One of the best places to practice hospitality is at your own dinner table with your own family or group of close friends. I like this approach because the stakes are relatively low. It’s a Wednesday night. No one is expecting candles and caviar.
If your family is like mine, they just want to not be hungry by the time they leave the table. I find I can reasonably manage everyone’s expectations on a Wednesday night, which makes it the perfect time to practice focusing my heart in the proper place.
Hospitality is about creating space and anticipating need, not just in the big, fancy moments like dinner parties and baby showers, but also in the small humble places like the weeknight table. The weeknight table is a wonderful spot to learn how to anticipate needs and is the perfect place for managing your motivations and seeing what unfolds.
So what does it look like to cook dinner this way, to serve a meal without focusing solely on the food or the table setting?
For me, it looks a lot like any other Wednesday night, but with a covert heart agenda happening below the surface. Today I want to share with you a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how this works in my own world. I also want to share some ideas on how to make this process your own and why it matters in the first place.
So where to begin?
Because we will be serving a meal to actual people at an actual table, we need to begin by choosing what we will eat and where we will eat it. The menu and the place settings are not the point here, but we are going to be serving food in a specific location, so we must give thought to both of these areas.
In this exercise where we are focusing on our heart, I would encourage you to choose the simplest options possible when it comes to the food and the table. We don’t want a fussy complicated menu or elaborate table decor to distract us from the real point of looking inward. Choose the simplest food possible so that you can pour all of your energy and attention into aligning your heart with the mission of creating space for others.
In my world, on this particular Wednesday night, I have decided to serve lasagna, garlic bread, salad, and chocolate chip cookies (from Hurley House, of course!). Notice that I am not going to cook anything from scratch for this meal. The food is not the point, but I did choose a menu that I knew everyone would enjoy.
Once I know what I am serving, I give thought to how and where I will serve it. I decide that we will gather at our breakfast room table, use real plates and silverware, use real glasses, but stick to disposable napkins. No decorations or place cards. No flowers or fine china. Only simple dishwasher-friendly components that are easy and ready to go.
While the oven preheats, the table will need to be cleared of homework, the crumbs from after-school snacks wiped off, and six chairs tucked around the perimeter. I set the table with our simple white dinner plates, a fork and knife for each person, and a paper towel folded in half for a napkin.
I put the lasagna and bread in the oven, set a timer, and go back to giving attention to the table.
Everyone will need a beverage, and lately I have really loved setting out a pitcher of cold water with six glass tumblers on a tray in the center of the table. It looks inviting and beautiful, and it gives my children an opportunity to practice pouring from a pitcher which I consider to be a valuable life skill. Lastly, I grab a small cake stand and stack the chocolate chip cookies on it, setting it next to the pitcher of water.
Dinner is in the oven, smelling delicious and creating anticipation in my children for a tasty meal. The table looks beautifully put together, but has required very little effort on my part. I have not done anything extravagant or gone to any great lengths, but when it all comes together on a Wednesday night, it looks inviting and intentional.
While I wait for the food to cook, I go ahead and get out the bowl and tongs I will use to toss the salad at the last minute, the cutting board and serrated knife I will use to cut the hot garlic bread, and the serving spoon I will use to scoop out the lasagna. I put these out on the kitchen counter so they are waiting for me when I need them.
At this point, if there is still time before the lasagna comes out of the oven, I will empty the dishwasher. It makes it faster and easier for my children to do the dishes after dinner. I may wipe down the counters or fold a load of laundry. Someone may need me to quiz them on spelling words or look over math homework. Life is happening in the midst of this Wednesday night hospitality exercise. It is not a silent retreat where I am reveling in the stillness while contemplating my heart. It is real life with real challenges and interruptions. But these are welcome additions to the process of learning hospitality.
All throughout this exercise, I am giving attention and checking in on my heart. There is not a one-size-fits-all model for how to navigate your heart, but here is what the process looks like for me.
At every turn, I check in on my motives. I look deep to observe what is there. Why am I doing any of this work of preparing food and space? Is it to impress my children? To inspire them? To feel better about myself as a mom, a woman, a wife? To try and give my family positive memories? To make them grateful? To show them how good they have it?
Maybe. In fact, more times than not, probably.
And yet, none of these motives align with a heart focused on hospitality. These motives will fail at every turn, bringing disappointment and delivering nothing but emptiness in return. Why? Because you and I cannot control the thoughts, reactions, or memories of others. We can only control our own actions and thoughts.
