What expectations do I put on the stranger invited to my Christmas table?
I don’t think I’ve really stopped to consider that.
I know I’ve been raised in churches that preach and encourage me to welcome the stranger in at Christmastime (and during many other times throughout the year); I know that we are to welcome people in for they are cold, hungry, lonely, lost, oppressed, and downtrodden just as Mary and Joseph were; just as Christ was; that we are to welcome them because these people might even be angels.
Yet in the glow of my feel-good-about-myself outreach, I forget to reflect on the kinds of true realities these strangers may be enduring all throughout my terrific meal. Why should I? These people aren’t alone for Christmas (because of me!). I’m welcoming them into our family. They are welcome, they are warm, they are fed, they are given gifts, they are loved on.
At least they’re not alone.
When I stop to consider the number of times I’m lonely amidst a sea of people — even people I know — and still expected to be filled with their goodwill, cheer, encouragement, and joy, I pause to think: does the stranger feel the same way?
Christmastime is often dreadfully hard for millions of people. Life doesn’t stop for Christmas. People die, accidents happen, wars displace millions, genocides continue, hunger gnaws on, trafficking keeps raking in the money, and cancer diagnoses are handed down.
And then there are the memories.
It may have been ten years since one’s child or father passed away, but still the stark empty place at Christmas dinner is a stinging reminder of grief and loss. Perhaps abuse or addictions have broken families apart, jobs have been lost, or eviction notices have been posted (or all of the above and more), but people find themselves without home or shelter. Remembering what was — the tinsel and glitter of what used to be — or aching for what never was can be soul-sucking.
And I expect strangers to feel at home in my home. I expect them to suddenly feel like family?
When the only person an isolated spouse wants is their oil field-working partner, how am I suddenly a good substitute? When everyone around the table is a stranger to the stranger, how am I seeing life through the stranger’s eyes?
Does this mean I rescind all holiday invitations for people to come and enjoy a Christmas dinner, a New Year’s hangout, or some holiday warmth and shelter? Not at all!
It means I need to choose within myself to begin to see how these invitations affect the strangers through the stranger’s eyes. It means I place no expectation of gratitude or joy on anyone else when I give a gift. It means that if someone sharing my table is uncomfortable for reasons all their own, I accept this as okay and supported. It means I begin to empathize with the realities my neighbors and strangers are living through, and craft my invitations with this sensitivity in mind.
It means I extend these invitations because I, too, know the pain and grief that piles up at Christmas time. When I tap into that dark space — really dig into it — I begin to mine wisdom about what kinds of helps and supports truly met me where I was, and which ones didn’t.
I know when I’m lonely for specific people, it’s hard to accept an invitation to another’s home for dinner because I’m not with the folks I desperately ache to be with. It’s a difficult time to enjoy, even though the invitation and experience are both freely given and well prepared.
I know when I’m not sleeping in a familiar bed, I sense that physical warmth and shelter are cared for, but true rest? That’s almost impossible to find. One can be sincerely grateful for a cot in a large room of cots, and also be exhausted and in despair.
I know that when I land on a dark anniversary around the holidays, being around others who are festive and jolly can be a living horror story. It’s not that the others around me ought not to be making merry. Rather I can’t enter into the merriment when there’s such a traumatic collision of both light and darkness. It’s asking too much of me.
These are only a few of the spaces strangers find themselves in when I invite them into my home. There are so many more reasons why they are overwhelmed, frustrated, unsure, anxious, quiet, too loud, embarrassed, tense, or depressed. Truth be told, when I enter into my own dark spaces, I begin to see that these strangers are me. These people aren’t strangers at all. We may not have walked through precisely the same circumstances, but darkness and loneliness finds us all eventually. These things are no respecter of persons.
The strange welcome then becomes a place of refuge and sanctuary for friends as yet unmet. I know that my meal or bed or gift or presence will not heal all wounds or comfort all lostness. I know my offering isn’t a cure. I know my love is inadequate at best.
With this new wisdom — mined from the depths of my own honesty and darkness — I can enter into this strange welcome just as I would hope strangers would enter into my home. It’s a new place, a fantastic place, and an awkward place.
It is a place of small things with great love.
It is a place of awakenings.