Hospitality Is Not a Performance
by Jocelyn Green
drooled over loved flipping through Pottery Barn catalogs and magazines like Better Homes & Gardens. Everything looks so perfect, tidy, and artful. Before I had children, it even seemed attainable. It took hosting a Thanksgiving meal for me to realize I was striving for image, not hospitality.
It had started out simple enough. My friend Mindelynn and I decided to host the holiday feast from my apartment near Washington, D.C. for my brother Jason, and my boyfriend Rob. Then we added four more guests, and decided to really let our domestic talents shine. One problem—we had only been out of college a couple years, and living in the nation’s fast-paced capital left little time to develop those domestic talents we were sure we had. Somewhere.
To compensate, we started planning weeks in advance. During our lunch breaks we’d visit MarthaStewart.com looking for the perfect centerpiece, the proper table setting, ideas on creative place cards, etc.
By Monday, the invitations had been sent, the groceries had been purchased, the crystal was washed and ready to go. I had even bought my first ever tablecloth and linen napkins for the occasion.
On Tuesday, we learned of four additional guests: my boyfriend’s father, sister, niece and nephew who would drive up from Florida to meet me for the first time. I was convinced that their approval of me as suitable life partner for Rob would hinge solely upon my domestic performance.
Now planning for a party of 12 (including seven out-of-towners and two children), Mindelynn and I began to panic. “We only have service for eight!” we fretted. “The turkey is too small! We need another table, more chairs! More food! More time! What do kids eat? We have no toys! Should we buy a ball?”
Two days before Thanksgiving, I was void of all holiday spirit. What had begun as an adventure in hospitality seemed to take a turn toward an impossible standard and I was sure I was about to fail quite publicly.
Since there was nothing on the Martha Stewart website about flexibility and problem-solving, we turned to other hospitality experts—our moms—to get us through our daunting list of Not Enoughs: food, dishes, space, and most of all, experience.
After helping us remedy these shortages, our moms showed us a few other things we didn’t have enough of: prayer, grace, compassion, peace and love. We were so wrapped up in the details of preparation that we neglected to focus on the well-being of our guests. The comfort of the guest, we learned, is what hospitality is really all about; and that depends upon more than the table setting and the food (no offense, Martha). It depends on our personal interaction with them.
Rather than trying to impress guests, our moms taught us how to love them. Following Martha’s advice turned hospitality into a performance; but with the advice of our moms, hospitality became a ministry. Here are their top ten tips on caring for your company, the real heart of hospitality:
1) Pray for your guests before they arrive.
2) Create the seating arrangement according to what guests have in common with each other.
3) When your guests arrive, leave the kitchen preparations for 10-15 minutes while you welcome them. Let them help you in the kitchen if they want to, but if you are more comfortable working solo, tell them you’d rather they just relax.
4) Ask specific questions of the guests that are shy to help draw them out.
5) Bring up conversation topics that will include the majority of those present. Avoid topics that would stir up dissension among the group.
6) Enjoy yourself! If you are on edge, your guests will be, too.
7) Ask out-of-town guests if there are any amenities they need but left at home.
8) Use the comfortable environment you have created as a setting for sharing what God has done in your lives.
9) Encourage conversation even after the meal is finished. Move the group into the living room for more comfortable seating.
10) Send leftovers home with guests. They will feel cared for, and the food will serve as a reminder of the fellowship they had with you.
I doubt that anyone who attended our Thanksgiving Feast that year recalls the color of the napkins or the centerpiece we created with cranberries and floating candles. But I do know they will always remember the day one tiny apartment held the fellowship and laughter of 12 people hailing from North Dakota, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Virginia and Florida.
I’m no longer a 20-something with a career on Capitol Hill. I’m a 30-something homeschooling mom who would rather write books than fold the laundry, and I’ve had to seriously revise my definition of a presentable home. My instinct still leans toward the “put together” variety of hospitality, but my husband Rob reminds me it’s better to serve frozen pizza on paper plates with toys under the table than to not invite people into our home and lives until the house is clean (which is always “after the next book deadline”). He’s right.
In fact, tonight a family of five will be joining us for our first cookout of the season on our back patio. Last year’s leaves are still stuck in my garden, and the gaps in the flowerbed are screaming for annuals—or at least fresh mulch, for pity’s sake! But hospitality, truly, is not a performance, as Luke 10:38-42 so clearly illustrates. Our friends aren’t coming over to measure my housekeeping and yard work skills. They’re coming for the same reason we invited them—to enjoy each other’s company, no matter how much laundry (ahem, two baskets) awaits.
May our heart’s desire be not to simulate the pages of a magazine, but to listen to our guests, to share in their triumphs and struggles, even when the house is messy. After all, so is life.
Jocelyn Green is the award-winning author of nine fiction and nonfiction titles, including Widow of Gettysburg and Yankee in Atlanta. Visit her at www.jocelyngreen.com.
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