Tuesday, September 13, 2011


At first it seemed to me that every speck of dust became 1000 times its usual size. I'd lie back in the recliner and look straight ahead at the small console on which our tv stands. It's a free piece of furniture I snagged during my first week of full time ministry at Good Shepherd. Tyler and I had just moved into our first house with only a set of bedroom furniture and a brown couch. Thus, you can imagine my excitement to find this 1970's beauty cast away sitting in the middle of the church's fellowship hall with a sign saying "Free to a good home." Anyway, this beautifully free piece of furniture happens to magnify every speck of dust that comes within 6 inches of it, and it kills me every day that I can't get up and dust it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not really a clean-freak. On a good week, I'll use my Friday off to take a good sweep through the house, straightening our messes and cleaning the really important stuff (i.e. the germies in the kitchen and bathroom). Sometimes I'll dust...but not usually. Usually I just let that go.

Until I get word that guests are coming to visit. Then, with skyrocketing intensity, I insist that every inch of the house be spotless. It's taken Tyler more than four years to have even the slightest understanding of what it is that compels me to clean like a madwoman (and insist that he do the same) before anyone else can enter the house. He still doesn't totally understand, but has developed some helpful coping mechanisms. I, on the other hand, can't seem to find the antidote for my periodic insanity.

So here I sit, staring at dust particles the size of softballs, knowing that I can't get up and clean them and it would be ridiculous (not to mention harmful for my marriage) if I insist that Tyler do so every day before work.

Why, you ask, would I need to have the TV console clean every day?
Because people are coming to visit every day.

Every other night, someone brings us dinner. Some days, friends stop by randomly, knowing I'm home. I've rarely spent a day without seeing at least one person other than Tyler. It's been fantastic and my spirit feels connected to the world. I'm so very thankful.

But every time someone comes over, I have a minuscule panic attack. The TV console is dusty. Oscar's toys are everywhere on the floor. The paper recycling is overflowing in the dining room, the kitchen is full of dirty dishes, and the refrigerator is stuffed to capacity with leftovers that need to be discarded. Not only this, but whenever someone comes to visit, I hear my Grandmother 's voice in my head reminding me that a good host would always offer her guests a beverage. My thoughts go something like this:

"Can I offer you a drink?" I ask.
"Yes? Okay, well, go ahead and get it yourself. I'm not moving."
I can see my southern grandmother cringe in the background.

So I don't offer a beverage and then I feel guilty about it. I worry that my guests are grossed out by the piles of dishes in the sink. Even more, I feel completely helpless when those same guests actually do the dishes in the sink. Because that's my job. I should be in there preparing to serve them. They are guests in my house, after all.

Hi, my name is Melanie and I have severe hospitality guilt.

When I think about the roots of my guilt, I could blame (or thank) my family, who taught me from an early age how to set a good table, prepare a well-balanced meal, endure conversation for hours on end, and hone my host-antennae to see every empty plate, glass, or stare. But I can't really blame them, truly, because there is something good and helpful about the southern/midwestern hospitality I was raised to know.

I could blame my church, which teaches a faith rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. Deep within these sacred texts are rules and expectations regarding hospitality. When a neighbor comes to your door, invite them in. When someone comes for a visit, offer them your best meal and something to drink. Even Jesus said "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew 25:35) Welcoming is a primary emphasis of Christian scripture; I'd go so far as to say it'd be the eleventh commandment.

But do either of these teachings justify my guilt? Probably not. The truth is, my guilt isn't really about welcoming. I can welcome people into my home just fine. The root of my guilt is perfection. The problem is, I can't show off my perfected hospitality from a recliner. And it drives. me. crazy.
But only because I'm focused on a skewed definition of hospitality.

