Essay: "Do not pay attention to every word people say"

It happened when we lived in our first apartment, shortly after we got married. As a friend was leaving our home, she asked why we had two last names on our mailbox at the front door. I teasingly stated the obvious, "Because my husband and I have different last names." Then I explained that I had not yet legally changed my name to my husband's, due to moving abroad eight days after our wedding, and not wanting to start something that might be tricky to finish before moving internationally once again.

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My explanation was not good enough for her. "Well, in Germany, if there are two last names on the mailbox, people will think you're unmarried but living together. It's not a good testimony to the neighbours." I tried to explain again that I understood her concern, but that with various pieces of paperwork pending, it would not be wise to start on a name change process. "Besides," I told her, "Anyone who comes to our house will see our wedding pictures in the living room."

She didn't pester me any further, but I was surprised how much her words bothered me for the rest of that day. Did we have a poor testimony with our neighbours (who virtually never talked to us anyway) because of a label on our mailbox? Did I not explain our reason well enough? Had we made the wrong decision in delaying my name change? I had felt funny about having my maiden name on the mailbox too, but because individual apartments here don't have numbers, the mailbox and doorbell had to reflect both names, in case we received mail in my legal name.

See, I'm still trying to justify our decision to you several years later.

On that day, I realized how easy it is to allow one person's comment to make me second guess something we did in good conscience, and virtually out of necessity. That same week, I came across Ecclesiastes 7:20-22, where Solomon instructed:

"Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
no one who does what is right and never sins.

Do not pay attention to every word people say,
or you may hear your servant cursing you—
for you know in your heart
that many times you yourself have cursed others."

By opening our home to people of all kinds of different backgrounds, we open ourselves to their comments, too. In the past five years, I've been told by international friends that my hallway is dirty, that my kitchen cabinets are cheap, and that the food I've made is not as good as my guest's wife's food. And yes, that I dishonoured Christ by delaying my name change.

Usually there's an element of truth in the comments. But as a person who has always been a bit too sensitive to other peoples' remarks, I'm trying to learn to process the truth in the statement (dirty hallway duly noted) without overthinking or second-guessing.

Solomon's reason for telling us not to take others' remarks to heart is perhaps not what we'd expect — he reminds us that we've all made comments or had thoughts about others that weren't right. Humility lets us overlook others' awkward or even sinful remarks, remembering that we are no more righteous than they are.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the paperwork was completed and we could finally remove my maiden name from our doorbell and thereby declare even to the mailman (who's never seen our wedding photos) that we are truly husband and wife. 

But now that the name label is fixed, I'm sure other disconcerting remarks are not far away, as long as we keep opening our doors to people of different opinions, cultures and backgrounds. Cross-cultural hospitality requires the wisdom to balance humbly paying attention to any kernel of truth in our guests' statements and yet humbly not paying attention to every word people say. 

Essay: Showing Hospitality While You're Suffering

The Biblical text about hospitality that has stood out the most to me in the past year is Peter's admonition: "show hospitality to one another without grumbling." You probably know the verse, tucked away in 1 Peter 4:9. This command caught my attention not because I had never seen it before, but because I suddenly noticed the context: 1 Peter is written to people who are going through intense suffering.

From a human perspective, hospitality seems like something to be done out of a place of strength and success. Hospitality is to be shown when you get the new dishes that match and buy that big table you've been eyeing, or when you move into your "forever home". The world teaches us that hospitality is for people who have an overabundance of money, food and time. Hosting is for people who are successful and have something to show off to their guests.

Hospitality doesn't seem like something to be practiced when you're broken, or when your home or your life seem like nothing to be envied. Not when you feel you might start crying while you're serving up soup, have little energy due to health problems, or don't feel like getting out of bed because you got some life-changing news the day before.

"God turns our way of seeing hospitality upside-down and calls us to serve others even in the midst of difficult circumstances."

But God turns our way of seeing hospitality upside-down and calls us to serve others even in the midst of difficult circumstances. In fact, hospitality is a tool God has given us to help both us and others during times of suffering. Here are three reasons why I think God commands us to show hospitality even in the times when we feel weak...and I am sure there are many, many more! 

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1. Showing hospitality while you're suffering helps turn your focus off of yourself.

