Weekly Practice: Hospitality and the Sacred Space

Dave and Phoebe Atkinson are alumni of Summer Conference (2009). Dave is the Partnerships Director at Parenting Place and Phoebe is a former teacher and chaplain, but is currently focused on raising their two children, Harley and Kyla. They live in Forrest Hill, Auckland.


Dave and I sat down last week to discuss how we would approach an article about hospitality. Here is where the conversation led:

“Hospitality is opening a part of your life and home to others to bless them and, in turn, be blessed.”

Picture the long Italian lunch… Experiencing and partaking in one of the joys of life, which is sharing time with others over food. It’s one of the most visceral examples of God’s kingdom, the epitome of the good life; feasting (in a literal sense) on the goodness that God has given us. Not in a gluttonous way, but in a way that acknowledges what is good in the world: the joy of friendship, the reward of good conversation, the taste of home-grown food, the beauty and ambiance of eating outdoors. In some ways it’s about facilitating a little glimpse of the kingdom.

Much has been written about the significance of a shared meal together at a table, but for both Dave and me–perhaps because we’re both the youngest in families of six–the busy, noisy, and sometimes chaotic ritual of the all-in-dinner at the table holds some of our most treasured memories. Regardless of how the last chicken drumstick was fought over or how much sibling manipulation was deployed, what stories were shared, what frustrations were aired, and wherever the day had taken each of us, the dinner table was the place that brought us back together. Dinner, together at the table, was a good place to be.

We still think dinner at the table is one of the best places to be. I love cooking; Dave, in particular, loves the art of conversation; and we both love being generous with the good things we have been blessed with. We know hospitality is something given­–it comes naturally to us–and we feel heaven is close when, after a meal and good wine, the conversation becomes deep, personal, and vulnerable. To be heard and to be known is one of the greatest gifts in life. Hospitality is one way we get to experience this, and to facilitate this for others.

And yet, like all good things, there also exists a shadow side; a subtle distortion that can derail its inherent goodness. For me, this comes in the form of perfectionism, a subtle nagging that says “in order for this to be good, it needs to be perfect and seem effortless”. Perhaps a better way to name that feeling is pride.

Every now and then you read something that resonates on such a frequency that its message becomes your own. The article “In praise of scruffy hospitality” by Robin Shreeves became this for me when I discovered it several years ago. In her piece, Shreeves quotes the Rev. Jack King:

“Scruffy hospitality means you’re not waiting for everything in your house to be in order before you host and serve friends in your home. Scruffy hospitality means you hunger more for good conversation and serving a simple meal of what you have, not what you don’t have. Scruffy hospitality means you’re more interested in quality conversation than the impression your home or lawn makes. If we only share meals with friends when we’re excellent, we aren’t truly sharing life together.”

My view of hospitality has been transformed with the realisation that not only is mess permissible, but by embracing scruffy hospitality, you are setting the stage for the lowering of guards. When you can walk into someone’s home and see a family life that resembles your own, there is an implicit invitation towards honesty and authenticity. Authenticity invites authenticity.

The dinner table, and sharing a meal with friends, will always be a sacred space at our house. The ongoing challenge of hospitality for me is to find the right balance between authentic mess, and prideful perfection. It’s hard to know how tidy one’s house should be in order for guests to feel comfortable and welcomed. The answer lies somewhere between dusting the tops of the skirting boards and cleaning the poo stains from the toilet. We think generally, it’s closer to the latter.

(Image by Brett Jordan, licensed under CC Zero)