We've spent most of the last 20 years in Europe, the bulk of our time in Stockholm, Sweden. A year in London, England and a year in Paris, France have been ours to enjoy as well. Our US home is in Desert Hot Springs, CA where we have landed for the time being.
This Christmas I’ve been thinking a lot about hospitality and what it means to pursue an open, welcoming and warm way of being. Writer Lauren Winner explains that “In the Jewish tradition, hospitality has a special name: Hachnasat Orchim. In Hebrew, this literally means ‘the bringing in of guests’. In the Old Testament, we see that more than once God instructs his people to welcome the stranger for they were once strangers.” We see that providing hospitality is not really an option for the Jewish people and is even seen as more important than prayer. The root of the value of hospitality comes from God himself, for God has offered hospitality to all of humanity by establishing a home for all. To practice hospitality is to respond with gratitude to the God who made a home for us. Additionally, just as the invitation to make our home with God means giving our lives to him, the invitation that we extend to one another when we offer hospitality is not simply an invitation to come into our lives or sit at our table, rather it is an invitation to enter our lives as well. God sending Jesus into our world is an amazing act of hospitality, for through this action, we are invited into a warm and welcoming relationship with God himself. We are invited to a transformed life through the salvation that the baby Jesus will ultimately bring to us.
My thoughts have been on hospitality quite a lot because as I pondered what things are important to me during this Advent and Christmas seasons, I realized that acts of hospitality are important to me, things like decorating our house and having people over.
The table set for a Fika with friends.
Of course, when Doug broke his leg just before the first of advent, I was concerned about how the season would unfold. Would we be able to do the things that we usually do? How would I get the house decorated without Doug’s help? Would I be able to shop and bake and cook the foods that I enjoy? Could we still invite the groups of people in that we always love having? Would I have enough time and energy to get everything done knowing that my right hand man was down to one left leg?
All of these concerns led me to think about the role of hospitality, that is, of creating a warm and welcoming place for people, and how important that tradition is for me in celebrating the season. And now on Christmas Eve, I can say that for the most part, with a bit of help from many friends, I’ve been able to enjoy most of our traditions, and we’re ready to welcome you to our Open House tomorrow evening so please, come on over and enjoy the fun.
But if I am going to be totally honest with you tonight, there have also been a few times when it has felt like too much, that I am not going to make it and I’ve even wondered why I feel such a compulsion to invite people over, make things from scratch and make my house look all cozy for Christmas. Yes, at times, it has felt exhausting.
And then last week, Doug and I were watching a cute television show called The Middle. It is about a typical American family just trying to do life together. This episode was all about getting ready for Christmas and the mother was totally stressed out about getting everything done. She says to her husband, “It’s Christmas, it’s the most stressful holiday of the year.” To which her cool and calm husband replies, “Don’t worry, I”ll take care of everything this year.” She proceeded to laugh at him and announce, “You have no idea what it involves. There is shopping, wrapping, baking, visiting, and decorating.” He calmly says, “I’ll make lists. I have this covered.” We had to pause the recording because we could see our lives beginning to unfold before us! The show hit even closer to home as the dad began to accomplish the Christmas “to do” list, things like putting up the tree and building the snowman. But the wife, instead of being happy, was sad because she loves putting up the tree and building the snowman. This went on and on…the dad seeking to be helpful to get some things off the mom’s list, the mom being sad because everything he did, was her favorite thing to do at Christmas. To add insult to injury, some of the time he did things in a manner that was totally different than the wife’s! This really set her on edge! Doug and I were laughing about this because it’s a bit like us. I need help but I hate to miss out on something. I want things to be just so, but sometimes it’s hard to find the time and the energy to make it just so.
But the other night I was interested in baking so I said to Doug, “I’m going to go make some candy and bake some cookies.”
Homemade pumpkin bread, chocolate chip cookies and toffee.
Doug replies, “Why? Can’t you just buy all that stuff?” "Well, of course I can buy it but what’s fun and special about that?" To which Doug replies, “Yeah, but it seems to stress you out so much.” And it does, a little, but I also know that deep down inside of me, it brings me great joy too. And there it was, the great paradox of Christmas: hospitality brings me great joy and it is stressful. At that moment I realized that the key to making it all work is in making sure the stress does not overpower the joy.
At the end of the TV show, the parents conclude that yes, Christmas is hard. There’s no two ways about it, it’s stressful, but then the celebrations begin and it’s great and wonderful and the best Christmas ever. The mom says, “It’s like giving birth, you forget all the pain and you can’t wait to do it again.” And I have to agree with this. Sure, it would be easier to not decorate the house and it would be a lot less stressful to buy everything from the store already prepared, and the house would surely stay cleaner if no one ever came over, but then we’d miss out on spending time with the teenagers getting to know them a little bit better and taking delight in their consuming 6 liters of homemade hot cider and over 50 home baked cookies. And what a treat it was to see what a vibrant and lovely group our young adults are. And well, Christmas in Stockholm wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have the Christmas party on Christmas day. Yes, it’s stressful to provide hospitality sometimes, but always, when you bring joy to others through your efforts, it’s never regrettable. And that’s why making room for the things that add stress but also bring incredible joy to our lives and to others is part of our calling as God’s people. For what greater way is there to show others the love of God than to reach out for them with tangible expressions of love?
