“Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.” Romans 12:10-13
The summer before sixth grade, I spent a week or two with my grandmother Kathleen in Nashville. At the time, she volunteered as a docent at Cheekwood Estate, an imposing mansion-turned-art-gallery with extensive gardens.
While Kathleen worked one day, I wandered freely through the vast hallways, grounds, hedge maze, and exhibits, even having lunch alone al fresco at the columned porch café. I still remember what I ordered—chicken salad, with pineapple and cottage cheese! I felt so grown up.
One of the things I noticed about Cheekwood was its recurring pineapple motif, a symbol of hospitality, something the Cheeks (original owners) practiced graciously by entertaining guests with elegant soirées.
According to Southern Living, the pineapple became synonymous with hospitality during colonial days in America and subsequently in Europe, where having this exotic delicacy represented wealth and high social standing. The tropical fruits were rare because they were prone to rotting on long ocean voyages. Royalty usually snatched up the good ones first, and hostesses who could claim a leftover would give it a prominent role on their dinner tables.
All of that’s to say that I grew up with a very lofty view of hospitality. My grandmother had similar visions. Although she had a fairly simple lifestyle, she enjoyed “putting on the dog,” serving up bountiful Sunday lunches on fancy dinnerware to her family. My mother, whose generation believed that a formal setting was essential for good hostessing, served guests colorful punches and mints on silver platters. She passed that concept along to me, and I have enjoyed giving showers and parties in our dining room over the years.
In later life, though, I have learned that hospitality is a Christian practice of generosity, not tied to any particular class, means, or china pattern. We’re exhorted to distribute to the needs of the saints and be “given to hospitality” (Romans 12:13). In fact, we’re called to “entertain strangers”—we could be unwittingly hosting angels when we do (Hebrews 13:2).
The Bible offers many admirable examples—Rahab to the Hebrew spies, Zaccheus to Jesus, and Lydia to Paul and Silas, among others. Even on limited resources (especially the widow of Zarephath with Elijah), these early God-followers opened up their homes, hearths, and tables to shelter, warm, and feed total strangers.
My great-grandparents practiced such hospitality. Kathleen’s mother, Maude, always planned large meals—not only did she have a dozen mouths to feed, she never knew who might show up at her table. Her husband, John Oscar, would often see folks walking down the road and just invite them to come in, whether he knew them or not.
Maude and John Oscar didn’t live in a mansion or have fine silver and crystal. It didn’t matter to them that the napkins didn’t match the tablecloth or that the fare was humble. A bowl of Maude’s beans and cornbread would have been haute cuisine to any hungry traveler. Their hay-filled barn was gratefully accepted as overnight sleeping quarters by itinerant wayfarers. It was genuine hospitality in its purest form.
I don’t find many examples of this concept today. I see it more in other countries, particularly around the Mediterranean. In America, not so much…especially in our modern fearful society. I’ve rarely invited total strangers into my home for a meal or to spend the night.
How do we exercise the gift of hospitality now? Especially in a coronavirus-infested atmosphere? I miss having people come inside my home, especially for our weekly Bible studies. And I realize now that I should invite guests over more frequently, at least for coffee and tea. It’s a one-of-these-days resolution that, once the restrictions are completely lifted, I’m committed to making a reality.
In the meantime, I’m settling for socially-distanced time with neighbors and friends. All I can extend right now is our front yard and a few patches of tree shade. Recently, our Bible study ladies gathered there with me on a beautiful blue-sky day. Everyone brought lawn chairs and sack lunches. To avoid any hint of exposure, I didn’t offer any food, drinks, or napkins, and we stayed at least six feet apart. But no one seemed to mind, and we spent two golden hours chatting, laughing, and catching up…a refreshing moment of in-person fellowship after weeks of teleconferencing.
So, it really doesn’t matter how large or spotless or well-decorated your home may be, how elaborate your dinner table might look, or even how professional your culinary talents are in preparing hors d’oeuvres. You can open the humblest of homes or garden patios to welcome friends and family, at a social distance or from a cellphone camera.
And, guess what? It’s fun! It’s something we can truly enjoy! Especially without perfection!!
Make your own plans to practice hospitality this week, finding ways with the resources you have. You could pack lunches for a homeless shelter meal, or drop off homemade cookies to healthcare workers. Host a backyard get-together, or get out the “good china” (or festive paper plates) to serve a special meal to your family. Think “inside the box” for creative ways to engage with others if you need to observe safety guidelines.
Hospitality is making the effort to bless others in the name of Jesus Christ. And you don’t even need a pineapple to make it happen!
Lord, show us the opportunities You have placed in our paths to reach out to others around us, in person or with the technology you’ve given us. Give us patience to endure the distancing, to welcome others into our lives, and to practice generosity to loved ones and strangers. Remind us that all we have comes from You—help us to open our hearts and hearths to serve Your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
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Sources for information and photos: https://www.southernliving.com/culture/pineapple-hospitality; https://cheekwood.org; https://www.wanderwithwonder.com/2017/10/19/cheekwood-estate/; https://communityimpact.com/nashville/southwest-nashville/history/2019/04/21/cheekwood-estate-and-gardens-belle-meade-mansion-has-90-year-history/