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We used to live right across the street from our church, and having people over on Sunday was not planned or contrived, but serendipitous. I liked it that way. If people just showed up for a meal, there was no shame in getting out the mismatched folding chairs and serving the stretched soup in all your matching white soup bowls plus a few plastic cereal bowls. We made room and time.
It felt good to “make do”, to be spontaneous and open the door to more. We regularly hosted a group of young people who traveled almost 2 hours for church each week—six sisters who’d grown up in house churches and who always brought a host of others with them. Our kids scooted around the edges of our long table and listened to stories of faraway travels, college plans, theology discussions, and debates about everything from grammar to foreign policy, all in one afternoon.
There were other guests we planned for and other days of the week we practiced hospitality, but those spontaneous-but-regular Sundays were formative for us. We developed our hospitality policy during that time: if you come over, you can share a meal with us as a guest, but the real fellowship happens when you know where the knives are for chopping vegetables, when you grab a glass and pour your own milk, when you help load the dishwasher after the meal and then stretch out on our couch with a blanket. We all learned to see guests as family, and the pressure to have everything perfect dissipated.
Our kids learned about listening well and they got used to not being the center of our attention. Since many of our guests didn’t have kids their age, our children learned how to properly engage with older teens and adults, and we had good discussions afterwards about not monopolizing our guests’ time by asking them to play legos for hours on end.
They also learned when it was appropriate to disappear from a conversation over their heads.
We’ve moved since those days and though we’re only a few more miles away from church, the spontaneous visits are less frequent. Our own kids are talking about faraway travel, college woes, theology questions, and current events. Those six sisters mostly have husbands and babies of their own. We still have spontaneous visitors and guests-like-family who bring a book to curl up with, but life has shifted for us. Our own kids are now visitors to other people’s homes, quite often.
Parenting is a constant transition—as soon as you feel you’ve mastered one stage, another one comes in to take its place. Life comes around full-circle and many of the things we hope our kids are learning come slowly to fruition. One day you realize you’re not hammering the same lessons in, day after day. Your kids have changed. You’ve changed.
My oldest daughter visited a friend (the youngest of those six sisters) with a new baby the other day. She was texting me pictures and reveling in the newborn, sleepy-baby cuddles, beaming with contentment and joy for her friend. After a couple hours, I texted her a caution about not over-staying her welcome and keeping her friend from the rest new moms need. She assured me her friend wanted her there to keep her company until her husband returned home, so I let it go. Later she told me she had brought groceries to her friend, loaded her dishes in the dishwasher, and held the baby for her while she did a few things she needed to do around the house.
Learning to be hospitable means learning to recognize the needs of others, and no one needs your perfect hostessing abilities to make them feel at ease. Matching dishes and exotic foods have their time and place, but what we all need most is a little nourishment, a little work, a little rest, and good conversation through it all.
My kids have not grown into perfect social beings, always looking out for the needs of others and knowing the right time to talk and the right time to listen; but they continue to be exposed to people who think, look, live, and worship differently than them. My hope is that, rather than fluffing the pillows and perfecting the meal and changing themselves to make others comfortable, they are living hospitable lives that welcome people to have deep conversations about true things.
Tresta lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and 4 kids, surrounded by mountains and rivers and the best little community one could ask for. For more thoughts on hospitality and raising engaged kids, check out the post 3 Easy Ways to Shape Minds (without losing yours). Tresta can be found chasing truth, goodness, and beauty at trestapayne.com, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.