Setting an Extra Place

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Last spring, I went back to work full-time, setting off something of a tumult of significant life changes. Our littlest started kindergarten. We left summer camp ministry (and our home of more than a decade), trading the life bucolic for a busy corner rental in town. Jim started two businesses, and he and I largely swapped domestic roles. I now commute ten-odd hours a week to a rust belt town on the other side of the county, and he gets the kids on the bus, fills prescriptions, and makes dinner most nights.

Almost everything changed in a few short months, but one thing hasn’t: we’re still setting extra places at our table. One annual Christmas party, several happy hours and holiday feasts, and countless family dinners later, our new place feels familiar. Breaking bread together is what made our house a home.

Nearly every dinner this week we shared with friends. Hearty, simple food, good conversation, hard questions, and light laughter warm cold nights and uncertain hearts, and I realize this is what’s it’s been about all along, whatever our address, job status, or family size.

Our kids eat better with more around our table. Picky eaters try new things when they aren’t holding the spotlight (or anyone hostage!). When our circles widen, our attention does, too. The loads we bear are lighter when shared. We remember we’re in the messy, hard, and hallowed humanness of it all together.

Christians often speak too narrowly of vocation. Certainly, many of us feel called to medicine, caregiving, or teaching, to public service or art. We have a fire in our bones to wield our passions and talents well to make a difference, yet not everyone is paid for her labor or finds their job fulfilling, rendering many insignificant or invisible in conversations about purpose and calling. But there are infinite ways to make an impact, including when economies slow, life derails our best laid plans, and even our bodies betray us.

Titles do not define our identities, nor do pay stubs supply our value. There is honor in loving well and in works great and small, and I’m starting to recognize my own vocation (and possibly yours?) as less about ministry, writing, motherhood, or social service and related more broadly to hospitality and cultivating community.

I work in public housing. Some of my residents work as clerks, crossing guards, or custodians. Many are retired, disabled, or both. A lot are just trying to get through another day, focused more on survival than vocation, but they know more about hospitality than most magazines promising keys to the suavest soirees.

In my buildings, tenants with little to spare bring extra to potlucks and remember to make plates for those too sick to make it down. When someone’s spouse dies, they pass around cards and stuff bowls full of dollar bills to help the family cover costs. They look after grandkids so their own kids can work and pick up prescriptions for neighbors unable walk far or afford delivery. They give each other rides and surprise me with sour cream cartons laden with ham and bean soup, treat bags for my children, and invitations to all sorts of celebrations.

Hospitality isn’t the same as entertaining. Different than making an impression, hospitality makes room, creating space for difference, vulnerability, connection, and change. It reveals and satisfies deep needs within, enabling us to feel seen, valued, and beloved. And isn’t that so much of the gospel?

Jesus made this kind of room when he fed crowds, welcomed children, healed with his touch, and drew in the outcast. Jesus received hospitality, too, illuminating its communal, reciprocal, and dignity-affirming nature. Jesus and his itinerant disciples relied on the financial support of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. He visited the homes of tax collectors and lepers as well as Pharisees and received a drink from the Samaritan woman drawing water alone in the heat of the day. The four gospels tell varying accounts of a woman washing and anointing Jesus’ feet, and each time he affirms her generous, intimate, and socially transgressive act of service.

Hospitality, distinct from entertaining or charity, is disarming, transforming strangers and even enemies into friends. It can flatten hierarchies and establish intimacies. Bodies, minds, and spirits, too, are nourished at a welcoming table, where we let down our guards, lavish attention, and exchange confidences and kindnesses. Hospitality honors the whole self and the mutual nature of our communal life.

We aren’t meant to go it alone. We are called together, and it’s through one another’s listening ears, patient hands, kind words, and tired feet that God supplies our needs.

image: jirfy

Suzannah Paul

Suzannah Paul writes about embodied faith at The Smitten Word.

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