This is the eighth reflection in the Missio Advent series. Read the rest here.
(N.B. This writer first contributed to Missio in Advent 2013, and this 2014 contribution continues a story started there.)
What was it about these words that struck joy in our hearts? We lived on a farm in the rural mid-west, and it was not that we never had visitors. We might even have had more than our neighbors, but who was counting? Some just came for dinner after church on Sunday. Some came on their way through our state on their way to somewhere else. Some came specifically to see us.
When it was for Sunday dinner, we got out the good, rose-painted china with the gold edge. The shiny white tablecloth was ironed, along with its matching napkins, and the table was set, complete with a piano bench at one end to make sure there were enough places to sit. If we were especially lucky and it was a big family with kids—hopefully at least one “our age”—there might even be a kid’s table in the living room.
If they were overnight guests, we made sure there were clean sheets for the hide-a-bed sofa in the living room; a room that had doors, to be sure, but these were glass-paned French doors. Not much privacy. No such thing as a guest bathroom: there was one bathroom for the whole house, resplendent with claw-foot tub. There was a shower, but down in a corner of the basement, marked only by a curtain and fairly industrial in nature, there to combat the grime of fieldwork, a barn, and a chicken house. Guests were not invited to use it.
Surely the intrigue of visitors was the excitement of something new, something different entering our small world. Yes, we got on a school bus and rode the 4 miles into town for school and drove a few miles the other way for church on Sunday, but company might be from Minneapolis, or California, or—wonder of wonders!—missionaries home on furlough from faraway Africa or Japan! We were mid-westerners but we might as well have been nomads in the arid spaces of the Middle East for the privilege we felt it was to have guests. To be visited.
It was an honor to be asked to give up our beds and move to the basement so that guests would have a place to sleep if the hide-a-bed did not accommodate them all. We would easily forego bathing to make sure there was enough hot water for our guests. We even had the “FHB” (family hold back) shorthand at the table in case platters and bowls were emptying too quickly.
Looking back, I realize that I loved the role of benevolent host, sharing a meal, pointing out the local attractions, providing a place to rest for a night or more. What was it that I longed to impart—whether it was from my early childhood home or from subsequent homes, here and abroad, or as a single gal sharing a house with roommates, or as a married one, implicating her husband in the invitation?
I wanted to make people feel as if they were home. The old expression “make yourselves at home” meant that they could rummage in the refrigerator or the pantry for snacks, or open the linen closet to find a pillow that might suit them better or even raid the bookshelves in my room for a good book if the selection in the guest room didn’t suit them. I learned their preferences for breakfast and how they liked their coffee. I wasn’t expecting them to actually move in, but I wanted them to feel as if they could.
Let’s face it, too. I wanted them to affirm the way I lived. I wanted them to like my cooking and laugh, or at least, smile broadly at my witty anecdotes. I wanted them to appreciate my artistic decorating. Sometimes I wanted to fix them. They could come and have a bit of a rest and feel better for it. I could be Mary and Martha all rolled into one.
Then it started crumbling. Someone I felt quite responsible for was not doing so well–my own son. No amount of sage advice, good cooking and nurturing caregiving seemed to solve the problem. The worst thing that could possibly happen, happened. He was removed from our home.
Any sense of control I might have had was shattered. How could I protect this child when he was not under my roof? In order to see him, I had to go visit him. I can assure you, no one ever told me to make myself at home where he lived. I was just glad to be assigned a room that had windows to the outside for the rather awkward visits. Eventually, someone wearing a badge would come to indicate that the allotted time was finished, and escort our son back to his room. My husband and I would sign out and go home.
How could this be happening with a child that we had invited into our home, into our family? We had shared everything we had with him, and that was not enough. We longed for him to be back home with us, and any appeal we made to the ones in control fell on deaf ears. It felt like a cosmic slap in the face.
Now it is a year later. Advent has come again. We are still longing for a better world, for more light, for more understanding. Little by little, some light has come in. Nothing that requires sunglasses yet, but I stumble on my own barriers less.
I see Advent in a new light. We have been visited, and that visitor is not here to be made comfortable, to forget the outside world for a while, and to put his feet up. He hasn’t told me how he likes his coffee in the morning, although we often talk while I am having mine. He has visited me to let me know I am not alone in my confusion and sorrow.
He has also come in to help me understand that where I live now is not my home. I am a lot like Peter, who wanted to build a dwelling for Jesus right there on the Mount of Transfiguration and keep his glory close by. It is not up to me to gather those I love and shield them like a mother hen against all the calamities of the world. Christ has visited me to help me understand my true calling and my true home—“…Thy will be done on earth (calling) as it is in heaven (home).” He has given me the love of hospitality not as an end unto itself, but to help others understand that they are connected to something so much bigger than my affection.
Our son is at home with us. Or should I say, he’s here with us in our shared temporary shelter. There are many adventures left on our journey together, but we are traveling in an august body of pilgrims.
Come on over to my tent for a cup of coffee before we pack up to journey on.
Come thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
By thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone:
By thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to thy glorious throne.
(Charles Wesley, 1744)
Photo: Monika Szczygieł