As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
“Your house feels lived in,” my babysitter told me when I was 9.
“Well, we do live here,” I said. I thought that was pretty obvious.
“No, I mean, some houses you visit and everything is in the perfect place and you feel like if you sit down or move anything, you’re going to mess it all up,” she explained. “But your place feels ... comfortable. Lived in.”
It sounded like a sincere compliment, so I passed it along to my mother when she returned. She rolled her eyes. “That’s her way of saying our house is messy,” she responded. I realized then that I had not passed on a compliment but an underhanded insult. In that moment I sensed the weight my stay-at-home mother felt—a weight placed on most women—to maintain a polished presentation to everyone who steps through the wreathed front door, even the babysitter.
But now that I am co-managing my own household with young kids, I wonder regularly, could my babysitter have been sincerely grateful for the atmosphere at my childhood home?
I recently wanted to invite a friend over, someone I’ve been wanting to see since before the pandemic, but thought I should wait until I could give the house a good cleaning. While scrubbing muddy fingerprints off the porcelain sink, I realized my desire to present a tidy home was getting in the way of my desire to open my home.
I’ve accepted that I’m not the best housekeeper in my group of friends. We keep things sanitary (mostly), but I prioritize baking bread over drying the dishes. Sometimes we have a seat at the dinner table filled with a pile of books. And I am still trying to figure out how to organize (and discretely recycle) the immense collection of toilet paper-roll animals created by our craft-loving kindergartener. But I am also learning to accept that sometimes inviting people into your house, just as it is, can be a type of hospitality—an unconditional welcome, a relief to host and guest.
When I go to the home of friends who are tidy, I feel a freedom from chaos. But when I go to the homes of friends who are not, I feel free to invite them back into mine anytime. A tidy home is a beautiful gift, but it is not a prerequisite to hospitality. Throughout the story of Scripture there are examples again and again of people immediately inviting others into their home: Abraham and the three visitors, the widow at Zarephath who shared her little remaining food with Elijah, Zacchaeus hosting Jesus for dinner (after the rabbi invites himself over), Lydia urging Paul and Luke to stay with her. They did not wait to make everything presentable; their offer was instantaneous.
Our culture values a cultivated, manicured, fastidious looking home. But the expectation of spotlessness is a classist one, a standard set decades ago by people who could afford regular housekeepers, and it’s constantly reaffirmed today through curated social media posts and magazine covers featuring beautifully designed living rooms. In North America, most of us operate in independent nuclear family-oriented units, and have somewhat lost an appreciation for casual visits. I recently heard a discussion on the radio about whether or not the “drop-by visit” to someone’s home is now considered rude. We feel we need time to prepare to have someone in our space, lest they see the dust bunnies lurking in the corners, the pile of mail littering the coffee table, or stumble on the Lego fairy village in the living room. Of course it is reasonable and healthy for people to need time with just their family or space to themselves, but I fear that we’ve also lost the joy of casual, messy, low-expectations time together in each other’s homes.
In reaction to these societal expectations, parenting websites and mommy blogs have popularized the “crappy dinner party.” Google it and you’ll find plenty of advice on how to host one, but the general guidelines are simple: don’t prep or clean, serve what you have, and set the expectations low. You can make it a potluck or use up items lurking in your freezer. But the intention is to have the kind of low-key meal you would have on a busy day for your own immediate family, to come as you are, and stop waiting until things are perfect in order to be together. The popularization of this kind of get-together speaks to a collective craving to bestow grace on ourselves and each other in the realm of domesticity.
I don’t want my fear of judgment or my desire to keep up appearances to impede my ability to welcome others into my home. Cleanliness is great, but it is not next to godliness if it gets in the way of us hosting one another. While we enjoy the order and calm conveyed by an organized home, Christian hospitality is not defined by tidiness. It’s marked by foot-washing, by kneeling in a position of humility and service. It’s about noticing the subtleties of who gets the seat of honor and who gets treated like a wallflower—and looking for ways to reverse that trend. It’s impromptu feasts to celebrate the return of a lost coin or son, it’s entering the homes of the people everyone else rejects, it’s breaking the rules of decorum by pouring out an entire bottle of perfume while weeping in the middle of a pleasant meal.
Frankly, the Biblical settings are so far removed from our 21st-century expectations of middle-class domesticity that it’s hard to relate them. Biblical hospitality doesn’t address any of the social mores outlined in a “How to Host a Dinner Party” handbook. Place cards and pristine windows are lovely, but they are irrelevant to God’s vision of hosting.
Dear friends who dust and mop and present a sparkling house when we come to visit: I see your effort to create a peaceful, orderly, clean place, and I feel a freedom from chaos and clutter when I enter your home. Thank you for your care in creating a place of hospitality.
Dear friends who step over shoes to greet me at the door and sweep the Cheerios off the table when we sit down to tea: you invite me into your life as you are living it, and I feel comfortable, free, and permission to be myself in your home. Thank you for your generosity in creating a place of hospitality.
Six years after my conversation with the babysitter, my mother received another commentary on our home. As I drove from the church with a youth leader to an event we were hosting at my place, she said, “I can feel the love of God exuding your house as soon as we pull in the driveway.” She was reflecting on the anticipation she associated with the hospitality my parents had shown our youth group over the years. My mother constantly opened our home to my hyper friends, inviting smelly, loud teenagers to descend upon our property and make it their own for sleepovers, pool parties, and campfires. I’m not sure if she spent hours tidying before we arrived, but if she hadn’t, we wouldn’t have noticed. What we did notice was how she greeted us at the door with a bright smile and made newcomers and old friends feel at home. We experienced God’s love through my parents’ making our home a place of joy and refuge. Our house always felt lived in, and I knew it to be a good thing.