Havens of Grace: Hospitality in a Busy World
This essay was originally published on The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture’s website in 2016. It was a talk prepared for an InSpero lunch in Birmingham, Alabama.
It’s my privilege to speak to you this morning about hospitality, a very large and wide-ranging topic that I’ve been learning about since my husband, Charlie, and I became followers of Jesus in 1982. We lived in Sacramento at the time, and one of the first beautiful things I encountered in our new life was the hospitality of the people in our first church. It wasn’t like anything I’d known before. Nothing fancy or formal—it was just a natural, open-hearted, sharing way of life where people took care of each other and welcomed strangers like us.
We were very wounded birds when we came into the church, and the love they showed our family as they invited us into their homes and shared their lives was like medicine. It was a new kind of community and it was life-giving.
Hospitality is one of the most beautifully counter-cultural practices we can live and learn. In a world that’s often exhausting, lonely, and isolating, where we can have a lot of Facebook friends and followers on Twitter, we still long for the intimacy of knowing and being known in our real, embodied lives. Hospitality is unexpected and surprising.
And that’s why I think it meant so much to us back then. We considered ourselves a part of the counter-culture of the 70s, but the Christians we met were truly counter-cultural. They weren’t just talking about love in general, they were practicing love in specific.
We weren’t used to a community of people behaving that way and it was instructive, inspiring, and healing. My friend Steve Garber says the best learning is done over the shoulder and through the heart, absorbing a way of life in person. As I joined with them, I learned how to care for people in practical ways during times of grief, illness, and celebration, and before long Chuck and I wanted to open our home, too.
It was a tiny beginning to a long vocation in hospitality. I wouldn’t have known to use that language back then, but in small ways that were organic to our life, we started responding to need and it felt natural. My musician husband was beginning to make records and tour in the U.S. and overseas, so when musicians from out of town came to rehearse with him, they slept on our couch and ate with breakfast with us. And because we lived close to the studio where he produced records, Chuck often brought co-workers home with him at dinner time.
When the church needed someone to host a Bible study, we offered our living room. We didn’t have much furniture back then, but we had a lot of shag carpeting for people to sit on, so we opened our home and never gave a second thought to the fact that everything we had was hand-me-down. We were simply grateful to be together with our children after some painful years of marriage, and thankful for the little house we rented with its patch of lawn and a friendly older woman named Happy living across the street.
As the years went on, and we moved from house to house, we were called to hospitality in ever-deepening ways. When we moved to Nashville in 1989, hospitality became central to everything we did.
About a year after moving, we bought a century-old country church and named it The Art House. The purchase came from a vision to have a place where artists and others could gather and work out the meaning of their vocations, where they could be in community and receive teaching and hospitality, and where creativity would be encouraged in all areas of human experience. We built Chuck’s studio on the property, and in the next few years moved our family into the church, making it our home.
As we began to renovate and respond to the place and to our callings as they developed, it became my work to welcome people most every day—to cook for them, prepare guests rooms, sit in long conversations, and to host larger gatherings from time to time featuring theologians, writers, teachers, actors, and musicians. Our work was artist-centric, but most of the gatherings were for anyone who wanted to explore what an artful, faithful life might mean for them.
When our children grew up and left home, and we had more rooms available, hospitality became even more intense. We literally hosted thousands of people over the years. In the doing of all this hospitality, I could see how much it mattered in people’s lives—from the smallest thing of sitting with someone over a cup of coffee to the things that were more involved. Simplicity and complexity—there was a time for each.
I also learned that hospitality was my strength and it was my weakness. It was a life rich in relationships and experiences that couldn’t be repeated in any other setting. I loved when someone came as a stranger and left as a friend. I loved imagining menus and creating in the kitchen. I loved sitting up late with houseguests talking and laughing around the table. And when people had hard things in their life, I loved the privilege of holding their stories in prayerful, sacred space. It was all a privilege, full of meaning and purpose.
At the same time, taking care of people all the time was hard, demanding, and exhausting. Sometimes I did it really well and sometimes I just wanted everyone to go away and leave me alone.
Along with the beautiful, rewarding side of hospitality, there’s a broader reality: loss of privacy, immature or thoughtless houseguests, and people who don’t think to give space to their hosts—if you’re an introvert that one hits hard.
Sheets and towels get ruined from make up and hair products. Some houseguests eat your food night after night and leave you with the dirty dishes every time. And hospitality happens in the midst of a life lived—in the midst of family emergencies, the demands of other work, fights with your spouse and troubles with your kids. These are real things. They’re not easy things. And over time, frustration and resentment can build.
We often had people in our home for weeks at a time without a break. When that happened and my negative thoughts and attitudes confronted me, I had to go back to the gospel again and again. I needed a right theology deeply planted in my mind and heart, reminding me that my standing is in grace and my acceptance comes through Christ alone, not through my performance.
