We used to host people for dinner. On Thursdays, friends and family often shared our table. Then we invited a young lady to live with us for a year; she and her boyfriend became our standing guests. The girl married, moved, out and we had seats to fill.
Then my wife became anxious. Food triggered her stress. Mealtimes lost some meaning, morphing into a “just get through it” ordeal. We stopped issuing invitations. Liz’s gluten-intolerant-dairy-restrictive diet and my daughters’ selective palates did not help the situation. Most nights Liz would prepare three separate meals, and she didn’t want any of them. I consumed my share and more. We still had seats to fill.
And then we adopted a son from Ethiopia. In our training sessions we were encouraged to guard our home life, limit visitors, and slowly introduce our son to extended family and friends. At this advice my wife and daughters breathed a sigh of relief. Our home would be a refuge, not a thoroughfare. Sensi fills our empty seat and shares leftovers with me.
During the past few years--of boarding and waiting, anxiety and adjusting—our hospitality has taken a hit. I must confess: I miss the table fellowship—conversation with family, laughter with friends, and sharing with church family. I miss setting the table, arranging chairs, and creating a mood with music and candlelight. I miss watching the children excuse themselves to play with cousins or friends while the adults pick at food scraps and pour another splash of wine. I miss the stiff legs from sitting too long and strain on the belt from eating too much. I even miss the mountain of dishes left as physical evidence of an indulgent evening.
But there as seasons in life where some virtues are sidelined. In midlife crisis, our first responsibility is survival; hospitality can take second place. Empty-nesters can fill empty seats. Retirees can plan family reunions. Cousins can host Thanksgiving and Christmas. And we thirty-somethings can focus on survival. Hospitality may be interrupted for a few years. Or a decade. God can manage without our fancy plates for a time.
The allowance extends to any crisis, not just the strains of middle age. Families poised to move homes can interrupt hospitality for a time. Families facing serious illness or recovery can interrupt hospitality for a time. Families with newborns or aged parents or ornery teenagers can interrupt hospitality for a time. Bickering couples or grieving widows or lonesome singles with no cookware can interrupt hospitality for a time.
But no interruption should be permanent. God made the table to share, and Jesus modeled this with his body and bread (Matthew 26:26-29). Hospitality is an intimate act of kindness. Some followers of Jesus will have a special knack for it—those with cloth napkins and cheesecake—but God requires hospitality from all his children (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:13). For when we receive others into our homes, we open the door to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).
I look forward to some glorious Thursday, when the interruption ends, and Jesus dines with us again.
Hospitality by Eugene Peterson
Benedict taught us well: Receive
Each guest as Christ. The bell rings, the door
Opens. Some unexpected, and some, yes,
Unwelcome. Our guest book spills out photos.
Christ abused, Christ the fool,
Christ sullen, Christ laughing,
Christ angry, Christ envious,
Christ bewildered, Christ on crutches.
Like Gospel writers of old we pray
And reminisce over left-behind guest signs --
A bra, a sock, a scribbled thank you --
And let them grow into stories. Sometimes
It takes an unhurried while. Then,
There it is: absences become Presence. Resurrection.
(from Holy Luck [Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2013], pg. 46)