The Ministry of Martha

I had a decision to make this morning. Write or clean my house.

I dreaded staring at a blank computer screen.

But I also dreaded the thought of stripping beds, folding and putting away my daughter’s clothes, emptying trash baskets, hanging up my husband’s suits from Sunday, watering plants, cleaning off my desk, opening mail, shelving books, thawing chicken and deciding on a way to serve it for dinner, and unpacking my luggage from this weekend’s trip and sorting through my closet for something fresh and clean to pack for this weekend’s speaking trip.

I had to decide. So I decided to write about housework. Afterwards I will do some housework.

I earn enough to hire someone to clean and indeed have a woman who comes in every other week to help with the cleaning, so why in the world would I spend my time on house work when it can be put off on someone else?

First things first: I can’t work in clutter. Some people can, but I’m not one of them. I clean so I can write.  Sure, sometimes I clean the house to put off writing.  But sometimes cleaning reminds me, in ways that writing and being a minister do not, of the holiness of caregiving.

Of the many things she failed at as a mother, my mother who was a country girl took pride in the fact that she kept a clean house. She insisted that her two daughters learn to do the same. My younger sister was better at my mother’s craft than I was. I preferred books over a mop. But my mother didn’t care. I had to learn how to clean (even though I never mastered cooking).  Keeping a clean house (along with being a great cook) was the way my mother who was otherwise shy and not very affectionate communicated her love to her family. “Never eat from the table of a woman with a dirty house,” she admonished us.

sweeping

Education was supposed to free women from being relegated to domestic work. And talking here about reclaiming housework as sacred work feels somewhat anti-feminist and counterrevolutionary to me. But the daily obligations of having to clean up behind ourselves and those we care about serve as reminders to us of our inherent messiness and ability to wreak chaos around us.  It’s thankless, repetitive work that constantly comes undone and must be redone, and hardly any of us do housecleaning without doing our share of mumbling and grumbling.  Menial labor is how those who scoff at and underestimate its importance categorize it in the workplace. It’s the unpaid labor of generations of women in the home which patriarchy dubs “labor of love.” It’s a shame women have been expected to juggle the obligations of family and work with as little help as they’ve gotten from those around them.

For a long time picking up after and caring for others have been construed as intellectual and spiritual impediments that squander our potential and ties us down. But what if by relegating caregiving to women men have missed out on an important venue through which God speaks and teaches us compassion? Afterall, it’s nearly impossible to stay up all night caring for a sick child and return to your office the next day and sign the papers to bomb villages in a distant land, or sign the order to lay off ten thousand workers, or vote not to provide health insurance for poor children.  The dailiness of caring for others teaches you something about patience, compassion, attentiveness, and the grace of obligation.  Or, at least it should.

Years ago I was condescending toward Martha and her complaints in Luke 10 about being stuck with all the cooking preparations when I wrote about her in my first book Just A Sister Away. Like every other modern woman I saw Martha as a domestic shrew and preferred Mary’s choice of chucking cleaning and cooking for the chance to luxuriate at dinner in Jesus’ heady teachings. I’m still a mystic at heart and prefer reading and thinking over hauling water and slaving over a hot stove. But there are days when standing over yet another chicken laying legs up on my kitchen counter and pondering what new way I can prepare it to make my family notice and appreciate my efforts that I understand just how Martha felt. Taking care of others means risking having the little things you do for them taken for granted.

We need a theology that elevates housecleaning and caregiving as spiritually on par with  studying the bible and sermonizing.

The obligations that come with taking care of a family and serving others is holy work. And the scores of daily, barely noticed rituals women do without compensation to make the lives of those they love comfortable deserves to be honored. When that work ceases, we notice and finally understand what it means not just to be loved, but to have been cared for.

24 Responses to “The Ministry of Martha”

  1. adomani Says:

    Isn’t that theology found in these immortal words, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

  2. T Says:

    “the grace of obligation.”

    WOW–I have been thinking alot recently about “doing unto others” and “loving your neighbor”. Being single and without children my “obligations” are few and deliberate.

    I make my selections carefully and (try to) stick with my commitments. I have recently been reminded of the luxury of singlehood as I balance giving (of my time and money) with setting boundaries. I am still struggling with the question of should I stretch beyond my comfort zone or am I allowing others to take advantage of me.

    Is it a childish selfishness or mature awareness that motivates me to volunteer to help one friend pack and move or take her children to the theater for no reason whatsoever verses not being available to watch another’s children for a few hours or refusing to clean her toilets in preparation for a party? Am I enabling bad habits when I pay their bills or “paying it forward” because I have been blessed with more than enough?

