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What I Didn't Learn From Martha

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 was 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” (see Deuteronomy 10:18 ESV), 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” (Exodus 22:21 ESV).  

Not only is hospitality a fundamental expression of Jewish faith, it also plays a part in the early Christian faith. 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. 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. —Eileen Gemmell

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 goals really are:  to love them into our family and 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 our guests 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. When those are 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. This 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 guests in, we give them permission to know us, and we really don't have any secrets. That's where intimacy starts. My biggest hope is that  they'll find Jesus in our home — and take Him with them.  


Fear #1: We fear they’ll never leave.  

What's really exciting is when guests 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, find a 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 participate in 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 — that will remind us of them! Of course, since we treat our guests like family, when its bedtime to go to bed we invite them to stay as late as they want, but 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 and 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. —Eileen Gemmell 

Additional Thoughts

Some of the blessings we've found in having a "landing pad" for people are:

  • Our family has grown. We've met people from all around the world, embraced them into our home, given them priviledges and responsibilities. Some of the priviledges of being in our family are love, acceptance, food, warmth, fellowship, support and a listening ear. Responsibilties include setting the table, helping with food prep, and even clean-up.
  • There are opportunities for influence when people are in our home. We've held worship teams on a regular basis, which enhanced our ability to lead the group to cohesiveness in pursuing our tall order of planning weekly worship services. When “trouble-makers” are invited for a meal, cold hearts soften.  
  • There's a chance to inspire others.  One young physician who spent Sabbath with us was perplexed about how we “entertain.” I explained to him my wacky philosophy, which made a lot of sense to him. He recently approached me with a big smile and told me that he and his wife have decided they aren't gong to wait until their house is decorated, remodeled and perfectly clean — they're going to start bringing people home now! The smile on his face made it's way to my heart!
  • We had several couples over one Saturday night, and I asked them all to bring their favorite aprons. Well, of course, the men thought I meant the women (but I had predicted that and had picked up some $2.99 aprons on sale at IKEA). I put them on the men when they came in the door. They grumbled a little as I gave out assignments: The men were in charge of figuring out how to cook crepes. They had to do some YouTube research while the women found a recipe online and made the batter. While the men swirled the batter and flipped crepes, the women made sweet and savory fillings. When we sat down to eat, everyone raved about the food. You would think the group had never had decent food before! When they finally left, one of the gruffest men commented on how much fun he'd had!
  • Sometimes, guests get a chance to have a part in something big. We've watched guests support each other, pray for each other, participate in artwork for our home, shovel our elderly neighbors' driveway, and even split wood for our wood stove.
  • The importance of hospitality is demonstrated positively in the stories of Abraham (Genesis 18), Lot (Genesis 19), Rebekah (Genesis 24) and others.
Join the discussion on the Ministerial Spouses Association Facebook page after reading Eileen's articles.
  • What are your greatest fears about hosting people in your home?
  • What are your tips for success?


Eileen Gemmell

Eileen Gemmell lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. She enjoys her nursing career, her husband (Pastor Dave), their two adult sons, her New Hope Church family, and an ongoing host of strangers-turned-family.