This could be a story about a cat. That’s true even though house cats never appear once in the Bible—a popular “factoid” which, I promise, won’t be debated here. Therefore, this little story is not about a cat. Yet that’s where it starts, with a cat—the last thing I’d expect to consider in a story on hospitality. Moreover, a cat was the last thing I expected to see last summer and fall, sashaying through my house.
Ah, yes. My house. That’s how I thought of our rumpled 30-year-old suburban Denver tract home. We’ve lived here going on 28 years. Thus, every room, wall, table, bed, bath, and candle had its place—settled, indeed, into itself—unyielding to change, entrenched in its role as our little corner of God’s world.
Fifteen long years had passed since my younger daughter Alana married the love of her life and left our home.
But life has surprises. Thus, this story starts with a cat. Or better, with a phone call from my younger daughter.
“Guess what! We’re moving back home!”
My daughter meant to Colorado. I held the phone close to my ear.
“Back home! Oh, my goodness! Wonderful. Such great news!”
Her call, in fact, was an answer to prayer.
Fifteen long years had passed since my younger daughter Alana married the love of her life and left our home. She’d followed her husband Paul to new jobs and cities, visiting sporadically when they could. For the most part, however, she was a long-distance daughter. Now also a mommy of three young children, she and her family were essentially absent loved ones. This status left a big chunky hole in the daily existence of my husband Dan and me—two grumbly empty nesters. We despaired, indeed, that our older daughter also lived in a different state, hundreds of miles away.
Thus, we pounded heaven with this daily prayer: Close the distance, Lord!
And so, as He is known to do—the Lord came through. “When! When will you arrive?” I asked her.
“Well, next week!” Alana said. She’d landed a wonderful new job. Her husband agreed to support the move. They needed to stay with us “for just a little while,” she said. All good, but my next question:
“What about the cat?”
“What do you mean, ‘What about the cat?’”
“You’re bringing the cat?” I asked, struggling to envision Mittens—she who must be obeyed, who pounces on kitchen counters, cooktops, dining room tables, desks, couches, beds, and window blinds—living in my house.
More silence. Then:
I offered a little laugh. This is where domestic tensions often land—in the nether parts of that emotion-packed label, especially when it’s said that way.
So Alana repeated it. “Mom! Mittens is part of our family.”
“Maybe you could find a nice home for her? Before you move back?” I offered.
My daughter rolled her eyes, almost surely. “Mom!”
Which meant, “We’re moving to Colorado—and so is Mittens.” And with that, Dan and I would now learn to practice Christian hospitality. But involving a cat.
Welcome the Outcast Jesus
Hospitality? The concept seizes our imaginations. Desperate families worldwide are pleading for asylum from war and violence. The problem is crushing. Every minute of every day, 31 people become refugees, 52 percent of them children, says the United Nations Refugee Agency. Some 132 million will need humanitarian aid in 2019. The crisis has polarized politics and nations as even believers debate over the Bible’s call to open our homes and arms. Searching for wisdom, I found countless articles, books, and scriptures on hospitality. They made lovely points. Love your neighbor. See the outcast Jesus in every guest. Welcome strangers. Love the sojourner, for you were sojourners in Egypt.
Yes. But what about family? Coming back home? (With a cat?)
I felt lost for answers as Alana and her brood pulled into our driveway in their two mini-vans, each packed to the roof. They unloaded the haul as our little grandchildren, delighted to be out of the car, hugged Dan and me over and over, and we skipped around our front yard all day together. And then the sun went down and the entire family moved inside. For a long time. Not “a little while,” but the calendar changed seasons, and weeks turned into months. Four and a half of them.
But it felt long. May I say that? Yes, that hospitality—rightly exalted as gospel-centered table ministry—called forth a readiness from Dan and me as round-the-clock hosts, and we wore out.
Why, though? Were our hearts not right?
Jesus would understand that question. As He well knows, most of us don’t help out of love, but because despairing people keep knocking. Yet answering is hard. We can’t do it on our own. We need the Holy Spirit to help us make yet another pot of spaghetti that vanishes in an instant, when a household has grown overnight from two people to seven.
