Real Families column
As the dark days of winter close in around us, the festive lights spring up on window sills, along porch rails and eaves. Candles festoon our tables and spaces of worship. Fires glow in our fireplaces and woodstoves. We light up the dark corners of our cold, wintry world, making space for warmth, conviviality and worship.
I’ve long been drawn to reflect on what it means to create space—to imagine how particular rooms can be arranged for comfort and beauty—but even more to create the kind of emotional space where people feel safe and relationships thrive. Creating space is a poetic metaphor with cosmic dimensions.
As a young mother at home with children, I resented it that others might think of me as “just a homemaker,” and I sought in some of my early writing to define that daily work on my own terms. For much of my life, I have chosen to live into the multilayered, many-splendored dimensions of what it means to be a homemaker—as a mother but also as a pastor, a seminary administrator and a professor. Several years ago, I was grateful to discover the way Princeton professor Carol Lakey Hess described qualities characteristic of women leaders in her book Caretakers for our Common House (Abingdon Press, 1997). She likened leadership of churches and institutions to the qualities needed to manage a just, loving and empowering household.
There are many ways men and women work to create spaces where people can thrive. I’m fascinated by the architects I know who can design structures that open into spaces large enough for festive gatherings and enclose spaces secure enough for safety and intimacy. Friends I know invest body and soul in the construction business, building comfortable and environmentally friendly houses. And I know people who have a knack for arranging furniture and decor with stunning beauty—wall hangings, curtains, cushions, tapestries that vividly express the personality and ethos of a household or family.
I’m only moderately good at working with the physical stuff of homemaking, but what I love most is creating hospitable space where family, friends, students, colleagues and our church family can come alive to each other, to God’s world and to the Spirit.
I love watching students in the seminary community find their voice as they discover it is safe to express their real fears, disappointments and longings. Parker Palmer describes how a “learning space needs to be hospitable not to make learning painless but to make the painful things possible.” I was struck by how often students picked up on this theme this past semester in their written and oral discussions of Palmer’s reflection on “education as a spiritual journey.” It obviously struck a chord in their spirits that our calling is to create hospitable spaces to welcome each other—our struggles, regrets, failures, fledgling visions—spaces that free us to be real with each other.
I love creating space for our church family to gather round our tables. Last Sunday some 30 did so again, a frequent move from the public worship space to one of our homes for delighting in hearty food and fellowship, building community connections.
When our son and daughter-in-law recently returned from a long sojourn in south central Asia, I loved going to their apartment before their arrival, filling the refrigerator with food, hanging new curtains, making the bed with fresh linens, choosing some seasonal flowers and breakfast breads to say “welcome home” as soon as they walked in the door.
For a long time, I’ve loved what Lutheran pastor and author Walter Wangerin writes about homemaking. His mother, he says, was a priest, and cleaning was her sacramental ritual. “My mother kept cleaning, kept reclaiming territory by the act of cleaning it, kept redeeming her children therein,” he writes.
Wangerin writes that his mother’s feats persuaded him that “everything old and fusty could be eliminated … or, better yet, the old itself could be the new again.” Because of her priestly toil to make “my infant world a clean, well-lighted place,” he writes, “now … in spite of wretched evidence to the contrary, I continue to trust in the ultimate purity of God’s universe. … Now, therefore, I trust renewal. Resurrection. Easter.”
“Never, never,” he writes, “should children take so cosmic a gift for granted.”
In this season when lights brighten many dark corners, I like to think of candle lighting, tree decorating, the lamp’s reflection in a mirror radiating Epiphany’s good news for all the world’s people as priestly sacraments with cosmic dimensions. Men and women, whether or not we’re aware when we string lights around or build up the fire, are showing that we can push back darkness with light, sadness with joy, grimness with goodness, greed with generosity—celebrating the newborn king: a cosmic gift for sure.
Sara Wenger Shenk is an author and serves as associate dean and associate professor of Christian practices at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Va.