Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book about the complexities and of course the rewards of being hospitable. The subject has always engaged me and I've had what seems like a lifelong courtship with it.
In my grandmother's kitchen I watched and learnt as she made what would now be considered gourmet meals (although she had no comprehension of what that meant) and she made them entirely from scratch, mostly out of a garden she dug, planted and harvested herself. The work ethic was so much part of her that self pity never stood a chance.
She lost her husband when she was 30 and raised 7 children by herself. Then there was my mother, always frail and mostly ailing. She weighed about fifty kilos on a good day, and yet many a weary traveller sighed as they sank ecstatically into one of our vacated beds (we never had a guest room). Those sheets were always sparkling and fresh and little did they know she had to heave them steaming out of a huge wood burning copper and ring them out with her own hands. Those are the shoulders I stand on, hard work and an ability to make people welcome and comfortable. Quite a legacy and definitely a challenge.
Then there are other reasons why I am captivated by this subject of hospitality and one is the possibility that dances around my consciousness and even my dreams when I think that the Bible tells me that if I entertain strangers, they might even be angels and I might not know it. I find that concept fascinating, especially as the correct description of an angel is 'A messenger from God'.
How intriguing and immensely appealing is that!?
Well, I wrote that book because I'm a contributor and I thought I understood the subject pretty well. That was then, this is now! So, twenty-five years on and after literally mountains of meals the size of Texas, dishes and laundry (whew) I realise, you probably don't need a book (although I'm doing a rewrite just in case!) because after all this, I am very sure of one thing: as John Lennon so aptly put it, 'All you need is love'.
Yes, this is the true and enduring factor of all real and successful hospitality; the reason for doing it and why it is so desperately necessary. Everything to do with this subject, and I could tell you quite a lot, is that there is a basic, never fail, recipe along with a set of ingredients that when kept fresh and simple will give results that will have everyone who tastes it wanting to know your secret and longing to come back for more.
Here's the recipe followed by the list of ingredients and what I know after doing this relentlessly for as long as I can remember is that people always respond to this formula and the food and decor are only a means to an end. The recipe is love, love of people, love of their joys and their celebrations, their sorrows and their heartbreaks. Love of their families and their friends love and our belief in their hopes and dreams. The ingredients, that make it all rise or fall are the caring, the sharing of ourselves of what we have and what we own. The fact that we did it for them, because they are important to us. Then there's the attitude and it's simply the going of the second mile. You see, often the first is easy, basically feed them and send them on their way. The second demands the laying down of our lives, listening when sometimes we wish someone would listen to us. Holding on with them when we might be longing for someone to just hold on to us. Caring when we ache to be cared for. Yes my friend, this is one major reward of true hospitality because here is where our very character is challenged and strengthened as we listen, learn and of course pray, because care should never, ever, be without prayer.
I'd like to explode some of the myths and mystique around hospitality. Stuff like ... 'I can't have them over until I get that new sofa' or 'I can't cook and have no spare time anyway'. Well to start with, as is my way, I'll quote from the owners manual, the Bible. Here is what is says: 'Practice hospitality without grudging'. That's in a letter the apostle Peter wrote to some churches in Asia and although it was ages ago, it's still stellar advice because there are many reasons why we are tempted to hold the odd grudge. You know what I mean? They never invite you back, they never send you a thank you and their toddler - cute little guy - breaks the vase that's a family heirloom and no, it can't be replaced but some sort of restitution would ease the pain a little.
Well, the Apostle says to practice hospitality, in other words, 'engage yourself in it'. Whether you have the new sofa or the spare time, there are no options in that quote. What does he mean then? Here's what I think he doesn't mean. You don't have to have a perfect house, ambiance is nice but you can get that in a public rose garden with take out coffee and a cookie and its still hospitality if it's offered with love. I don't think it means you have to have a husband or a wife either. What you really need is love. Enough love to maybe take someone to a cafe and buy them lunch (my only grudge is that there are some amateur baristas around town!) It's still hospitality though, because you've invited them, you've fed and watered them; you've showed that you care.
Above all though, we need enough love to listen and to understand, rather than be understood. Hospitality is a single noble act of love that says I care. I want to give to you, I want to be there to help, to grieve, to celebrate, I just care enough to give you my time. Single people please know that it's not marriage that makes hospitality ideal. If you don't have a suitable place, go to the park, the beach or take a meal no matter how simple to someone else's home as an act of caring. In the early church, the widows were only put on a list to receive donations if they were hospitable and the elders as part of their qualification for service were required to give hospitality. There are obvious reasons why this was the case if you think about it.
What is it then about this act? Why is it so important to give out of what we have and more importantly who we are? Every culture on earth gives credence to times of eating together and celebrating each other. Sadly the thing that prevents us from being hospitable is usually our attitude or less than perfect surroundings. The food and the decor are truly only a means to an end. Some of my best decor has come from the side of the road when there's a hard rubbish collection. It's amazing what a can of paint can do. Then there's the odd garage sale when their trash becomes my treasure. Don't get me wrong, after all, Martha Stewart is one of my mentors, and like her I love to make things beautiful and I love to find a way to make them taste good. But in the end, it's the caring and sharing of whatever we have that will bring hope and faith to a hurting heart or joy to a human being that deserves to celebrate. Yes, and we need to revel in the fun of the good times. Let's dance!
Hospitality: it's the daily preparation of our own hearts to be ready for whoever we receive in such a way that they know there is no where else on earth they would rather be in the moment, than with you their host and the one who finds pleasure in their company. I want to do a P.S. and it is to say this: make memories, take photos, send thank you notes, and acknowledge the care and love you have received. Never postpone joy, use every opportunity to celebrate.