Biblical (and cultural) hospitality, at its best, is about welcoming and opening oneself to another. It's about seeing beyond ourselves to know what another person might need in order to feel loved and cared for. When Jesus says, "I was hungry and you gave me food," his focus is not on how delicious the meal was, but that someone looked beyond themselves and saw another's need. My guilt does the opposite of that: it causes me to focus on my own sense of purpose and perfection, rather than the true needs of another.

"Please excuse the mess..." I said to a friend who stopped by unexpectedly the other day.
"What mess?" she replied as she moved a few things to make room in the refrigerator for a blessed meal, "your house is WAY more clean than my own...and I'm not even on bed rest! If this is messy to you, I'd hate to have you over to my house right now. Anyway, I just want to help out -- not make more work for you and Tyler."

And it hit me. My friend wasn't here to be served, but to serve. In that moment in time, the best way I could welcome her was to invite her into my mess. She didn't want to see a spotless kitchen, a perfectly clear refrigerator and just-dusted TV console. She wanted to come into the chaos of life, and bring hospitality to me.

In that moment we were both guest and host at the very same time.
I welcomed her into my home, offering what she needed most: to see me and serve me.
She welcomed me into her life, offering what I needed most: grace and a home-cooked meal.

The truth is, our lives are often messy. We run out of time, we are stricken with grief, we encounter the unexpected. None of us are immune to chaos. 

When that chaos happens, we can respond in so many ways. We could close our doors to the outside world, bearing the burden alone. We could politely apologize time after time, potentially passing our guilt onto our guest. We could push our own limits and run ourselves ragged trying to meet every expectation we (or society) holds for us...

...Or, we can just take a deep breath and open ourselves up to the mess that is life.

I know that no one else sees the softball-sized dust particles sitting on the TV console. They're too focused on Tyler, the babies, and me. They're too happy to be able to help in a time of need, celebrating every small milestone with us. They're too busy offering blessed hospitality to me to be concerned about my hospitality to them. 

Sometimes I think that's what God is like: simply wanting to be welcomed into the mess of our lives in order to help, celebrate, and welcome us back in return. God doesn't ask us to have it all together before walking into a faith community. We don't have to close the doors to the "junk room," hiding our clutter. And we certainly don't have to have a perfectly clean table before we sit down for communion.

God only asks that we be willing to open the doors to our hearts, letting the fresh air of grace fill us. 

In some ways, I'm thankful for the dust balls and the dirty dishes. They remind me that I'm human, imperfect and messy. They remind me that I am loved, not just for my skill at organization or achievement, but because I am me. Most of all, they remind me that honestly welcoming others into my life means opening my doors and letting them come in, whether or not I have it all together.

It's been a hard lesson, but I've learned these past weeks that hospitality means so much more than setting a nice table or making sure every guest has a beverage. It's about welcoming neighbor, and welcoming God, into the inevitable mess that is our lives.

So come on in.
It's a little bit dusty, a little bit chaotic,
but all life is like this sometimes.
Why not live it together?


  1. I love your blogs, this one had the both of laughing and for me close to tears. You have that gift to touch people in person and in such posts. You make us feel that we are right there with you, going through this together. You are amazing. Hugs go around to you, Tyler, Gummy Bear and Jr. Mint. Love you guys and miss you too.

  2. Oh, Melanie...in so many ways we're cut from the same mold ;) This was clearly honesty from your soul, and I'm glad you put it on the table. In many ways this time is preparing you for parenthood. As a parent, you'll have so many much much more important things to do than dust, choices to make with your time...for a perfectionist, that sometimes either means letting go of the image of "perfection" in your house or letting go of sleep! As you spend every hour caring for your sweet babies right now, know there are fellow perfectionists nodding in a chorus of understanding :) You are right where you need to be and you see with such wisdom what really matters. Thanks for your post! Love, Christin

  3. my friend, I'm so glad you're allowing yourself to receive the blessing of hospitality from others. Your warmth and presence is so welcoming, no beverage required. :) I'll only worry if the dust-bunnies begin to be larger than Oscar. Love you


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