Hospitality, Vulnerability and Waiting for Perfection

I love having people to my home. Some of my greatest memories are of meals with eight people crammed around my table (which definitely does not fit eight) eating and laughing together. I love having nearly 20 students crammed in my living room—playing games and I even love how somehow, in China, we almost always end up with a dance performance and suddenly I’m singing a solo or a duet (who knew Jason Mraz “I’m Yours” is such a long song?!). I’ll happily tackle the challenge of cooking big meals for dinner parties and coming up with random games for groups.

But there is something I don’t excel at. Housekeeping. I’m certainly not saying I couldn’t improve in this area, but I also don’t think I’m ever going to be a person that you walk into their home and everything looks perfect. When I cook somehow manage to dirty every dish I own and every surface in my home. My teammates joke that the only time they can see the dining room table is if I’m hosting dinner and therefore we need to eat on it. My former student and friend came over the other day to bake together and as we looked at the giant mound of dishes in the kitchen she said something like, “Miss Anna you need to find a husband who likes to dishes.” I feel like at one point in my life I would have been insulted at her pointing out my inadequacy, but I just smiled, laughed and said, “I know.”  (And yes, I can’t believe I’m posting it, but there’s my kitchen sink. Dishes in progress.)

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For a long time, I was afraid to have people over to my home because of this. I grew up with the idea very much ingrained in me that a person’s house should be perfect. Sometimes I’d have people over and I’d constantly feel guilty. I’d wonder if my guests were thinking about the clutter in the corner. I’d wish my home looked “perfect.” I’d think maybe I should have waited until things looked better.

But then I realized something, people aren’t looking for perfect. People are looking for real. People are looking to be invited into others’ lives.

At least I know I am. If I waited for the moment when I was going to become the perfect housekeeper with a perfect house to let people in than I would never have anyone over. I’ve also realized there’s something special about inviting students and friends into my imperfect space—allowing them to see my humanity and my failures.

I wonder how many of us are being held back in our lives in areas we are waiting to be cleaned up until others can see them. We are waiting for perfect—because surely others don’t want to see our imperfections.  I often say vulnerability breeds vulnerability—but I don’t want to be the person who takes the first step. I don’t want to be the only one whose life is messy. Yet I realize that is where we experience true hospitality—the ability to be ourselves and to know that we can be loved, accepted and challenged for who we are. Whether it’s hidden behind a perfect mask or not, deep down we all have areas that are really messy and it’s when we allow each other into those spaces in our lives that’s when true community begins to grow.

What are areas of your life that you are waiting for perfection in? When have you invited others into the mess with you?

When we aren’t enough

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As this school year begins, my mind wandered back to another first school year more than half of a lifetime ago. It was my sophomore year in high school, and I had just transferred to a new school—an all-girls Catholic school where the only people I knew were a few neighbors who were more acquaintances than friends. Up to this point my combined “real school” experience (I had largely been homeschooled) was a little over a year in a tiny classical Latin Christian school and another 2 years at a small Christian school. I was naïve and a bit bewildered by new surroundings—but it was also the first time I felt like I had experienced a true calling.

One of the girls in my class almost instantly befriended me. I was awestruck by her. She was beautiful and vivacious—pretty much everything I wanted to be—and she wanted to be my friend. I would go home from school and sing praises about this seemingly perfect girl. Her quick friendship affirmed to me that this indeed was where I was supposed to be.

And then the day came. I leaned over to pick up a piece of paper that fluttered to the floor under my desk.  I began to read the note—the lines blurred together as I absorbed the mean words written about me by my newfound friend. I don’t remember much of what it said—but even now when I recount the story it’s hard for tears not to well up as I remember the pain that pierced my heart.

I made it through class in a haze and rushed to the bathroom where I took deep breaths and attempted to choke back the sobs rising up in my body. I went to the next class—where I once again was seated next to my “friend.” She asked for help with her homework—and somehow I managed to help her as if nothing was amiss.

I got home that night feeling numb. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. It wasn’t until later that night when my sister was singing praises of the note writer that the floodgates broke loose. I’m sure I was barely intelligible as I shared the story with my sister. What followed the next morning I’m sure was a sight to behold because the girls appeared looking a little less for wear the next morning in my homeroom—eager to apologize. I’m still not sure what my sister said to them but she did somehow strike the fear of God in them. (Thank the Lord for a sister who has always had my back J)

But what most stands out to me as I think back on this story—even as I recently recounted it to my dear friend and teammate Chelsea is the feeling that rose up in me for so long as I thought of it—that still lingers now. The reason I didn’t want anyone to know I was upset. The reason I didn’t want to tell my family.  The reason I was almost more embarrassed than relieved when the girls apologized to me. The reason it took years for me to ever speak of this moment to anyone else.

Shame.

I was afraid that if I told the story that others would see what had apparently been so obvious to those girls—that I wasn’t enough. That I was imperfect, flawed, undesirable.  But if I kept it hidden perhaps I could also keep that imperfection hidden.

Whenever I ask my Chinese students what they are thankful for there are a few that say, “I’m thankful for my enemies because they make me stronger.” The first time I heard it, I thought it was a bit strange. Then I realized as I look back on my life—it is that heart-shattering moment, along with others like it, that have shaped who I’ve become. It’s those moments where I look in the mirror and the world was screaming, “You will never be enough.” But in the midst of the deafening noise, I hear my Heavenly Father so clearly whisper, “But I am.”

I was so certain when I walked into school 15 years ago I had been called—called to change lives and transform souls. I’m still confident I was called to that place at that time, but perhaps for much different reasons than I expected—perhaps it was much more about the transformation of my own heart and soul than the transforming of others. It was during those years I learned I would never be perfect, but that’s okay because there has only been one perfect person. It’s when I learned to look for and love those who were living on the margins of society. It’s when my heart began to grow beyond myself to see a bigger story.

I recently found a journal from around this time, in which I boldly proclaimed my life’s goal would be to make sure those around me would know they were loved, accepted and valuable.  I can’t say I’ve lived up to that lofty expectation.  But I know as I wrote this (with tears inexplicably streaming down my cheeks at several points), I can truly say I am so thankful for that moment and for others like it. I bear no ill will against those girls—because they like me were insecure, imperfect high school girls just like me trying to find their way.

Instead of looking back at the moment today and being paralzyed by shame, it is grace that now overwhelms me.

Grace in learning I will never be enough—but I don’t have to be. Grace in knowing I can love others who are imperfect just like me—because of the one loved and chose me in my imperfection. Grace in seeing that even when I am called to difficult things a thread of redemption and hope far greater than I expected is often at work. And that is something that I can be thankful for.