The only acceptable motive for my actions when viewed through the lens of hospitality is to express love toward those I am serving. Plain and simple. End of sentence. Our motive in hospitality can only be to express love. We cannot make anyone feel loved. We can only express love. What they do with our expression, how they receive it, whether they enjoy it or even notice our efforts is not ours to claim.
As I’m preheating the oven, setting the table, checking on the bread, I am reminding myself and my heart that all of this effort is only motivated by my desire to express love to my family. Any other motive must be seen and removed. I do so graciously and kindly, remembering to treat myself the way I would treat a friend. No judgment, harshness, or shame. Simply acknowledging the misplaced motive for what it is and then quickly replacing it with a heart focused on expressing love.
If you’re thinking this sounds difficult, you have hit the nail on the head. This is difficult. I want my kids and my husband to think I’m great and that the meal is great and holy cow you set the table and that’s great. I want esteem. I want compliments. I want approval. But hospitality is not about me. It is about others.
If I want to get good at hospitality, my heart must first get good at recognizing the difference between what I want that hospitality can not deliver (esteem, compliments, approval) and what I want that hospitality can deliver (expressing love to my family).
Knowing this tendency about myself and my motives, as I am preparing the lasagna and setting out the water, I will quietly remind my heart of what is true.
This yummy lasagna served with care is an expression of love.
This amazing garlic bread is an expression of love.
This beautiful pitcher of water is an expression of love.
The folded paper towel, lined up next to the plate is an expression of love.
These giant chocolate chip cookies piled high are an expression of love.
This entire evening and all the efforts I took to make it happen are expressions of love and care for my family.
To exercise hospitality means to not allow one speck of my identity or esteem to become wrapped up in what I am doing. Some days it is easy. Other days it is difficult. Some days my heart gladly aligns with the motives of hospitality. Other days it is a fight. But in the struggle, I get stronger.
It is worth mentioning that aligning your motives with the heart of hospitality does not mean that you cannot enjoy the process or be pleased with your efforts. I enjoy the process of cooking and setting a table. I feel satisfied when the food tastes good and the table looks pretty. I look forward to eating dinner with my people and feel pleased with myself when it all works. I can be satisfied with my efforts (man the table looks nice) and even the outcome (this lasagna is perfectly cooked), but still have my only motivation be to create space for others. Do you see the difference?
This razor-thin line between enjoying the process and managing appropriate expectations is perhaps the real skill involved in hospitality. It is the art of learning to love the process, while only allowing love to motivate the execution.
I have been at this for twenty years, and I will still find my heart tripping over my ill-placed expectations. Why didn’t my daughter eat more salad? Why was the bread still cold in the middle? Why wasn’t my husband more impressed with a hot meal after a busy day? Why didn’t everyone use their manners? Why can’t I just enjoy this time without passing judgement? Serving a meal to a group of people, particularly the people you live with, and even more so when those people are children, can bring a lot of tricky challenging moments that can make you want to give up on the whole thing.
So why bother?
Besides the hopefully obvious answer that choosing to express love to others is a valuable use of time and energy, if you choose to engage your heart in this exercise, if you choose to cook dinner for your family through the lens of hospitality, something exciting is going to happen.
You will get good at hospitality.
Sure. You will know how to cook a meal, set a table, and have it all come out hot at the same time. But you, my friend, will also become good at creating space for others with motivations that align with serving instead of being served.
It will be tricky and cumbersome and perhaps disappointing at first, but you will get better. You will learn something new every time. You will discover a new hiccup or hurdle, and then you will learn.
Six months down the road, you will be a different person because your heart has been formed by this process. And it is then, as you realize and recognize how you have begun to change and grow, that you will see the real power of hospitality.
What is this power?
When we choose to create space for others in a way that focuses on anticipating their needs, we end up creating space for our own hearts along the way. The space we create for others becomes the space where we begin to change. It is perhaps the most oddly unexpected, paradoxically beautiful truth I know about hospitality. In focusing our hearts on others, anticipating their needs, and asking nothing from the experience save a space in which to love them intentionally, it is our hearts that benefit and grow and change and become more able to love well.
I will end here, knowing that there are so many other thoughts and words to share on this topic. We are just beginning to dive into the depths of this topic together, and I look forward to sharing more. In the mean time, I hope you will take a weeknight meal and turn it into a hospitality training ground for yourself and your heart. See what begins to happen and unfold, and as always, let me know how it goes. I love hearing how you are making hospitality a reality in your own life.