    I think it really does come down to attitude. Can I rise to being gracious in the giving and the doing? Mostly yes. Sometimes I resent the expectation–the sense of entitlement—the disreguard for my time or choices. I am irritated with them for not being able to take care of it themselves.

    Then I think about how much courage it took to ask for help. And remember that I have not always been in the posision to provide assistance. There have been times when I needed help myself and I remember the awesome relief and thankfulness when assistance was freely offered.

    I am still not settled on this–maybe becasue it is a daily situation by situation decision.

  3. Renita Says:

    Actually Adomani, that expression came to mind but I decided against including it because I wanted to be sure folks knew that this more than a matter of cleanliness and godliness but honoring the fact that caring of others is work and sacrifice.

    Thanks, T, for reflecting on how the piece fits you as someone who has only yourself right now to take care of. It’s called “getting in where you fit in.” I appreciate that because no matter how broad a net you try to cast as a writer someone always writes in complaining that their reality, or that of someone they know, was overlooked or unmentioned and that you (the writer) are therefore guilty of some –ism.

  4. Kesha Says:

    It makes me feel better to know that I am not the only one out there that has to balance a chore list like the one you described. Mine is very similiar - minus the luggage and the plants. I actualy was kind of sad about it today. I don’t delight in housework. To do it with true care, takes more time than I actually have. I contemplated taking a day off just to catch up.

    It makes me tired every time I approach it. I spent Saturday doing all of my daughter’s laundry and packing away all the clothes she can’t wear anymore. And I understand how housework helps me get everything else done - like writing.

    However, you’re right. It is important to honor the theology of service and keeping a house clean -whether the church or the actual home. Because behind the scenes the most sucessful people most certainly are that way because of the people that help them clear the clutter and keep the rhythm going so that they don’t trip over the books or socks in the floor.

  5. Leslie Callahan Says:

    Oh no, Renita, how could you? The last thing I wanted to be reminded of when I came to your website is that I need to clean my house. :) Seriously, thanks for doing what you always do, which is to think through old things in new ways.

  6. Danielle Says:

    Dr. Weems,

    I am smiling because I just had a conversation with my 6-year old daughter that involved me asking her how she could just step over all of things on the floor in her and proceed to engage in one of numerous craft projects. “How can you work in all of this clutter?” I asked. She gave me a look like “I hope that was a rhetorical question.”

    I truly consider myself borderline obsessive when it comes to cleaning and organizing. I just cannot stand things to be out of order and I get a huge feeling of accomplishment when everything is “just so.” Also whenever I do take time to watch television I choose “Clean House” on style network!

    I do find it hard to understand why my family members don’t seem grateful for my services though. I just want to hear “Thanks for always having my favorite shirt clean, Mom”, or something. The only time it is clear to them is when visiting others’ homes where “free-flow” living occurs. When we return home everyone usually breathes a sigh of relief to be back in our environment; those moments are some of my greatest rewards.

  7. pioneervalleywoman Says:

    I like your essay, Rev. Weems.

    It made me think about a subject I like–the perspectives of the cultural/difference feminist types who aimed to recapture the denigration by some equal treatment feminist types of traditional “women’s work,” as somehow demeaning, because that is not what men do.

    The criticism though, is that equal treatment feminism can force women to put themselves into male boxes and act as though being a woman is something to be overcome.

    I like the idea of ying/yang–men and women being balanced in the male/female energies they each possess. Balance not imbalance.

  8. lj Says:

    my nana used to say “all work is holy be it ever so lowly.” i rehearse that saying every time i engage in housework. and, while i would never admit it in mixed company, i really do get a sense of satisfaction from housework. i don’t know if it’s acculturation or instinctive but i am better able to think and dream when my house is clean, and i am convinced that no one is as good at cleaning it as i. perhaps i’d feel differently if i could actually afford to have someone else do it. i’ll try to incorporate that (paid assistance) into my dreaming and see what comes of it.

  9. Shecodes Says:

    This actually strikes a painful spot for me! My mother and my two sisters are household goddesses — freakishly clean — AND they all have fabulous careers and children. I can’t remember to vacuum unless mom calls and says that she’s on her way over.

    Even when I am not working, I am a total slob and an abysmal failure at housekeeping. I can’t tell you how much shame and self-flagellation I have gone through because of my messiness! Shame is a beast. It’s so easy for some people to constantly keep an immaculate home, so why can’t I?

    To make things worse, I hate clutter and mess, so I am a constant trial to myself. When I hit 30, I decided to accept my flaws and hire a cleaning woman to take care of my house 2x per week. I have a laundry pick up my clothes, wash them, fold them, and deliver them back. If I could pay them to put them in my closet, I would.

