Last night there were twenty people in my average-sized house. It was a festive occasion — my daughter-in-love’s birthday — so we gathered the in-laws and the out-laws for giant subs, iced tea, and birthday cake. As usual, once the crowd arrived, I was elated that we had made the effort to host the gathering, but all day long my stomach had been in a knot, and the length of the do-list had far outpaced the number of triumphant check marks. Practicing the spiritual discipline of hospitality is both a risk and a joy, but I want to keep saying “yes” to God in this area, because when I open my home to others, my heart expands too.
Food preparation and clean-up run like a perpetual conveyor belt through my kitchen and through my life. Yesterday, feeling overwhelmed as I gathered chairs from the far corners of the house and rearranged the dining room for a buffet, I fretted, “Why do I take on these assignments? My house is never as clean as it should be! I don’t have time for fancy menus . . .” Feeling and sounding a lot like Martha of Bethany (Lazarus and Mary’s overwhelmed sister), I realized that I was overlooking a far better role model in the Old Testament. We don’t usually consult Nehemiah for lessons in hospitality — he’s the guy we look to when it’s time to expand the church’s facility or to take on a project that requires delegation and team work. However, in Nehemiah 5, he confides to his journal that throughout the course of his twelve year term as governor, he regularly hosted “one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers, besides those who came to [him] from the nations around [him].” Nehemiah’s table was a metaphor for Nehemiah’s heart. His fear of God (5:15) spilled over into a love for God’s people. He made room for them at his table; he expanded the boundaries of his life to welcome them into his schedule.
Elisabeth Elliot, author and missionary, attributes her own vision for seeking the kingdom of God to her mother’s hospitable home. She and her siblings were privileged to “meet Christian men and women from all walks of life, to hear firsthand their stories of the faithfulness of God, and to enjoy the privilege of asking them questions.” In The Shaping of a Christian Home, she recalls Depression-era frugality alongside open-handed hospitality, and “if things were not perfect, [Mother] trusted friends to understand without making a fuss for the sake of her pride.” Herein lies the challenge: if my home cannot be “Pinterest perfect,” am I willing to open my doors anyway? As usual, the real discipline shows up in motives and attitudes. I Peter 4:9 sifts mine:
“Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.”
Strictly speaking, my birthday bash for twenty did not meet the definition for “hospitality,” because the Greek philonexia means, literally, to entertain strangers. The guest list for Nehemiah’s table was much broader than mine, and his provision for the needy remnant in Jerusalem is the same brand of faith-expressed-in-works that I recall from The Hiding Place in which Corrie ten Boom, faced with the plight of God’s people under the Nazi regime in Holland, prayed, “I offer myself for your people — any way, any time, any place.”
Hospitality is a spiritual discipline in which I trust God for the ability to pour myself out for the comfort and the needs of others. Paul’s letter to the Philippians encourages me that the sacrifice of love, offered freely, is a lovely fragrance that pleases the heart of God, (Philippians 4:18) — even more than the scented candles that I forgot to light last night in all the flurry of preparation. True hospitality is more than food. It is more than space and table settings and the perfect menu. The spiritual discipline of hospitality is the practice of making room in my schedule, in my home, in my budget, and — most challenging of all — in my heart for the people that God chooses to bring into my life.