moving of location. I think these things contribute to the maxed bag of results we are seeing. The most successful groups meet with regularity, typically because the host has prioritized it. Modern conveniences like Groupme or Facebook are handy for when emergencies arrive and the cancellation decision must be made. But I suspect it is also makes it easier to cancel for lesser reasons. For the last fifteen years I have hosted a reading group in my home on Sunday evenings. Cancellation is rarely an option because people will still show up regardless. I can even remember when I had left the state for my wedding, being called by two people who rarely showed up and were at my door wondering why no one was home. I have people who left because of moving, or life, and come back years later knowing that we would still be meeting.
Brace for Low Moments
Hospitality is not all fun and games. Even if you are hosting a game night. Sometimes things fall apart, you work hard to prepare and hardly any one shows up, or they don’t appreciate it. I have had people come to my house eat my food and then tell me how inferior it was, or that they had wanted something else. Guests have used my welcome as an opportunity to simply begin going through my cabinets and refrigerator. And we have even had to endure the guy who ruins a perfectly good gathering by bringing his guitar, and a banjo… People can be rude or selfish. If you stick with it for the long haul you will have different groups or, “generations” as I refer to them, some will be better than others. Or you will be tempted to compare your current generation to a previous one that you loved dearly. There will even be times when you will feel left out. Back when I was in my old apartment there were many nights when people would say their goodbyes and walk out the door, but while I was cleaning up after them I could see out the window into the courtyard that the whole group was standing in the quad talking and laughing. Those were lonely moments.
Mark the Important Moments
The Hebrews were commanded to build monuments to remind their children and their children’s children what God had done. And while I am not recommending setting up a pile of stone, one stone for everyone in attendance, every time something great happens; you should at least do something. Some people take pictures, figures in history would keep a diary, for my group on Sundays we keep a record book. We record the date, who was present, what was read and the author, we also include drawings or witty quotes from those in attendance or mark down important occasions. One of my little joys is when new attendees find the books from years ago and leaf through them.
For myself I will write out or memorize events that are personally special to me. Such as one night after a particularly good evening and most everyone had to leave at a reasonable hour. But my friends Carol and Julie didn’t want to leave yet, and since I had not been able to eat dinner before people arrived we boiled some Oscar Meyer weiners, warmed up a can of chili in a sauce pan, shredded a block of extra sharp cheddar cheese and piled it all on white bread slices. Since I didn’t have a proper table we spread out in the living room easting a very late, terrible, dinner. Julie perched on the steamer trunk, Carol, managing to curl up but also take the entire sofa, and I in my grandfathers chair. We ate, talked, and then Julie went off to get married and Carol moved to New York. It was a special night because since all three of us have grown and changed, and I haven’t had a moment with the three of us together like that since.
There are other special moments that still occur and I mark. Where the formalities of the evening are over and the group migrates outdoors for cigars and whiskey. On a cool evening around a campfire, clouds of smoke billowing, Hudson sneaking in to get a bottle he really wants, Aaron going on about some current issue he is all hopped up about, and his wife puffing on her pipe smiling wryly. Or when four people have ended up crammed into my hallway trying to figure out the math required for a heatsink on a Star Destroyer to make lasers functional in space. How they wound up in that space, why the stay, and where the topic arose from I will never know. But I loved being there for it. All of these moments may pale in the grand scheme of the universe, but they are personally important and spur me on to continue in season and out.
Offer Something Unique
This may require a little extra research on your part, but assess your friends, church, community and find what is lacking, then provide that. I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a small/community group, Bible study, men’s group, or women’s prayer circle. And I am not in any way besmirching those things. I do lead a Bible study, I am part of a community group, I love these things. But rather than go with the status quo look around and see if you aren’t capable of providing hospitality that reveals the Kingdom of God in an aspect that is not commonly seen. This could be anything from a dinner club, to a game night, to a work out group, baking class, book club, historical society… It doesn’t really matter just so long as you are leveraging the gifts that God has given to you to bless others. Frankly, the “purpose” is merely a cover to welcome others so you can love and serve them well.
The Irish comedian, Dara O’brain tells the story of preforming at Cambridge University and afterward a student came up to him and asked if he would like to attend a meeting of “The Cambridge Whiskey Association” Dara said, “Ooo that sounds fancy!” and the student said, “It isn’t”** as it turns out it was five guys who would all go in to purchase a bottle of mid range whiskey and then nerd out on comedy. That is the idea, find the thing you can do, and do it. Then use that to show Jesus to others.
I tell you a story: If you become hospitable for the long haul you will see some… stuff. Jesus came to give us not just life, but life more abundant. And as Mark Lowery*** pointed out that means life in overdrive. Hospitality will bring in drama, drama you want, and drama you don’t. I have stood in my yard sending people home because they were an ass-hat cage-stage Calvinist who was making girls cry because, as usual, this moron failed to understand the grace part of the Doctrines of Grace. I have stood with brides and grooms or attended weddings of members of our group. I have done discipleship and counseling in my library, front porch, back deck, kitchen, and back in the apartment my bedroom because the living room was full of people. I have had people crash on my sofa, rent my spare room, in one case deposit three Frenchmen who spoke no English onto an air mattress in my living room. Furniture has been broken, guns have been banned, banjo’s have been played (much to my dismay). Hospitality, brings into your home all kinds of people, but if Jesus can love them. So can you. You are called to be faithful, and your reward is in Heaven.
To the non believer this world is as close to Heaven as they will ever get. To the Christian, this world is as close to hell as we will ever get. We are called to make visible the invisible aspects of the Already/Not Yet Kingdom of God. One of the ways we do that is hospitality in out homes. But just as that Kingdom stretches into eternity, we are to, in a pale reflection, reveal that over time in our hospitality.
*Yes, I know, he has been cancelled. I don’t care.
** Since hearing this I have wanted to have a whiskey group, but scotch is expensive and as much as I love my friends, to a man, they are mooches. I can not foot that bill.
***Yes, I just dated myself.