By David Barr
After I graduated from college, I spent two years living in the converted loft of a barn, where I took care of a Chattanooga businessman’s gentleman farm. Aside from the horses, my housemate for most of that period was a rangy man, also in his 20s, who was and is a genuine mountain man. He had spent seasons on a wildland firefighting crew out in the Rockies, knew how to hunt, cook, grow food, do auto repair, work with livestock, and run a chainsaw with surgical care. The guy could do it all. Not only was he handy and athletic, he also read my subscription to The New Yorker cover to cover almost every week. To say that he was a Renaissance man would be a little too refined; he was a grizzled jack of all trades with a specialty in old-school home economics. By his own inexhaustible work ethic and a whiff of creativity, he basically transformed an ordinary barn into something in between Peter Pan’s hideout and whatever Cracker Barrel is supposed to be. In other words, he made a structure for livestock into a home for beings created in God’s image (as well as for the livestock).
The most valuable lesson I learned from him is one that I’m still learning: homemaking really matters. In fact, had I not lived with him almost a decade ago, this previous year might have taught me absolutely nothing. Because when 2020 hit, and I was left stranded at home, I knew exactly what was at stake, the only thing I had a semblance of control over: my home life.
As readers of this blog may know, the linguistic root for the word “economics” comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning house or home. Our households have their own kind of economy, or ecology, another word that takes its root from oikos. Households take on characteristics that produce their own cultural fabric, ecosystems with their own identity and social patina. And while referring to this linguistic heritage may now be pedantic, it is no doubt insightful to ponder the way a household, an oikos, was thought to be the most basic unit of society, a mini-society in and of itself.
Christian thinkers throughout the centuries have had much to say about households, one of the most prominent being Martin Luther. Luther famously divided the social order into three “estates”: Church, state, and household. He admittedly borrowed his thinking here from medieval precursors, but his emphasis on the household (and marriage) as a divine blessing is remarkable in its own way. Because the household, as Luther saw it, was a special avenue through which God enriched Christian men and women. It was the environment not only where Christians might work out some of their own God-given agency, creating this or that mini-Christian commonwealth, but it was also an arena of immense blessing. His own home life, with its grand assortment of circulating guests and well-documented mealtime conversations, gave testimony to this commitment.
Luther’s emphases here are helpful in an age when we have been, and could be again, forced into our homes, an altogether foreign land of spiritual potential. We are, indeed, a people largely more concerned with interior design and self-expression than the cultivation of household environments of respite, growth, healing, correction, worship, and even mission. Design and beauty are certainly part of this, but again, the idea that a home “economy” is both a calling and a formative nexus should require a broader spectrum of intentional thought. That is, making things look attractive is not enough. Every home has a culture that can be guided, utilized, and enjoyed with care, through cooking, growing, patterning meals, art, customs, celebrating, and recreating.
Our homes can become spiritually rich places for us if we are willing to direct our souls with some care. My point here is not that we should all become crafty — spiritual knitters or gardeners or whatever — it is simply that if we are to learn anything or impact anything in this age of isolation and technological confidence, surely it will happen in our homes, the only “estate” we’ve ever had much control over anyway.
Practically speaking, this should look like two things. First, when we ask the question, “What is God teaching me?”, we should rightly turn our attention to our home life. We could ask: Is my frustration with my spouse a sign that I’m being taught patience? Is my loneliness inviting me to proactively create community? Is God teaching me about gentleness through my children? Could my lack of cleanliness represent some other discontent? The lessons could be anything, but be sure: if God is teaching us, then it will certainly involve our homelife in one way or another. We who are called citizens of heaven are, after all, given an invitation to become the dwelling place — a household — for God through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:21). By the power of the Spirit our actual households should thus instruct us.
Second, for those of us who might think of our homes merely as a place where we sleep or pay the rent or hurriedly eat a meal before work or bed, think again. Our households are our most direct Christian legacy. Households are the space for us to exercise dominion and not simply shepherd the gifts that God has given us, but to orient those gifts toward God’s own purposes. In this way, we can certainly reflect on how our careers and vocations might express our God-given callings. We can also set out on missional efforts for the poor and defenseless. We can throw ourselves into various church activities. And yet after all the things we pursue in our daily lives, we are in some way whatever our homes are.
Households are the basic unit of society because they are the only places we have much say over in the first place. If you want to take God’s calling on your life seriously, make sure that you reflect on how your home life is the starting place for that calling. This is true for married people with no kids, single people, multigenerational families, and home share setups of various sorts. Take care of your household, and let it teach you.
I lived in the barn for only two years, but in the deceptive truthfulness of my own memory it was much longer, years longer. This seems to be the case, not simply because living in a barn on some hundreds of acres was exciting, but largely because the texture of those years had been so accentuated by the crafting of a household culture and life. There were things I learned and did not learn from God in those years; let us not forget the pedagogical limits of the context, two guys in their 20s living in a barely habitable hay loft. But what I learned, and even that I learned anything, had everything to do with tending to my own household in the company of one who was committed to it as well.
At this juncture in life I am learning other things — about raising children, trying to love my wife, creating community, and striving for the fruits of the Spirit — but the only way to learn and rightly gather these lessons into wisdom is, I can only assume, by that same spiritual posture, tending to things right in front of me in my own household. To intentionally cultivate a domestic life is to open oneself up to that most intimate inner working of the Spirit, day in and day out. Such a calling is by no means an easy one, even while it is shared by all who are fortunate enough to have a home. And yet what a hopeful endeavor to undertake! Almighty God is, indeed, the one cultivating us, and whether our home lives flourish or flounder, we are nonetheless being fashioned into a dwelling place for the Almighty (Heb. 3:5-6).
The Rev. Dr. David Barr is associate rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN.