wedding week.

David’s brother Joe is getting married in Fenwick Island, Delaware, this week, so the whole family is spending the week together celebrating. Joe’s fiance, Lindsay’s, family rented a big house and Steve and Linda rented another big house, and we’re all having a blast.

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hospitality: a few practical thoughts.

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Thanks for sticking around for this little series. Like I mentioned earlier, the two main ways David and I have learned a life of hospitality is through: 1. Doing it, and 2. Learning from others.

So to wrap things up, here are some tips we ourselves have picked up along the way:

1. There isn’t one model of an ideal host. There just isn’t. God enjoys diversity way too much for that. We’ve watched and learned from folks young and old, married and divorced and single, rich and poor, outgoing and shy, stylish and nerdy. We’ve been inside gorgeous homes and in hipster homes and corrugated-tin huts and dorm-style apartments. We’ve eaten Prime Rib and Kraft macaroni and cheese and we’ve been blessed every.single.time. someone has invited us into their home.

So do not tell me your house isn’t nice or big or clean enough, or you don’t have the right personality for hosting. Don’t do it!

2. Please never, ever apologize when you’re hosting. Don’t apologize for your unfinished bathroom, your lack of cooking skills, or your laboring A.C. Through being invited into many, many homes I’ve learned that apologizers are awkward. They make you feel very uncomfortable as a guest. They point your attention to things you would never have even noticed. Ultimately, apologizing as a host is about selfishness. It’s focusing on your own insecurity rather than simply blessing the person who’s delighted to be inside your home. So now I’m a recovering apologizer.

Some of our best experiences with hospitality have been in messy homes. Somehow those folks end up being the laid back ones. Instead of scurrying around serving and cleaning up and fretting over our comfort-level, they’re letting the dirty dishes pile up and pouring another cup of decaf and talking and laughing into the night. I want to be that kind of host.

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3. Find your own style. This is what I get really excited about. Because there isn’t one ideal type of host, you’re free to discover what kind of hospitality you prefer and what best suits your family. You’re also free to have that change over time as you enter different seasons of life.

Do you hate cooking? Then order pizza and buy a bagged salad from Publix.

Have kids who need a rigid bed-time routine at 7? Invite folks over for a late dinner afterwards.

Need a night connecting with your spouse after a crazy week? Invite people for 5:00 drinks on your porch. Not serving food may sound mortifying to you, but it communicates that this a fun, quick connection — not an whole evening. Whenever we’ve invited people over for an after-work drink they’ve sounded relieved. I know that you’re busy and so is everyone else. They want to spend time with you but are also happy to go on with their own evening afterward.

Have a tight budget? Invite new friends for coffee and squares of a dark chocolate bar instead of a meal. Or find soup recipes — soup is such an economical meal because it stretches a little meat a long way (or make a vegetarian soup! even cheaper!). It’s also a great way to feed a crowd without stressing yourself out.

Making conversation is hard for you? Play games or have a movie night or head right outside for s’mores around the fire pit.

Your spouse works late? Host play dates or a book discussion or afternoon tea instead of dinner. Offer to let a young mom drop her kids by so she can have a couple hours to herself. Babysitting is hospitality! Children are real people and need to build relationships with adults other than their parents. You will make them feel special and bless their whole family by inviting them into your home.

You’re a young mom who desperately needs some help? Give a high school or college student a pile of laundry to fold while she’s hanging out. She’ll be happy to do it and I bet she’ll love seeing a glimpse of real family life. I’ve had three friends now come help me with little house projects David doesn’t have time for. It’s a huge encouragement to me, but they tell they’re the ones who are blessed. Hospitality isn’t just about serving; it’s about letting yourself be served.

If you’re in a really unique or stressful season and you absolutely cannot have people over, be at peace and recognize it’s just a season. It will pass. But please do reach out to others. You need them as much as they need you. You can be a hospitable person without opening your home. Meet for coffee. Bring someone along on a grocery trip and grab come free coffee and samples at Trader Joe’s. Meet at the park. You’re still doing the valuable work of connecting with others and it will bless you in your difficult season.

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4. Learn to listen. Next to refusing to apologize, this may be the single best way to be a good host. Asking good questions and then sitting and listening to people talk is hard. Keeping quiet about your own opinions on what they share is hard.

If you don’t have the first idea how to be a listener, find friends you know who are good conversationalists and ask them for advice. Memorize a few good questions and then listen to people talk. This is a very meaningful gift you can give. People around us are bursting with stories and are longing to be heard. It’s also a gift you can receive, because really listening to people will open your eyes and humble you and change you.

