Thursday, September 18, 2014

"To be truly hospitable"

 "To be truly hospitable is, to some extent, to lose control of one’s space and time -- to be open to the disarray and interruption of embodied life. Perhaps hospitality is most nearly proleptic* when it bears the unruly wounds of the risen Christ." -- Amy Laura Hall
*As far as I can gather, "anticipatory of a future event," in this case life under the reign of Christ?

Some years ago, I gleefully (not to say pretentiously) copied this quote, from Amy Laura Hall’s book Conceiving Parenthood, into my Facebook profile, longing for such happy disarray in my soon-to-be-married life. Of course Dr. Hall’s book focuses on the “disarray and interruption” of welcoming children into one’s family, in contrast to a cultural obsession with planning and perfection. Undoubtedly, that was the way I thought about it, too, and no matter what I claimed to the contrary, the picture was terribly romantic in my mind. All the more because of its messiness (and the cleverly worded, too-pious essay about grace that would result . . . !).

The reality, quickly discovered, was that there’s nothing romantic at all about losing control in this way, whether the anticipated guests are those of an evening or of a lifetime. For me, being “truly hospitable” was all about control—more like a desperate, panicked grasping for pretended control, just long enough to fool others, if never myself, into believing that my home was a fit place for company.

As a newlywed, I heard people fret about the disheveled state of their living rooms in a way I suppose was meant to be both self-deprecating and reassuring. Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Oh, but you don’t understand. My apartment is a health hazard.” No matter how far in advance I planned to invite someone over, the day would certainly find me collapsing into a tearful huddle of shame and anxiety. My failure wasn’t just that I didn’t have the “perfect” home; I didn’t even know how to keep mine decent, even if I weren’t depressed about being underemployed and out of sorts in Berkeley. My mindset was that hospitality couldn’t happen until I could demonstrate my worthiness. So my failure to reach that point wasn’t just a matter of forgetting to check a few items off my to-do list; ultimately, and more critically, it was a moral failing, too.

The problem, of course, was that as long as I was focused on the monumental cleaning job (no doubt exaggerated in my own mind) instead of looking forward to the imminent guests, my heart wasn’t in a place where I could welcome them, no matter what the condition of my kitchen. While it was true that the basic housekeeping needed to be addressed (how I wish I’d sought help with these things instead of being too embarrassed to ask!), I wound up with nothing left over to give, if and when it was completed.

Since settling in St. Louis, I've begun to know something of the joy of welcoming others into my home—at least a little. In truth, there is a very long way to go. The base anxiety still lurks. These days, the fear has moved past “I’ll never get everything cleaned in time,” to one that might be more insidiously prideful: “But I can’t have people over—my decorating scheme is ‘Books and More Books.’ Our couch is old, and we don’t even own a proper dining table!” Again, I don’t want to risk hospitality until I’ve asserted the proper amount of control over my unruly space. It is much more to do with my own self-perception than with the desire to make others feel at home.

The truth is, I’ll always find reasons to delay hospitality. I will never achieve it as if it were a set of principles to study and apply. There will always be more learning experiences, and there will always be self-doubt. I just have to risk it, and learn not to let insecurities strangle generosity.

I don’t know what Hall means by the latter part of that quote. I suspect she’s saying that real hospitality means being willing to give up an image of myself as fulfilling the right level of domesticity, as if it were ever about me to begin with. Even if what I can offer is frankly inferior, externally speaking, to what my peers might be able to do; even if it means losing face before others and not just in my own mind. I can’t be open to others when I’m jealously protecting those things. On the other hand, if my heart is open to Christ, my home will be, too—and Christ will cover all the insufficiencies of my effort. I want guests to leave having encountered the beauty of Christ here, and while that doesn't exclude the material, it goes well beyond it, too.

And this time, I won't be too embarrassed to ask. I would love to hear—what is one lesson you’ve learned about practicing hospitality, on a heart/attitude level rather than a strictly practical one?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tidbits on married life from J. R. Miller

Some time ago, I came across a quote I liked from a work titled Home Making, published in 1882, by James Russell Miller. (I was tickled to learn that Miller, a Presbyterian pastor, was born and brought up in my ancestors' neck of the woods near Frankfort Springs, Pennsylvania, which, as you can see, is pretty rural and not an area I hear mentioned a lot.) Over the past few days I finally took the opportunity to read the full work, to see if I liked the entire book as much. Well, aside from a surprisingly practical and sweet section on household worship, it was largely what you'd expect from a book called Home Making from the 1880s . . . which is to say, lots of sentimental Victorian poetry and "edifying" stories to drive home his points. And since I have a pretty high tolerance for the old fashioned, you know it must've been slightly cloying!

Good news, though! I'm going to post the handful of share-worthy gems I collected from the book, so that you don't have to go hunting for them yourself. :-)

On marriage:

“The present duty is unselfish love. Each must forget self in devotion to the other. Each must blame self and not the other when anything goes wrong. There must be the largest and gentlest forbearance. Impatience may wreck all. A sharp word may retard for months the process of soul blending. There must be the determination on the part of both to make the marriage happy and to conquer everything that lies in the way. Then the very differences between the two lives will become their closest points of union. When they have passed through the process of blending, though it may for the time be painful and perilous, the result will be a wedded life of deep peace, quiet joy and inseparable affection."
“[Husband and wife] should read and study together, having the same line of thought, helping each other toward a higher mental culture. They should worship together, praying side by side, communing on the holiest themes of life and hope, and together carrying to God’s feet the burdens of their hearts for their children and for every precious object.” 

“Pride must have no place in wedded life. There must never be any standing upon dignity, or any nice calculation as to whose place it is to make the apology or to yield first to the other. True love knows no such casuistry; it seeks not its own; it delights in being foremost in forgiving and yielding.”

On hospitality:

“Then this large heartedness will impart its spirit to the home itself. A husband who is generous within his own doors will not be close and niggardly outside. The heart that is used always to be open at home cannot be carried shut through this suffering world. The prosperous home of a generous man sends many a blessing and comfort out to less favored homes. Every true home ought to be a help to a great many struggling lives. Every generous and large hearted man scatters many a comfort among the needy and the suffering as he passes through this world.
There is nothing lost by such scattering. No richer blessing can come upon a home than the benedictions of those who have been helped, who have been fed at its doors, or sheltered beneath its roof, or inspired by its cheer and kindly interest. There is no memorial that any man can make for himself in this world so lasting and so satisfying as that which a life of unselfish kindness and beneficence builds up.” 

And my favorite:

“... [A] wife’s ministry of mercy reaches outside her own doors. Every true home is an influence of blessing in the community where it stands [. . .] The ideal Christian home is a far reaching benediction.” 

  I pray to have a home like this someday!