Chatting with Paige: Hospitality in the difficult and simple places

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I am so happy to be back with the second part of my interview with Paige Gutacker. Thank you for being patient! You can find the first part about prayer here.

In this second installment we delve into the layers of hospitality and what it means for us and our communities, and how it plays out in our homes. I know that Paige's words will inspire you during this season of Advent to show bold hospitality to your friends, neighbors, and strangers.

Mary: Paige, you said one time, I think during our movie night a few weeks ago, that you and Paul feel like God has entrusted your house to you. That really stuck with me because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone talk about their house like that. How does this outlook influence your decisions when it comes to inviting people into your home?

Paige: This is good. This is big. It is exciting for us as first time homeowners to feel like we have a thing that is bigger than we needed, but not just in square-footage. We didn't need original hardwood floors from 1912 and huge moldings and tall ceilings. We didn't need anything but preferably a 2-bedroom apartment so that I could have a home office. We didn't need anything near what we've been given and we're super aware for a number of reasons how this is kind of a flukey blessing. I mean, this is a Magnolia Homes home! That doesn't happen to people.

Mary: Everyone who reads this interview is going to be like, 'What?! Oh my gosh! Chip and JoJo!'

Paige: Yes! This doesn't just happen to people! We put the offer in for this house 3 days before the Fixer Upper pilot aired. The Gaines’ weren't anyone to speak of on a national scale. The house actually fell into our price bracket because no one wanted to live on this side of town, which is heartbreaking. We love living here.

To give a little pre-Waco background, we had been living in basement suites for 3 years. Our first apartment in Vancouver was a place of real suffering for me. It only had one small, high, north-facing window that looked out onto a driveway (usually with a car further blocking the light) with a gray wall on the other side. There was no window in our bedroom, which was also my home office. To make matters worse, I only had a desktop when we moved to Canada, so I had to spend 40 hours a week in a room with no windows. I got really depressed, really emotional, and started to crack. So we made some changes. Paul gave me a basic laptop for my birthday (best husband EVER), which helped, but we had a 2-year lease so we had to stay for that amount of time. After those years the opportunity opened up to move nearby to another basement apartment, but this time with a huge window, a room set aside for my office, and an incredible landlord upstairs who was a part mentor, part grandmother type. It was the start of this progression toward having more than we needed.

Hosting-wise, one of the things I know about myself is that God is calling me into hospitality that is beyond the hospitality I feel equipped for.

Ever since college I've been really interested in hospitality as a subject and a practice. We started a number of different hospitality practices when we first got married 7 1/2 years ago. We would have ‘open house night' on Wednesdays our first year of marriage in our little cottage on the hill in Tennessee. Anyone could come over and bring a snack, and if it was a nice night we'd sit outside by the fire, overlooking the valley and the distant train down below. That practice was stretching for me because I like to know who is coming, and when they're coming. I have a lot of anxiety and a fair bit of social anxiety, so I like avoiding unknowns, but that's just not been part of God's plan for me with hospitality in a lot of ways.

For our second year of marriage we lived in a community house with 5 other people. It was one of the most profound, stretching, hard, wonderful times of our lives. In that context we had a lot of opportunities to host because there were a lot of people that we all knew and so our house became the community hub. We learned how to cook food for a ton of people and other things needed for hosting big groups, so that was an important setting for us. 

Our three years at Regent College saw our hospitality become an extension of care toward friends who are hurting. I don't know the reasons for this, the answer to why the people around us seemed to be hurting so deeply, other than perhaps the fact that theological training uproots you in some ways before it gives you space to re-root. Regardless, a lot of our friends were really going through transition and pain in a lot of areas of life. It got to the point where Paul and I would keep a box of Kleenex and candles on the coffee table so that when someone came over we'd be ready to just put the tea kettle on and light a candle and sit down. People would just come over and cry—a lot of people for a while, and Paul and I were like, “I think maybe God has something for us here.” This was different than 'Ra-ra' hospitality where you pour someone a drink and there's a lot of laughter. So that was an important part of that season for us. 

But all that as background maybe just to say that I had a really profound experience just before we left Regent with this incredible man named Jim Houston. He is the founding president of Regent College and, at age 93, still teaches a class every now and again. What you need to know about Jim Houston is that he is Bilbo Baggins. He's Scottish and he was an Oxford Professor when J.I. Packer was coming through.

The thing we had heard about Jim Houston before we went to Regent was that he is prophetic in a gentle grandfatherly way where he just sort of reads you, which had always been really scary for me. During our time at Regent I hadn’t had any interaction except for this one time he saw me staring at him in the bookstore because I think he's really cute, haha, and he was like, 'Oh hello there!' and I was like, 'Hiiiiiii...' and I ran away with my coffee. Other than that, we hadn't had any encounters until we were getting ready to move away and decided we had to have coffee with Dr. Houston before we left. It had to be done. Paul had taken a class with him on Psalms and at the end of the class, Paul came up to introduce himself and Dr. Houston said, ‘Paul, I’m looking forward to you coming by.’ Just like that. It was bizarre. It was wonderful. Jim Houston had this reputation at Regent of having a rotating front door and back door where one Regent student would come in and be counseled and go out the back door as another came in at the front door. That's how he was talked about.