When we are going through difficult circumstances, it's easy to become focused on ourselves and our problems. I realize now that during some of the hardest days of my life, one of the best things for me was having a guest living with me full time. Needing to cook supper for her or serve her helped my focus to not become too inward. Some of our guests may not care a whole lot about our problems, but it's OK to have that God-given reminder that the whole world doesn't revolve around us and our struggles. Knowing that someone will be appearing at the door expecting supper might be just what you need to help motivate yourself to get groceries, cook, and get through another day — to reinforce to you that you are living for a kingdom far greater than your own personal kingdom. That your "forever home" isn't built of brick and mortar.

2. Showing hospitality while you're suffering opens others to share their stories with you as well. 

When you are in the midst of what Peter calls a "fiery ordeal" and feel like you're almost smelling like smoke, it may seem strange to invite others to come eat with you. When your furniture or food isn't as trendy as your friends' or neighbours', it might be hard to invite guests in to see the simple way in which you live. But on our broken planet, no one's life is free from suffering. You'll be surprised how letting guests see your life as it is, even when it is difficult, often opens your guests up to share about their own trials, and leads to spiritual conversations.

One of my foreign friends literally said to me a few months ago, "Since you have shared so honestly with me, I will tell you something, too..." and proceeded to share about her own difficult experiences. A new friend told me recently that sharing about her struggles and losses has opened the most conversational doors with Muslim women. Showing hospitality even while you're suffering allows your relationships to get deeper, faster. 


3. Showing hospitality while you're suffering lets your guests see your hope up close.

Yes, there are days when we truly need alone time or a break from inviting others into our homes, when we are dealing with intense personal trials or grief. But for a Christian, keeping our doors closed during suffering should not be the norm. I hate to break it to you, but suffering, in some form, will always be with us until we leave this earth.

Consider this: if we hide ourselves away when we suffer, and then invite others in only when we're feeling comfortable, they don't see the strength of our hope. If we wait to tell others how hard our trials are until we burst into some sunny success story on the other side, they don't get to witness real hope in the midst of distress. And how can our friends better see what we are going through, and how we are going through it, than by being in our homes? Just the fact that you are thinking of others when you are going through difficult times is unique, and evidences that your inheritance is in heaven, as Peter writes, and "can never perish, spoil or fade." No earthly suffering can remove your hope, and your guests will notice that. A stylish house, a delicious meal, a well-dressed and healthy family around the table — there's nothing wrong with allowing guests to your home to see these things. But none of them can compare to inviting your guest into your house when your circumstances are difficult, and allowing them to see the eternal hope in your heart.

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These are just three ways in which I've seen Peter's command to hospitality that comes out of a difficult place make sense! And even when we can't see the results of obey His commandment of hospitality, there is blessing in obeying Him. We can count on that! God wants us to bring others into our homes and lives in the midst of our own difficulties, and not let our hard times stop us from helping others in their own hard times. How else have you seen hospitality during suffering benefit you and others?

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PS - Remember, there are always ways you can also show hospitality without opening your doors!

Essay: Of Pie and Pain

Last summer in the middle of blackberry season, a Syrian friend came over to help us eat pie. My husband phrased the invitation as a cry for help, "We have too much pie and need someone to eat it with us." Our friend came to our assistance and I teased him when he arrived, "If the pie is good, I made it. If it's not, my husband made it." But actually, my husband and I made it together. Those are his handsome hands rolling the dough below.

When our friend stepped into the kitchen, he saw the pie sitting on the table, with its woven lattice top and blackberry-apple goodness oozing from inside. He said, 
"It has been a long time since I have seen a dessert like this." 

When I piled vanilla ice cream on top of his slice, he said, 
"It makes me happy even to look at this." 

When he drank homemade iced green tea, he said, 
"My mother always made drinks like this."

Maybe these phrases just sound like those of a mama's boy who is far from home. But when he asked for photos from the day we met on a lovely hike, he said, 
"Sometimes when I feel like dying, 
I like to look at pictures from happy times."

"Sometimes when I feel like dying..."?
These are the real emotions of a man escaping war.

In the past year, I have heard too many painful stories. Breast cancer, marriage problems, financial crises, a flood of refugees...hurt after hurt. Not to mention the sorrow of our friend who came for pie. His family is still in Syria, in danger, and every day he knows pain like I have never known.

