My plan was to run into and out of Goodwill. I was searching for mid-century barware. The thought of finding it as a gift for my husband had my hunter-gatherer adrenaline rushing. As I stepped out of my car, a woman approached me from behind. After I recovered from being startled, I realized she wanted to note that she and I were driving the same model, year and color Subaru.

While chatting, we moved from the parking lot to the sidewalk. By the time the conversation had ended, (which in my mind, I had to wind down for us), she had shared with me details of her car-ownership history, including the fact she used to drive Volvos, how many miles were on her Subaru, and her service and repair history. This quick Goodwill pit-stop was clearly not about me. My gut told me perhaps it wasn’t about the car. Maybe she was lonely. More importantly, perhaps I was called to practice spontaneous hospitality.

I did not need to offer a physical place at my table, an elaborate meal, or a cleverly designed invitation. I was invited to give the gift of my time. The gift of myself. A little rushed, hot and hurried. Scant offerings. What I had.

I was more weepy than normal in church on Sunday. Black mascara gushing down my cheeks like a busted ink pen is always a dead give-away. My family has known T.J., the rector in our Anglican church, for over twenty years. From the lectern he told a powerful story. I know him to be a man of integrity and compassion. I also know that he lived for years among the Haitian people with his wife and then young children. I also know him to be human.

Once while in Haiti, T.J. encountered a woman on a dirt path. She was wailing and weeping, hovering in grief over the body of a man, presumably that of her husband. From the lectern he tells in an honest, humble and raw tone of his reaction to this grief-stricken Haitian woman.

As he approached her, he took the way around, past and beyond her. Overwrought with excruciating pain at her loss, she wept in a way he had never heard before. He neither offered to help her, pray with her or sit with her. He did not meet her in the eyes.

I have ruminated on this story all week. Considered every angle. And then lived my own version of it. Admittedly more than once. In our shared humanity, each of us reacts with emotion from our deep soul places. We recall times when our compassion dried up. Or we panicked. Or we chose wrongly. We recall times of indecision or fear. Or simply our weakness in another’s time of need. When I recall my own moments of falling short, it brings me profound sadness and regret.

Spontaneous hospitality welcomes the broken, the lost, the hurting into our lives. It mends and meets right where the hurt occurs. Gently embraces the now. Takes the pulse of the needy. Provides a soul balm, like a medic called to the scene. When we love on the run and in the moment, we can be hospitals for the weary, the busted, the lonely. If we have the heart of God.

The mystery of the resurrection fern, growing on each piece of a downed pecan tree limb in our backyard holds lessons for me. Dried and brittle the fern sustains itself on the tree limb. Once it is watered or showered by the rain, the fern becomes green, lush and vibrant. It remains in a state of pseudo-dormancy, once it is fed it thrives.

spontaneous hospitality

Until it is watered, it is dry.

We pour life into one another when we practice spontaneous hospitality. Parched, hungry, grieving people that we are. Our everyday paths hold the wounded and hurting. We are the limping and imperfect reaching out and offering small sips of cool drink from the goblet of our lives. Too often I walk around, past and away from the grieving in the path of my everyday.

I place myself within last Sunday’s sermon story. And examine my capacity for spontaneous love, prayer, and aid to a broken body or soul. Sadly, I can put myself on that dirt path with the wailing woman in Haiti. I am the one diverting my eyes, withholding a cool glass of water, shielding my heart from the needs of a broken soul.

Last Sunday at brunch, after church with the family, we gathered around a large table and drooled over a wonderful brunch menu. (Why does church make us so hungry?) I looked up from my menu and met the eyes of a beautiful young girl who was pouring our water glasses. I realized that I was engrossed in conversation with my family at the expense of honoring her by saying thank you. She was invisible, until our eyes met and I attempted to thank her, acknowledge her and ask about her day. Her countenance changed at that moment of “how are you”.

How often have I allowed people on my radar to simply remain invisible, to fade into the background. Remain a fuzzy test pattern in my vibrant technicolor world. Allowed the cheerful servant to serve me without engaging her, reaching out to meet her in our shared humanity.

Spontaneous hospitality breathes deep, inhales the nuanced need of the now. It says, enough is enough of ignoring what we in fact see and know as small opportunities for extending offerings of love. It slows down and steps up.

