House & Home

I walked with a friend last week — a lockdown lap of the local park. In conversation we covered the well-worn territory of our work, its ups and downs. “If you could start over,” he asked, ‘what would you do?” “Architecture,” I said without pause, “I would be an architect.”

It’s true. As a kid I lay in bed at night sketching floor plans on little white cards. They were humble places — three bedrooms and one bath — reflecting my childhood. Our eleven squares of cream-brick veneer was all I knew. I discovered grander possibilities only when I was older.

I have just finished reading Dominic Bradbury’s beautiful book The Secret Life of the Modern House. Through nineteen chapters, Bradbury traces the last 150 years of evolution in house design. With extraordinary insight he charts the way our homes have been reinvented, reflecting changing tastes and ways of living. It’s a fascinating tale.

At the outset Bradbury reminded me of the words of the great modernist architect Le Corbusier, referring to the spirituality of the home. “To build one’s house is very much like making one’s will,” he said, “when the time does arrive, it is not the mason’s nor the craftsman’s moment, but the moment in which every man makes one poem in his life.”

I like that. We are all homemakers; we are all writers of our own residential poems. The homes we ‘build’ and within which we make our lives are among our most precious possessions. Whether we rent or own, our homes reflect us. They embody our aspirations and, in time, they house our deepest values. Poems indeed.

Of course, what irks me about Bradbury’s tale is what so commonly gets up my nose about domestic architecture more generally: it serves the rich. Of all the homes that Bradbury writes about — those that set trends and challenged traditional ways of thinking — there is barely one I could live in. At architecture’s cutting edge, it is as though only those who can afford it are gathered up in the sublime beauty of its poetry. The inference is that the rest of us are left with simple ditties that never quite make the grade.

Yes, I know. It is the breakthroughs in grand architecture that supposedly ‘trickle down’ into the design of more ordinary homes. Yet the absence of the ordinary in these great tellings of residential history risk missing the essence of our story. The truth is, my parents’ three bedrooms and one bath — the home in which I dreamed of my own future — was a poem as sublime and real as any other.

Men in the Kitchen: Food, Gender, Church & Culture

It’s been four years now since my mother died. Mum was an extraordinary woman, a force of nature — gregarious, chaotic, funny, eternally optimistic and with an endless capacity to love. She loved God, she loved her husband, her boys, their wives and her sixteen grandchildren. She loved her church and her neighbours and still she had reserves for anyone else who came along. In her passing, mum left behind a hole in my life and many others that remains. She also left behind a recipe book.

It’s an old school exercise book, the tattered cover post-box red and bound along its edge with a strip of woven tape. Mrs Holt’s Recipes it says on the front. In the painful process of sorting through mum’s life following her funeral, my father took the book down from above the refrigerator. “I don’t know who else would want it,” he said as he handed it to me.

The truth is, my mother had nothing to do with the compilation of this book. I did it. As a boy of nine or ten, despairing at the cardboard box stuffed with recipes at the bottom of mum’s pantry, it was me that got her organised. With a set of coloured pens and my best artistic flourish, I created chapters: casseroles; main dishes; large cakes; small cakes, slices, biscuits and confectionary; soups; and desserts. Each page was carefully numbered. Some recipes I handwrote, adding editorial comment here and there: “this one is good.” Most I stuck to the pages with sticky tape. Everything found its place and the cardboard box was thrown out.

Of course, my mother’s style was never an ordered one. The book today bulges with recipes randomly stuffed. There are casseroles in the biscuits section and sweet and sour pork in desserts. The recipes for curried sausages and cod casserole — the ones I thought I’d gotten rid of — had reappeared. Each time I hold the book, cuttings and scraps, even whole pages, fall to the ground. The book is everything mum was: overflowing, erratic, generous, and all-encompassing. In memory of her, I have nothing else as fragile and nothing as robust. It’s like holding a sacred text.

Recipe books like my mum’s are ubiquitous. You probably have or remember one yourself. Perhaps it’s a well-ordered book or just a collection of cards shuffled together. These collections tell us many things. Like a family photo album, a recipe collection provides unique snapshots of the way life was at another time. They hold memories, ones we can still taste and smell. What’s more, if we are prepared to read them just a little more closely, they can tell us far more than the ingredients for boiled fruit cake. They speak of our identity. The provide windows into issues of gender, taste, class and culture. They remind us, too, that sex in the kitchen is not what it used to be.