I felt overwhelmed. I was also challenged by Jesus’ disciple Peter urging followers to “cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay” (1 Peter 4:9 NLT). Or as the NIV version puts it: “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
These were vital words, of course. When they were written, Christians were getting slaughtered for refusing to worship Roman emperors and gods. As they fled persecution, Peter urged: Take them in. I understood that. And yet? Dan and I grumbled—to ourselves and to God. Because hospitality changes everything.
As Jesus well knows, most of us don’t help out of love, but because despairing people keep knocking.
We suddenly lacked enough bedrooms, bathrooms, windows, and doors. The washer and dryer, kitchen, oven, and stove got fired up nonstop, with me suddenly the designated cook—as Alana and Paul went off to work—and I was left as full-time summer babysitter.
An introvert, I struggled to find quiet time to recharge. Grumpy? I smiled a lot at our family house guests, giving the appearance of welcoming love. But here’s the real thing about opening our hearts and homes: It means making room for difference. Yes, for other people’s other ways.
Accepting the Outsider
Here’s what is true: Wayfarers need our love. Yes, as Christ loves.
In theory, I understood all of it. But I was struggling in ways I didn’t understand. I like to entertain, for example—welcoming and feeding friends, using my late mom’s dishes and silverware.
But look at this: Hospitality isn’t about Mama’s old silver. In other words, it’s not at all about the house but the guests. Thus, this story returns, again, to that darn cat. Mittens. In dry Colorado, she was often thirsty—but also finicky. Thus, a dish of fresh water wasn’t good enough. Mittens preferred fresh, running water. So, my 1980s house complied—with a wet bar (remember those things?)—located in our family room.
To slake the cat’s thirst, the children took to turning the faucet on and letting it run. And run. And run. The cat, in that way, would have an endless supply of the fresh, running water she craved. Yes, all day.
Oh, how the cat loved that water. It was her personal refreshment bar. At any moment, at her convenience, she’d hop onto the wet bar, sticking her tiny pink tongue under the trickling water, and drink with full cat entitlement. Why, indeed, wouldn’t she—a beautiful feline—not have access to her own glistening font of H₂O?
“But children,” I said, in my sweetest voice, after finding the faucet running—again and again and again. How else could I say it? “Turn off the faucet!” And, “It’s a faucet—not a fountain. We can’t let it run all day.”
“But Grammy,” they replied, in unison. “Mittens is thirsty.”
“But children,” I told them. “Grammy’s water bill is SKY HIGH!”
The look they gave me was priceless. It asked, “What’s a water bill?”
And this is how things turned theological. Because these three little children, by their undying love for their little cat, were inviting me simply to understand that in hospitality, my water isn’t my water, nor my faucet my faucet, nor my house my house. All are God’s. I’m just the receiver. As hospitality expert Christine Pohl has said, “Good hosts discover … they are themselves beloved guests of God’s grace.”
That’s what I needed to see: God works in God’s houses. (And slakes thirst with His water.) Jesus already has accomplished the results. The Lord is just waiting on us to welcome folks in. Then by His grace, He turns on faucets, lights, and stoves as we share Him.
In hospitality, my water isn’t my water, nor my faucet my faucet, nor my house my house.
Oswald Chambers, the beloved late evangelist, said it this way: “The Cross of Jesus Christ is not the cross of a martyr, but the door whereby God keeps open house for the universe. Anyone can go in through that door.”
His words strike home. My daughter and her family aren’t believers. Their long stay with us was a natural opportunity to walk in witness for the Lord. Yes, not to “do” hospitality—not in our own strength—but to let the Holy Spirit blow a fresh breeze of love around the kitchen table.
Which is where this story ends.
Dan and I stopped trying so hard. We sat and talked more with our guests. If dinner burned, we laughed. If dishes sat in the sink, they sat. Says Pohl, “People know they are welcome when hosts share their lives and not just their skills or their space.”
In that way, we shared our God. He is living water. And what’s our job? To pass the cup—even to a cat.
Illustrations by Greg Clarke