    Thank God I can at least cook well.

    I do come from a family who sees being a slob as indicative of some kind of spiritual uncleanness, so I assure you the pain I have felt was/is very real and very serious. I find myself genuinely wondering if I could marry a man who would not accept a maid in our home.

    Maybe I am an absent-minded professor type, but I am convinced that I need gene therapy to replace my missing ‘housekeeping gene’. I envy women who can do it all.

    Perhaps this thorn in my side is supposed to be there: when I open my bathroom and see 3 towels on the floor and an overflowing trash can, I’m reminded that I am just a mere mortal: the head-swelling emails that I receive are suddenly put into the proper and correct perspective.

  10. adomani Says:

    that thought just came, well, out of nowhere.

    but i do understand how overwhelming it is. luckily i can bring baby to work. is it easy? no! i feel like a cow. constant nursing and attention plus trying to do my work, not easy. did it with baby #1 until we got home care and hten day care. not easy. but then there are nmothers out there who wish they could do this so i plod along in thanksgiving to God for this time.

    sure we have someone who comes in to help in the house, but it is still hard. a dear friend’s gift to us after baby was born was a sweet check to pay for help. (anyone looking for a gift to give, send money to pay for house keeping!) but it is hard. i cannot afford everyday house keeping. husband tries but as i speak i can draw a perfect globe in the dust i just discovered on a shelf and MUST be done today.

    so i do know what you mean and for us who have a certain standard (be it unhealthy but who cares) the spirit cannot find rest until the clutter has been cleared away. then we can breathe and sigh and be creative!

    sisters, it is so good knowing that we are all in this together. while i know they too have their share of problems, i suck my teeth whenever these darn rich celebrities (ex.brad and angeline) talk about being hands on parents. yeah, do you clean their room, do their laundry, cook, etc.? spare me!

    so, lot of love as we clean, cook, nuture others AND most especially, ourselves.

    love you ladies!!!

  11. pRenita Says:

    I’m glad to hear from those of you with small children who are trying to juggle all the obligations that come with work and family.

    My advice: hire some help, even if it’s a teenager from the church who comes over once or twice a week to help straighten out things and help with the kids while you prepare dinner or sort mail.

    Even poor women in undeveloped countries know it’s insane to try take care of home and raise children alone. They live near family and in compounds so there’s someone nearby to help with the cooking, cleaning, and childrearing.

    Women in the west live nomadic, splendidly solitary lives, without back up or support system, away from family, stranger to our neighbors, and are utterly incapable of asking for help.

    Whether single or married, mothers or childless, we all could use help with the endless, repetitive housework we face. Sarah had Hagar. Naaman’s wife had an Egyptian girl. Mary in the book of Acts had Rhoda. Of course, it’s not servants and slaves that we’re after. Just a little paid help, someone who needs the work as much as we need their services.

  12. Danielle Says:

    Dr. Weems,

    Thanks for the advice on getting help; and you hit the nail on the head with living solitary lives. I battle with feeling inadequate when I get overwhelmed with the ongoing household responsibilities that I must complete and feel very alone at times. But I am going to look into at least finding a reliable sitter and monthly cleaning service. I know I have to do it because I find myself developing feeling of resentment toward my husband for his freedom and lack of concern for the state of the household; as childless family members who don’t understand why we can’t jump to do things on moment’s notice, and anybody who make light of the magnitude of this balancing act that I negotiate on a daily basis.

    Also, I keep putting myself at the bottom of my “to do” list and that make me angry. If I have one hour of time to kill I would sweep and mop the floors in my home before I would take the time to shave the hair from my legs and underarms! (Sorry it that is TMI ladies) But then I will be complaining because I can’t wear a sleeveless shirt or a skirt. I know I have issues, but that is why I need this blog!

    @Shecodes–There is nothing easy about keeping a clean home so don’t even let anyone fool you into believing that.

  13. Lisa Says:

    @ Dr. Weems
    When I read: “But sometimes cleaning reminds me, in ways that writing and being a minister do not, of the holiness of caregiving,” I exhaled. Lord, let that reside in my bosom for all time…

    @ SheCodes
    I am chuckling right now as I read your words. I completely understand! *LOL* My son has never in his life watched me wash dishes, touch a broom or a vaccuum or cook a meal. Ever. I step foot in a grocery store maybe four times a year. Maybe.