5. Embrace the buffer. A buffer is an awesome idea David and I stumbled across. If you’re having new people over and are worried about awkward pauses in conversation, just invite a buffer! Ideally this is a person or family who’s outgoing and lively and rounds out the group. We now do this all the time, and not even when we need it, because we’ve learned that a huge part of hospitality is connecting people to one another.

When we have folks from church for dinner, we now specifically invite a new person or family along with regular attenders. We always want to have an eye for drawing people into our group, for helping them know at least one familiar face when they return to church, for opening up friendship possibilities to them.

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6. Have fun! Please enjoy whatever level of hospitality you choose! Contrary to what we often think, godliness is not living a life of stress and martyrdom. Godliness is freedom and joy and an ability to forget ourselves and love other people well. When you invite people over, do what it takes so that you’ll enjoy yourself too.

For me that looks like learning my limits in each season of life, and respecting those limits. It’s being willing to put a movie on for my kids if we’re having adults-only for dinner. It’s keeping the menu very simple: letting people bring a side or dessert when they offer and planning a meal that can simmer all day in the crock-pot. It’s making myself a drink and sitting still for 10 minutes to take a breather before folks show up (David and I often do this together before company comes and it gives us a way to switch from “task-mode” to “relationship-mode”).

People love to be around a host who’s enjoying herself. It puts them at ease. It makes them less guilty for all the work you’ve done. It makes them feel special, like you’re happy to be spending time with them. You’ll feel pretty great too.

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In all of this, remember that hospitality is a lifelong process. Doing something — anything — is better than doing nothing. And it’s a gift God wants to give you. Happy hosting!

birthday boy.

Judah turned 7 on Monday! We had a fun couple days celebrating . . .

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David measures the Birthday Kids each year and records their height on the dining closet door frame. Judah grew 2 inches this year and Amelie grew 2.5 inches!

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We did a birthday breakfast and gifts Monday morning before work and school. Judah’s breakfast request was his dad’s homemade bagels. Yum.

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Judah still loves Star Wars but his latest character obsession is Transformers.

IMG_7116He was so excited to bring cupcakes to Classical Conversations on Monday. Can you believe we just started our fourth week of the school year? Each week gets a little easier for the kids and me to find our routine and we’re all enjoying school so much more.

IMG_7124My cousin Allison drove up from Orlando to visit me this week for some much-needed girl time. She came Monday afternoon and we hit up Whole Foods for some gelato.

IMG_7126We love each other and were so happy for chances to sit and catch up, run errands, watch a chick flick, and do a couple of projects in the baby’s room.

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On Tuesday Judah had a little party at Monkey Joe’s with our church staff friends.

IMG_7147Our boy loves Lego’s! Happy birthday Judah!

one year old.

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This weekend Columbia Presbyterian Church turns one year old.

David and I have a joke that there’s going to be a big age gap between our kids because the church plant is our third child. It sounds like a stretch, but there are many aspects of planting a church that are similar to carrying and giving birth to a human child.

Trying. After South Asia, some friends approached us and asked us to consider planting a church in Columbia with them. This idea became a dream in our hearts. It felt so vulnerable at first, almost like we didn’t want to get our hopes up or tell too many people. But the very thought made us smile.

Pregnancy. By a miracle, we jumped through the hoops and got our long list of approvals. We were expecting! We started making contacts and gathering a community. We started core group meetings. There was awkwardness and trouble-shooting and so many unknowns. We still felt scared to get too excited. What if this whole thing folded? But we stepped forward, one day at a time. We came up with a name. We started a small group ministry, which we call Life Groups. We found a space for Sunday worship.

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Birth. On September 7th, 2013, Columbia Presbyterian Church was born. Next to our wedding day and Judah and Amelie’s births, it was the happiest day of my life. All the hoping and praying and working and waiting were worth it. We were filled up with joy.

Infancy. CPC grew and changed every single week. Things moved fast, so fast. Every week there were new delights and growing pains. We were way out of our comfort zone. Our brains hurt trying to figure out always-changing logistics.

David had a sermon to write each week as well as a never-ending list of people to connect with. John planned out our worship services and sermon series’ and crafted our liturgy. Kenny learned how to lead worship. Jonathan figured out bulletins and coffee hour. Shari tried to keep up with the ever-expanding nursery ministry. I connected with newcomers and helped them get plugged in and we had lots of people over for dinner. We needed more chairs for morning worship. New faces showed up each week and we wanted to talk to everyone, to make them feel welcome.

