In recent years, you can occasionally hear me say, “I could live in a commune.” I’m usually saying this in response to discussions of Christian community and the needs within a community. I even bring it up when talking about discipleship development. Though I’ve never lived in a commune, I suppose that all of my years between age 18 and 29 were spent somewhat communally due to 7 years of dorm life for college and graduate school and living with roommates on the college campus where I worked for the other years.
However, I remember voicing my feelings about all those years of togetherness when I moved into my house by myself 4.5 years ago: “The next roommate that I want to have is a husband!” Not that a husband was on the horizon or that I didn’t enjoy living “in community,” but I was looking forward to a little bit of space. So you can imagine my surprise when I hear myself say, as I occasionally do, “I could live in a commune.” How did I get to that decision in 4.5 years? Well, only because of some lessons in hospitality.
Lesson 1: Always keep guest room available. When I moved into my 2-bedroom house, I vowed that I would keep the second room available as a guest room for friends or family coming through town. I realized that the readiness of that room represented the seriousness of my claim. I often found the guest bed filled with out of season clothes, or Christmas decorations, or laundry that I hadn’t had time to fold, and thus, was in no shape to welcome a guest. So, my first challenge came in having clean sheets on the bed, a tidy room to welcome a visitor, and food in the cupboard to prepare a quick meal. But, having a room ready for friends and family, well, that isn’t radically hospitable, now is it? It really is just being nice! It is another thing entirely to offer hospitality to someone that you don’t know, and someone who can’t repay you. I suppose that I’m still in the novice category for that, but I’ve been willing to try, even if it is offering a meal or sharing an evening.
I’ve learned from opening my home to others (students, friends, family or friends of students, and an occasional visitor to campus) that opening my home is a vulnerable act. What if they notice a cobweb? What if the bed is uncomfortable? What if it isn’t as tidy as their house? What if they peek at a closet full of prom and bridesmaid dresses and harass me? But, hospitality is radical in that it requires a sacrifice of sorts. My visitor could reject my hospitality (or me!). But it is life-giving when it is received. Knowing that someone else feels comfortable in my home is a privilege in which I most keenly feel what it means that one is blessed to be a blessing.
Lesson 2: Be prepared to open your home for extended stay visitors. The true test of sharing a guest room comes when someone needs a home for a period of time—it’s one thing to host someone, truly another to live with them! My first summer in my house, a student asked if she could live with me as she worked at the church where she and I both attended. I stopped to think: What about boundaries? What about privacy (my house is great for me, but a rather small house!)? What about the extra cost (I was living with little margin at that time)? And yet, the decision was clear…she needed a place to stay and I wanted to offer it to her. That summer went well, and I realized that while I had been worried about privacy, I was grateful for her presence in my life. I suppose that good “hospitality” experience led me to others…first an international student who needed a home for a month, then to a friend who needed a home for a summer, and now, to a family member who needs a home for a year. The presence of these others in my life and in my home has taught me much about willingness to invite others into my life. And it has taught me gratitude…to appreciate what God has given me. I remember a seminary professor who invited a group of students to his house to watch a movie and discuss it. As we got settled into their beautiful home, he said, “Thanks for letting our house do what it was intended to do…to glorify God!” As such, my house has been able to do that, and I have been the richer.
Lesson 3: Move from ownership-thinking to stewardship-thinking. I suppose that one other lesson that relates to my perceived ability to live communally has to do with my thoughts on ownership. Or should I say, stewardship. I’ve always been a pretty frugal person, but when I began to take seriously what I found in scripture, I began to see that possessions are often a roadblock to our relationship with Christ. They can get in the way of following Christ (rich young ruler—Matthew 19:16-22), or we can get distracted by greed (building bigger barns—Luke 12:13-21). But when I think of what I “own” as “stewardship,” my stuff doesn’t own me. I can freely give away what I have when someone else needs it. If my stuff breaks, it doesn’t break my heart, it makes me examine if I need to replace it. I’ve also learned that if I’m patient and willing to wait to purchase something, I can usually find a great used item. My whole house (which is decorated pretty well, if I do say so myself) is furnished with items I’ve been given, purchased used, and with only a (small) handful of things purchased new. Thinking of ownership as stewardship has also made me a more generous giver. I’m willing to give to others when I have been a recipient of someone else’s generosity.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever live in a communal living environment, but I do think that the lessons in hospitality that I’ve learned have given me insight into how one truly lives out Acts 2:42-47, especially verses 44-46.
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”
When learning how to live in community, we exemplify the heart of God for unity, provision, and gladness. This kind of living does, however, involve vulnerability, gratitude, and generosity. And it also gives us encounters with God and God’s people that help us experience true Christian community. There is an unglamorous side to living in community—I remember from all those years of dorm life! But regardless of who lives with us, we can practice hospitality and live with values of the shared life as a way of both living out and developing our faith—and the faith of others—even more.