The portrait hung in the fireside chapel of our quaint country church. I studied it in detail many a Sunday morning—when I should have been listening to the lesson at hand! It was a famous print of Jesus laughing. Yes, laughing! Our Savior’s countenance did not carry a serious, somber look. Instead it sported an all-out, can-hardly-hold-it-in, belly-laughing grin. I simply loved that painting. It comforted me as a young woman to know that even with the grave importance of his mission on earth, occasionally Jesus laughed.
I believe he still does. In fact, I’m sure he is snickering right now as you pick up this book. Why? Well, if you had polled my graduating class of 1982 in the quaint Midwestern town of Grand Ledge, Michigan, and asked them, “Who from our class would be the least likely to ever write a book on hospitality?” I would have won hands down.
It’s not that I grew up in a home with a mother who didn’t know how to cook. On the contrary, my mother was (and still is) an excellent cook. As a child she first acquired her culinary skills by helping out in the diner her parents owned in southern Indiana. A few years later she worked in a German restaurant, and then, when married, she helped my father in his career as a caterer, coming up with many of the recipes he was well known for. But by the time I reached junior high school, she found herself the single mother of two children. To support our family she took on a career in food service. However, with all the responsibilities of running a home, working full time, and raising two teenagers, she didn’t have time to give her own daughter many extensive cooking lessons. When I graduated from high school, my culinary repertoire included boiling water, making instant coffee, and my specialty—an occasional batch of tasty “slice and bake” cookies.
With my mom as the only breadwinner, we were forced to live on a budget so tight it squeaked. We were able to remain living in the home my parents had built ten years earlier, although we weren’t able to afford fancy new furnishings to decorate the house. My brother and I busied ourselves with after-school activities, part-time jobs, and homework. None of us was home very much. My mom worked full time, including many late evenings. All of this added up to the fact that we didn’t often invite others into our home. During all my school-age years, I never had a slumber party, had a friend spend the night, or even had a girlfriend ride the bus home with me after school to visit for a few hours. I have no recollection of anyone ever coming to our house for dinner, and the only overnight guests we ever entertained were the relatives who came once a year from Milwaukee.
I knew my mother felt terrible about all of this as her “white picket fence” dreams gave way to the harsh reality of life as a single parent. And I felt bad too. I remember so desperately wanting to learn to cook and decorate and have others over. I would sometimes cut out pictures of beautiful homes from the pages of decorating magazines and secretly stash them in a folder for future reference when I had a home of my own someday.
Realizing that my mom was doing her best to keep the home running, hot food on the table, and some degree of normalcy in our home, I decided I would do something nice for her. So I turned where I often have in my life—to books. I specifically remember one day in early high school getting out the 1960 edition of the big, red Betty Crocker cookbook with Betty’s portrait on the cover. (You do realize that she isn’t an actual person, don’t you? She is just an artist’s conceptual drawing whose hairdo they update every few years. Just checking!) That afternoon Betty and I were going to make a banana cream pie to surprise my mom when she returned home from a hard day’s work.
Now, I was intelligent enough. I was getting almost straight A’s in my ninth-grade year of high school, knowing I had to win a scholarship if I wanted to go to college. But the only class I wasn’t pulling an A in was (you guessed it) home ec. Our teacher decided we would make what I call an “anybody can sew pattern”—the kind that’s supposed to be extremely easy and take no more than two hours. The project took me the better part of three weeks, and I still wasn’t finished. As a result, that was the only class I ever received a B in, and it kept me from graduating as class valedictorian. (Mrs. Christman, I forgive you.)
As I sat at the dining room table that rainy Saturday afternoon, staring at Betty’s mug on the front of my mom’s cookbook, I knew this was different. This wasn’t sewing. It was baking, and I could handle it. All I needed to do was to follow the full-color, step-by-step instructions for a banana cream pie.
Follow them I did, to a T. Only Miss Crocker had neglected to tell me how ripe the bananas should be. I was sure I remembered my mother mentioning something about the bananas needing to be really black and mushy in order to make a great banana cream pie. Or was that banana bread? Well, I thought it was pie. So I peeled and sliced three of the blackest Chiquitas I could find and then meticulously followed Miss Crocker’s directions.
Can you envision what this creation looked like when I was through?
Still, I left it out on the table for my mom to see when she arrived home after her shift at work. Taking a seat in the living room, I awaited her squeal of thankful delight as she saw my labor of love, a heartfelt gesture done out of honest appreciation. I beamed at the thought.