"There is no glue-on patch that we can offer to friends in pain. In fact, what we can do seems so basic."

There is no quick fix or glue-on patch that we can offer to friends in pain. In fact, what we can do seems so basic. We pick berries and make pie and send invitations and light candles and eat together and wipe the table again and and wash dishes. We pray and share hope as we are able. Then we go to bed and another day, we do it all again. Sometimes our efforts seem so simple and small, in the face of huge suffering.

After all, doesn't faith do big things? I grew up on stories of great men and women of faith.
"By faith Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going..."
"By faith Sarah bore a child when she was past the age..."
"By faith Moses refused to be call the son of Pharaoh's daughter..."
"By faith we...made pie?"
One of these things is not like the others.

"By faith we do the small things set before us, asking Him to do the big things."

But it takes faith to believe that God is powerful enough to take earthly elements like flour and shortening mixed with prayer and conversation, and somehow weave them into His eternal plan. It takes faith to believe that He was "acquainted with grief" so that we would not need to be grieved eternally. Isaiah's "Man of Sorrows" went through those sorrows so that He could transform wounded people into whole ones, hurt people into healed ones. "By His stripes we are healed." In this world bowed down with troubles, it takes faith to believe in and to point others to the only One who can bind up their wounds.

By faith we do the small things set before us, asking Him to do the big thing: to take this pie, and use it for the pain.

Essay: New Year's with Yang Tao

Today is Chinese New Year, which makes it a good day to share this story from Theresa and her husband Craig in Florida. They are long-time friends of my husband's family, and started the A Candle in the Window Hospitality Network to help Christians show and receive hospitality. But their hospitality isn't limited only to Christians, and this story of how they invited a Chinese acquaintance to join them for their American New Year's celebration illustrates that. I love Theresa's emphasis on including your guests (whether they're Christians or not) in your everyday activities. —Julie

“How does one say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?” my husband Craig asked the Chinese waiter.
“Xie xie,” smiled the young man.
“Xie xie?” he attempted.
“No, xie xie,” the waiter said patiently.
Xie xie,” our daughters echoed. The waiter beamed!

From that moment on, a chorus of “xie xie” followed every movement he made toward our table. Thus began our friendship with Yang Tao.

It seems that wherever we have lived, we have chosen a restaurant or two as our “hang outs”, returning to them time and time again. In the process, we have gotten to know the waiters and waitresses. I suppose we're easy customers to remember. We were always a party of eight—my husband and me, five kids and Grandma, plus a wheelchair and for many years, a high chair. (I'm almost surprised any restaurant welcomed us back!)

Anyway, that was how we got to know Yang Tao. Soon he began to give little gifts to the children whenever we came in...handkerchiefs embroidered with panda bears or the Great Wall of China, little dangling Chinese thing-a-ma-bobs, or a piece of jade with engraving on it. Once when we came in, he slipped out the door for a few minutes and came back into the restaurant with M&M's for the kids.

Knowing that Chinese New Year is such a big celebration, we invited Yang Tao over for an American New Year’s Day. He arrived promptly at the time we had set, doling out little gifts for each child. We had a traditional Southern New Year’s meal of roast, mashed potatoes, greens and black-eyed peas. The girls asked him lots of questions about China, his family, and how he came to be here. A student at first, he was now only working and his return to China was imminent. We were amazed at his surprisingly broad knowledge of US History. (His favorite president? Richard Nixon and “that Bill Clinton, he been very good to us, too!”) 

After dinner, Craig got out the Bible and explained that in our family, it is our habit at meal’s end to read together from the Bible—and that we call it “family worship”. Yang Tao smiled and nodded eagerly.

I don’t remember exactly what we were reading at the time, but I do remember at the end, that Yang Tao took the Bible and fingered it. We told him he could keep it and take it back to China. He thanked us profusely.

Yang Tao came over a few times after that. He taught our daughters some Chinese calligraphy. Once, he brought a girlfriend along—a Chinese-American with whom he said  was "considering marriage". Craig took the opportunity to share with them the Biblical concept of Christian marriage—a covenant before God and not something to be entered into frivolously (or in hopes of remaining in America)!

And then he was gone.

