The first year of our marriage I would occasionally call my paternal grandmother to chat and keep company with her from 350 miles away. Growing up Granny welcomed me into her kitchen and gave me little cooking lessons, lessons on dry mopping floors and weeding flower beds. Years later when I was a young bride she would ask in her sweet elderly voice if I was enjoying keeping house. My mind flash through the irritation over how often the bathroom was cleaned and where the kitchen trash can was kept as well as the joy over new dishes and finding the coziest way to arrange the furniture.
“Yes, I’m really enjoying it,” I told her. Because when you call it “keeping house” it somehow sounds a lot nicer than “cleaning the house,” which is a pain in the neck and, at the time, the source of a tremendous amount of marital conflict.
Recently I stumbled across a book that I wish I’d read a long time ago. Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Kim Peterson which looks at housekeeping from the perspective of a daily litany of duties that take on almost a spiritual dimension in the repetitiveness. Of course it’s its very repetitiveness that irritates me to the extreme – especially when it comes to tasks I don’t enjoy like heavy cleaning – but I appreciated the idea of the ritualistic aspect of working in the home.
Looking around me there are so many friends are working with programs like Food For the Hungry or Compassion International or putting in hours at local soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and I start to look at my children and my spouse and the daily duties of keeping our home running as fetters that prevented me from doing Big Things for Humanity. Perhaps the thing that spoke to me most of all in the book was this:
Jesus has very strong things to say at various points in the Gospels about the Christian duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless… There is a tendency, I think, on the part of those of us who are well fed, clothed, and house to imagine that the needy people to whom Jesus refers in Matthew 25 are people we don’t know — the sort of people who are served at homeless shelters and soup kitchens, at which we ought therefore to volunteer at least occasionally. But housework is all about feeding and clothing and sheltering people who, in the absence of that daily work, would otherwise be hungry and ill-clad and ill-housed.
There is undoubtedly more to the merciful service that Jesus describes in Matthew 25 than caring for the daily needs of the members of our own households. Housework is a beginning, not an end. But it is a beginning – not a sidetrack, not a distractions, but a beginning, and an essential one at that – in the properly Christian work of, among other things, meeting the everyday needs of others, whether those others be our fellow household members, our near neighbors, or people more sociologically or geographically distant from ourselves.
(Sidenote: One other thing I really appreciated about this book is the author made a point that this book isn’t a book for women only as, let’s face it, so many of these types of Christian homemaking books can be. The Her.meneutics blog had a nice, succinct discussion of this issue a few weeks back where Margaret Kim Peterson was quoted.)