For men of my father’s generation, the kitchen stove was a woman’s place and home cooking an almost entirely feminine task. Men did other things. They may have been out taming the wilderness with the lawn mower or presiding over ‘the high altar’ of the backyard barbecue. Typically they were not found in the kitchen, except perhaps to do the dishes. Today things have changed. I am one of six sons. At least three of us are seasoned home cooks. No longer limited to carving the Sunday roast or washing up, men have moved from sink to stove in considerable numbers. Indeed, things have changed, but perhaps not as much as we imagine.

The most current research still points to women carrying the lion’s share of daily, domestic responsibilities. According to the ABS, Australian men, on average, spend twenty-eight minutes per day on household chores while women spend one hour and eight minutes. Life in the kitchen is no different. In 84% of Australian households, women remain the primary cooks.

It is certainly true that men are cooking at home more than they have. Generally, though, the nature of the cooking they do is different. The truth is, men are more motivated by cooking as performance than as an act of service. Research tells us that men in the kitchen typically place a higher value on the mastery of technical skill than on the nurturing of those they cook for. I have a friend who is currently fascinated with the gadgets of backyard smoking and slow grilling. His mastery of these gadgets has led him into all manner of online groups where men share their skills with religious fervour. It is a particular male obsession. What’s more, as the social researcher Rebecca Huntley observes, the male household cook is much more motivated by an audience and playing to them. Consequently, while the male cook may be lauded as “the kitchen hero” on weekends, it is still predominantly their female partners who keep the family fed and watered during the week: “the deeply gendered distinction between cooking as a vocation—as technical skill—and cooking as a domestic chore—as caring work—holds fast.” So, while sex in the kitchen may be different to what it once was, it is, according to Huntley, “still in the missionary position.”

The extraordinary success of television cooking shows provides an interesting commentary on our contemporary understandings of food. The celebrated Australian chef Gay Bilson, now retired to a farm in South Australia, has become one of our nation’s most intelligent food writers. For Bilson, the trajectory of shows like MasterChef is entirely “aspirational.” That is, they have little to do with the daily domestic life of our kitchens and more to do with the glamorous world of artfully stacked restaurant food we’re all meant to aspire to. While we salivate over stylized images of food ‘plated’ for the discerning consumer, we return to the dinner table with a diminished sense of what’s actually before us, its connection to the earth and the care that’s made it possible. The distance between what is aspired to and what our ordinary lives most need is wide. Most notably, Bilson argues, the value of the domestic cook is marginalized.

This marginalization has a long history. In his wonderful book The Pudding That Took a Thousand Cooks, Australian writer Michael Symons observes that for much of history, household cooks “have been in the background — both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic. These cooks generally have been women, and their achievements overlooked as inglorious and private. They have been restricted to the chopping board and spice rack. But while each of the cooks’ actions might be infinitesimal, the results have multiplied into civilization.” Indeed, if the old adage is true, we are what we eat, then household cooks have not just made our meals, they have made us. For most household cooking — the cooking that marks our days and feeds our bodies — is not about art or performance. It’s about service and the daily sacrifices of earth and home. It’s about nutrition and wellbeing. It’s about the rituals and routines that hold us together as households and families.

It was this that my mother instinctively understood. When it came to cooking, mum did not care for detail. For the most part, her recipes are simple and to the point. Like the one she called “Chicken Casserole a la Jean.” Jean was mum’s older sister. As it happens I remember mum writing it down at Aunty Jean’s table. The truth is, neither mum nor Jean liked cooking. Life was too full to be distracted by detail, especially in the kitchen. The recipe is brief.

I chicken pulled to pieces
Fry onions and peppers and mushrooms
Add 1 tin of celery OR asparagus OR chicken soup
Add to chicken and into oven

I have never made Chicken a la Jean, and I probably never will. But there is something in the spirit of this recipe that hovers over me today. I am a serious cook, more serious and skilled than my mother was, but I am always conscious of her presence when I cook. “That’ll do!” she would always say. When I am prone to make food more important than people, and to give the processes of preparation more time than I give to those who will eat it, I hear her say, “That’ll do!” Mum cooked entirely driven by love, her love for those for whom she cooked. It was a service pure and simple.

Culinary historian Henry Notaker (A History of Cookbooks) writes on the role of women in professional kitchens. Though women are in the majority of professional cooks through history, Notaker demonstrates the degree to which they too have been marginalized, demeaned and paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Sound familiar? In 19th century France, women cooks were paid just a third of what was paid to men. Though these men commonly took the plumb roles in palaces and mansions, it was women who filled the majority of roles in household kitchens. They often combined cooking with other household duties, whereas men only cooked.