    And yes, girlfriend you CAN hire someone to put the clothes away! My friend was floored when was using my desk and saw the invoice for a “wardrobe organizer”. She said, “I wasn’t being nosy but what is that?” I told her that someone comes into your house, takes an inventory of every item you own, reorganizes all of your clothes and shoes and boots and coats and robes, enters every item into an electronic database in Excel or Access (whichever you prefer) and hands you an invoice for $250! (Actually that’s a small price to may for the relief of having things in order.)

    Mom expected that her kids would have paid help so she never felt she needed to show us how. I don’t EVER remember seeing Mom cleaning or ironing.

    Like you, I too have decided to just accept my flaws. But I pay for my shortcomings by rearranging my budget to call in the experts!

    Once, a lady was talking to me after church and she made some comment relating to juggling career and domesticity and I knodded in agreement and my son (standing by) gave me a look as if to say: “mom…pleeeease.” *LOL*

    Oh geesh… I walked away from her whispering to him, “Sweetheart, sometimes it would be nice if you’d pretend that you have a normal mommy who does everything, okay?”

  14. Hagar's Daughter Says:

    The morning before reading this blog I asked my husband: Don’t you even care about this mess, about me knowing that I don’t feel well? His response: stared blankly while searching for the “correct” response, which he was never able to find.

    I, like Danielle, am growing resentful of my husband’s lack of concern about the state of our home. He is resistant to my re-hiring a housekeeper although he knows I will anyway, but I keep pushing it farther down my to-do list. Believe you me there is nothing holy coming from my mouth when I’m forced to do some cleaning when I’m not in the mood!

    I’m having a flare up of fibromyalgia, which makes it very difficult for me to function. One morning I awakened to find hubby’s entire mobile DJ stuff in the living room (he had to take inventory). He’s been taking inventory for 3 weeks, thus my plea “Don’t you even care?” I guess not so much - lol. I had to pay someone to assist him to complete his inventory because hubby’s “real” job was taking too much energy - so he says. I’m scheduling interviews for housekeepers NOW.

    Thanks for this post.

  15. adomani Says:

    “Whether single or married, mothers or childless, we all could use help with the endless, repetitive housework we face. Sarah had Hagar. Naaman’s wife had an Egyptian girl. Mary in the book of Acts had Rhoda. Of course, it’s not servants and slaves that we’re after. Just a little paid help, someone who needs the work as much as we need their services.”

    you are the best dr. rjw. now off i go to do some dusting.

  16. Angela Denise Davis Says:

    Renita,

    Tomorrow I’m going into the hospital for surgery. I tell friends that I’m going on vacation. Of course, the joke is that I feel that spending a few days on my back, healing from a hip replacement, is a break. I’ve spent the past few months being a “stay-at-home-sister,) living with my oldest sister and niece. It’s been a great challenge and a great reward.

    The transition from single, career woman to “June Cleaver meets Florida Evans” has not been easy. The most challenging and rewarding aspect has been living with a 10 year old. Frankly, there are some days when I tell my sister I’m moving to Seattle — an empty threat. I don’t have to stay with them, but I’ve chosen to be a part of their family. I cook, clean, care for my niece, promote the idea of balance for my sister, and pray at night for their safety. The latter is the most striking thing. You live and care for persons and they live within you. You smile when they rave about your cooking. You feel good to watch them sit on the couch and drink the perfect cup of tea you made. You tell them to take an umbrella and are glad when afternoon showers appear…but you also get tired.

    The words are still coming to me, but I’ve desperately been trying to speak about my experience, to talk about the glory and burden of love cloaked in domestic labor.
    (Maybe it will come to me on my hospital bed.) I’ll just have to say that creating a warm, clean home is like planting a tree; the investment of the act lives far beyond one’s own life. I hope one day my niece will stand in a hot kitchen teaching some child how to cook cornbread or chicken, all the while knowing that the lessons learned are not just about cooking. They are also about life.

    Angela Denise Davis

  17. Renita Says:

    Angela, Angela, Angela, my friend.

    Thank you for offering us a different lens from which to look at caretaking and homemaking. Your niece will have some special stories years from now to tell about her stay-at-home aunt who took care of her and her working mom. As you are mending, think of writing a blogpiece for us here about your experience and journey from career to domesticity.

    You are in my prayers, my friend. I’ll be playing a little Ella, Dinah, Nina, and Carmen for you this weekend as the anaesthesia begins to wear off.

