"Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place." -- Henri Nouwen
Tucked away in picturesque hills of Los Angeles in a home that is so quintessentially Southern California it makes your side ache, my very dear, very long-time friend Laura lives with her husband and two sweet children. In August of 2011, I escaped the scorching plains of Oklahoma and flew away west to visit her there, stopping for a night in her home before the two of us drove down to San Diego for a blogging conference.
Laura had planned to pick me up at the airport, but a last minute schedule shuffle meant that there was no way she would have been able to navigate LA traffic in time to meet me there, and so she sent a driver to pick me up along with her profuse apologies. I laughed away her "I'm so sorry!" with a little bit more glee than was appropriate. I had never been picked up for a driver for anything. I was delighted.
I'm sure I was quite the spectacle, making my way through LAX, absolutely beaming as I took in the waving palm trees and the lazy afternoon sun that merely warmed the skin instead of punishing it. Sure enough, in the baggage claim there stood a driver with my name on a sign - just like in the movies, y'all! And in his hand, an ice cold Diet Coke. Oh, that Laura. She knows every inch of the geography of my life, and so of course a Diet Coke to greet me. Of course.
Later that night, I settled into the guest room bedroom, a quiet oasis tucked away in a cozy corner of the house and thought about our evening together. Hanging out with her husband (who is charming and friendly and could make conversation with a houseplant, I'm just sure), playing with her daughter (this was before their son, Laura's mini-me, was born), and going out to dinner at one of Laura's favorite neighborhood spots.
As I lay in the dreamily cozy bed, I thought about how every detail of the visit, from the Diet Coke to the neatly folded bath linens in the guest bathroom, made me feel so absolutely, incredibly cared for, so thoughtfully and wonderfully known. And Laura and Jeff made the whole visit feel so utterly effortless, ensuring that my presence there was not a glitch in their plans but rather a welcome addition to their weekend routine. I slept so well that night, tucked in and held safe in the presence of true hospitality.
They have a gift, the two of them, and they share it generously, this understanding for the need for hospitality. Sometimes it seems like not a week goes by without Laura saying, "We have house guests this week." To family and friends and friends of friends, they open their front door time and time again to welcome those in need. Not the needy in the conventional use of the word, perhaps, but those who are suffering from a poverty of spirit. Which is, if you think about it, all of us from time to time.
We all get so used to being handled roughly by this world. Passive aggressive remarks on social media, rude customer service, difficult clients, difficult children, broken promises and hurt feelings. We go through life with our armor on, knowing that the big, wide world most likely will not treat us gently. It's so common to the human experience, so entirely expected that we don't even notice the slow leak of spirit created by all those puncture wounds.
It can be almost jarring, then, to be ushered into the presence of hospitality. We almost don't know what to do with ourselves when someone says "Hey, you. Let me help you take off that heavy armor. Let me make a little bit of a fuss over you. You're worth a making a fuss over." There is not a person alive who doesn't need to be extended an invitation like that.
But for those extending the gift of welcome, there is always a cost. To practice hospitality in all of its generous glory, there will always be sacrifice.
The sacrifice of resources - the actual cost of more people gathered around the table or snuggled under your roof or invited to go along on the long trip.
The sacrifice of pride - the opening the door when you really wished you had just fifteen more minutes to tidy up; the offer to stay the night when there isn't a proper guest room, just an air mattress on the floor covered with heirloom quilts; the invitation to dinner when the menu is more ground beef than prime rib.
The sacrifice of time - and this is the costliest of all, isn't it? The rearranging of schedule, the disruption of familiar routine, the priority of planning for someone else instead of yourself.
But it is this choosing of Other over Self that makes the offer of hospitality incredibly meaningful to those to whom it is offered. We all know that no matter how effortless the giver of the gift of welcome makes it appear, true hospitality always involves effort, and it is that thoughtful intention toward us that makes the experience so incredibly dear.
To offer hospitality, you don't have to be fancy. You don't have to go big or go all out. You simply have to be willing to make yourself available to greet someone at the door, to help them shrug off their heavy burdens if only for a little while so that they can sit down, fully free to be themselves, fully free to be fully seen, while you make just a little bit of a fuss over them.
In doing so, you offer to the fellow battle-scarred weary traveler a safe place to rest, if only for a little while. "Come in! Sit down! I've been waiting just for you."
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Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. -- Romans 12:11-16 The Message