Having guests in our home is a habit. A very natural and very intentional habit. I grew up in a family of social people and “having company” was a way of life. My parents valued and protected time just for our family of five, but they also maintained a culture of hosting and inviting others in.
We lived a mile away from my high school, so wisely, my parents invested in a few things like a basketball hoop and a backyard Jacuzzi to give us reasons to hang out at my house. But I’m pretty sure the real reason we spent our Friday nights after the game at my house was because people liked being there. It was fun and safe and a place where my friends felt loved.
I remember one particular night, my friends all around downstairs, I ran upstairs to grab something from my room. I walked by my parents’ bedroom, their door wide open at 11PM to find both mom and dad in bed with their books. And also to find my two best friends sitting at the foot of the bed, just talking with my parents. It may seem simple (and maybe a bit unusual), but it was significant. Both of those friends would say today that time spent at my house made a difference in their lives, in all its imperfect and beautiful ways. I always said that I wanted to carry on that culture when I had a home and family of my own.
My husband and I began our marriage in a 2-bedroom condo with a tiny kitchen and a great backyard. We loved that little house with its ocean view out the kitchen window (if you looked really, really hard.) We hosted dinner parties and showers and out-of-towners. We started traditions of culinary weekends and staff gatherings for the ministries we were part of. Back in those early days we took really good care of our guests. The house was clean, the guest room was complete with flowers and the meals were special and always homemade.
We now have kids and a much smaller budget, but we still have guests. Some of them come for days (or weeks in my mother-in-law’s case) and instead of being entertained, they live life with us. They play with our kids, make their own coffee and help us throw birthday parties. Hopefully the guest bed is made and the bathroom got a Clorox wipe to the counter, but ultimately they are content with a bowl of ice cream and some good conversation. We still try out gourmet recipes and drink good wine, but the backdrop now is likely a pair of Lightning McQueen undies on the floor and a noise level that is enough to make you mess up the recipe over and over again. Still, we are in good company.
Webster’s dictionary defines hospitality as the “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests,” but author Henri Nouwen in his book Reaching Out goes even deeper. He describes hospitality as “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place.”
Creating that space requires us to shift our focus from making things pretty to letting people in. Caring more about the connections made than the “tablescape.” I’m all for good aesthetics- but delicious food, flowers by the bed and patio lights are not just for the sake of being pretty. I believe that beautiful settings can put people at ease and foster good conversation. Our focus on these special touches can be for the sake of removing obstacles and giving people a place to breathe in deeply.
Creating that space also requires some letting go. Letting go of the dirty dishes and the run-down furniture. Letting go of the need to impress and simply offering our space with no disclaimers. That part is hard for me. I want people to feel like they’ve stayed at a classy bed & breakfast (a non-flowery, non-musty one) but instead what I have to offer right now feels more like a zoo. But people still come.
I used to travel weekly to my camp job in the mountains that is 2 hours from my home. I would go up for a couple of days and work the rest of the week from home. Nearly every Tuesday night for five years, I slept in the guest room of a family that is dear to me. I tried to earn my keep by making dinner and cleaning the kitchen once in a while, but what they gave me was priceless. They offered a standing invitation and an open door to share my struggles and be myself. They may have felt like all they did was move the laundry off the guest bed each week, but what they really did was give me a second home.
If we welcome people into our homes they will eventually get to know the real us. When our world falls apart and we try and hide, these people will pursue us, clean our bathrooms and bring us dinner. We need these genuine relationships but the truth is, we compare and compete and we fear being fully known. Raw, unedited life happens in our homes and it’s hard to hide our reality when people are in our space. In a society that is growing more and more isolated, our self-protection has only yielded loneliness. Hospitality is for the guest and the host, it’s sharing life together and the benefit is mutual.
Last week, 9 horrific wildfires ravaged the area that I live in. More than 28,000 acres were burned and roughly 65 families lost their homes. Armed with only a car-full (or maybe just an arm-full) of earthly treasures, tens of thousands of people were evacuated over a period of four days and some are indefinitely displaced due to water and smoke damage. These people needed (and still need) refuge and the fortunate few whose neighborhoods happened to stay out of danger swung their doors open wide.
Nobody planned for it. No one made sure their houses were scrubbed clean before taking people in. No one had time or energy to impress each other with their perfect meals and flawless families. 100-degree temperatures, smoky skies and a bit of fear makes for irritable children (and parents). But people still opened their doors, banded together and acted like family. Those are golden threads I tell you, golden threads. Like Hershel taking in Rick’s crew on The Walking Dead – when times get tough, it’s best to stick together.
If you have great sunset views from your backyard, invite people to share it with you. If you need help, let people help you. For all of this world’s highs and lows, life itself is fuller when we live it in good company.