So anyway, we asked if we could get together and he invited us over for dinner and made us this wonderful meal. His wife was in a nursing home at the time, so it was just him, and I'll never forget how delicious the berries and cream were.

After dinner he sat us down on the couch and started asking us questions. He's this brilliant sociologist, among other things, and he kept saying something about 'The Other.' He was working on designing a class on “Sources of the Self,” I think, and said something along the lines of “we are persons for The Other.” His wording of ‘The Other' got to me. I felt prompted to say, 'Dr. Houston, I think I've always been afraid of The Other.' And it brought tears to my eyes out of nowhere. I told him how I’d always tried to surround myself with people who were just like me, and he said it goes back to childhood. I told him that when I was 11 I got really sick and I was afraid to go out because I was afraid I would get sick in public. That's the first anxiety I can sort of remember. He said that’s probably where this comes from, and that he could relate because he was isolated and ill as a boy, such that by age 16 he was ‘fatty, dunce, and awkward.’ He had zero sense of self-worth and would have apologized wherever he went for taking up oxygen in the room. 

And then Dr. Houston asked me, 'What do you think God did? God called this awkward youth to stand up and go against the flow of culture. Where he is weak, there Christ is strong.’ Woa. But he wasn’t done yet. He looked me right in the eye and said: ‘My dear, your calling is to show hospitality to The Other. It is to make people feel at home.’

I couldn't even believe this was happening. How did he know those things about me? But it just had the air of truth to it all. And it was evident that he is a man who is in tune with the Holy Spirit.

Tears were really streaming down my cheeks at that point as I thought, ‘You don't even know me and there’s no way you could know that I have felt a very clear sense of calling to hospitality for the last 7 years.’ But I had only entered into the kind of hospitality that I could control. If I'm very calculated about it I still feel safe. In fact, sometimes being a hostess feels even safer than being a guest because I know the rules of the game and I have a position to fill.

Dr. Houston affirmed that those were all good things, but said ‘Our strengths are not what we are to serve out of. When we operate out of our strengths we can be athiests – we have no need of God, you see. But not so in our weaknesses. There we know we need God to meet us.’ Wow. Wow wow wow.

Needless to say, that was a really significant experience for me, especially before we moved here into a neighborhood in which we're pretty much the only white people. I've always lived in middle to upperclass suburbia where everyone looked just like me, so to have that calling spoken over me just before we landed here in Waco was pretty important for me. To start to open up our space in ways that are stretching to me have been a part of what God made my life for. He knew exactly what would happen to that little girl who had no self-confidence. I was scared of all sorts of things, had lots of fears and anxiety, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of awkwardness—homeschooled kid with no sense of fashion etc. etc. Who does that kid become when she grows up? Well, someone with a fair bit of anxiety and a desire to control things to make sure she is safe emotionally. But God has something bigger – and scarier – and so much more adventurous in mind. So this is part of that life, I think.

Mary: I mentioned to you before we started the interview that when I had a personal blog I felt like I was living this mostly one-sided conversation sharing things about myself, but not doing a good job keeping in touch with friends and having people over to our house. I don't think we hosted anyone at our apartment for the first full year at least that we got married. We had this tiny kitchen and tiny table; I didn't feel like I knew how to cook for people, and essentially like I didn't know how to host. I think I just had expectations that it should be a certain way before we had people over to our home. In reality, I'm sure most people grow into that role. But I always feel that I have to have certain ducks in a row before I can invite someone over to our house. A lot of this has meant that Cody and I are working hard to recognize our barriers to hospitality, so that we can try to get rid of or get over them. Some of the things we've just had to get over. But one thing that is always difficult for me is food and drink related. I often feel like we can barely feed ourselves (which is certainly an exageration!), so how can we provide a feast for others? But I always have the desire to get around that or get past that. Basically, how can I always be prepared to just have somebody over? Even if that means not being prepared.

Paige: Totally, I have some of those same hang-ups. Here are a couple things that I find challenging and helpful. The first is that Jesus said, 'If you give a cup of cold water in my name (Matthew 10:42)...' We have water that runs out of our faucet when we flip a finger. That's all it takes to perform an act of sustenance-giving. Any of us can do that with no notice. It starts at that level, so just sort of re-envisioning what we're doing is really important. Hospitality is not a dinner party, it's not entertaining.

Hospitality is meeting basic needs first.