As women began enrolling in professional cookery courses in France in the late 1800s, one male gatekeeper was indignant and accused women of usurping a profession that did not belong to them. He was aware that women were immersed in cooking from birth and had no objection to women who cooked at home, but he claimed that they had no right to enter what he called “our work,” which, by the way, he considered too fatiguing for the female constitution and also too extensive for their flimsy knowledge.

Thankfully, there has been a long and honourable line of women in history who have persisted, the ones who have been able to see through the hubris and hypocrisy of men claiming their birth right in the professional kitchen. These women have found the courage to call out these male cooks as egotists with little real concern for the health and well-being of those they fed. The author of the first cookbook written by an Italian woman and published in 1900, said this: “For male cooks it is enough to pose as artist, these cooks are seeking a name for themselves and they want glory and laurels, even at the risk of spoiling other people’s digestion.” She accused men of pandering to the epicures and gluttons rich enough to pay, while female cooks were concerned that food is healthy, nourishing and an expression of care.

It is now 40 years since Victorian Baptists first ordained women to pastoral ministry. It was a bun fight at the time and our behaviour during that period is nothing for us to be proud of. You would imagine that four decades later we could confidently say that sex in the church looks fundamentally different. Indeed, there are instances where that is the case. Certainly we have made significant strides and women are now able to play roles in our movement they’ve never played before. But in other ways, little has changed. Still a majority of our churches will not consider a woman as pastor and certainly not as a senior pastor in a team ministry context. There is something at the heart of this continuing resistance that rests on a basic question regarding the nature of pastoral ministry. At its essence, is ministry a performance or an act of service?

As the youngest son growing up in suburban Dandenong, I got to sit next to mum in church. We Baptists only celebrated communion on the first Sunday morning of each month. Each time we did, it was men, exclusively men, who sat behind that table. It was a man, always a man, who stood to his feet and, as he held the elements aloft, uttered the words of Jesus: “this is my body given for you … this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” What I remember, however, is that prior to the service, I would accompany mum in the church kitchen as she cut up slices of Tip Top white bread into the tiniest pieces; as she poured the grape juice ever so carefully into those little Baptist shot glasses lined up in wooden trays. There was one roster for the men who would flank the pastor behind the communion table, and another roster for the women who made everything ready. The men performed; the women served. It seems that regardless of our brand or the clerical uniforms we wear, our churches confront the same persistent issues.

In today’s restaurant kitchens, more than 75% of head or executive chef positions are maintained by men. Indeed, it is a stubborn figure that does not move. As a rule, it is men who perform at the pass while it’s women — those who make up more than 60% of kitchen staff — who serve in the background. It seems that today’s professional kitchen and today’s church have much in common.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus met with his disciples to anticipate his death and the challenges that lay beyond it. To demonstrate the essence of the ministry for which he was preparing them, Jesus took off his outer robe, knelt before them and washed their feet. There was no audience to play to, no positons to protect, no power to maintain or authority to exercise. There were only dirty feet, and it was Jesus who washed them. “You do likewise,” he said to them.

In 2017, my wife and I enjoyed some of the most delightful weeks in Tuscany, Italy. As part of our travels, we spent a day in the fortress town of Montepulciano. While we were there, I had the opportunity to visit the Church of San Biagio, a magnificent 16th century edifice built on an open field below the town. As it happens, I was the only visitor inside. For as long as I was there, it was just me, a magnificent space, and a priest.

The priest was an industrious young man, dressed in uniform black. Though he smiled warmly at me, we did not speak. He was busy. With his clerical collar unbuttoned, he was carting stacks of plastic chairs from the central sanctuary to an outer door. Seated in a pew, I watched him for about half an hour. Back and forth he went, stack after stack from one place to the other. At one point I offered to help, but he brushed me away with some words in Italian I couldn’t understand.

As I sat in this sublime place of worship watching my brother work, I reflected on just how domestic is most of what we do in this business. No matter what our tradition, no matter how grand or plain our context, how large or small our congregations or how notable our titles, so much of what we do is carting chairs. Oh, there are moments, those grand unforgettable moments: those occasional sermons in which our spirits sore; those pastoral encounters in which we sense God’s transforming presence; those remarkable moments in a church’s life when you know the delight of God in the most extraordinary way. But then, you go back to carting chairs. After 30+ of pastoral ministry, I have come to understand that it’s this that lies at the heart of what we do.

