Who would have thought that from a deeply shaded house, quiet and reserved in the center of the neighborhood, would come a quiet girl to set the table for so many?
My childhood was wrapped comfortably around the dinner table, and dearest memories of deep conversation with Mom, Dad and Brother hold me grounded even today. My introverted family loved to be hospitable to each other where all thoughts, wonderings, jokes and ideas were lingered over in the settled peace of acceptance.
From this deep, delightful beginning God has taken me to tables far and wide. Before I learned to host, I learned to be a guest.
Never a partier, always a tea-lover, my early hospitality was to revel in a cup of tea and a smidge of chocolate – both rationed to measure out this simple delight into each day – with my friend and fellow teacher in our tiny, shared room at a village boarding school in post-Soviet Ukraine. During those years, we were hosted generously in remote villages of the Carpathians, in expatriates’ apartments, in Dutch dyke-bound homes, and Scottish far-flung islands. I had nothing to offer except gratitude and the occasional plate-washing.
I was not a “natural” guest, easy around conversation or knowing when to offer help and when to hold back. These were finer skills that I learned along the way as I observed. As a guest I felt the invader and my role was to receive then retreat. I was reticent to make any request. But my hosts believed I was of value, and they wanted to hear what I had to say, and they wanted to share their lives with me. Slowly I joined the delicate dance of guest and host, and realized the beauty of it. I am so grateful today for the patience, care and teaching I received during those years from my co-guest, Kristine, and my many hosts.
Have you ever thought of the fact that Jesus, the giver of all life, the great host of us all, who promises the joy of feasting with him at his table, came as a guest? He didn’t host people at dinner parties, instead he relied on the invitations of the hospitable and the curious. Everywhere he went he was a guest, thanking his hosts, even washing guests’ feet! He humbled himself to be a guest. It feels awkward to always be the one receiving from hosts, but he entered this awkwardness and even told his disciples to go be guests (Luke 10). The visitor, the guest, who comes in his name, has much to offer: the grace of gratitude, the peace of Jesus. If you are a guest this Thanksgiving or Christmas, carry this honor with you to your host, and bring your blessing.
Learning to be a grateful and graceful guest is great formation for being a gracious host. When I got married, I became a host. With my husband came a large family. I had started cultivating some years earlier an interest in cooking and now the family get-togethers were opportunities to gift people with food.
One of the essential lessons in hosting is to offer your best with your guests’ interests in mind. I practiced the first part, but it took a few years to add the second part! I like to experiment with food, but my husband’s family prefers their favorites. It is a family (semi-)joke that there is bound to be a vegetable hidden in my dishes somewhere. They have graciously tried many a dish out of love for me, but now I save (most) of my experimenting for other opportunities. Another essential lesson in hosting is to remember that this is a dance, a partnership, not a one-way street. Like my hosts across Europe taught me, we are welcoming the life and message of the guest into our lives. We are sharing and receiving, not just giving.
As I hosted more people and more groups I would get irritated when people would offer help or when things didn’t go according to plan. Slowly I began to realize that I expected to do all the giving, and it had to be perfect. Instead of insult, the guests’ offer to help was actually an expression of gratitude and grace, not judgment. As I accepted their help I also discovered that I could connect more with them. Some of my best conversations have been over dirty dishes!
This ties in to the third essential thing I learned in hosting: make space to spend time with your guests. Early on I made such elaborate things that I had no time to sit and talk. I felt like a servant or a caterer, not a host. (I was working as a caterer at this time and Jesus used this to show me the difference between the two.) I began to dislike hosting because it was all burden. And it was all my doing. So, I began to choose food that could be prepared ahead of time, or didn’t require a lot of steps so that I could spend more time visiting. As I did this, I enjoyed hosting more.
Jesus taught me over these years, like he was teaching Martha (in Luke 10) that the host’s offence is to focus on the giving and forget the guest. Jesus was Martha’s guest, thereby making her the host but she was forgetting her guest.
Jesus continues to enter our lives relying on our hospitality, our receptivity, our willingness to welcome him and listen. As you go about hosting your holidays, be sure to welcome and invite him into your gatherings.
Be encouraged in your own hosting and “guesting” that there is equal value in each, that there are spiritual truths embedded in these hospitality practices, and that whether you are hosting or guesting, you bring Jesus to the table this year. Welcome him and make room for him.