May 11, 2012

Everything Matters: Hospitality as a Cultural Act

Editor's Note: On Fridays we're hosting a series called Everything Matters, where guests share why their particular vocation or gift is a cultural act. Each installment serves as a response to the post, Creating a High Calling Culture.

Foundationally, rock-bottomly, one of the reasons Christianity calls so deeply to me is that everything matters. This includes hospitality. Eating together matters. When we ask people to join us in this deeply human ritual, it can be accompanied by blessing without regard to person, place, or wealth.

The first time I connected a meal with the power to cross cultural boundaries, to nourish, to restore wounded hearts and bodies, I was 22 years old, married with a three-month-old. Before that moment, I understood food was important, like when I cooked for my boyfriend, who later became my husband. Sure, I was bringing more than roast chicken and rosemary potatoes to the table, but I didn’t know it as a language that proclaimed “I love you.”

At that time we had just left a commune and were living in poverty in a tiny adobe apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We met a couple at church, very different from ourselves—they were young professionals; he was a nuclear engineer and his wife was an administrator for the school district—but we shared some interests, one being a desire to explore how, or if, our faith was relevant to ordinary, everyday matters, and what difference would it make if it were?

Impulsively, I invited them to dinner. I served an unsophisticated, simple menu: my mother’s potato salad recipe, fried burgers (we didn’t own a grill) drizzled with homemade bar-b-q sauce, home-baked bread, and a can of baked beans jazzed up with chopped onion and green chile. Dessert was a brownie mix. We ate at our rickety kitchen table and later sat in the living room on a hand-me-down couch and roadside-rescued chairs. My post-hippie decorating style was patchwork curtains made of samples, paisley fabric tacked to the walls and black fish net and glass balls hanging from the ceiling. As we talked, something magical happened; our hearts opened to one another and this couple stayed for hours.

Later, two things became apparent. First, they kept repeating how rare it was that no one had invited them into their home for a meal as we had done. No one had touched their hearts that way. That our conversation caused them to rethink many things. So our friendship grew, and it all began with a meal we shared.

Second. The first time they invited us to their home was for a party they’d planned for friends and neighbors. As we drove into their neighborhood I realized that in reaching out to them we had naively jumped about ten socioeconomic classes above ourselves. I remember approaching their front door on a path that led through a gate into an inner patio, past a beautifully landscaped southwestern desert garden with a fountain trickling, to a large oak door with a knocker.

As we waited for an answer, I had a wash of fright. If I had known that their decor was Persian wool rugs and teak furniture, would I ever presume to invite them to our home for canned baked beans and "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band"? That whole evening as we sat around drinking from crystal with me admitting no, I’ve never heard of Mahjong, I went over what did we want our lives to reflect when we invited people to eat with us?

I learned from that experience that the art of hospitality doesn’t belong only to professionals; it more truly belongs to amateurs and lovers who delight in God and who want to walk spiritually with others. If I wanted to participate in the process of healing and cultural redemption, that meant, above all things, that I could not, would not, practice hospitality for the sake of impressing. Os Guiness writes that “as we make our contribution along the line of our gifts and callings, and others do the same, there is both a fruitfulness and a rest in the outcome…and we can rest in doing what we can without pretending we are more than the little people we plainly are.”

I’ve never been against such things, but I didn’t need a Viking Range after all, and I didn’t need to know the meaning of frisée (curly endive) to serve the gift of comfort and a sense of the wonder for simple pleasures.

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The "Everything Matters" Collection

 

Image by Theresa Thompson. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Margie Haack. Margie is a writer and speaker who lives a life of hospitality with her husband, Denis, in a place called Toad Hall.

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