Hospitality is a good life, but it’s not an easy life. If you do it enough it won’t look or feel like it came from the beautiful pages of a magazine. True, biblical hospitality is born of grace—grace for the giver and grace for the receiver. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 always bring me back to the essentials: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. . . . Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
There are times to invite people to our table, offering the gift of beauty, amazing food, and rich fellowship. Robert Farrar Capon, author of the unique and wonderful book The Supper of the Lamb, writes that we should have times where we allow our meal “its sovereign power to turn evenings into occasions, to lift eating beyond nourishment to conviviality, and to bring the race, for a few hours at least, to that happy state where men are wise and women beautiful, and even one’s children begin to look promising.” Thus, Capon continues, we might join with God and “delight . . . in the resident goodness of creation.”
There are other times when people come and we have dirty dishes overflowing the sink, unmade beds, toys all over the floor, and stacks of mail on the counters. That’s a gift too because it’s real life, and it means we can all relax and be human together.
But whether it’s a beautiful celebration or a more ordinary day of inviting another person into our full and messy lives for a chat, hospitality is work. It’s work to prepare the way and clean up after, and work to consciously turn away from other things to be truly present in the room, in the conversation.
The “ministry of presence” is a precious gift in our distracted world and increasingly hard to give for the very same reason. But if you’re on the receiving end, if it is your time of need, there is almost no better gift than being listened to, feeling heard, and not being alone.
All of this takes time and energy, it takes the hours and years of our life. When hospitality is an ever-present reality there’s a sobering need to think of how we might respond without losing ourselves in the process.
A little over a year ago, after 25 years of Art House life, my husband and I moved out of our beloved home and handed the work and planning over to Nathan and Cassie Tasker, a younger couple we love and trust very much. They are now the directors and hosts of Art House Nashville. One of the things we talk about frequently is how to have a life that’s filled with hospitality and its work, while living wisely in the midst of it. This is what I recommend to anyone with a similar vocation:
1. As you practice hospitality or caregiving of any kind, practice self-care. Don’t let your own needs get lost. Though it might seem like the antithesis of serving, put self-care at the top of your list instead of the bottom. “Self-care” can be an overused phrase, but at nearly 61 years of age, I finally, really get it. Being drained and depleted is not a good gift for anyone. If you’re called to a life of nurturing others, you need nurture, too. Be intentional about replenishing and filling your tank.
I’ve always looked for the small things that bring pleasure and care because those are do-able in daily life. Accessibility is important, especially if you have children or other time constraints. The big things like vacations are great, but they only come once a year, if they come at all.
For each of us, our list of the small things will be different. For me it means holding space to read, write in my journal, spend time with peer friends, and take walks or swim laps. A bubble bath with a novel and a glass of wine goes a long way, and so does gardening or listening to music I love when I’m cooking. I don’t remember to do it very often, but a classic self-care practice like getting a massage is amazing!
Sometimes a small tweak towards nurture can make a hospitality commitment better. One of the lovely things I’ve done in my work over the years is meet with younger people in mentoring friendships. When I really click with someone it’s one of the most satisfying things I get to do. I love the conversations that range over the whole of life and count it a privilege to be invited into their worlds. But every now and then I’ve taken up with someone so much younger than me that the age gap made it more difficult.
A few years ago I was scheduled to meet with a young college student. At the same time we had some painful things going on in our family. On the day we were supposed to meet, I had needs. I needed to talk to a friend with adult children and grandchildren more than I needed to talk to a college freshman. I wanted the ear of someone who could relate to my life. However, it had been difficult to arrive at a meeting date that worked for both of us so I didn’t want to cancel on my young friend.
With the idea of changing what I could, I asked her to meet me at Cheekwood, Nashville’s botanical gardens. As it turned out, being outdoors on a perfect fall day, walking and talking on the garden pathways was just what the doctor ordered for both of us. We shared important conversation and came away refreshed.
2. The second category to think about with sustainability in mind is “boundaries”—another overused word, but it works! There are so many times when you can’t control the circumstances. You can’t control how other people in your family schedule their lives and how that affects you. You can’t control the family or friend emergencies. And you don’t really know what shape you’ll be in when the time comes to welcome someone.
Many years ago I was getting ready to host a small group of women whom I didn’t know for the weekend. I shared a mutual friend with one of them and we’d met briefly, but the rest were total strangers.
As I prepared food and beds in anticipation of their arrival, I felt drained from an already long week, but they were on their way and there was no turning back.
Out of a very honest place, I prayed: “Lord, I can’t welcome them in my own strength. I don’t have any. Please give me your strength and help me welcome them as Christ. Bless the relationships about to be born.”
That weekend turned out to be an important beginning to my long relationship with them. God blessed our time, we became friends, and the women came back in different configurations for the next several years before they all scattered to different areas of the country. To this day they are all very dear to me. That weekend I learned one more lesson about the mutual gift of hospitality—entering in as strangers and parting as friends. You never know the good surprises that might be waiting when you open the door, even when you’re not the best version of yourself starting out!
