Inhospitality is the new Hospitality

My column for The Antelope County News November 18,2020.

Five years ago, Mike and I bought a new table. Moving to Neligh, we were concerned if the table would fit in the parsonage. Without its leaves it seats eight but with leaves it expands and expands again to seat twenty. We love being hospitable. We love having our whole big family, our six brilliant, funny kids and their significant others and friends gathered around the table eating delicious food. We love having guests. Our guest book, currently sitting unused and lonely in the entryway after all these COVID-19 months, is filled with the names of exchange students, refugees, friends passing through town, church members and neighbors who’ve given us the great gift of their time and good company around our table over the years.

When I think of Jesus, I think of all the meals he shared. He ate with his friends, with tax collectors and “sinners,” he oversaw the feeding of 5,000 people and 4,000 people in the first-ever church “pot-luck” suppers. Jesus cooked breakfast on the lakeshore for his friends and gathered them together around the table in a meal we still remember in worship when we take communion.

Gathering for meals is holy. Gathering for meals is important. Hospitality is part of living life to its fullest.

This year, Mike’s birthday falls on Thanksgiving. Any other year, we would be gathering the whole crew, in-laws and out-laws and stragglers without somewhere else to be and we’d be hosting a whole house-full for a feast around our big table. Instead, because of how much we love all those we’d ordinarily invite to join us and all their co-workers and neighbors with whom they’ll be in contact in the days and weeks after Thanksgiving, we won’t be hosting anyone at the parsonage for dinner.  COVID-19 is running amok in Nebraska. So, Mike and I will be sitting across from each other, just the two of us at our big table, feasting on the goodness of God’s love and giving thanks for faith and friends and family far away.

Gathering for meals is holy. So is not gathering in order to preserve each other’s health. Gathering for meals is important. So is knowing it is not the season to gather. Hospitality is part of living life to its fullest. So is foregoing the parties this year so those we love are alive to be with us next year.

Jesus, out of love, gave his life for us. Sad as it will be, we too, can give, really just a little, we can give up our Thanksgiving traditions this year. This one time, the most hospitable thing we can do is to be inhospitable, limiting who sits at our feast tables even as we celebrate the unlimited goodness of God.

Doing Old Good Things New Good Ways

My column for The Elgin Review November 4, 2020

The smell of turkey roasting wafted up from the basement as I ran from there up the three flights of stairs to the top floor on the far end of my sprawling dorm, Clay Hall. My room was the only place I had access to a telephone in those dark ages before limitless long distance and phones that weren’t wired into the walls. It was on three south. Breathlessly, I dialed the number I’d memorized before heading to kindergarten, (402) 453-2384. Mother answered and when I said, “Mom,” she called out, “Marshall, it’s Becky again, get on the extension.” (In the dark ages there were no speaker phones). Daddy picked up the phone in their bedroom. They both laughed when I gasped and then asked my question, gave me a quick answer, told me they loved me and I flew back down the stairs.

When I learned I was the Resident Assistant with dorm duty for the Thanksgiving weekend, I was sad. I’d never missed a Thanksgiving Dinner with my family. The tv tuned to football, grandpa breaking dried bread into pieces in the big stainless bowl that only came out for stuffing, Mother sautéing celery and onion, perfect pumpkin pies baking in the oven upstairs, while the turkey roasted in Grandma’s old apartment downstairs, and me preparing a relish tray and setting the table with a pretty lace cloth, the once-a-year china and silverware I’d polished the week before.

Here I was, twenty-one years old, in Oklahoma, far away from Omaha preparing Thanksgiving Dinner in the little apartment of the Dorm Mother who’d gotten to go home. The guests would be the stragglers; foreign students and those who had no way to get home or no friends to go home with for the holiday. And I, whose prior culinary skills were mostly mac-n-cheese, beanie-weenies and chocolate chip cookies was cooking the kind of dinner my mother, an exquisite cook, always prepared for Thanksgiving. Two weeks earlier her letter arrived along with recipe cards for dressing, cranberry ice and pumpkin pie. In it she detailed, “Becky dear, for the dressing you will want to start two days ahead by setting the bread out to dry…”

My father laughed so hard he cried when on one of my forty-eleven breathless phone calls home I asked what to do with that weird little bag of stuff I pulled out of the turkey along with the dressing. “What? Mother asked, giggling. “You were supposed to take that out before you stuffed and roasted the turkey!” “What do I do with it?” I insisted. They told me to throw it out and promised never to tell anyone what I’d done.

My parents and I laughed through that day. Though I wasn’t home, it is one of my all-time favorite holiday memories. I still have the letter my mother wrote to me, the recipe cards she sent, and my notes from those phone calls home scrawled on little lime-green squares of paper from a note cube that sat on my dormitory desk. I’ll be pulling out the recipes and age-stained instructions in Mother’s beautiful script three weeks from now as I prepare a meal this year for Mike and me.

This year loving our families and our neighbors at Thanksgiving means not getting together unless we can all quarantine for two full weeks before and then for another two weeks after Thanksgiving. It feels terrible thinking about it.

We’re not traveling to share the holiday in Minneapolis with cousins and our Minnesota kids. Our Lincoln, NYC and Pittsburgh offspring aren’t heading here, either. Instead, we’ll be calling each other on the phone or “Zooming,” comparing cooking notes, laughing and giving thanks for the technology that allows us to be together even as this pandemic keeps us apart. We’ll share cooking tips, and laugh at cooking disasters, rejoice in our good fortune, and look forward to being together next year when COVID-19 has run its course and scientists have had time to develop a vaccine. If it’s warm enough to eat outside, who knows? Maybe local friends can safely join us for a feast on our patio.

I hope you are beginning to make your plans for how you will keep each other and our community safe this Thanksgiving. God will certainly be happy to receive our gratitude whether we’re together or apart. Who knows? Years from now, our memories of the year the pandemic upended our holiday traditions may be among our fondest.

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You are always welcome to join us for worship at Park Congregational United Church of Christ, ten miles west of Elgin on HWY 70 and ½ mile south. Worship is at 9:15 am and available on Zoom. I love to hear from you. beckyzmcneil@gmail.com.