At the end of the day, you know, for all the TV hype, the cooking shows and celebrity chefs, those who cook for a living offer a service of the most basic kind. They feed us. When all the glamour is stripped away, they are, in fact, part of the modern, professional servant class. A contributor in the pages of the journal Quadrant reflected recently on the contrast between her life as a writer and her work as a functions manager on weekends. In this reflection she describes “the gross materiality” she confronted every evening in those she served: “Mess, vomit, rotten food, garbage, sour smells, burnt offerings, and drunken bodies regularly confronted me at the end of the night. Quite literally, I had to put my hands in the muck that other people had left behind. My job was to sort refuse, dispose of it, then create a picture anew, as if it had never taken place.”

It’s a pretty ordinary business really.

As fond as I am of my mother’s recipe book, I know that I cannot romanticize it too much. Mum never liked cooking. For her it was a means to other things. It was an act of foot washing. Seven nights each week, for twenty-plus years of my life, my mother took of her outer robes, put on her apron, knelt down and washed my feet. There was no heavenly light streaming through the window as she did so. There was no audience, just a table full of tired and hungry people who were just as likely to turn up their noses at what was on their plates as they were to give thanks. Cooking was service, a humble and routine act of service. But in that service there is something of the essence of ministry and the spirituality that shapes it.

As we in the church continue to wrestle with the nature of ministry, with what it means to be communities of faith in which all contributions are received with gratitude, we have much to learn from our kitchens and much to learn from the God who inhabits those kitchens as much as God inhabits our churches.

I conclude tonight with a prayer, a responsive prayer inspired by the words of Baptist pastor and writer Kenneth Sehested (In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public, 2009). Perhaps you can join me in reading those words printed in italics.

breast-feeding God,
hungry and thirsty we return to your lap
and to your table again.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

Fill us again with bread that satisfies,
with milk that nourishes.
Drench our parched throats
with the cool taste of your goodness.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

We come to your lap
and to your table
to rediscover your romance with the world.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

As you nourish us with the bread of life
and the milk of your Word,
let your Spirit hang an apron around our necks,
fashioned and patterned
like that worn by Jesus.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.
Nourish our hearts and strengthen our bodies
so that we can feed others.

Instruct us,
here in the halls
of your kitchen-kingdom,
with the recipes of mercy and forgiveness,
of compassion and redemption.

Leaven our lives
‘til they rise in praise:
offered, blessed and broken
for the healing of this earth.


There’s a prayer for that?

After chopping cabbage with Sam, I stopped by one of the cabins for a quick shower, my first in three days, and put on clean clothes. Then, after a tasty lunch in the dining hall — fresh mesculin mix, eggplant parmesan, and challah — I ducked in the men’s room for a quick pee, where I found myself side by side with Danny the Rabbinical Rapper. We made small talk as men do who are trying to pretend they aren’t inches apart while performing an intimate bodily function, and then I remembered something a teacher in seminary once told me.

“Isn’t there a blessing for going to the bathroom?” I asked in mid-stream.

“Yeah,” Danny said. “It’s called the asher yatzar. It’s attributed to Abayei, a fourth-century Babylonian rabbi.”

“Do you say it?”

“Sure, all observant Jews say it. It’s sort of like thanking God that everything is working properly down there. In English It could be translated like this: ‘Blessed is the One who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifeces and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them was to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a man to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders.'”

“That’s beautiful,” I said. A few simple words, and the act of taking a piss could suddenly become elevated into a song of praise.

Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Rees on bed sheets and sewerage pipes

“A person makes a bed every day, as a service to themselves and perhaps their family member. A parent makes sandwiches for the children’s lunches. Someone else digs a trench in which to place sewerage pipes. Everyone of these things can be seen as ‘merely’ doing the job. It may seem a stretch to speak of them as having a ‘spiritual’ significance, but this is because we have so reified the ‘spiritual’ as to separate it from the practical, the physical and indeed from life as it is lived. My contention is that we need to re-think the idea of the Spirit’s presence precisely to embrace the ordinary, the practical and physical, including the beautiful and those things we might consider merely functional.” 

Frank Rees, “New Directions in Australian Spirituality: Sabbath beyond the Church” in Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review 47 (2015: 1):75-88.

What am I to do?

I am a father to two very fine people. In their early 20s, they’re each at a pivotal point in their lives. The uncertainties of work and questions of life-direction are pressing. It feels to them like a high-stakes time. To a degree it is, for amidst the pragmatics of career choice and job hunting — challenging in themselves — are some big questions, questions that are as ancient as they are urgent: Who am I meant to be? What am I meant to do? 

I have just finished reading David Brooks’s The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, and he says some things early on that I have been wondering about since. 

