If “hospitality” was an inkblot in a Rorschach test, my first thoughts would be: Southern, superficial, stilted, and fake. I instinctively think of Southern ladies sitting on their porches, sipping sweet tea and gossiping about everyone in the neighborhood. I think of Hilly Holbrook, Elizabeth Leefolt, and Skeeter from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help playing a game of bridge. I think of Emily Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, entertaining guests with her perfect manners and polite dinner conversation.
Before I went to college that was all I knew of hospitality. To me, its denotation was being a perfect hostess, setting an extravagant table, and striving to impress all of the guests. And its connotation was very negative. Then I went to college and learned how wrong I was.
In my mind, hospitality had been stuffed into a little box marked “entertaining.” I could (and somewhat do) blame Pinterest for this. The thousands of ideas floating around on Pinterest shout that they are “simple” and “DIY,” but they are debilitating. To think that mason jar tablescapes and creatively themed cookies are a necessity for every occasion is enough to make anyone stop before she starts. Pinterest demands perfection – it has pictures to prove that perfection is possible – and I am just the one falling short.
Equating hospitality to entertaining sets an impossible standard and cheapens something of great value.
If that was hospitality, I wanted no part in it. The reason behind my faulty thinking was that I had never seen hospitality lived out. Of course I was confused—because I had yet to encounter the real thing. I spent a lot of time by myself during my high school years. If “high school” was an inkblot in a Rorschach test, my first thoughts would be: loneliness, depression, and isolation. I was living with a single mom, growing apart from my middle school friends, and dealing with too much insecurity to reach out to anyone. There were very few chances for me to see hospitality from where I was sitting.
Then I started college and moved onto a hall of freshman girls. It seemed like opportunities for connection and community were everywhere. In my University 101 class, we were put into small groups and assigned an upperclassmen to lead us. My small group was led by a senior named Whitney who was part of the Residence Life staff and lived on our hall with us. Wet met each week—Addie, Rachel, Alicia, and I—in Whitney’s room, praying and digging into God’s word as we got to know each other better. It was from these girls that I learned hospitality.
I learned by example. As we spent time together, I watched Whitney, Addie, Rachel, and Alicia. From Whitney, I learned that hospitality is sharing, and sharing many different kinds of things. From Addie, I learned that hospitality is about having an open door. From Rachel, hospitality is not planned and it can happen anywhere. From Alicia, hospitality is about showing love and embracing one another.
I also learned by accepting hospitality and by practicing it. Whitney made us tea during small group; Addie’s room door was always open and we were welcome to sit and study on her couch; Rachel liked to come into my room and lounge on my roommate’s bean bag; Alicia was full of hugs and Costa Rican kisses on the cheek; Whitney wrote encouraging notes for us and left them outside our doors with a piece of chocolate. We walked to meals together, laughed together, studied together, and lived life together.
These girls were like none I had met before. It was hard for me to put my finger on what it was, but it had to do with their openness. There was no competition, no comparisons, no desire to one up each other. They were inclusive and caring, and that attitude was not limited to the people closest to them. Unlike girls I had known before—myself often included—who insecurely needed to look out for themselves before they could look out for others, my new friends had eyes that looked first to the people around them.
I did not seamlessly adopt hospitality. I avoided it, stumbled over it, and awkwardly embraced it. I wanted to invite people in, but first I had to learn how, and that took both time and a process of trial and error. I was hesitant to receive and felt awkward giving, but like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, I started to get the hang of hospitality. It did not look the same on me as it did on Addie, nor did Rachel’s hospitality look quite like Whitney’s, but that was part of its beauty. Hospitality is not one simple task or attitude that can be squeezed into a small box; it is lived out by people and thus, it is diverse and unexpected—sometimes difficult, other times joyous, rarely neat, and necessarily full of grace.
Hospitality is about sharing: sharing food, stories, laughter, and parts of ourselves. This takes place in day to day life. Hospitality does not need to be planned weeks in advance, but that does not mean it is not intentional. I have to choose to be available and open up my door, sometimes setting aside fear, tiredness, or selfishness to do so.
Hospitality is grounded in Christ’s love for each of us. Living a life of hospitality involves sacrificing time, sharing our possessions, listening without wanting to jump in with our own words, and sticking with people even when it is difficult. It is grounded in love, generosity, and, yes, patience. We love because God first loved us, and this spills over into all of our relationships.
As God’s love spills out of our hearts and to the people around us, hospitality becomes coupled with pointing one another toward Christ. If hospitality is about sharing, what better thing is there to share than the good news of Christ? We constantly need to be reminded of this good news because we forget about it so quickly, and forgetting is detrimental because God’s truth is our life source.
Hospitality involves “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and [spiritual songs]” (Ephesians 5:18, NIV). As our small group studied Ephesians together, I remember Whitney pondering the question: what would it look like for us to do that? And as we share the details of our weeks, tell about what God has been teaching us, and pray over one another, I think we become a living answer to her question. We are drawn closer together as we push each other toward Christ. On Fridays, after a long week of classes and obligations, hospitality leads to iron sharpening iron.
Before I went to college, I did not realize that the Bible ever mentioned hospitality, but it does. Paul tells the believers at the church of Rome to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need [and practice] hospitality” (Romans 12:13, NIV). My favorite way that Paul expresses the heart of hospitality without ever using the word is in his letter to the believers at Thessalonica when he tells them: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, NIV). Paul wanted to share his very life with his fellow believers and dear friends.
I think Paul would agree that hospitality is so much more than throwing a party or serving a delicious meal. It is even more than being a good hostess and inviting people into our homes. It is about inviting people into our lives. It is not planned and marked weeks in advance on a calendar; it is a rhythm of living day in and day out together. It is not polished or perfect all of the time because we certainly are not. It is real, and it is good.
Now, three semesters after our University 101 requirement was met, our group has shifted and changed. First, it shrank as friends left Columbia, and then it expanded to include new friends, but we still meet at the end of every week as a small group and live life together each day in between.