  18. adomani Says:

    pray for me my sistahs. i am really mad at my husband this for not caring about the upkeep of the house.
    sure he tries and tries he does. but am i impatient about his laid back attitude. what annoyed me this morning is when he said, “i’ll clean when i can.” hello, i clea before i leave the house regardless if the king of france is waiting for me at the office.

    he can do better and no, it is not because he is a man (to the response, he’s a guy what do you expect?) or straight (to the negative and unfair stereotype that only gay men are very organized, etc.) he accused me of being more passionate about the house than about him. oh talk about a trip down to the dumps… so i shut up and not say a word and make him feel heard while i am cleaning while baby and 3 year old are quiet?

    ex. we use the tub everyday why should i be the only one to notice the ring around it and clean it? the bed room needs serious dusting and he has no problem walking out of the house and not making up the bed! when i am working on the house he comes in and wants to chat. of course i am pissed. yes, we do have help that comes in but there are a lot of things we can do on our own.

    somebody help a sister here! %%$#@##*********!!!!!

    sorry dr. weems, but i need you all to hold me up in prayer. @angela, in the name of Jesus, you will come out healed in every way possible.

    i love you all!

  19. Georgia's Angels Says:

    Well sisters,

    My mother was a domestic, and she made it clear that after cleaning white women’s house all day she was not coming home to a dirty house. I was the oldest of nine and had to make sure that her list of things to do was complete before she came home. It wasn’t just cleaning but she had her own method for how it was to be done, this cloth for this and that cloth for that and God help you if you used the wrong (rag)for the wrong thing. That old mother’s friend washing machine with the ringer that i always got my finger caught in,cooking the argo starch that we used to make to starch the clothes(no spray starch)and last but least hanging the clothes on the line you better not hang a sheet and a blouse everthing had to be coordinated and clean. I guess what i’m thinking about now is the pride in which housework was done.

    Despite the fact that our lives are different from our mothers, what we learned from them was the pride of good house keeping. I guess that’s why when i had someone coming in years ago i only let her clean the kids room and wash their clothes. I still have this need to do some things myself. I remember when my oldest son was three i went to my aunts house to visit, we walked in and she said to my baby ‘come in with you handsome rough dry self,” I hit the ceiling “my baby ain’t rough dry.” My aunt started counting cat faces (remember them?) on his shirt and offered to do his ironing. lol i agreed for $10.00 a week.

    Whenever i do business with women i remember what you said in Just A Sister Away, we must appreciate the maid in the hotel or the waitress that brings our food treat them with respect and let our tip reflect our appreciation for the work we don’t want to do. This post reminds me of a song we learned in 6th grade Be The Best Of Whatever You are.

  20. Renita Says:

    @adomani,

    Yeah, husbands and housework…I deliberately didn’t go there because I didn’t want to open up that can of worms. Let’s just say that the partner most invested in the issue expends the most energy on the issue. You have 3 choices: keep raising hell, 2) focus on what he does well and forgive him for what he doesn’t, or 3) learn like him to walk over clutter and not notice that the bed is unmade.

    Oh yeah, and pray.

  21. Angela R. Says:

    I’m just a little behind on the blog and spending this day off catching up. I have spent almost a year working part-time as I try to “find myself.” (Done through the grace of God and a husband that loves me enough and at times has believed in me more than I have believed in myself)…

    As a means of showing my gratitude for his understanding, I developed a better attitude towards housekeeping. @Shecodes, it is not in my nature to be a domestic either. However I understood that my husband and children once again were making sacrifices because I am trying to hear God’s voice and live according to his plans for my life…my way hasn’t exactly worked out.

    Therefore, since ministry begins in the home. I had to call on the Lord to help me minster to them through a clean house, cooked meals (at least 5 out of 7 days of the week) and washed, dried, folded and put away laundry. It was/is the least I can do. (I say as I look at the basket of clothes that needs to be put away)

    Thanks for voicing what was in my heart. :)

  22. The Quest for the Meaning of Housekeeping - 9 « spinning in my teacup Says:

    […] As a last thought on the subject, I’ll start with a quote from Dr. Renita J. Weems in her blog Something Within: […]

  23. Kelly Says:

    “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I was simply browsing the internet for some new VBS singing material and happened upon this article and following commentary. Yet again, I am humbled by the Lord’s ways. How I “happened” to come across and read an article about a “topic” that I “happened” to be recently struggling with! There is not enough space, nor time, for me to even begin to describe and share my thoughts/battles regarding housecleaning. I just wish to thank Dr. Weems and the fellow commentators for sharing their thoughts, struggles, and godly perspectives. Your words have granted me a “breath of fresh air” and relief. May the Lord continue to support and strengthen us all.

  24. Sheri Says:

    My husband is much better at the housework than I am and has commented that he feels taken for granted for helping out. After reading your blog, I am even more convicted about improving my skills. I am better, I just need to learn to love washing dishes. So far, not great.

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