Being "given to hospitality" (Romans 12:13) was never easy for me. Learning to entertain and be hospitable has been a 27-year struggle. I grew up in a family that kept pretty much to itself, and I have only a few vague memories of people coming to visit. So when I married a man who was called into the ministry and loves to have people over, I got a rude awakening.
I remember one of the first agreements we had to make was that he would not invite people over on the spur of the moment. I just couldn't handle the pressure. If I know about it and can plan ahead of time, I do much better. I know some people are much more flexible and can function that way, but it throws me into a panic and my brain refuses to produce a workable menu. It says, "Food? What's food? We don't have any of that!"
The first time we were to entertain another visiting minister, I got so nervous I made myself sick and my husband had to take him out to dinner!
Lessons about being hospitable
I knew things had to change, so I waded in and tried to do my best. But for the most part, entertaining was something I endured-rather than enjoyed-until I learned several basic lessons. I can pinpoint two incidents from which I learned the most.
The first occurred about a month after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in California. We were pastoring two congregations near there at the time. One member's home and property had considerable damage. Everything in the house was thrown upside down and hurled to and fro. The water pump for their well was damaged, their electricity was off, and many of their possessions were broken.
Another couple invited them to live with them while they worked to clean up the mess and make their home livable again.
One evening during this time, my husband Bill and I were invited to come for dinner. As we arrived at our host's home, the couple whose home had been damaged in the earthquake also arrived. They were exhausted, cold and weary from having worked at their place all day.
As we walked into the house, I saw and felt it all through the their tired eyes. Immediately upon entering the house we were met with warmth, wonderful smells of dinner on the stove, a fire crackling in the fireplace, soft soothing music in the background and a warm hug from our host and hostess. It was welcome comfort for the weary soul.
The gift of comfort
It occurred to me that I can give that comfort to everyone who enters my home, whether they are weary from travel or simply from life's everyday burdens. I don't remember what we were fed that night, but I do remember the cozy, soothing warmth I felt being in that home. It was wonderful.
It's not hard to do. You just need a clean, peaceful environment. Add a candle or simmering pot of potpourri in the bathroom, soft music, a fire in the fireplace, good food cooking in the kitchen, and a warm, friendly greeting at the door.
This occasion did much to change my attitude toward entertaining. I was already doing all these things, but I hadn't realized the impact it could have. It helped me to see things through my guests' eyes.
Second lesson in hospitality
The second big lesson I learned occurred several years later when we decided to throw a going-away party for many of our friends, because several of them were being transferred that summer due to job moves. Living in California, we figured the weather would be agreeable to having a cookout. We thought it would be enjoyable to have an authentic cookout where everything would be cooked out on the grill and everyone would eat outside.
The big day came and we set up everything on the deck. As we were setting up, we noticed that a cool breeze had begun to blow. Not exactly picnic weather, but I was hopeful the wind would die down and the temperature would rise as morning became noon.
But did not. I had the perfect setup on the deck, and if we ate in the house, we would all have to be in different rooms in small groups. That wouldn't be any fun. I wanted us all together. So all together we sat out on the deck, shivering from the cold. I realized then that I should have been more flexible and put the comfort of my guests ahead of my determination to do it my way.
Another lesson learned
That wasn't the only lesson we learned that day. We had never tried cooking everything outdoors before. We should have given it a dry run before experimenting on guests.
I don't remember our total menu now. I think we had smoked turkey, steaks, corn on the cob, shish kebabs, salad and dessert. We ran into a serious problem with the corn and the kebabs. We had soaked the unhusked corn in ice water, as per cookbook instructions, before placing it on the grill. When Bill put the corn on the grill, the water draining from the husks put the fire out! (The cookbook didn't warn us about that!) You probably know how long it takes to get charcoal going, not to mention wet charcoal.
This threw everything behind schedule. Finally, it was time to cook the kebabs, and the meat was getting cold. So Bill rushed through the kebabs, and served them practically raw. That would have been okay because raw vegetables are good for you, but I wasn't so sure about the turkey bacon between the skewered vegetables. I worried we would all die of some dreadful food poisoning. No one did. And everyone even said they had a good time. But I learned to keep it simple and don't try new things on guests.
It also helps to be well organized. I like to plan my menu and the timing of preparation well ahead. By the time my guests arrive I try to have everything done that I possibly can. This way, I can enjoy my guests. I'm not one who can talk and cook at the same time-at least not very easily.
Now when I entertain, I always try to keep it simple, but tasty. I'm not a gourmet cook, and I know I never will be. But that's okay. Being hospitable is more than food, it's the total package that counts. It's a gift from you to your guests.