Many young people are graduating into limbo. Floating and plagued by uncertainty, they want to know what specifically they should do with their lives. So we hand them the great empty box of freedom. The purpose of life is to be free, we say. Freedom leads to happiness! We’re not going to impose anything on you or tell you what to do. Instead, we give you your liberated self to explore. Enjoy your freedom! But the students in the audience put down their empty box because they are drowning in freedom. What they’re looking for is direction. What is freedom for? they ask. How do I know which path is my path?

So we hand them another big box of nothing — the box of possibility. Your future is limitless! You can do anything you set your mind to! The journey is the destination! Take risks! Be audacious! Dream big! But this mantra doesn’t help them either. If you don’t know what your life is for, how does it help to be told that your future is limitless? That just ups the pressure. So they put down that empty box. What they are looking for is a source of wisdom. Where can I find the answers to my big questions?

So we hand them the empty box of authenticity. Look inside yourself and find your true inner passion, we say.  You are amazing! Awaken the giant within! Live according to your own true way! You do you! But that is useless, too. The ‘you’ we tell them to consult for life’s answers is the very thing that hasn’t yet formed. So they put down that empty box and ask, What can I devote myself to? What cause will inspire me and give meaning and direction to my life?

At this point, we hand them the emptiest box of all — the box of autonomy. You are on your own, we tell them. It’s up to you to define your own values. No one else can tell you what’s right or wrong for you. Your truth is to be found in your own way through your own story that you tell about yourself. Do what you love!

Brooks concludes with this:  

You will notice that our answers take all the difficulties of living in your twenties and make them worse. The graduates are in limbo, and we give them uncertainty. They want to know why they should do this as opposed to that. And we have nothing to say except, Figure it out yourself based on no criteria outside yourself. They are floundering in a formless desert. Not only do we not give them a compass, we take a bucket of sand and throw it over their heads!

Though I’m not sure about all of this, there are elements of Brooks’s critique that resonate. At one point, he quotes the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:  “What I really need to be clear about is what I am to do, not about what I must know … It is a question of finding what is truth, of finding the idea for which I am willing to live and die … It is for this my soul thirsts, as the deserts of Africa thirst for water.” I doubt we all feel it with the intensity Kierkegaard infers, but the thirst is real. It has certainly been so for me, and I sense it in those I love and others I care for. The questions persist: What am I to do? What is it I’ll give my life for? 

As a person of faith I have found in the Christian story an “idea” that has directed my life, a relationship that gives purpose to my living. Honestly, this story has been for me so compelling I can’t imagine life without it. It has shaped every decision I’ve taken and every commitment I have made.  The truth is, though, my faith is not my children’s faith. The story which is life-defining for me is not something that I can simply download to them. Though always respectful, my 20-somethings have come to be skeptical of my God-centred view of the world. I understand why and I honour their conclusions as they honour mine. So how then do I help? What can I offer beyond Brooks’s “empty boxes” of freedom, possibility, authenticity and autonomy? 

I have a suspicion that those boxes are not entirely empty, but the gift of each thrives when earthed in something beyond them — a larger story, a purpose into which our small lives are gathered.  Perhaps my role as a dad is to continue to ask those deeper questions, amidst all the uncertainties to gently return them to what they hold to be most true and important for themselves and their world. It may not diffuse the anxieties of the present moment, but it might bring a sense of perspective into which those anxieties can rest. Perhaps.

Laundry as a spiritual practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on home, I offer this reflection on doing the laundry as a spiritually formative practice. OK, so it might be a stretch for most of us, but it’s worth a thought!


The laundry is never done. A laundry basket never empties completely. No matter how many loads we do, done is not a laundry word. There are some things in life that are done. Mostly they are big, momentous things: my work here is done; my schooling is done; our relationship is done. While there are things less momentous—a book can be done; so can a jig­saw—when it comes to life at home, done is only ever a provisional word. Done things at home are never really done: taking out the trash, mopping the floor, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the toilet, watering the plants, feeding the fish, or shopping for groceries. Things like these are only ever done for now, until they need doing again.

There is something about a good spiritual practice that defies done with the same persistence. I pray today and I will pray tomorrow. To­day I confess my sin; tomorrow I will need to confess again. Like the disciplines of frugality and chastity, there is no end to the obligations of laundry. The average household generates eight to ten loads every week. Laundry is not something we get to do once and then move on, as though graduating to a laundry-less existence. Clothes get dirty, socks get smelly, sheets need changing. Laundry is one of the certainties of life. As with all spiritual practices worth their salt, laundry is our work today as it will be tomorrow.