The unknowns of hospitality notwithstanding, when you can schedule things carefully in advance, do it inside boundaries that keep your health, friendships, marriage, and family life intact. And hold space for the other aspects of who you are. Don’t lose yourself.
I so often pushed my calling as a writer to the side because the needs of hospitality were more immediate—people’s need for food and shelter spoke louder than the unfinished page. I did get writing done, but I had an interruptible life, so there were a lot of long pauses in the work. Even months-at-a-time pauses.
I always held those two things in tension—the calling to hospitality, which is so much about immersing with people, and the calling to write, which needs the opposite—time alone to work and focus. I never did strike a perfect balance, and I don’t know that I could have. But if I had to do it over again, I would set more boundaries on the front end. Intentionally protecting the other parts of who we are is crucial.
One important key to a life of hospitality is to take care of your needs if you’re an introvert. I am an introvert who’s very relational. I love deeply connecting with people. But after awhile I hit a wall and need time by myself to recover.
When Chuck and I both began to feel the limitations of our introvert natures we were more careful to schedule time with no one else in the house. We needed to just be us, together. Part of growing into a healthier version of ourselves was learning to say “no” more often.
3. Practice hospitality with a Sabbath mindset. One of my husband’s students told me recently she’d been practicing the Sabbath and it changed the way she was experiencing university life. She didn’t feel overwhelmed in the way that she had before. I love the way she described the idea of Sabbath: “Sabbath is counter-intuitive. It’s a trust-fall.” Taking one day out of seven to cease our worry and our work is indeed a trust-fall, but it’s essential.
Every worker needs rest and play. We need to let down our hair, take a nap, do something fun, read quietly. As hospitality providers, we’re often welcoming strangers, but we also need to be with people we already know—with our friends and our families. We need time alone with God and with ourselves.
But people who do caregiving work of any kind tend to keep doing it all the time and people let them do it all the time. This is not an easy one to figure out in situations where the needs just don’t stop—when there are children or elderly parents to care for, when a spouse travels a lot and you’re left alone to care for everyone.
But it is worthwhile to try, to pray for creative solutions and ask for help. If we don’t pay attention to the needs of our bodies, minds, and spirits over a long period of time, we will become mentally and physically exhausted. It’s just a fact.
Doing self-care, establishing boundaries, asking for God’s strength in our weakness, and practicing Sabbath are anchors, truths to return to when things get out of whack, when we need realignment and wisdom for the road ahead.
4. Finally, it’s good to know that hospitality changes with the seasons of life. You can’t always do things in the same way. And that’s freeing, something I’m learning to embrace.
A month after we moved last year, when I was still unpacking boxes but we were functional, I had the urge to invite two of my long-time women friends for dinner. It was late summer so I bought fresh vegetables from a farm stand down the street and a tiny lemon cake from Whole Foods. I roasted salmon and okra in separate pans, layered fresh mozzarella and ribbons of basil on sliced heirloom tomatoes, and steamed crookneck and zucchini squash, grating Parmesan over the top when they were cooked.
We ate on the porch of my little courtyard garden, sipping wine and talking for hours. In our previous setting, I’d longed for time around the table with old and dear friends, but it was hard to find. After cooking for recording sessions and houseguests, I rarely had the energy left over to invite anyone else. Making dinner for my friends that night was a gift for me, the blessing of their company a sign of good things to come.
As we’ve settled into our lives in a more urban setting, the change in location has opened the way to a simpler kind of community, one that is easily within our reach. I still cook, but we also meet friends in restaurants or have food delivered to our house. I meet people for walks and in coffee shops. I’m writing a new book, spending focused hours at my desk, and my husband now has a leadership position at a university. Our hours are long, and having options helps us be with people, old friends and new. It’s a hospitality of time shared without a lot of fuss.
In my new neighborhood, we’re enjoying the comfort of easy, back and forth hospitality with our next-door neighbors. Once a week or so, one of us will send a text, “Can we get together for a sip?” We’ll go to their house or they’ll come to ours, sometimes our other neighbors join us, and we’ll sit on the porch with something to drink and catch up, most likely with our slippers on and comfy clothes. We might share crackers and cheese or popcorn for dinner. It’s always casual and usually spur-of-the-moment. While life in our other house was weighted with people coming to us, this mutual hospitality is lovely for us all.
With hospitality as with life, seasons change and you adjust. Hospitality is big enough to extend across a lifetime, and small enough to elevate a simple cup of tea and conversation into something important. The needs we come across, including our own, will guide us. Whether sharing a meal, an afternoon, or a bed for the night, there’s a time for everything. A time to offer and a time to rest, a time for family and a time for strangers, a time to refresh others and a time to be refreshed.