We held our first church membership class this spring and welcomed 91 members. It felt like we were collectively treading water, just keeping our heads up. We had so much help and so many hands willing and eager to serve. It was one of our favorite seasons of life.

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Walking. This summer we experienced another big growth spurt — a shock to the system — as we realized we needed to add another worship service. We also held nominations for Elders and Deacons. We hired John full-time as pastoral assistant to help with evangelism, mercy ministry, worship services, and Life Groups. We began interviewing candidates for a church planting resident, who will go on to plant our first church in early 2016, and then hired a wonderful family who moved here in August.

If you have a mission, you have to constantly remind yourself of it, to plan and work hard to keep it always in front of you — no matter what each week brings, no matter what the host of opinions say. Otherwise you’re just doing crowd control.

We rearranged Life Groups and welcomed new members. We learned how to suffer together, to carry each other’s burdens. We learned to confess sin and cry and rejoice together. Masks were removed and we grew more real and the roots of our friendships stretched down deeper.

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Birthday. And here we are, today. CPC is one. I know the analogy falls short because David and I aren’t parents of this church. CPC isn’t our church, our “project.” It’s God’s Church, the Bride of Christ. His Spirit grows it and pilots it. We’re just vessels He uses. We’re a tiny part of a much bigger story.

We love this church deeply and also our hands are open.

Our heart for CPC has always been for it to stand and walk on its own two feet. We hope to be here serving and worshiping with this group for years and years. But at the same time, it’s important that CPC functions as a church family wholly separate from us. If something happens to David or me, the church needs to carry on, to be Spirit-led and to follow God’s mission. That’s the end we’ve worked and planned and prayed toward this whole year.

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And today we’re humbled to say God has answered. We feel like beaming-proud parents as we show up on Sundays and work and watch people scurry here and there, setting up chairs, and setting out donuts and coffee, welcoming visitors and hugging one another, tuning up guitars and placing name tags on children, giving generously and exchanging phone numbers and heading out the door to eat lunch together. Church members are friends on their own, without us. They’re texting newcomers and leading Life Groups and praying with those who are hurting.

Columbia Presbyterian is a living, breathing, unique and very, very special body. This is God’s Church and even though the work is hard, I would never trade the daily surprises of seeing Him at work. His kingdom is growing, friends. There’s no stopping it.

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Planting this church has changed me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Sometimes I’ve felt stretched to the breaking point in these past two years. Church planting isn’t for the faint of heart. Change is hard for me, and our weeks are full of the unexpected and demand that we learn flexibility.

It’s chafed and hurt sometimes but it always reminds me that my life belongs to Christ. I don’t live for my comfort here and now. I pick up my cross and follow Him each day, trusting what I can’t see.

The reward, my friends, has been priceless. Happy birthday, CPC. I love you.

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All photos by Lucas Brown.

Columbia Presbyterian Church website

a story about hospitality.

If you know David well at all, you know about his love for people lingering in the margins of society. When I met him in college he was sharing his story of freedom from a life of drugs and violence and his hope in Christ with prison inmates. When we did youth ministry, he reached out to all the students, but always moved first to the outsider, that kid on the fringe dressed in all black with chains or the one who was too shy to navigate the complexities of high school social dynamics or the one who routinely got wasted on the weekends.

He spent his first year of church planting showing up at a crisis pregnancy center downtown to hang out with boyfriends of women who came in for a free ultrasound. Who thinks to do that? Who thinks about those men except maybe to judge them?

This is one of the reasons I fell in love with my husband: he sees people no-one else sees. And many people don’t even know this about him because he doesn’t broadcast it. It’s just who he is.

Anyway, when we got married David was asked to lead a weekly Bible study at a halfway house in Columbia for military veterans trying to get back on their feet after prison and/or addiction recovery. I was all for him doing this: I expected nothing less from the man I married.

However, after a couple weeks of teaching David told me, “I want to start inviting these guys for dinner after Bible Study.”

Say what?

Here’s the thing: I had never really done mercy ministry before. I wasn’t accustomed to mixing and mingling with this demographic — and all men at that. But those weren’t even the things that bothered me, honestly they weren’t.

The truth was I was scared stiff of hosting a bunch of strangers in my tiny home, of cooking dinner for them (what do they like to eat?), of trying to fit around our dime-sized kitchen table, and most of all, of trying to make conversation. What could we find to talk about? What if I brought up a topic that made them sad? It was the possibility of awkward silences that scared me most.

