Having a clean and tidy house matters to me. It calms my soul to see clean floors, straitened chairs, and clear counter tops. However, the entrance of four children and a dog to my life has turned our home into faux clean. Meaning, don't look behind shut doors or too closely at the floors. As we made room for each tiny human, I could feel my control in this area of my life slip a bit. And then we got a dog and had a baby in the same year and I watched my clean house sail off into the sunset. My enneagram number is 2. Relationships matter to me, and I really want my home to be comfortable to those who live in it with me or just happen to stop by for coffee or join us for dinner. However, somewhere along the way, I found myself placing more value on a comfortable, clean home than in relationships. Hospitality became more of a performance and less natural. I didn't want to let people into the mess of my ordinary life, and became easily irritated over the daily chaos a house full of children creates. I haven't fully let go and grown past this yet, but in the last year or so, God has brought to light this imbalance, this thief of joy that has snuck into my home and occupied too much space. In revealing this weakness, He has inspired growth and change in the form of imperfect hospitality.
I have a good friend, who also happens to be my neighbor. Our kids have been playing together since they were in Kindergarten, and we've been homeschooling side by side and having each other over for coffee for going on seven years now. But here's the thing, for several years of that friendship, my friend ( who is also a 2) and I would put on this charade for each other, each time either of us would come to the other's home. In my home, I would whip the dishes into the dishwasher, and shove my giant laundry pile behind my bedroom door, scoop random kid toys into a chest, and have a magical cup of coffee ready for her by the time she walked over with her girls. Needless to say, I always hoped she didn't notice how out of breath I was and probably sweaty too when answering the door. We would talk about Jesus, chat about life, food, and how great each of our kids were doing in school, but our conversations only went so deep. I didn't have the courage to allow my friend to see my house askew, and I didn't have the courage to say what I really was struggling with deep down. That maybe school wasn't that great this week, that I was drowning in self doubt, and struggling to be kind to anyone in my home. After our visit, I would take a deep breath, pop open the bedroom door and let the laundry overflow into the living room again.
But everything changed not too long ago. I'd like to say I summoned the courage and initiated movement towards a more genuine friendship, but I didn't. My friend took the first brave step towards vulnerability and honesty when her marriage fell apart at a rapid pace, and she turned to me for prayer. And as quickly as her marriage was crumbling, the walls that had kept our friendship cordial and shallow broke away too. A friendship that had been stunted by lack of transparency, now had enough light and room to grow and take deeper root.
One summer night, not too long ago, my eldest was pestering me about inviting our neighbors over for dinner. He must have caught me while distracted, because I told him yes before looking in the fridge and even knowing what I was planning on feeding our family. He had already raced over to their house and they had already accepted by the time I figured out we had hot dogs, no buns, just little naked hot dogs, and enough random ingredients to make an abstract salad. I felt so embarrassed and almost called her to cancel, but distinctly felt the Lord whisper, "It's OK".
A few moments later, my friend breezed through the door, sighing with relief. Just minutes before my son had shown up to invite them to dinner, she had realized all of her dinner plans were freezer burnt. I silently thanked God, for not allowing me to back out of hospitality because of what I thought wasn't good enough. As I piled random vegetables up, she chopped them. My husband built a fire in the back yard for the kids to roast their hot dogs, and I sighed with relief too. This kind of hospitality felt sweet and effortless.
We feasted our friends on hot dogs, salad, and chocolate. The sun sank low, the fire died down, and the children shrieked and laughed on our trampoline. And as my husband and I and our friend talked long and deep about Jesus, I realized it was enough. He takes our meager offerings and willingness and multiplies, every time.
What I'm learning as I begin this practice of imperfect hospitality is that I want people to take a deep exhale of relief when they walk in the door, not an inhale of tension. The epitome of who I don't want to be, is Mrs. Dursley from the Harry Potter book series. She dons a cleaning gown nightly, and scrubs every surface of her gleaming kitchen with obsession. The Dursley home is so clean and tidy it's "unnatural". And that is what I fear, that my personal need for a clean home will trump the relationships I care about the most. If given into, it will rob my joy and everyone else's in my cleaning rampage. Sure, the house may smell good and even sparkle, but in the process will relationships be wounded? Will the one's I share my home with feel at home? When people walk through the door, will they feel relieved and welcomed, or feel the need to quickly kick off shoes and disheartened by the tidiness?
A few days ago, I opened my door wide to my friend. The couch was buried in laundry, save for a little section of a cushion I had carved out for her. I had considered attempting my standby disappearing trick and shoveling it all behind my bedroom door, but I've been trying to practice imperfect hospitality. And in doing so, I'm losing my motivation to speed clean for the sake of my pride. Instead I made us both a cup of coffee and we visited while I folded. Which effortlessly turned into her helping me fold. And that is what vulnerability does; it invites people into our lives to help us sort out the mess. This time, our conversation felt simultaneously meaningful and deep, comfortable and light.
What I'm finding out too is that it puts people at ease when there are dishes in the sink, and laundry in piles. It lets us know, we are not alone. We are not the only ones with mess and disorder in our lives.
As this year comes to a close, and with it so many opportunities to welcome others into your home, do so without the self imposed weight of perfection. If you want to go deeper in your friendships, begin the practice of imperfect hospitality. If you're waiting until life is less hectic, your kids are older and your house cleaner, or you have time to cook that perfect meal, it will take a long time, possibly never, to invite others into your life and home. We already have enough images of perfection in our lives through social media. Don't add to the noise. Make room for light, make room for the genuine, make room for relationships to take root.