The raw reality of authentic hospitality

There is a new push to reclaim Gospel hospitality and welcome people into our homes. From simple meals to small group discussions, inviting people into our lives (in any capacity) is integral to the identity of all Christians. The idea of opening our homes to others is as old as Christianity itself. We do, after all, take the living God and bring him into our bodies through the Eucharist.

I want to share my own experience of what it’s like to embrace hospitality, especially when the novelty has run out — when you’re not just getting to know the people who come into your home, but when they’ve seen the tail end of a spat with your husband or exactly what you look like when you lose your temper with your children. Because in all this excitement over wiping down the counters, turning on the stove and opening my doors for others, I personally didn’t foresee how messy it would be to let people into my life. I’m not talking about the literal mess of overflowing dishes and dirty floors, though that obviously happens. I’m talking about actually walking through life with people, because when we invite people to our homes, we’re inviting them to our lives, and we’re conveying that we want to be invited into theirs. And that isn’t an easy process, at least it hasn’t been for me. When we truly love the people around us, not for how they make us feel, but because of their identity as a child of God, we are forced to confront our own limits, our own selfishness and expectations.

I can personally attest to this tension, the desire to bring someone into my home, to make them feel safe and loved, only to fail in that very aim. There’s a weekly small group that has met in my janky basement for over two years. I have gotten to know, and felt deeply loved, by each of the women who attend. We don’t follow any formal study, so we often find ourselves looking for our next topic of discussion. On one occasion, a friend picked our next book before heading out of town only to find when she returned that we picked something else. My friend felt this slight deeply. Thankfully, she brought it up within our group and I had the chance to apologize, but I can’t imagine that hurt was easily erased. I think we can all empathize with her experience and the resulting fear that if we are vulnerable with others, they will hurt us. And I think we have that fear because it’s valid. We often hurt those we want to love the most.

Even in my small group, where I love these women like sisters, I still overlooked one. I overlooked her because I am not God and I will never be able to love her with the perfect love of the Father. And the closer I get with someone, the more likely it is that I’ll hurt them. If you don’t believe this, think of the deepest wounds you’ve felt in your life. Are they from the barista at your favorite coffee shop, or are they from people within your circle of trust?

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I don’t say this so you become scrupulous, constantly worrying about every interaction and how it might make others feel, but I do think we all need to be aware that hospitality can also be painful. Because learning how to love is painful. And so is waking up to the ways we hurt others. My example above is a way I hurt someone I love, in my own home, with a hospitality that is inherently imperfect. But that’s only part of it, because the other side of hospitality is the fear that I will be on the receiving end of that rejection.

Within my group of friends, I talk pretty candidly about my struggles with mental illness. I certainly don’t hide the fact that I experience depression, but I also don’t share all of myself. Some part of this is prudence, sure, but some part is also driven out of fear. I don’t share my emotional “mess.” I like to organize my illness into neat little piles before guests come because I don’t want to be too much. And worse, when people are trying to come in and help, I box them out. I’m afraid of being diminished or fixed or a burden. Maybe you’re thinking, “Whew, I’m not depressed, this doesn’t apply to me.” Pick your thing, because we all have a cross we’re dragging behind us, too tired to pick up and often too proud to even admit it’s there. Despite this fear of rejection, we all have a deep desire to be fully seen and loved. And here’s the thing: My friends can’t do that perfectly. They will fail, just like I did with my friend when she vulnerably shared her preference and I chose something else.

It is a painful process, accepting that others are not God, but it is also a joy to look at the other people in our life, not as an idol or something to be used, but truly as a gift. Hospitality isn’t a perfectly curated dinner party. On a fundamental level, it is opening your heart to someone else, all the while knowing neither of you will leave the encounter unscathed. It is choosing each time the door opens, each time you welcome in the other, to greet them as Christ. It is choosing to love and be loved, however imperfectly and painfully, on this side of heaven.

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