“Cooper Harold,” her voice was stern and motherly as she called out to my son. The corners of my mouth twitched slightly upward as I stirred the thick brownie batter in her newly renovated kitchen, the smell of fresh paint still in the air.
We had arrived in the middle of a laborious and messy kitchen project. My husband and I belly laughed all night after she texted to tell me that her husband had decided to begin the long awaited kitchen cabinet remodel just two days before our scheduled arrival from Tennessee. Covered in paint and wood dust from sanding, the heart of their home was in upheaval as we lugged our suitcases in through the front door after our seven-hour drive north through the Smoky Mountains and the rolling hills of Kentucky. It had been almost two years since our families had been together. Our joy was palpable as we exchanged excited Marco Polos about meal plans and sleeping arrangements for our combined seven children. No amount of cluttered kitchen paraphernalia would stand in our way.
Friends like family.
“Only my best friend would be allowed to visit with my house looking like this.” My friend laughed that evening as we ate take-out pizza on paper plates in their living room, the thick smell of paint in the air. I washed white paint off my feet the next day before church and gave thanks for a friend that would welcome me into her home even in the midst of upheaval.
It wasn’t perfect.
There were times I was sure we all might start yelling. The back door is open again! Why are there broken rocks and paver stones all over the back porch?! Whose sandwich is this on the coffee table?? It didn’t take long for us to realize that maybe our timing had been off and our visit likely inconvenient. But what was there to be done? We were seven hours from home and knee deep in someone else’s mess. Tempers were short, space was limited and we were eleven people thick in a place that was not our own.
“Cooper Harold!,” came my friend’s voice again. My shoulders tensed this time as I stirred the batter quickly. Her frustration was directed at my five-year son for completely ignoring her instruction to help clean up the disaster of toys spread all over the second floor. I heard her footsteps next, coming up behind me. She put her hand on her hip and cocked her head to the side, “Cooper is refusing to help clean upstairs and now he’s ignoring me. You need to talk to him.” The edge in her voice told me that the brownies could wait. Her open frustration told me that this fellow mom standing in front of me was a dear friend, closer than a sister.
Hospitality, not perfection.
What I remember most from our week-long trip in the midst of paint and dust and clutter is the sacred blessing of being invited in behind closed doors into someone’s real life. Life beyond the cute little squares of an iPhone screen.
This is kitchen-remodeling hospitality. This way of life is often uncomfortable and it is sure to be messy. Not messy as in ‘give me fifteen minutes and we can stuff our dirty laundry and the errant toys in a closet and be company ready.’ There is no hiding a kitchen remodel. No amount of air freshener will cover the smell of cabinet paint. This kind of living is impossible to stuff into a corner or shut up into a coat closet. It will spill out, bringing everything out into the open and ushering in awkward questions about your 20-year obsession with the Gilmore Girls and an odd, long cancelled BBC sitcom.
What you expected is not often what you get. But that is the joy and blessing of this real-life hospitality. It is wild and it is holy. When someone invites you into their real life, the unfiltered, unsponsored and raw life they truly live…what you get is often much more than what you expect.
Our friends gave us more than a few spare beds and a place to sit and eat with them; they gave us themselves. They offered their unedited life to us, flaws included. This offering is sacred and as I navigated around the boxes of pots and pans, I thanked the Lord for friends who chose to invite us in, despite the mess and inconvenience. They gave us themselves, and in turn allowed us to be our real selves, not asking us to put away our weird DVD collection or pretend to be people we are not.
When I consider what it means to love my neighbor as myself, I wonder if therein lies a clue to hospitality. I don’t think we’re meant to hide away who we are as we stuff our mess into closets and under beds, decorating our tables with elaborate centerpieces and matching cloth napkins. I wonder what would happen if we offered ourselves to our guests just as we are, as we offer a place to them to be welcomed in as they are. I believe we can remodel hospitality from overwhelming and impossible standards into a warm and sacred offering.