That said, embracing laundry as a practice of spirituality takes some work. Getting beyond the novelty of the idea can be the biggest hurdle. The laundry is simply not where the mind naturally goes in pursuit of God. After all, holy places gleam, like the front rooms of our homes made ready for guests. The laundry is kept behind closed doors. It’s the place we hope they don’t see. The most profitable spiritual practices, however, are those that throw open the closed doors of our lives and allow light to shine where it’s most needed.

The laundry door is one that deserves to be opened, and the practice of washing taken more seriously. There are significant things going on in the laundry; it’s a place charged with spiritual possibility. The opportu­nity to name those things, to bring them to the surface, and to embrace them with intention is ours for the taking. Here are some places to begin.

Laundry as a Formative Act

It is the routine of laundry that is likely its greatest gift. According to Kathleen Norris, worship and laundry are the work given for us to do by God. Both are repetitive, she says, mundane, even menial. Lest you think worship is nothing of the sort, take note the next time you are in church. Think first of the great and eternal God to whom this worship is offered, and then of the stilting, off-key and sometimes humorous forms in which it comes. You would think after centuries of rehearsal we would finally have it right. Not so, for it is a work never done. Yet through our regular investment in it, we are nurtured in God’s image. Week by week, year after year, we are formed by it. So, too, with laundry.

As a truly menial task—a word derived from the Latin “manor” meaning “to dwell in a household”—laundry is a task of connections and household ties. It’s an act of stability, a mark of loyalty, the most basic pro­vision of kindness and service. I wash your feet; I wash your underwear. I serve you and honor you. I will do it today and again tomorrow, load after load. In the process I am formed. My servant spirit, however reluctantly and at times resentfully, is gradually deepened by the doing. I have often noticed that in meetings where refreshments are served, it is the same people over and over who instinctively move to the kitchen sink once the meeting is done. Equally, it is the same people who don’t. Domestic acts of service shape our instincts. We are formed in the doing.

It is because we are human, Norris says, that we must find our way to God through the mundane and the daily acts of our lives. “In our life of faith as well as in our most intimate relationships with other people,” she writes, “our task is to transform the high romance of conversion, the fervor of religious call, into daily commitment.” In this, laundry and worship are one of a kind.

Laundry as a Sacramental Act

A sacrament is most broadly defined as an outward sign of an inward grace, like the elements of bread and wine on the church’s communion table. Through the ordinariness of wheat and grape, we encounter love in its most extraordinary form. While the officially sanctioned sacraments of the church are a gift to the people of God, the possibility of the sacra­mental does not end at the church doors. The world is shot through with grace. In acts large and small, we have opportunity to sign that grace for others. Laundry can be one of those: a demonstration of unearned favor. We don’t deserve to have our laundry done. There is no universal right to clean laundry enshrined in a code of what it means to be human. It is either done for us as an act of grace, or it’s an act of grace we gift to others. Either way, Ernest Boyer calls it “a sacrament of care.”

When I stand behind the communion table in our sanctuary, I han­dle things that are, in and of themselves, unremarkable: a loaf of bread; a goblet of grape juice. When we gather as the people of God around that table, we name these elements together as the signs of God’s redeeming presence with us. It is in the naming that the unremarkable becomes the ineffable and grace is enfleshed. As you stand over the washing—whether it’s in a state-of-the-art machine with multiple cycle options or a plastic tub filled with hot water and soap—you stand before ordinary, soiled ele­ments. Each one has its own story to tell, though perhaps most should be left untold. Each sock, each blouse or shirt is known and submerged. Sometimes there may be words you say:

Lord God,
I offer to you the work of my hands,
and the soiled garments of our lives.
May those who receive them washed clean
know the cleansing of your grace.

Your congregation is made up of those who will take and wear them. Occasionally they do so with gratitude, an awareness of the gift that is theirs. Mostly they don’t. It’s a routine they take for granted as much as you do. It is mystery and it is laundry; not all that different to the com­munion table really.

Laundry as a Prayerful Act

“Sometimes when people ask me about my prayer life,” says the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, “I describe hanging laundry on the line.” For Tay­lor, each item of clothing she hangs in the sun is like a prayer flag pegged in the open breeze.

“Since I am a compulsive person, I go to some trouble to impose order on the lines of laundry: handkerchiefs first, then jockey shorts, then T-shirts, then jeans. If I sang these clothes, the musical notes they made would lead me in a staccato, down­ward scale. The socks go all in a row at the end like exclamation points. All day long, as I watch the breeze toss these clothes in the wind, I imagine my prayers spinning away over the tops of the trees. This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.”

