A friend invited me and four other women to spend the weekend on her family’s houseboat in Kentucky. “Girls’ weekend,” she named and explained her invitation of hospitality at once. A couple relaxing days of swimming, tanning, eating and talking.
She told us what to pack: swimsuit, t-shirts, shorts, flip-flops, snacks. Wine, if we want. Margaritas, if we’re into that. No makeup. She’ll provide big bottles of shampoo and conditioner to share.
We drive north to the marina, shooting up the interstate, chattering about work and husbands and our loveable pets that we’ve left behind for a weekend.
“Hopefully I won’t come back to one thousand emails on Monday, you know?”
“My husband and the dog are going to have lots of quality time together this weekend.”
“My husband is probably playing Clash of Clans nonstop this weekend. Good for him.”
We leave the interstate and meander further north on rural highways, past red barns with black roofs and wooden homes that once sheltered the antebellum well-to-do, but now resemble a grade schooler’s Popsicle stick project.
“The new job is going well, but my team lead has no people skills, and it’s affecting our team’s efficiency.”
“We’d like to have kids relatively soon, but we’re still enjoying life with just us and the dog.”
“We’re doing good. Our first anniversary is next weekend. I’m looking forward to a small weekend getaway we’ve planned.” We drive in and out of cell service areas.
We guide the car down the switchbacks to the lake, hoist our backpacks and grocery bags into the run-about boat they use as a water taxi, and our friend and her dad expertly drive us across the smooth, teal water to the cove where they’ve parked the houseboat for the weekend. All around us are the low but steep slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, covered with a lush canopy of green trees and brush, except for the 10 yards or so of shale and dirt that separates trees from water: Continuous layers of stripes that expose the lake’s past life as a set of valleys that Southerners trimmed down, plugged up, and filled with water so those living nearby could have electricity.
“This is so nice,” everyone comments. “This is going to be so relaxing.”
As we make a final left turn into the cove, our modern world’s layers fall away almost completely. We now have very little cell service. You can’t hear anything but birds and crickets. You can’t see anything but water, trees, and sky; the boat and everyone on it. We still have electricity (courtesy of a generator), running water, and modern conveniences large and small on the boat, but we’re not interested in turning on the television or checking our phones.
As the evening lingers on, more layers disappear. We discuss how hard it is sometimes to be a woman who doesn’t want kids. How it’s tough to bear the well-intentioned but totally discouraging questions from relatives about when we’re going to get married. How some of us don’t want to leave the comfort of our current jobs, but we don’t see a way further up the corporate ladder that matches our ambition, or a way to keep working but not miss our future kids’ childhoods.
Away from the constant churn of our daily lives, we realize that daily life takes a toll on us. We don’t crave a relaxing weekend on a lake. We crave hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.
Henri Nouwen writes about what it takes to form real, genuine, lasting fellowship with others. It doesn’t take a fancy houseboat on which to host a party or a round of margaritas with which to loosen up. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable, and the strength to be someone’s safe place, because:
“In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture, and country, from their neighbours, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable space where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. Although many, we might say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of a fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women, and obligatory for Christians, to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.” Henri Nouwen ~ Reaching Out
What does it mean to offer a space where others can cast off their “strangeness”? Maybe you simply sit and listen to them talk, reserving all judgment. Maybe you listen but then offer advice, because you’ve been where they have, and while they cannot see the path ahead, you can, and you want to guide them. Maybe you ask more questions, in a Socratic method way, not because you want to force a lesson on them, but you want to show that their strangeness isn’t weird but interesting, you accept it, and you want to know more.
What about casting off your strangeness? It takes guts to admit you’re not perfect, especially in an era when picture-perfect lives on display via Facebook and Instagram are not only normal but expected. No one shares that their family is dysfunctional. No one posts about how their aunt couldn’t fully enjoy their family day at the beach because her Parkinson’s doesn’t consistently allow her to have good days. No one tweets quotes from the time their brother-in-law spent Easter calling your husband childish names and bringing up embarrassing stories from past holidays, in the name of reminiscing.
Casting off strangeness – revealing your quirks, your struggles, your shame – so that others can see who you really are and who you are trying to be, takes a lot of strength. We’ve all done things were not proud of, and we don’t want to talk about them, even if those things explain how we act now. We’re all working on traits or habits at which we want to excel, but we’re just not there yet.
At the same time, it takes a willingness to be vulnerable. People don’t always agree with what you’ve done in your life, and sometimes they decide they’re better off not associating anymore any more. They hear your choice of language and decide you are too intense, too uncomfortable, or too ignorant. It’s risky to truly be yourself, and doing so doesn’t always result in the fellowship we crave. We live in a broken world where fear of “strangeness” being contagious is powerful, and putting on layers that let you avoid someone else’s discomfort is often the easier route.
Finally, and maybe most fearfully, it takes trust that once you have taken off your layers, and laid them out for your host to understand, your host will take those layers aside, hang them up out of the way, and say,
This is a safe place. You are welcome here. Every layer of you.
How often do we summon up the courage against the “fearful hostility” Nouwen writes about and let ourselves be “strange”? Probably not often enough. How often do we show the amount of grace it takes to wear away at this fearfulness and let others know they are welcome as they are? Not as frequently as we could.
Nouwen states that most people are capable of offering a hospitable space, and Christians are obligated to do so. We are to look toward Jesus, the master of this skill, and emulate His ability to meet people where they are, understand them perfectly, and minister to their needs. It’s not easy (see: competing, conflicting fear of self-destruction), but it’s necessary if we want to realize the life God intends for us.
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.
I believe everyone is capable of this deeper form of hospitality. As far as I know, not everyone on the boat was a practicing Christian. But the next morning, as the six of us woke up one by one, we silently reinforced the hospitable space we had constructed the night before. The first person up made coffee for everyone. The next person set out the breakfast pastries. We wandered up to the top deck, or found a spot on the couch, and got lost in a book or a drawing journal, giving the others time and space to sleep, to dream, and to think. Once everyone was awake, we continued our conversations as we felt led to. We took off all jewelry, even wedding rings, not as a rebellious gesture but as a way of eliminating any final layers that might mark us as members of different sisterhoods. (And, we didn’t want to lose anything in the lake.)
We let ourselves be ourselves as we splashed into the lake, sunned on the deck, and generally took in this wonderful gift of a weekend away from everything. The water, the trees and the sky didn’t mind our strangeness. Neither did we. It felt like a glimpse of the perfect, peaceful, joyous fellowship that awaits us in heaven. It’s a mantra I hope I can practice more often at home, with my husband, my family and any strangers who cross my path.
This is a safe place. You are welcome here. Every layer of you.