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Hospitality: What I Didn't Learn from Martha
By Eileen Gemmell

Scroll down to the bottom to watch the Sweet Home Video where Eileen shares her philosophy of hospitality.

If your house is like ours there are piles of brightly colored magazines like Martha Stewart's Living, Better Homes and Gardens, and This Old House.  They tell us how to make our homes more beautiful, food more delicious, and how to impress guests when they come over.  Some of my favorite TV shows are HGTV, Food Network, and Create.  I’m hooked on websites like AllRecipes.com  where people can share their good ideas about entertaining.  But when I step back, Martha and her cronies really haven't come close to addressing what really matters when it comes to having an open home.

I like to imagine what it would be like if Martha were to sit down with some of the Bible writers and debate with them what true hospitality is. In Jewish thought hospitality is  rooted in the concept of the Almighty who “loves the sojourner” (e.g., Deut 10:18), and in the story of the Israelites, to whom God said, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21).  

Not only is hospitality a fundamental expression of Jewish faith, it is also plays a part in the early Christian faith.[1]   Paul links the idea of “brotherly love” to “hospitality” in Romans 12:10-12. If hospitality is so central to Biblical faith why do we  struggle to express it today?

Perhaps fear constricts our ability to express brotherly love. Many people put “inviting people over” right up there with “public speaking” as one of their biggest fears.  And instead of calming our fears,  the piles of home improvement magazines, and trips to Home Depot only amplify them.  Maybe we should stop and look our fears in the face.
Top Five Fears

Fear #5: We fear what people will think
“Will they think I’m a slob?” “Will they notice that I didn’t have time to clean the bathroom?”  “Will they think I’m a bad cook?” “Will they think I’m too cheap, lazy, or plain?”

We’ve all had these thoughts—I know I have, but when I focus on this fear—it moves the spotlight to me instead of them.  I can't really get to know my guest, I can't relax and enjoy the visit, and I forget what my goal really is:  to love them into our family; to use our home to build God's kingdom. 

Last Thanksgiving we had a random mix of people over. After they left, it occurred to me that I hadn't cleaned our powder room.  For a minute I thought “Oh no—I wonder what they thought of me!”--then I chuckled as I remembered a poster I recently saw ”excuse our mess—we LIVE here”.  I hope they felt like they were in a normal home, with people who aren't perfect, and who sometimes just don't have time to get the toilets cleaned! 
Fear #4: We fear it will take a lot of work.  
Working full time, volunteering at church and in the community, exercising, and doing household chores leaves little time for all the work it takes to entertain.  Cleaning the house till it sparkles, cooking gourmet meals, and creating a fantastic centerpiece for the table all takes a whole lot of time.  But wait a minute, is that really what people expect, and what we should expect of ourselves? 

I find that people seem to have the best time at our house, when they're sharing in the work.   I love it when guests ask, “how can I help?” I ALWAYS find something for them to do, regardless of age or gender.  If they don't ask, I try to find some assignment for them, so they can participate in the experience, rather than just being an “observer”.  Sometimes I hand them a broom, give them a head of lettuce to chop, or have them set the table.  That's when they really invest themselves into the experience of being in our home.  I've had countless guests thank me for trusting them enough to let them help.  Food brings people together, and so does the preparation of food.When I open our home with this mindset, it offsets the fear that I need to do all the work all by myself.
Fear #3:  We fear it will take a lot of money. 
When grocery costs climb faster than paychecks, cupboards don't overflow with extra food.  How can we afford to have company over if we barely have enough food for our own family? 

I've discovered some creative ways to eat and share our home while on a tight budget.  I try to assign people part of meals such as  pasta Primavera, baked potato bar, crepes, sloppy joes, or hay stacks, which are all super inexpensive meals that people can get involved with.  Some can bring the veggies, some the salad or dessert, so no one is spending much money or doing a lot of work. Meat and alcohol are usually the most expensive part of a meal, and when that is avoided, the grocery bill is much more manageable and no one seems to mind.
I've found that God seems to do just what He did many years ago on that hillside with the loaves and fishes—He works it out that we always have enough food, and we've never gone into debt because of our grocery bill.   Sometimes, every serving dish is scraped clean, but everyone is fed.  Opening our home doesn't require wealth, it requires a willingness to be real with people.  Which brings me to the next fear.
Fear #2: We fear they'll find out something bad about us. 
Guests who come to our house are free to look at our books in our bookcase, our pictures, our kitchen cabinets, or our medicine cabinets.  If there are offensive items in these places, it could be embarrassing, or they could judge us. 

When we open our homes to people, we're making ourselves completely vulnerable to them.  I just expect that this will happen, and place books in our bookcases that I've really enjoyed and would love to lend out.  I put items in our powder room medicine closet that I suspect they may need:  bandaids, Tylenol, dental floss, a little bag of feminine products.  When we invite them in, we give them permission to know us, and we really don't have any secrets.  That's were intimacy starts. My biggest hope is that  they'll find Jesus here—and take Him with them. 
Fear #1: We fear they’ll never leave
What's really exciting is when they don't want to leave because they're having such a great time.  It's exhilarating to see a group of random people who've never met before, and find a common thread of commonality between them, and watch as they exchange contact information, promising to connect again. Or when they're working as a team on building an incredible salad—or try to figure out how to make crepes, or doing an “assembly line”--of moving wood up our 53 stairs from our forest floor.  They create or accomplish something amazing!  Together!   We like to think that in a way, they'll never leave—we have an “art wall”, and ask our guests to do something—a picture, good words, their name, something that will remind us of them!  Of course, since we treat our guests like family, when its bedtime we go to bed and invite them to stay as late as they want but to ask them to turn the lights out and lock the door when they leave.
Martha Stewart is truly an amazing woman.  She's resilient, creative, courageous, but she has yet to experience the joy of biblical hospitality.  I'm sure she's missed out on some of the blessings we've experienced: the gift of watching our family “grow”, of using our home as a hub of influence, or a place where our world can expand as we hear other life stories.  But the very best thing about opening our old imperfect home is to be able to have 'front-row' seats as people make decisions for God. 

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[1]a “fundamental outworking of love”  (J. T. Fitzgerald, “Hospitality,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000], 523).