Everyday hospitality may not find us on a dirt road in Haiti. It may find us on an Instagram feed. It may mean we stop scrolling long enough to speak words of encouragement or pray for an obvious need. It may mean picking up the phone and calling a friend who you feel is decidedly absent in your life.

Often our most valuable asset is our time. Giving time, making space to be present, slowing down to make eye contact, hold a door, give up our place in line to the man with two items. These acts of embracing others may soften our hearts for the Haitian dirt roads ahead.

For all the times others have given me the gift of a long conversation and a listening ear, an invitation to write, to be a friend or to speak words of encouragement I say, thank you. To all those who have loved me in my hurt, my brokenness and pain, thank you. Your hospitality of the soul was deeply felt and appreciated.

I long for more opportunities to practice at the art of spontaneous hospitality. Remembering with humble gratitude the offerings that have been given me.

I learned from my daughter recently about a South Carolina law, one that is apparently common in many places. It states that when building a fence, one is bound to put the more attractive side of the fence facing the neighbor’s yard.

I long to present the best and most beautiful side to my neighbors, strangers and those who are placed on my path. It will take practice. Perhaps a lifetime of practice. No rule or law will facilitate this change. But simply meeting the eyes of a stranger, when we always have the choice to look away, this may be the simplest act of hospitality.

Elizabeth Marshall / Posts / Blog
Elizabeth Wynne Marshall is a writer, poet, blogger. A lover of grace & the sea she spends her days living and writing out the beautiful ordinary in a life lived by the sea. Her words may be found at her writing home, elizabeth w. marshall, poetry & prose through a lens of grace. On twitter & instagram, she is @graceappears.
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    Tamara Gonzalez

    Your words tie in perfectly with the message I heard in church yesterday–the reminder to be fully present, fully engaged, with the people in our company. “Spontaneous hospitality breathes deep, inhales the nuanced need of the now.” Thank you for these words.

    July 25th, 2016 10:23
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      Elizabeth Marshall

      Tamara, thank you for sitting beside me here, at the table…in community. I’m grateful for your encouragement. This spontaneous graciousness can be challenging for me. Even this morning I disappointed myself. Again. Let’s encourage one another to do small things. In love.

      July 25th, 2016 12:56
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    Jerusha Agen

    Elizabeth, this is a message that God has been laying on my heart lately. Thank you for your beautiful and well-timed post. You’ve given me the extra push and conviction I needed! I also appreciate the different perspective you’ve offered that even the “small” things of gifting our time for conversation can be showing mercy and hospitality to others. You make showing hospitality seem more doable!

    July 25th, 2016 12:02
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      Elizabeth Marshall

      Jerusalem, it is a pleasure to Thank you for carving out space and time in your day for this GraceTable post. I’m grateful. I’m cheering you on. You will be a joy bringer and mercy bearer to those around you. Of that I am certain
      God bless.

      July 25th, 2016 18:20
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    Leah Adams

    We pour life into one another when we practice spontaneous hospitality. That is so convicting…and encouraging. In the mess of grief that I have lived over the past year and a half, I fear I have failed to pour life into others. Thank you for a beautiful reminder to be present. Beautiful, beautiful post.

    July 25th, 2016 14:06
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    Jolene Underwood

    Oh, Elizabeth. This is so, so good. This message is needed! Thank you for sharing your heart here and encouraging my own. Acts of spontaneous hospitality can be such a beautiful weaving of God’s heart to the world around us. Love it.

    July 25th, 2016 18:14
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    Nancy H

    Such a wonderful post!

    July 26th, 2016 17:59
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    I too just parked next to and chatted with a lady with the same make, model, year and color of car as me! 🙂 Man, this post grabbed me in the gut because I have definitely been the one to withhold hospitality with my time. It makes me uncomfortable how easily I can relate to your pastor’s story. It calls me to confront my deepest humanity. I am challenged by the concept of “hospitality of the soul.” It’s the kind that Jesus showed.

    August 3rd, 2016 10:18
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    Been thinking lots about hospitality. First because I have moved to a new community and we do not know many people. Second this summer hospitality has been part of the teaching on Sunday at Church.

    August 16th, 2016 17:08

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