Hospitality and the Quest for Perfection

**This blog was originally posted on the Women’s Life blog on May 22, 2015.

“True contentment is not having what you want but wanting what you have.”

–Karen Ehman, A Life That Says Welcome

Hospitality should be a word that brings joy and a sense of welcome to our hearts, because that’s exactly what it should evoke. But for many of us, it can bring a sense of dread, as we face the intimidation brought about by our own desires and expectations. Even when we understand the difference between entertaining (which is primarily about us) and hospitality (which is primarily about others), we can fall into the trap of performance anxiety when it is time to welcome others into our homes and lives. This was the story of my life as a young woman.

Keith and I were married in 1999, and it was one of the greatest days of my life. Not only was I getting ready to be with the man I loved, but I felt this sense that I was really starting a new chapter. Among many other aspects of life, this season would bring the first chances to invite people into my own home. I couldn’t wait.

In true Southern fashion, our wedding was preceded by various showers and much energy was spent crafting registries in practical stores, department stores, and the gift store in my small town that specialized in everything from crystal glasses to monogrammed coasters. I was in love with it all, and I had visions of what it meant to truly make a home and share it with others. I had the best of intentions to serve and love others, but I was certain that it would look like the pages of Southern Living magazine.

And then I moved into student housing.

We were blessed with a fun little apartment with original wood floors and a neat history—but the emphasis should be on the word “little.” Minimal space, no dishwasher, tiny kitchen, and just enough room for a small round table—this wasn’t at all what I expected! We did invite people into our home and lives, and had some wonderful experiences, but I was always thinking that if I could just do more, if I could break down some of these barriers, I would actually be practicing hospitality well.

Our next home had a bit more space, but many barriers remained—it was a one-hundred-year-old fixer-upper which brought us many happy adventures and memories, but also many challenges. We did the best we could with what we had, but I dreamed about the day when I could “really do it right.”

In 2005, we moved to southeast Virginia for my husband’s first pastorate. The position came with a parsonage, and plenty of people to bring into it. I finally had a place to do what I had always wanted—carry out my perfect plans. I had all my china, new glasses for iced tea, matching tiny pitchers for salad dressing so that I could host lunches, and more. And finally I could use my silver chafing dish! It was a dream, and it was about to be realized.

Within two weeks, I learned what ministry is and what hospitality truly means. The first visitor to knock on our door was someone from our new town who was in crisis. This person described an immediate problem that I didn’t even know people faced, and I experienced very real fear as my husband left to help with this difficult situation. I realized that while a glass of tea and a kind word might be one of the best things to offer in a moment, this person didn’t care if everything matched perfectly. They just needed a friend and words of hope.

Our years in that town were both challenging and beautiful, and I learned some very real lessons about what it meant to share my life. As I navigated what it meant for us to serve in a difficult context, I also was navigating what it meant to be a mother of small children, one of whom had significant health problems at the time. Some days, I felt like a complete mess, going on little sleep and feeling like my life consisted of moving from one doctor visit to the next. Other days I realized that those around me felt the same way and just needed to know that I loved and cared for them no matter what.

We did have people over for special dinners on occasion. We hosted a Christmas reception in our home every year and invited our church members and neighbors. We decorated the house, pulled out all the stops on the menu, laid out the china serving platters, and yes, even lit the Sterno for that chafing dish. Those were wonderful times, and opportunities for us to care for people and show how much they meant to us.

But there were many more moments of just making do with what I had that day. It turned out that a listening ear usually mattered more to people than a perfect presentation. There was a time for special and there was a time for real.

Now, we’ve been married fifteen years. We have our own house—not too small, not too big, but a just right house. It has a basement with its own bath where people can stay with us, a large family area with an open kitchen, and a more formal sitting and dining area. I have space for my china and times when I can use it if I choose.

But the magazine-perfect life I had planned doesn’t exist for me anymore, and I have finally seen that there is no place for performance anxiety in sharing our lives. There are no barriers too great for extending hospitality, because there are no barriers too great for showing authentic love.

Amy Whitfield serves as Director of Communications at SEBTS. She is married to Keith, who is an assistant professor of theology and Vice President for Academic Administration. They live in Wake Forest with their children Mary and Drew.
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