But I gathered my courage and said, “Okay,” and so began one of the best experiences of our first year of marriage. On Monday evenings David drove two miles downtown to teach the Bible, and I bustled around our kitchen. I hated cooking back then and scrambled for ideas to feed a group. I made a whole lot of spaghetti. Also a potato chicken curry dish with packaged curry paste. I think that was about the extent of my repertoire.

At 6:30 David would show up with a group of 3-4 men, some black, some white, some young and some old. I never really knew who he’d show up with. Yes, there were awkward times. Yes, I didn’t always know what to say. But my stereotype was rocked by the demeanor of these men. Endlessly respectful and nice, they ate my feeble attempts at food, they stood at my sink and washed dishes, they shared their stories with us. Heart-breaking stories that left a hole in my heart most evenings.

These were broken men. Men with regrets. Men who looked at me and said, “I wish my daughter talked to me but I messed it all up,” or who looked at David and said, “Treat your wife good; I had a wonderful wife but I was a bad husband to her. She deserved so much better.”

These men began to teach me how to be a listener. They taught me how to treat people’s stories with dignity and respect. Everyone deserves to be heard, no matter what they’ve done. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human being, to be served a hot meal and to sit around a table and to be seen.

Some of them told David later that they’d never set foot in a white person’s house before. Few if any had sat and eaten a meal with a family in years.

These men taught us honesty. Almost every single one of them had failed in big ways. And if there’s one thing they’d learned, it was that they were a mess. As I listened to their stories there was a stirring in my own heart, a whispering that said, It is good and right to take off your mask. Be honest. That’s the only way you’ll learn to be free.

It would take several more years before I had the courage to start repenting of my self-righteousness and owning up to the depth of my own sin and brokenness, but this was a glimmer of new life.

These friends also taught us that the way to love someone is not to avoid broaching the subject of their pain. The way to love is to walk right into the thick of it. To say, “What’s it like for you?” To shut our mouths against judgment or moralistic advice. An authentic desire to sit and listen to people’s stories is a gift and, like hospitality, it’s also a skill anyone can learn.

When I was 22 years old I thought I was doing a good deed by opening my trailer to homeless men. But of course, as is usually the case when we serve, it was I who needed them. They opened my eyes to a part of society I honestly never thought about. They made me grateful for my eyesore single-wide mobile home because I had a home. They started David and I on a journey of praying for racial reconciliation and pursuing mercy ministry.

This year, a few months after Columbia Pres started worship services, the new director of this same halfway house asked David to be a guest speaker. So he went and taught the Bible one night and connected with a group of men, and then several of them showed up at our church that Sunday morning, which is right in their neighborhood. Several have been coming ever since and this month two of the men stood up before the church to become members.

John Paulling is our new assistant pastor at CPC and one of his roles is to connect with this ministry. He and David and another guy from church teach from time-to-time, hang out, and mentor guys. In turn, the men there jump in and serve by coming early Sunday mornings to set up chairs, make coffee, and greet people walking in the door. They’re part of our family now, which is just how it should be.

Recently some of us from church showed up to serve dinner at the halfway house. I brought the kids, and when we walked in the door, my heart felt peaceful and happy and right at home. I wasn’t afraid of awkwardness. I wasn’t intimidated by big burly men who’d done time. I thought, This is exactly where I want to be right now.

And as we all sat and ate pizza and Greek salad, someone tapped me on the shoulder, “Are you Julie Gentino?” “Yes,” I responded. He smiled, “Wow, that’s great! Big Mike talks about you all the time!”

I looked at him blankly and said, “Oh yeah?” thinking, Who is Big Mike? “Yes! He loved coming to your house for dinner.”

Coming to my house for dinner? That was 10 years ago.

And so Big Mike, who now works security for the ministry, was fetched right then and there, and came in the dining hall and gave me a huge hug. I could’ve cried I was so humbled by God’s goodness, stretching out across 10 years and bringing blessing in a way David and I could never have imagined.

Of course I couldn’t have possibly seen that when we started. But I’m so glad that we started.

Now we once again have men over for dinner. I’ve learned a few things about hospitality, and cooking for a group has become a joy. I still sometimes get intimidated, wondering if people will like my food. But mostly I just let the dishes stack up in the sink, pull up a chair, and sit down to chat and listen.

Now David and I say the words out loud, “Thank you for being honest. Our church needs to learn from your honesty. We need you.”

I believe that in the ministry of hospitality, everyone wins.