Taylor’s practice has in mind the pictures we see from Nepal: small pieces of colored cloth strung in their hundreds along mountain ridges high in the Himalayas. Though the practice has its origins elsewhere, Ti­betan Buddhists have made it their own in a particular way. The tradition is that these flags come in sets of five colors arranged from left to right: the blue of sky and space; the white of air and wind; the red of fire; the green of water; and the yellow of earth. Together they call for peace, com­passion, strength, and wisdom through all creation. For those who hang them, there is not a strong sense that these prayers are carried to God but are blown by the wind, filling the air with all they hope for.

As Christians, our faith centers more deeply in a particular encoun­ter with God through Jesus Christ, but the longings embodied by these flags resonate. It is an ancient practice of prayer that we name our long­ings before God, that in time those longings are shaped by God, and in turn, those longings shape our lives and relationships. If a practice like hanging laundry can give form and structure to such prayers, and our prayers be gathered up in our daily work, both are enriched.


Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

Living in the moment

It’s more than twenty years since I last saw him, but I remember him as if it was yesterday. Covered head to toe in fuzzy blue fur, he hung from a plastic perch, swinging back and forth like a daring, pudgy trapeze. His little red shorts, his ear-to-ear grin and trademark googly eyes never changed. What holds my memory of him, though, has less to do with his fury self and more with my infant daughter’s delight in his company.

At three and four months old, Ali would lay on her back with an A-frame plastic ‘play gym’ propped over her. Dangling from the bar above was a collection of colourful objects. I don’t recall what the others were, only that for Ali, it was Cookie Monster who stole the show. My daughter had eyes for no one else. Her little legs and arms would thrust back and forth as she thrilled to his antics, gasped at his daring, and giggled in delight at his perpetual smile.

All these years later the joy of those moments stays with me. At the time of Ali’s birth, I was a PhD candidate living in far-away California. I remember spending so much of my time either longing for home or anxious about our future. It was as I lay on the living room floor alongside my new-born daughter, watching her unbridled delight in a little blue monster, that I was reminded of a truth as simple as it is profound: the present moment is a gift.

I know little about child psychology, but it seems to me that an infant has limited conscious memory of yesterday and no developed capacity to anticipate tomorrow. A child of this age lives in the moment, and lives it fully. Whatever is felt in the present — be it joy, hunger, pain or delight — is all consuming. What’s more, a devoted parent is pulled into that moment with equal force. It is what counts. Right now is what matters most.

As an adult, I am glad for the ability to remember — to hold, cherish and learn from the memories of yesterday. Even more, I am glad for the gift of anticipation — the ability to envision and plan for tomorrow. Indeed, today is not the full story; the past and future are gifts of their own. But what I am conscious of is my natural propensity to be so consumed with yesterday and tomorrow that I forget the gift of now. When I look at my daughter today, anticipating her 23rd birthday, I am reminded of how quickly time passes. She will never be three months old again. That said, she will never be twenty two again either. Today will not return. It is the gift I have now, mine to brush past as if it is nothing or to embrace as if it counts.

The same is true in our spiritual journeys. The God of yesterday and tomorrow is also the God of today, one whose truth and presence is as much within reach in the ordinariness of this moment and this place as in times past or in places yet to come. The 18th century French Jesuit Jean Pierre de Caussade once wrote, “To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as in the greatest, is to possess a rare and sublime faith.” It is rare indeed that we would look for what is sacred in the unremarkable moments of today, yet these moments may turn out to be as sublime as any other.

The parenting dance

I can’t dance to save myself. If there really is a condition called ‘two left feet’, I’m terminal. I remember waltzing lessons in the high school gymnasium. My unsuspecting partner was the lovely Georgie Peach. Any chance of my year 8 infatuation being reciprocated was in tatters once I’d stomped on her feet so many times she had to sit out the remainder of the class nursing her bruises. Decades later I’m no better. Truly, I reckon the connection between my brain and what’s below the knees is permanently ruptured.

To be honest, my parenting often feels the same. If good parenting has a rhythm, I struggle to find it. The meter of the dance is mystifying. Knowing when to step in and when to step back, when to hold close and when to let go is constantly puzzling. I misjudge it as often as I get it right. Generally my kids are patient with me, but sometimes, with bruised feet of their own, they tell me to back off — though in language less restrained.

The trouble is, reading the cues is difficult. We all know there are times when our kids push us away while, unconsciously perhaps, they’re hoping we refuse. Teenagers can be as confused by their own resistance as we are baffled by their mixed messages: I love you; I hate you; I need you; I don’t want you; go away; please stay.

