Hospitality. What connotation does this word have for you? It seems unlikely that a word meant to speak about how we welcome strangers into our midst would ever have a negative reputation, but I’ll be honest, I hear the word hospitality and I begin to cringe.
There were very few houseguests we ever catered to in my childhood. A couple of family gatherings, mostly my grandparents and on occasion some cousins, I was always excited to greet these family members, to see them again, to get hugs and in the case of my grandparents a present or two. But what I didn’t look forward to was the hospitality. The week leading up to these visits always saw my world turned upside-down. Every day another room was scrubbed, polished, waxed, dusted, straightened, in other words cleaned within an inch of its life! By the time company arrived the counter tops gleamed so that you could eat off them, the bathroom smelled heavily of bleach, and the thick carpet showcased the tire marks of the vacuum that was run, usually only minutes before the visitors pulled into the driveway. It sounds pretty, but I hated our house in this state. It was cold, devoid of personal belongings and life, it looked perfect and pristine and somehow it always felt like hospitality required you and your abode to wear a mask, to cover up blemishes, and pretend you were something you were not.
This is the way it has always been for as long as I can remember. Not only did my mother clean every inch of our home when my grandparents visited, but when we saw our grandparents I always noticed that their house too was spotless and perfect. This must be a family trait. To this day, when family comes to visit me, I often spend a day or two cleaning and re-cleaning my apartment to shiny perfect perfection that still leaves me sad. Anyone who has ever visited my apartment unannounced knows this is not how I normally live.
True confessions of a twenty-something single pastor: I hate cleaning. In its natural state, remotes usually lie on my couch in a scattered mess. There is a layer of dust under the TV because I don’t do the dusting nearly as often as I should. The counters frequently have dishes stacked aside either waiting to go into the dishwasher because I haven’t unloaded it in a week or only half did it. There is almost always a load of laundry sitting in the laundry room. The books on my coffee table are not stacked or aligned, and the bathrooms…honestly, if I can remember the last time I cleaned them, then it’s not time to clean them again.
I am not perfect. I am not orderly or pristine. And for this reason, the thought of guests is often scary. It often means my life is about to be scrutinized and disrupted as I fit my world with the mask my grandmother and Mom taught me to use. But alas, this is what I was always taught, hospitality is. Or is it…
Lauren Winner is a favorite author of mine. She is a fascinating woman. Born of a wayward Baptist mother and a Jewish father, she was raised in the Jewish faith but never truly considered Jewish because in that tradition the faith is handed down to the father. She converted to Orthodox Judaism during her freshmen year of college and not long after suddenly developed a deep interest in Christianity and she converted while she was working on her Master’s degree at University. She is a remarkable person. Author of two autobiographies, both of which I highly recommend, a lecturer, a writer, and now an ordained minister in the Episcopal Diocese in Virginia. Her books are well written and interesting and her experiences with religion give her an interesting view on many things in life. It is difficult to find a chapter in her books that does not marry her Christian faith to her Jewish upbringing.
One of her books, published in 2003 is called Mudhouse Sabbath. It is a look at various Spiritual Disciplines, how they compare from Judaism to Christianity, and how one can learn from another. Hospitality is given a chapter all its own and it is in this chapter that Lauren turned my thoughts on what hospitality is on its head.
When we think of hospitality we think of our surroundings. Of giving up bedrooms for visitors, making sure we have everyone’s drink preference, a seat for everyone at the table, and making sure that when guests need to use the bathroom they don’t need to have updated shots. In the Jewish tradition, the words for “hospitality” (which I’m not even going to try to pronounce because I’ll get it wrong) literally means “the inviting in of guests”. But it is a deeper invitation than just inviting them into your home. True hospitality is more than surroundings.
I loved when my grandparents visited and I loved going to their house to see them. It was always a yearly highlight for me and despite the house being made up as cold and perfect all my memories are warm and cheerful, but it wasn’t because of the house, it wasn’t the pristine countertops or the shiny silver. It was the warm hugs, the smile on my grandmother’s face when we finally arrived and she didn’t have to worry any more. It was my favorite cookies baked on the counter, the dish of our favorite candies that my grandfather would slip to my brother and I when we did something as simple as bring him a rag. It was the knowledge that we were never far from our grandparent’s mind. Hospitality, the inviting in of guests is not physical, it is not just about inviting someone into your clean home, but rather an emotional preparation. It is about making room in your heart and inviting someone to be part of your life. It is about us. Not our surroundings.
How hospitable are we? Truly, how welcoming are we here, at Winter Park Presbyterian Church? I don’t mean to put any current guests on the spot, but I’ve heard mixed reviews and it is something I’ve become genuinely curious about. In Mudhouse Sabbath Winner mentions that being a guest at another worship service is one of the most uncomfortable things in the world. You never really know when to stand or sit, who occupies a seat regularly, what tone of voice to sing or speak and the dreaded passing of the peace…it can be cringe worthy for her.
It's not enough to just be here. It’s not enough to sweep our floors and shine our collection plates and worship beside those we do not know. We must work to make space in our hearts and our minds for visitors, to welcome them as Jesus dreamt we would, to worship with them instead of beside them, to invite them not just into our pews, but our lives as well.
The communion table can be a place where that happens. A place where I hope all know they are welcomed, equals, a place where all are asked to share. We as part of PC(USA) practice open table which means all are welcome. We will not check that you are a member, or the last time you confessed your sins, if you prefer the traditional Amazing Grace or Grace Amazing by Trip Lee. Come, feast not beside us, but with us. You’ll probably find that we’re not perfect, our lives are not pristine, sometimes a prayer is read wrong, sometimes music starts too early to too late, occasionally a name is misspelled in the bulletin, sometimes the pastor forgets the words to communion after a youth trip, and sometimes the only thing that sparkles in this dusty old chapel is Carla Gehrig’s sweater at Christmastime, but I hope you’ll still come. And I hope we look warmly on the opportunities we are given throughout our lives to invite guests in, to make space in our lives. For it is not the open doors that matter in the end, but the open hearts that make all the difference in the world.