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a series about hospitality.

I thought I’d write a series of posts on hospitality, because it’s something that gets me really excited these days.

Hospitality is not a gift I was born with. I’m an introvert. [I joke with my friends that I have a two-hour social limit. I love, love being with people for two hours, and then about one minute afterward it becomes a chore. The bigger the group of people, the more mountainous the chore]. I can be a perfectionist and also insecure. I like to protect my space and my alone time. I like quiet evenings buried in a book. I hate playing games.

None of these are characteristics that make for a good host.

But I’m writing is to tell you that people can change!

Hospitality isn’t a gift I was given; it’s a skill I learned, something I grew into over a long period of time. I’m still growing. But I’m happy to tell you that learning to be generous with my home and my food and my time has literally changed my life. And even though I’m still an introvert, I now love having folks over regularly.

Are you ready for the great secret of how I learned this skill?

I did it.

We invited people into our home. Over and over and over. Way before we knew what we were doing. Way before I wanted to. And certainly way before I delved into the exhilarating worlds of cooking and home design. So that goes to show: you do not need fancy meals or a nice home or even a clean home to be a good host.

Did you hear me? If there’s one thing you take away from this series, let that be it.

Here’s how I started out:

When David and I got married in 2004 I had a year left of college, so we moved into a 1980’s single-wide trailer in the CIU Village painted the exact shade of periwinkle blue as my bridesmaid dresses.

It was an interesting experience, one which involved floors that developed sudden and inexplicable sinkholes, and a master bedroom wall randomly covered with black ants one night (and I mean covered). Every time we left the trailer and then returned, I spent the 10-mile-an-hour drive down Second Street praying that our home would still be standing when we reached it.

[Side note: We recently heard the CIU VIllage is going to be disbanded (dismembered?), so this summer we drove Judah and Amelie by to see our first home. I'm happy to report that 10 years later that trailer has not fallen over, and also that it's still periwinkle blue. We parked so that David and I could pose for one last photo. While Judah was snapping a picture with the phone, he looked puzzled and asked, "Wait -- are you guys taller than that house?"]

Anyway, what better place to start practicing hospitality than a single-wide?

I was feeling very insecure and aren’t-we-supposed-to-spend-our-first-year-focusing-on-marriage?-ish, but David was insistent that we start having people over and soon. So we dove right in.

Once we crammed a group of my brother’s college friends around card tables in our living room for spaghetti and games (yup, I played games), and that’s how I had my first conversation with my future sister-in-law, way before they started dating.

Soon after, David started meeting with John, a brand-new CIU transfer student who was a new Christian, and he began coming to our church and hanging out at our trailer. Today they’re pastors together at Columbia Pres.

We started a prayer group at our trailer with John and our friend Josh for the college students at our church, reading and praying through a D.A. Carson book on prayer, and unknowingly learning what it looks like to build community within a church.

And that first year, in our single-wide, is where we began to develop a love for mercy ministry. More about that soon.

After the trailer, we moved way up in the world to a 900-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Lexington, and let me tell you: it was a palace. I loved my clean kitchen and walk-in bedroom closet. I loved the 9-foot ceilings and big sunny windows. I loved our tiny matchbox porch. It was a dream.

We moved there because David took a job as youth intern in our church, so of course we started having people over right away. And the rest you may say is history. I see now a way we were able to build genuine friendships and put down some roots even while moving throughout our marriage is because of hospitality — so many folks reaching out and inviting us into their homes and us disciplining ourselves to do the same. Even during seminary. Even during the infant years. Even when we were brand-new to a foreign country.

And it’s been very, very worth it. By pushing myself to do something I wouldn’t normally choose, I’ve come to enjoy it. Over the years, in every place we lived, David and I have identified people who do hospitality well and asked what we can learn from them. That part has been so fun.

I think one reason many American Christians feel isolated in their churches is because so many churches have traded in a priority of building relationships through hospitality for impersonal programs held in a building.

I’m not saying programs are bad, I just don’t think they reach down very deep. They can’t really get at the heart of who you are — which is how you act in your own home around your own family. An “outreach” is a good thing if it provides a hot meal to a hungry person. But how much more powerful would it be to invite that person over to your house for dinner?

I’m passionate about hospitality because I believe it’s a consistent theme throughout the whole Bible, and God knows how vital it is to our personal and spiritual growth — and how much it blesses a hurting, isolated world. I’m also passionate because of how it’s changed me and brought so much community, depth, and joy into my life.

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