I had absolutely no idea how to cook, bake, or entertain when I first got married. My brothers are fantastic cooks, but my mother says I never showed any interest in learning myself, so I was consigned to ignorance by my own stubbornness. When I met Peter, he knew how to cook more than I did – that is, he knew how to make spaghetti and really good salmon. By this time, I recognized that my ignorance was really something pretty pathetic and I resolved to correct it. Unfortunately, I sought out women like Martha Stewart in order to do so. Consequently, I became consumed with perfection in cooking, baking, and entertaining. Likewise, when I discovered Miss Manners, I became consumed with what she insisted polite society deemed good etiquette while entertaining, or doing anything else. By saying I was consumed with those things, though, please don’t think I claim to have ever achieved perfection or anything close to it. It was simply my constant aim. And when I didn’t, in my own estimation, achieve it, I counted the entire evening an embarrassing loss. Needless to say, I was usually pretty depressed after having guests over, and tense during their visits.
I don’t have any problem with Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, Miss Manners, or anyone else who insists “you really must do this or that if you are going to please your guests.” My orange binder is chock full of recipes by the former two ladies, and I have learned some very useful things from Miss Manners.
What I do need to be careful of, however, is that I remember that these ladies are operating from a different worldview. That may sound silly and legalistic, to those who know neither the definition of legalism nor my point. My point is that a Christ-centered worldview permeates an entire life. A saint’s life is going to glorify God in a completely different way than a summer day or a chipmunk. The summer day and the chipmunk are doing what God created them to do from birth. A newly-created woman, however, is glorifying God in a more direct way and in saving knowledge of the One directing her day. It would be incorrect to say, as many people have: “Well, all people and things glorify God in equally important ways because they are all directed by God. So… carry on.” I guess what I mean is that a chipmunk is glorifying God in a more basic way by using his little claws to gather nuts, as God gave him instinct to do; the Christian is glorifying God in a more direct way by using her arm to point to the God who saved her. We are worth more to God than many chipmunks.
Anyway, my point in all of that is that things like hospitality, etiquette, entertaining, and dinner are not indifferent things, as though “whatever you do is going to glorify God, so just do whatever you please.” Those women I’ve listed above have some very good, very Christian things to say about how one ought to operate in those areas. However, because there is not a Christian worldview present, it can easily become a strict – and lifeless – set of rules to follow if one wishes to do hospitality correctly, or if one wishes to live by proper etiquette. Some things we do in the Church go straight against the rules of etiquette: older women approaching younger women in order to train them; Paul requesting compensation for the spiritual leadership he has devoted himself to giving; Christians seeking other Christians for help when they are in need; Christ rebuking Martha (no, the other Martha) for worrying more about entertaining than enjoying her Guest.
Often I see Christian women – myself included – worrying so much about doing hospitality correctly that we end up really only being hospitable a couple times a year, because more than that would be too taxing and expensive. Often we worry so much about etiquette that we refrain from offering help to someone, because we have always been told that “if the offer may possibly offend the friend, then it is best to not offer,” or “this service must never be rendered by one within the person’s immediate family,” and so on. We can also be too concerned about etiquette to ask for the help for ourselves or our families. I know I’ve been guilty of that myself. Is that somehow pleasing to God? If not, then how can we refuse to ask for help on the grounds of etiquette, or even worse: roll our eyes at a sister who dares to break those cold lifeless rules herself?
Evelyn Waugh said “It is a curious thing that every creed promises a paradise which will be absolutely uninhabitable for anyone of civilized taste.” It is possible to let ourselves become so engrossed with doing these things “correctly” that the originally intended aim of them becomes something terribly undesirable to us. When we find ourselves tightening our shoulders planning a dinner or a shower or anything else whose intention is meant to be to bless someone else and to enjoy that person, we ought to take note of our rude, impolite sister Mary, and remember how Christ praised her for her disregard for the rules of etiquette and hospitality when the Lord over etiquette and hospitality was in her midst.