About a year later we received a note from him, a New Year’s greeting: “...I always talking about you to my family...” he wrote. I pray that in our brief interactions, he experienced more than just a cultural exchange with an American family. I pray that he got a taste—as imperfect as it was—of God’s love for him, and that the Bible he took back continues to speak to his heart of the God who is there.

"Invite others in and just include them in what you’re already doing."

We never saw him again, but our friendship with Yang Tao encouraged us to reach out to others. You can do this, too! Invite others in and just include them in what you’re already doing. That’s what we did with Yang Tao. We read the Bible we always did. We asked if there was anything he wanted us to pray about, and prayed for him. 

Look around for those whom God has placed in your life—even a waiter at your favourite restaurant—who might have little or no interaction with the people of God. Your hospitality might be the conduit through which God chooses to reach into a heart with His love.

Essay: Why we eat in, not out

Since this blog is in its early days and the lot of the conversation here will be about meals in our homes, I want to talk about why we believe opening our home is so valuable. I recently  heard  that  "43% of every dollar that [American] millennials spend on food is spent outside their home. Boomers spend between 37% and 38% of their food budget that way...." We don't live in America, but seeing those numbers reminded me that the culture my husband and I have chosen, of eating in much more than out, is unique. Of course, we eat out from time to time and taking people out can also show hospitality. But even as millennials ourselves, we believe that regularly inviting people in instead of out is even betterhere's why! 

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1. It's almost always healthier.

When we prepare the food, we can control how the food is prepared and use reasonable amounts of salt, fat, etc. We're far less likely to get food poisoning. And if I do find a hair in my soup, at least it's my own. 

2. It's better stewardship of our money and possessions.

Here in Europe, eating out is particularly expensive, unless you want a Turkish wrap. Occasionally we choose to spend a bit more money rather than the time it takes to eat in, but in this season we usually eat in with our friends. It is good stewardship of the space God has given to us, too. Rent or mortgage is usually one of everyone's biggest monthly expenses. Whether or not we have guests, we would need a heated, furnished home. When we share that with guests, it is time and money doubly invested. 

3. It puts us in a position to control the atmosphere.

This is one of my favourite reasons to eat in. Restaurants are at best full of distractions. Who hasn't been interrupted by annoying music, a sleazy TV show playing nearby, or an immodest or crass server with more ice water? In our homes we can virtually eliminate these kinds of distractions and create a peaceful environment conducive to good conversation. 

4. It makes our home a teaching platform.

Our home teaches others about what we value—and hopefully, about what God values. Our home is full of words and pictures that are meaningful to us. But other things speak, too, like how my husband and I relate to each other, how clean or messy our home is, the kinds of foods we serve...and more. When I was single, I remember a friend telling another guest in our home, "This computer screen is the only screen you will find in this house! Julie doesn't have a TV!" I had to laugh at his gusto, but he and his friend were both learning about my values by seeing that I didn't own a TV. Obviously, we can teach with words, too, when we have opportunity to set the tone and guide the conversation. Sometimes we read the Bible and pray with our guests, or sometimes we just pursue good conversation. Hospitality teaches something; make that something worthwhile.

5. It's interesting and it expands my world without even leaving home.

You probably saw this one coming! Since being married, we've had guests from Syria, India, China, Pakistan, Brazil, Germany, Ukraine.... Their stories are each unique and teach us about the world. The news comes alive when a Ukrainian or a Syrian friend talks about how recent events have affected their families, and we often have conversations about values and morality.

6. It reminds everyone that eating is a community affair.

Eating is something we do together. This might be a minor point, but in a restaurant we usually order what we want individually and have our own personal food experience. At home, we eat what we are served and share the same eating experience. Homemade meals remind us, in our ultra-customized society, that the universe does not exist simply to please us individually; we are made to contribute unselfishly to community. 

7. It allows people to get to know the real us.

Our home puts us in a place of vulnerability, because it is a personal space. Sometimes I'm afraid my home is too grand for the guests we're inviting. Other times I've felt my home is far too simple. We know our guests may make value judgements after seeing us in our home. But it's a good reality check, to remind us to be our real selves—even if those real selves forgot to wipe out the sink or still haven't fixed the latch on the bathroom door. Our sincerity is much more important than our status, or lack thereof. 

