Russell and Duenes

From the Ivory Tower: Keeping House, by Margaret Kim Peterson

with 2 comments

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

And thus have many Christians concluded that making and maintaining a well-kept house and home are minor spiritual matters and probably have nothing to do with Christian maturity. It’s easy to let the house go when we’ve got truly important things to do like hang out with people and “do ministry.” Of course, underneath this is the hidden assumption that house work is a drudgery and a waste of time. After all, once you cook, clean, wash, launder, fold, dust, iron, put into drawers and hang in closets today, you’re just going to have to do it all over again tomorrow and the next day and the next (as if God doesn’t do many of the same things day after day). Does it really matter in the grand scheme of eternity? Peterson makes a very readable and winsome case that it does.

She recounts how the importance of “keeping house” became real to her through her experience of trying to manage a terminally sick husband while at the same time being a graduate student,

I understood then, with a clarity that I have experienced at few other times in my life, that getting to the grocery store was one of the things that Really Mattered. The dissertation could wait; dinner could not. Forget all the abstruse theological ideas that my classmates and  teachers seemed to debate with such verve in the graduate seminars I was attending. Forget fantasies of “accomplishing something.” Perhaps somewhere in the world there were people who measured their days by how much they got done – at work, in class, wherever. I measured my days by whether, at the end of them, the members of my household had been dressed and fed and bathed and put to bed. If we had been, then that was a good day. I had done what mattered most. Everything else was gravy. (2)

You may be asking yourself why I would even be reading a book called Keeping House. I certainly didn’t care about it growing up, and though my mother tried many ways to help us see its importance, I saw it only as a necessary evil, and not all that necessary. And having been single until I was 37, one could reasonably expect that I was a typical bachelor slob. But in fact, it was in having a good many roommates over the years who valued a clean and inviting home that I came to see the importance of it myself. I’m now incredibly blessed to have a wife who highly values it as well, and who makes a wonderful home for me, our two boys, and any guest who might come our way.

Peterson’s book is refreshing in that it is not some socio-political tract (though she rightly criticizes segments of the “women’s movement”), but rather a deep reflection on the imagery and importance of home, embodied life and love for neighbor found in the Scriptures and in her own experience, of which making and keeping a house is so much a part. She confronts our culture’s notion that success in our lives “out there,” in the workplace or in society, is what really matters, and that house work is better left to someone else. She writes,

The problem here should be obvious. If the smart thing to do with respect to housework is to hand it off to someone else, this says something about people who end up doing the housework: they are laboring at work that is intrinsically contemptible. It is a small step from regarding the work as contemptible to regarding the worker as contemptible (34).

Peterson gets down to discussing nitty-gritty things like household goods, cooking, doing dishes, putting things away, folding and ironing laundry, clearing the table after dinner, maintaining clothes, making beds, picking up toys, getting rid of things and much more. All of these are related to our larger place in the church and society, but her musings are not just some airy attempt to “make everything spiritual,” so she can write a book. Rather, by the time you’re done reading this book, her description of what it means to make a house and home is so inviting and attractive, and so full of practical spiritual wisdom, you feel a deep yearning to throw yourself energetically into creating and maintaining such a home. And this by itself is worth the price of the book. She concludes,

A well-kept house thus possesses a kind of sacramental quality. It is no substitute for either the kingdom of God or the church. But it is a kind of foretaste of the kingdom. A nurturing and hospitable home can be a reminder that God has always been in the business of making a home for people, that God desires that people should have the food and clothing and shelter associated with home, that one day our tattered and partial provision of these things for one another will be gloriously supplanted by God’s perfect provision of shining robes and a sumptuous feast in God’s own house.


Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life

San Francisco: Joey Bass, 2007

175 pgs.


Written by Michael Duenes

May 10, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Posted in Duenes, Literature

2 Responses

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  1. D-
    I would add to Peterson’s list: dusting, vaccuming, cleaning the bathroom (toliet,sink,floor,shower/tub,trash bin,etc.) and kitchen(stove, refrigerator, behind the refrigerator, floor, microwave, cabinets, sink, disposal, trash bin,etc.) weekly or more often. I also would add sanitizing children’s toys weekly. Many homes have dangerously unsanitary conditions when it comes to the bathroom and kitchen and they neglect dusting, vaccuming and santitizing. As you know, I could keep adding to this list.


    May 11, 2010 at 10:11 pm

  2. R,
    I think she includes all that, but I failed to mention the whole litany in my review. I may clean for more aesthetic reasons than you, but I feel good that we both have a value for “keeping house,” as it were. This book was tremendous.



    May 11, 2010 at 10:31 pm

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