Had my mother known the emotional damage she would cause me to this day by her reaction, I’m sure she would have responded differently. For instead of sweetly encouraging my homemaking efforts, she burst out in laughter and ran to the hall closet, snatching up the Polaroid camera to take a picture to preserve for all eternity. I’ve often told her that one of these days she’ll be sorry when she turns on the television and hears, “Homemakers who were laughed at as children and the mothers who ruined them . . . coming up next on Oprah.”
Now, my little pie fiasco took place during my freshman year, so for the remainder of my four years of high school, I hit the books hard. I followed the easy college prep course of study and stayed away from those killer home ec courses. (In my opinion, schools should rethink the figuring of grade point averages. A student who can pull a four point in cooking, sewing, and early childhood education beats one who breezes through chemistry, trigonometry, and honors English hands down!) At the end of my four years, I had won enough scholarships to attend a Christian college. Once there, I pursued my goal of obtaining a dual degree. I wanted to get my B.A. in social science with a minor in speech. But more importantly (and the real reason I was there), I wanted to secure my MRS. degree, which I promptly did three weeks after graduation.
At that point in my life I saw further proof that God has a sense of humor. You see, the man I met and fell in love with was probably the worst one on campus to marry a domestically challenged gal, for here is the female makeup of his family:
His mother, like mine, is a fabulous cook. She sewed costumes for each of her five children when they were growing up and hand knit them sweaters, socks, and beautifully intricate Christmas stockings. She has a home tastefully decorated with antiques, and she regularly offers heartfelt hospitality to others.
He has three sisters. The first one lives in a charming 150-year-old farmhouse just outside of Washington, DC. The second sister lives in a stunning home in the wooded countryside and offers catering to area businesses in addition to working in the interior decorating field. The third sister founded a bed-and-breakfast near West Palm Beach, Florida, which she and her husband completely restored. Oh, and she’s a marketing, decorating, and -culinary dynamo.
Imagine the scene as I proudly showed up to my first Ehman Thanksgiving with my “bake and take” Sara Lee pie from the frozen foods section. In the early days I relied a lot on my two best friends—Sara Lee and Mrs. Smith—and I always volunteered to bring the pie. Thinking myself quite clever, I also brought a container of Cool Whip.
I now know this is a mortal sin in Ehman eyes. The Ehmans don’t use Cool Whip. They’ve never used Cool Whip. They would never use Cool Whip. They buy fresh cream from the creamery and whip it themselves.
Thankfully, they are gracious, loving, forgiving people and were very long-suffering with me when I married into their family twenty years ago and took on their last name, which could have been the demise of all their hard-earned reputations.
But I hate to admit to you that I did not want to be outdone by these ladies. I wanted to show them that I could be artsy-smartsy too.
Again, I turned to books. I trekked off to the library in our little town of Three Rivers, Michigan. I checked out every book that had the word “entertaining” in the title. I read The Joy of Cooking from cover to cover. But I stayed away from Betty Crocker because I had already been burned by Betty once. I learned to make fancy hors d’oeuvres and to bake a double-crust pie from scratch, and I even once, but only once, sewed my own kitchen valances.
I was determined that our tiny apartment would look like one of the homes featured in the pages of Country Living magazine—perfectly decorated with exquisite furniture and coordinating decorator fabrics. There would be loaves of homemade whole wheat bread nestled in antique baskets alongside sparkling jars of jams and jellies and beautiful berry pies cooling on the counter. There was only one problem. We were living on my husband’s youth pastor salary and obviously weren’t in the same income bracket as the dear folks featured in the pages of Country Living magazine. And I noticed something about those pages: there were never any people in those pictures, let alone children. What would we do when they came along? Hide the diapers and baby wipes in an antique cedar trunk? Hang a lovely potted fern in the baby swing and hope no one would notice?
At the same time all of this was going on, I was still meeting almost weekly with the pastor’s wife from the church I went to while I was in high school. She had first reached out to me when I was a lonely teenager, telling me of a God who could be the Father to the fatherless. As she opened her life to me, the lessons my mother had taught me and the biblical truths she’d tried to instill into me all began to make sense. My mother’s prayers were answered as I solidified my decision for Christ and became a believer. Now that I was a young bride, Pat stuck by her commitment to disciple me.
I noticed something about my frequent visits to her home. I always felt that she was thrilled to have me over. She’d have waiting my favorite cup of herbal tea and a throw blanket for me to cuddle up in. She’d fix me lunch and visit with me, asking me about our new marriage. She’d inquire if there was anything at all she could pray about for me. And two things were consistent each time I went to her home.
First, she always had her tattered, worn, brown leather Bible lying open on the counter like she had probably just finished reading it. And second, she didn’t just ask me how she could pray for me. She’d stop right then and pray with me in her driveway before I got back into my little Volkswagen Rabbit to make the two-hour trip back home. More than anyplace else on earth, her home made me feel welcomed and pampered while I was there and refreshed when I left.
