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When you live at the base of the Eagle Cap Mountain Range in eastern Oregon, it can feel like summer defines the phrase “short and sweet.” The snow in our valley may not be fully melted by the middle of May, and crystal flakes often return to the skies as early as October, but this corner of God’s creation makes up for all the months of snowy slumber with a brilliant display of life and nature: sunshine on the forest-rimmed lake, creeks and rivers clear enough to see the green rocks at the very bottom, wildflowers on every hiking trail, fields of buzzing insects and leaping fawns, and a blue backdrop of towering mountains. Every minute of summer is precious in this high altitude haven, so utilizing outdoor spaces with visiting neighbors, friends, and family cultivates the summer memories we hang onto when the snow flies again.

Spend any amount of time perusing Pinterest or the grocery store magazine rack, and you’ll conclude that outdoor hospitality requires shelling out a few thousand dollars to get a matching furniture set, fire pit, lighting, umbrellas, planters, throw pillows—and let’s not forget an outdoor rug. Outdoor rug? I thought the whole point was to feel like I’m outdoors, and not like I moved my living room into the grass. Hospitality in the fresh air does not demand blowing a month’s wages.

My very best, most vivid memories of summer are of the simply designed outdoor moments—a string of lights from tree branch to branch behind my neighbor’s carport, a linen tablecloth and a jar of wildflowers on the table, mint plucked from the flowerbed and crushed into a pitcher of mojitos with jelly jars for drinking glasses, laughter, and someone’s cell phone placed in a beer glass to amplify French cafe music, just loud enough to let the conversation flow above the serenades. It’s squinting to play cards by the light of a camping lantern while lounging on garage sale chairs, and as the sun sinks, wrapping up in mismatched quilts and wool blankets just a bit too shabby for indoor use.

The beauty of these summer nights rests in the company shared and the casual mood of the season, not in perfectly coordinating patio sets. Because we are already outdoors mowing the lawn, chasing kids on bikes, and grilling pork chops, spur-of-the-moment happy hours and dinners can happen more easily. Just call over the fence, “Do you have any spinach on hand? Bring it over, we have plenty of meat but we need a salad.”

When dinner time is determined by the speed of the coals heating up, minutes tick by, losing their usual relevance, and lingering together comes more naturally. There is more time to talk, laugh, and hear stories from one another’s hearts. When we do finally say goodbye and send sleeping children off to their beds, their dirty feet don’t bother anyone; they will swim in the lake tomorrow.

There’s no better time than these warm months to host more get-togethers. Unlike in February, when our walls can put a limit on hospitality, in the summer, the whole yard is a dining room, and there’s always room for more. Just bring some extra chairs from the shed or the house. A table for dining is really optional, and kids are happier on a picnic blanket anyway. Do you usually stress at the idea of people cramming in your door, dropping coats and tracking in dirt, toys littering every room in the house when they leave, and dirty dishes stacked a mile high on every kitchen surface? Ah, sweet summer—no coats, dirt everywhere, and the paper plates go right into the fire pit when the last of the melty ice cream is served. Let summer be your time to relish the glory in everything instead of the perfection.

Invite that family you’ve been meaning to get together with for ages. Try combining friend groups, bringing believers and nonbelievers together for an evening of the gospel lived out and served with grilled pizza. Ask the neighbors who have remained strangers for far too long to come for dessert. And certainly, leave a night open for the oldest and dearest friends who you just need some extra time with, for laughing hard and feeling loved.

When I choose to carve out time with others, I know it will be the best spent time of all; it will bring the richest memories and the most fruit in my walk with fellow believers. I often find encouragement I didn’t even know I desperately needed, or surprise joy in a new closeness with someone unexpected. Time for relationships is part of the refreshment we need in summer, but we must be intentional about making the opportunities to be with others. Offer a place that brings people together, or if you don’t have any outdoor space of your own, be the planner of park and lake gatherings. When you look back over your summer, you will have more than the beautiful Instagram photos—you will have deeper, stronger relationships that will keep growing when the wildflowers and lush leaves have gone.

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Summer, and all the possibility it holds, is worth celebrating. Here are some fun ideas to bring people together outdoors. Never be ashamed to ask guests to bring something—pot-lucking enables you to broaden your invite list and allows everyone to feel a contributing part of the fun.

BONFIRE: There is something magical for all ages about sitting late together around a crackling fire. Ask friends to bring sausages or hotdogs for their family and provide the condiments, a fabulous salad, and s’mores fixings. If you have friends who play instruments, ask that they bring them along and get everyone to join in with singing. A spooky or hilarious story is a great way to end the night—we have a family favorite that never disappoints, no matter how many times we hear it.

ICE CREAM SOCIAL: Get everyone to bring two or three favorite toppings and you provide the ice cream, cones, bowls, spoons, and a kiddie pool to clean the kids up in afterward. If you want to go all out, crank your own ice cream together!

OUTDOOR MOVIE NIGHT: We’ve hosted outdoor movie nights at every house we’ve lived in and have such great memories from these times! There are few things more fun than getting all the neighbors together with sleeping bags strewn everywhere in your own outdoor theatre. Some years I’ve made bags of popcorn or candy, and others I let everyone bring their own treats. You will have to start the movie later than you think due to the glorious long days of sunlight. Make sure you have a portable speaker that is loud enough for everyone to hear. Set up your projector and sound system well in advance so you aren’t scrambling around in the dark, tripping on children and cords and trying to get Bilbo Baggin’s voice to an audible level while your audience gets restless.

STAR GAZING NIGHT: Find the most expert astronomer among your friends and ask him or her to prepare a talk on finding constellations in the summer sky. Choosing a remote and very dark spot is part of the fun—if you’re up for the adventure, camp out together overnight!

GARDEN HAPPY HOUR: Tell everyone to get a babysitter and choose two or three cocktails to serve outside. Already-mixed pitcher drinks are an especially laid back way to go, or you can set up a beautiful bar to let guests mix their own simple drinks with toppings and garnishes already prepared. Gin and tonics are an easy one, and so is a white wine sangria full of freshly chopped fruit. Make sure to have some sanpellegrino or punch on hand for a non-alcoholic option. This is a fun one to bring the indoors outside with tablecloths, real dishes, favorite glass tumblers, and candles everywhere. You don’t need special outdoor furniture, just bring some of your indoor seating/tables/decor outside to create a lovely space to relax for the evening. Keep the food simple: crusty bread, cheese, salami and olives, nuts and fruit.

OUTDOOR BRUNCH: This might be my favorite. I love starting the day outdoors with friends and coffee. I’ve even hosted this on 4th of July, when I knew friends would be heading to the fireworks in the evening but were free for the morning. Make pans of cinnamon rolls or coffee cake if you are a baker, or set up a granola and yogurt bar. Have lots of coffee and some orange juice. Overnight cheesy, sausage-y (if that’s not a word, it should be) egg casseroles provide protein with ease. Set up chairs in a circle and throw out blankets and even some pillows on the grass for morning time coziness, and be sure to choose a spot that will offer shade as the sun rises and it gets warm.

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