I think the theme of hospitality holds center stage at Christmas. Could it be that by practicing hospitality, which at Christmas might include decorating, and making foods from scratch and having more than the usual amount of people in for a visit, we are positioning ourselves to undertake the ultimate act of hospitality, which is to welcome Jesus more fully into our lives? Here, the juxtaposition of stress and joy come full circle because welcoming Jesus into our lives more fully is surely a bit stressful but it is also filled with unspeakable joy. And maybe it is by welcoming others into our lives that we are most able to welcome Jesus because through welcoming others into our lives, we are able to display God’s love to them in tangible ways…ways that perhaps they’ve never seen or experienced before. And isn’t having the ability to show another person the love of God the ultimate act of hospitality?
In my humble opinion, I think the supreme act of hospitality was exhibited by Mary as she allowed her body to become a dwelling place for the Son of God. Mary is being asked to assume an important role in God’s plan. She is being asked to provide a dwelling place for the Son of God, to create a hospitable environment, with her body, so that God could become incarnate through her. Many books about pregnancy have been written with a primary focus on helping women create a hospitable dwelling place for the child that is developing in their womb. The responsibility of carrying a baby to term is enormous. Everything the mother eats, her habits, her life style, the amount of stress she exposes herself to, the kind of risks she takes, every choice she makes has a profound effect on the child she’s carrying. Mary is not exempt from this reality. On a strictly biological level, Mary was called to create a healthy dwelling place for God’s son, our savior, to be nurtured into a full term baby that would be born and subsequently change our lives forever. And as joyous as this experience was for Mary, it is likely that it was filled with stress as well. I’m sure, at times, it just felt exhausting. But Mary was able to allow the joy to overcome the stress and decided that birthing the baby, in spite of all the hardship, all the pain, all the sacrifice, all the stress was worth it…because then the world would have a savior and she wanted to do her part in allowing that plan to unfold. God sending his son into the world is the greatest gift of love. Mary’s allowing God to use her as dwelling place for the most high delivered that act of love to us. Now we are called to carry on the ministry of hospitality in order to continue to reveal the love of God in Christ to others. And Jesus-style love is the opposite of the world's power-based, accomplishment-equals-importance viewpoint. Christian love means putting the other person first, seeking the other person's well being regardless of what it costs. But don’t be fooled, it does cost. But the challenge is in making sure that the cost never outweighs the joy and we do this by keeping our eyes on what God has done for us instead of what we are doing for others.
Author Henrietta Mears writes, “Love when you expect no love in return. Do good without expecting thanks. Lend when you do not hope for a return. This will make us act like the sons and daughters of the Most High.” And isn’t mostly what we want at Christmas is to have the opportunity to act like sons and daughters of the Most High.
Author and Clergyman Henry Van Dyke asks these questions: “Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children; to remember the weaknesses and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and to ask yourself whether you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open?” He then says, “If so, you are ready to keep Christmas.” I agree with this old poem because all of the things he mentions are acts of love and hospitality that point us to the love and hospitality that God offers to us through Jesus. And don’t we get to a place where hospitality becomes a deep seated desire rather than a nagging obligation through practicing it, either with those whom we love and treasure or with strangers who are in need of tangible evidence of God’s love?
Friends…throughout this Christmas season, my thoughts have turned to the ministry of hospitality because I love practicing it but admittedly, at times, it also causes stress. But I have intentionally sought to allow the joy to overcome the stress through understanding that one of the finest ways to reveal the love of God in Christ is by giving others tangible ways to feel welcomed and loved. And the energy to show others the love of God comes through experiencing the love of God as well. I feel inspired to continue to be a warm and welcoming presence because I’ve been the grateful recipient of warm and welcoming hospitality as well. As a church, I think we practice Hachnasat Orchim: The ministry of the bringing in the guests very well. I am blessed and encouraged on a regular basis by the warmth and the love that our community exhibits to one another. What I am most blessed by however, is knowing that our love for one another is a reflection of God’s love for us, a love that calls us to love him with whole lives and then reflect that love to others around us.
Perhaps the greater question for us this Christmas Eve is how willing we are to invite Jesus to dwell more fully in our lives. Mary showed a willingness to allow the Son of the most high to inhabit her life, no matter the stress, no matter the cost. We know there was pain but we also know there was unspeakable joy. And so are we ready to allow Jesus to dwell more fully in our lives…to allow him not just a seat at our table but full entrée into every aspect of our being?
One of the more profound realities of Jesus being born in a simple, dirty, common stable is that it shows us that He will come to us in whatever state we find our lives. We don’t have to have spotless lives in order for Jesus to come into them. To the contrary, he’s interested in joining us no matter what the condition of our lives. It’s a bit like learning the art of balancing the stress and the joy of having people in. If we do it right, is not an imposition, because we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests. We are meant to invite our guests into our lives as we are and for them to bring their lives, as they are. So if the house isn’t spotless or there are dishes in the sink, so what…the company will be warm and the welcome appreciated. The same if true for Jesus…whatever messiness your life is mired in at the moment, no matter what loose ends are making you a bit unnerved, no matter how untidy your relationships may be, Jesus says, it’s OK, I want to come into your life, just as you are, and bring salvation, comfort, and peace.
Our days of preparation are over. What’s done is done, what’s not is not. We are ready for Hachnasat Orchim, the inviting in of the guests. Are you also ready to ask Jesus Christ to come into your life, just the way you are, so you can share in the warmth and the welcome that God has given to us? Remember, the root of the value of hospitality comes from God himself, for God has offered hospitality to all of humanity by establishing a home for all through the giving of his Son Jesus Christ. The invitation has been issued. Say yes to God’s hospitality. Say yes and invite Jesus to come and join you on your life journey. Then you will be able to experience the unspeakable joy that overcomes even the greatest of stressors. Amen.
And this was the blessing that with which I ended the service:
God grant you the light at Christmas which is faith