Now let me tell you about her home: It was an old church parsonage. It hadn’t been redecorated in years! Her colors were an array of avocado green, harvest gold, and Brady Bunch burnt orange. (What were they thinking in the 1970s?) She had shag carpet, which frankly has always given me the creeps because I wonder just what is hiding in there. Many of the items in her home were in desperate need of updating or replacement, but because it was a church parsonage, they couldn’t make any changes without first running it by several committees. So they decided they’d just make do. Pat kept her home as charming and clean as she could and regularly opened it up as a haven to whomever God brought her way.
Her lunches were very simple. Sometimes she’d feed me creamed chipped beef served over day-old bread that had been made into toast. She’d chuckle and halfway apologize because that was what her father had eaten in the army. But you know what? It tasted like a gourmet feast when I was in her presence.
And all of those books I had been poring over trying to be the perfect hostess? Well, it was through this dear mentor, my friend Pat, that I finally wised up and realized I had been reading the wrong books. They weren’t the ones she had lying open on her counter. God began to teach me that there is a huge difference between “entertaining” and offering hospitality. Entertaining puts the emphasis on you and how you can impress others. Offering hospitality puts the emphasis on others and strives to meet their physical and spiritual needs so that they feel refreshed, not impressed, when they leave your home.
Now, it isn’t wrong to want to serve good food or have an attractive, clean house. Actually the Bible says to undertake any task at hand as though we were working for God himself (see Col. 3:23). But like so much of life, it all comes down to the motives of your heart. Are you trying to impress others with your entertaining prowess, like I was? Or are you trying to refresh them and point them toward the Lord? I thought entertaining meant you fluffed the cushions each time a guest stood up from the couch and ran around straightening any little thing that got out of place. You know, keep up that perfect “magazine look.” Or that I had to plan and execute a five-course meal that had to be baked in a 400-degree oven on a 95-degree July day in an un-air-conditioned apartment the size of a postage stamp, just to impress two of my sisters-in-law with lunch while they were in town. I had to learn the hard way that offering hospitality is much more about the condition of your heart than the condition of your home.
And I’ve come to realize too that hospitality does not always need to involve your home. Maybe you are someone with limited living space or a woman whose husband does not share your desire to open up your home to others. If that is the case with you, then you are going to need to learn to implement some ideas that I call “hospitality on the road.” I think this kind of love in action can be so powerful that I’ve devoted an entire chapter to it.
So, HGTV wannabes, cooking class dropouts, and hesitant housekeepers, will you join me in the journey to see your life as a channel for God’s unconditional love to others within your sphere of influence? Will you shelve your decorating magazines for a while and commit to learning his ways of reaching out to others? Will you dust off your Bible and give your heart a good spring cleaning before you start to scrub your home? If the answer is yes, then listen. Hear God’s heartbeat for the lonely, the lost, the less-than-lovely. Determine to be his hands and feet to family and friends alike. Adopt a lifestyle of reaching out to those whom God puts in your path. You won’t regret it. I promise.
Points to Ponder
Can you think of any people in your life who regularly show heartfelt hospitality to others? How have you felt when you were a guest in their home? What specifically did they do that made you feel welcomed?
Have you made any past attempts at entertaining out of a desire to impress others? What happened? How would you go back and do it differently if you could?
Think of two or three friends whom you would feel comfortable inviting over. Make arrangements to have just one of them over for a simple lunch in the next two weeks. Remind yourself: hospitality starts somewhere—with small steps!
What has been your experience when it comes to entertaining? Discuss with a friend what kind of home you came from. Did you have others over often or not? Were you ever a guest, and what good experiences do you remember? How have such experiences influenced your hospitality habits today?
A Look in the Book
Look up 1 Peter 4:8–10. What does this passage say about how we are to offer hospitality? Does it sound like it is an option or a command? What part does love play? In what ways do you feel this Scripture passage nudging you?
How would you rate yourself on the “grumbling and complaining” scale when it comes to offering hospitality? Do you pass with flying colors or flunk out?
Read 2 Corinthians 1:3–4. How has God comforted you in the past? How could you in turn use that comfort to reach out to another person going through the same kind of trial? What is a tangible way you could meet their needs, both physically and spiritually?
Putting It into Practice
Name someone in your life whom God is nudging you to reach out to. What could you do to help lighten their load? What has been keeping you from contacting them? Time, resources, busyness? How will you go about changing this?
How can you carve out time regularly to meet the needs of others? What would have to go? Time spent watching television, sleeping late, shopping, or pursuing hobbies?
How can a friend help keep you accountable to change this?