8. It encourages us to keep our home clean.

I'm trying to be better about cleaning consistently, whether or not guests are coming through. But nothing makes me scramble for the vacuum or the mop like knowing that someone else will be seeing our space. (OK, who are we kidding, I only mop if I must. But the vacuum, that I use quite frequently). 

9. It's an outlet for creativity.

I believe the home is a perfect place to express creativity. I like to keep an arsenal of colourful serviettes, placemats and banners on hand. And I admit it, I do like theme parties, coordinating decorations....and (not surprisingly) cooking foods from around the world. 

10. It encourages others to do the same.

Lastly, hospitality is best taught by example. The easiest way to learn it is by watching others who do it well and sincerely. I've found that hospitality is a bit contagious, if I invite people over, they often do the same in return; sometimes it just takes one person to get the ball rolling. 

Essay: The Super Hostess I am Not

When it comes to hospitality, it is easy to think that's someone else's super power. We watch a grandma graciously feeding 30 people Thanksgiving dinner without breaking a sweat and we're sure she was born with those skills. We see a friend who engages guests of other religions in spiritual discussion and forget that he's spent years honing those conversational skills. If we want to sound spiritual, we excuse ourselves by saying that hospitality is a gift—a gift that we don't have. We make up reasons why hospitality is just something we can't do well.

"We excuse ourselves saying that hospitality is a super power or a gift that we don't have."

At one point in my life, the people around me who were hospitable all seemed to fit a particular genre: they were clean, organized, excellent cooks, lived in nice homes and possibly decorated with floral patterns before floral patterns came back into style. I don't fit that stereotype. Actually, a lot of my traits don't lend themselves well to being someone who opens her home regularly. Maybe you can relate.

I am not super clean.

I wish I were neater and probably my husband wishes that, too. But the natural me collects clutter, vacuums around but not under, and delays going to the laundromat as long as possible. Before guests come over, I often have some serious cleaning to do. While I'm learning to acknowledge laziness in my heart and develop systems to keep the house cleaner, I'm also realizing that the core of hospitality isn't about how clean I am. 

I am not super organized.

Sometimes people who don't know me too closely think I must be organized, because the final product I produce (a party, an event, a blog) can look well planned. However, when they work closely with me, they see what a tangled path I take to those organized-looking ends. I really have to force myself to do tasks in order and make lists. I'm the hostess who remembers one hour before the guests arrive that I wanted to make cold tea, but I haven't even steeped tea bags yet, let alone chilled them. 

I am not a super cook.

Well, you can taste my cooking and let me know what you think, but my cooking skills are a work in progress. No one is born knowing how to make the perfect pot roast or when to take cookies out of the oven to keep them chewy. Some people have a head start, because their parents were enthusiastic cooks or their grandmothers taught them all their best recipes. But as for me, sometimes I still take things to potlucks and—let's just say that they aren't crowd favourites. But ultimately, cooking well just takes practice. I'm acquiring more confidence with each meal cooked,  realizing that I can become a better cook than I'd imagined.

I don't live in a super house.

A friend from Canada visited us in Germany and when she walked into our dining room, she said, "This is small!" She was trying to understand how we could fit ten people around our dining room table, like in a picture I had sent her. Nothing about our 47 square meter (500 sq. ft.) fourth floor, no-elevator apartment with a tiny fridge and freezer makes it a super hospitality house by Western standards. But to most people, a real invitation into a real house matters much more than a future invitation into the super house that we don't have yet. 

I am not super girly.

Floral dishes, pearls, collector spoons, bone china? So not me. Pink? Please, no. But I've realized that being hospitable or being feminine are not the same as being girly. In fact, in the Bible one of the qualifications given for men who will lead in the church is that they must be hospitable, which means it's something men should pursue just as much as women. Hospitality is about meeting the needs of your guest, not about being girly. And besides, it's easier to host when I don't wear high heels.

"The more we have our international neighbours or lonely locals over, I realize they're just glad we invited them."

I could have used any or all of these reasons to decide that hospitality is not for me. I could have started a blog about why I don't show hospitality, instead. But the more we practice hospitality, we realize that our guests aren't running their fingers along the countertops to see if I wiped them down, or questioning the size of our dining room. They're just glad we showed some un-super hospitality and invited them in. 

Hospitality isn't for supers, it's for servants.