I find this helpful and challenging; it pushes back against some of my desire to make everything perfect and beautiful and meet all expectations (that are mostly my own). Another thing is to think about hospitality not just in terms of your experience of the space and event, for example, 'Is there food? Is there shelter? Are you smiling? Is there beer?' but also to think about hospitality in terms of interpersonal connection. Henry Nouwen, in his book The Wounded Healer (which is just a really fantastic book), says that hospitality is first and foremost about opening up yourself to make space for the other person. So it's an interpersonal dynamic of opening up to let the other person come as they are, which really flips the exchange on its head, I think. Part of the gift of opening your home, if you can open yourself as well, is to let someone come as they are with whatever they're bringing and in whatever place of joy or hurt they're in. This changes our gaze from, 'What do I have that's ready?’ or ‘How will I look?' to 'Who's coming and what place are they in?'

When it comes to receiving hospitality from other people, often I'm a lot more comfortable when they say, 'Come in! Take off your shoes! Sorry about the coffee rings on the table... put up your feet! How are you?' But if everything is perfect and tidy and clean, I wonder if I can return that kind of hospitality. It becomes this reciprocal, are-we-equal, sort of thing. With this in mind, I have actually intentionally kept these two white side tables that we got from Target all those years ago when we got married. They are so scuffed up. The tops of them look terrible. They've been through multiple international moves now and they were cheap to start with. We could find new ones, but I keep these so that people get the sense when they're sitting in one of our chairs that it's okay if they damage something, too, because not everything here is perfect. There's a coffee stain on the rug, the dog has scratched up the floor, and there's room here for people to be people.

On another note… I hope, as space opens up in life and I'm not trying to do two things at the same time with work and study, to create more abundance in terms of food. I cooked a lot when we lived in Tennessee and we would make huge portions of food. The idea being that once you create abundance, you create opportunity for other people to enter that abundance. Once you've made extra food, you're more inclined to say, 'Hey, stop by! And when you do, do you want to eat?' Or, 'We have leftovers from the other night. Are you guys in need?' And you can take a meal to someone because you have extra servings in the freezer. When you create abundance in advance, it preempts sharing from becoming one more thing. A couple of church fathers have talked about the 'Christ Room' in your home—a room that's ready and waiting for when Christ comes in the form of a traveler or stranger who needs a place to stay. Or think about the ‘Elijah Chair” at the Passover meal. Is there an extra place setting sitting at the ready at your table such that you can wait to see who God is going to bring? When you create more than you need to sustain your own family, it's a way of sort of entering into that expectation that God will do something with it. When you make it, they will come. It just happens!

Mary: That’s a great answer to the ‘How can I be prepared’ question because it touches on the deeper layers beneath hosting and what it should look like all the way from when you don't have abundance to when you do have abundance. You can show hospitality no matter where you are and what you have. The answer is literally, ‘you’re always prepared.’

Paige: You know, I would love to see the North American church get over some of our pretenses about needing to be ready to impress in order to open up our front doors… and instead learn to say, 'Why don't you come over for a glass of water and see what sort of relationships will take place.' And essentially hot tea is a glass of water, but it sounds so much nicer! So that's an easy one to do: ‘come over and let’s have tea!’ But that said, I'm not perfect at this either, which is why today I thought, 'someone is coming over to my house and I have nothing to offer,' so I bought you a cookie!* Haha.

Mary: Thank you! Lula Jane's?! Let's talk about Lula Jane's! It’s your Waco place. You once told me that your favorite food in Waco was their baked oatmeal. I think it might be mine now, too.

Paige: Yea, it's good news for the world.

Mary: I just think it's so amazing that when you moved here to ‘the other side of town,’ you also moved right down the street from Lula Jane's.

Paige: Yea, it's a huge part of the gift of this home. I mean, we have one car, I work from home, and to have our favorite little coffee shop/breakfast spot a block away is great. Paul and I go every week, or... sometimes twice a week! We just decided to factor it in mentally to the cost of our mortgage.

Mary: I love that. I think there's so much in just making room to be in your community. It’s true that you could stay here in your house and it would be cheaper to just never go to your neighborhood cafe, but this way you're out and you're forming relationships with the people in your neighborhood.

Paige: Speaking of... B gave me her number today!

*The cookie was a Sergeant Butters cookie and it was the most delicious thing maybe ever (my husband agrees!). Wacoans, get thee to Lula Jane’s!

Paige Gutacker is the Alumni Network Director at Summit, an non-profit ministry combining truth and relationship in 12-day worldview conferences for high school and college students. She loves getting to write, give workshops, and host webinars for her work.

Additionally, Paige is one class away from graduating with her interdisciplinary Masters in Theological Studies (MaTS) at Regent College, wherein she’s been exploring the intersection between pedagogy, spiritual formation, and technology.