For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. — Matthew 25:35 NIV
My friend Arlys grew up on a Christian missionary compound in the heart of Muslim Tsanyawa, Nigeria. One of the vivid memories of her childhood is her mother brewing and bottling ice-cold root beer to offer to any warm and weary, dust-caked traveler who stopped by. And the weary travelers did come. Not just a handful either, but a steady flow of them. Between fifty and a hundred guests a day would be graced by her sweet carbonated refreshment offered in Jesus’ Name. Root beer was a fun novelty, requiring only sugar cane and root beer extract and yeast to create the carbonation. But it did require outrageous creativity (think not in the missionary training manual), spirited hospitality, and the hard work of preparing and sterilizing and bottling amidst the busy work of medical clinics and teaching and the press of life. But it was root beer that became the way into the hearts and minds of these dear people.
So I guess it’s no surprise that Arlys herself is the very embodiment of hospitality and social grace. For three decades she used her considerable gifts in the public school classroom, where she taught home economics. Nowadays those gifts are relished by her friends and family, but certainly not confined to that inner circle. There is not a more interesting gathering than one you’ll find at the Osborne home, where by her irreverent design elite insiders mingle with self-declared outsiders in a perfect blend.
So I think you’ll understand how excited I was when my Aunt Jill gifted me with cooking lessons from Arlys for my fiftieth birthday. There is something holy about a shared meal. I think about how along the road to Emmaus the travelers walked and talked with Jesus for hours, sharing a deep discussion, but only after they sat down around a table, and Jesus blessed and broke and passed the bread, did they know Him. Their hearts had been burning all along, strangely warmed as they talked, but sharing the table, the hospitality of wine and the bread, brought that awareness home to them, and they recognized Him for who he really was.
That’s what I want my life to be about — gathering people around tables that give them a huge dose of heart burn — not from my bad cooking, but the Road to Emmaus kind. Where strangers are invited into deep conversation and Jesus is present and bread is broken. Where grace is given, communion is formed, and deep conversation leads people to its Source.
So here I am at fifty taking cooking lessons for the same reason I once went to seminary — because I feel called. And because Arlys is not just an amazing cook but an incredible teacher, and because my Aunt Jill — who hates to cook so much she has a magnet on her refrigerator that says “I have a kitchen because it came with the house” — loves me enough to give me this gift.
Any really good cook knows that. But if being relaxed and fully present at the table is my goal, I can’t accomplish that without a certain level of confidence in my cooking.
And, what’s more, hospitality is not about impressive culinary skills or a gourmet feast but about love and generosity shaped into nourishment. One of the most beautiful meals I’ve ever been served was a simple bowl of homemade rice and beans. The chef was a hard-working mom who cleaned buildings at Seattle Pacific University where I teach. When she learned that I had been put on bed rest with pregnancy complications, she began bringing me weekly servings of beans and rice, as she said, “For the baby.” She had great confidence in the healing powers of her beans, a beloved staple she brought with her from her motherland, along with her thick South American accent and unhurried countenance. She took the only break she had all day, her lunch hour, to walk over to my home and deliver generous batches of unhurried conversation and well-seasoned beans. Her gifts warmed my heart at a time when life felt cold and disconnected from all certainty and sense of normalcy. She opened my eyes to God’s presence in my stillness and turned my feelings of helplessness and isolation into purposeful solitude.
I’ll never forget the first time I held that little baby, John, born three months before his due date. Weighing in at one pound and twelve ounces, and twelve inches in length, he was just a wisp of a micro preemie. His skin was nearly translucent. An IV delivered nourishment his digestive system wasn’t ready to receive; a ventilator taped to his little mouth did the work of breathing his underdeveloped lungs weren’t able to; and a monitor Velcroed to his tiny foot kept track of his tiny heart. For ten long days I could not even touch him.
Finally the day came. His neonatal intensive care nurse, Margaret, wrapped him up tightly in his swaddling blanket and gave him to me to hold for the very first time. My first thought in that moment might seem a bit irreverent. I feel like I’m holding a burrito. And maybe, in a way, I was. That miniature life sustained by nothing more than the prayers of loved ones and all those servings of beans.
In my smallish family of four I have every brand of appetite. My little burrito (who is now sixteen) is a picky eater (albeit much of this is scripted for him by his preemie-impacted physiology); my husband is mostly vegetarian (not by principle as much as preference); and my fifth grader is a bundle of culinary enthusiasm who typically has a dab of whatever he’s just eaten (usually chocolate) smeared like a streak on the left corner of his smile. My friend Mia has said she will be disappointed if he doesn’t have a streak of chocolate winging his smile on his wedding day.
All that to say, it can sometimes seem like an overwhelming project just to pull together a meal for my own family to enjoy together, much less one that stretches beyond the boundaries of our little quirks to embrace friends and strangers along our way. But I am feeling called to stretch. Not just beyond my culinary skills but my comfort zone, to create a lifestyle of hospitality that includes strangers as easily as friends.
I’ve always loved how Abraham’s gracious hospitality to a stranger turned into an encounter with an angel. One never knows. And even though rainy Seattle is far from the dusty deserts of Africa or the Holy Land, I might just discover I’ve offered a cool drink to an angel, or that the “stranger” who is my guest is no less than my heart’s Host.
1. How have you experienced a gift of hospitality that moved you deeply, helping you experience the communion of the saints? What happened, and what can you take away from that occasion into your current relationships?
2. How can you create space in your life for the grace of hospitality? Who can you welcome that wouldn’t be expecting it but would be blessed?
Excerpted with permission from Soul Friends: What Every Woman Needs To Grow In Her Faith by Dr. Leslie Parrot, copyright Zondervan.
* * *
Don’t you want to share your family dinner table with others? What does that idea spark in your heart? For me, I think of laughter, tears, God-conversations, hopefully good food and drink, and friends who over the course of several hours become more like family. What about you? Come share your answers to Leslie’s Soul Souvenir questions on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.full