Of course, the challenge is about more than reading cues. There is an inner wisdom to the dance than can be just as elusive. While I might sense it in my reflective moments, there is scant time for reflection in the ‘heat’ of exchange. Or when we see our kids hurting. Parental panic is a thing. But the questions are persistent. When is it my parental duty to lead and when should I follow? When do I offer my fraternal wisdom and when do I shut up and listen?

We all want our kids to be resilient and street-smart adults, empowered to ‘make the call’ and, even, free enough to fail. But we also love more deeply than we can rationally fathom. Our drive to protect is instinctive and strong. It kicks in with force if we intuit danger or pain of any sort. At the same time we know just as deeply, though not as instinctively, that intervention is not always in their best interests, nor ours. Sometimes we need to let our kids have the dance floor to themselves. But when?

The one encouragement that I hold onto in all of this is that the parenting dance is a slow waltz. Parenting is no one-night stand. It’s a long-term relationship. When I get it wrong and bruise my kids’ feet or they bruise mine, we’ll dance again tomorrow. And, who knows? We might even get it right. What’s more, ours is a dance of love. As I remind myself often, when my kids know they are loved and they know that our relationship is for keeps, there’s room for bad days. Even with two left feet, the waltz continues.

Taller than me

He’s taller than me. I said it couldn’t happen, but it did and he is. He’s my son and I look up to him.

Before having children, I imagined having children. In particular, I pictured my role in raising a son and the impact I’d have upon his life. My responsibility was to shape his mind, character and faith. For me it was a calling and one I approached with equal parts privilege and trepidation. When I first held him in my arms, I understood my vocation afresh. Fathering was a sacred trust. I would be his dad — his guide and provider, someone he could always depend on, a man to emulate and look up to.

It’s all true of course. At our best, we fathers are those things and more. So are mothers. Deliberate or not, we are formative agents of influence. As a pastor, I see it played out every day. The gulf between those who have been parented well and those who haven’t is wide. But what is equally true is that as we shape our children so they shape us. Now as I look up to my son, I know more deeply just how much he has formed me. The truth is, I am a different person for having him in my life.

I am more humble in expectation. My son has taught me that good parenting has so little to do with grand vistas and life plans. For the most part, it is borne out in the most ordinary commitments made and remade every day. As an idealist, this has been a hard lesson for me. It still is. Taking each day as it comes, showing up again tomorrow when I’ve dropped the ball today, and, more often than not, accepting that ‘good enough’ is really the best I’ll ever be. And as for those aspirations I had for his faith … they may never be exactly as I had planned. I know that now. But when I look up at my son — when I see his goodness and beauty — I am reassured that all of this is ok.

I am more present to life. Children, especially in their earliest years, have a way of grabbing you by the shirt collar and wrenching you into the moment. Even when you’d rather be elsewhere. And they do it over and over again. Nappies, nap times, feeding, laundry, reading stories, bedtime routines, homework, hockey games, and midnight taxiing — all of this shapes your focus and draws you in time after time. So much so that as they get older, the attention they once demanded from you transforms into the time you crave with them. When I look at my son I know, more forcefully than at any other moment, that now is the time.

I am confronted by my own fallibility. In so many parts of life I am competent. I speak, I lead, I write, I envision, counsel, direct and manage, and in all of this I’m affirmed. I like it that way. But then I come home. In parenting I routinely feel incompetent. In one of the most important and long lasting roles of my life I am mostly at sea. I fail as often as I succeed. All that is less than it needs to be in my character and skill-set is cast in stark relief. But when I look up at my son, I see grace in human form. I see grace at work in him, in me and in all that really counts.

I know heartache, joy and longing more intimately. No one could have told me just how much I would love my children, how deeply and passionately I would care, how proud I would be and how cut when things go awry. Sometimes love for my children makes my heart sing, and other times it hurts. Frankly, there are times when I really wish I didn’t care so much. Because love, deeply felt, can manifest in unhelpful ways, trampling over boundaries essential to growth and good relationship. Love’s most natural instinct is to step in when, sometimes, stepping away is what’s needed most. But it is love of this depth and drive that forms us as nothing else can. I look up at my son and I know that I am different for it.

Parenting is not the only path to maturity and change. There are so many other ways to travel. But it has been significant to me, a pathway on which I have been formed as much as I have formed. No doubt, this fathering business has shaped my character, highlighted my frailties and honed by understandings of faith and life as much as anything else I have done.

Perhaps looking up to him is more appropriate than I had thought.

[Thanks to my brother Mark for the photograph and to an article I read twenty five years ago that’s still worth reading: David E. Nowak, ‘Formative Parenting: Formed, Forming, and Being Formed.’ In Studies in Formative Spirituality, 1986, 7 (1): 75-90.]


Sorting Wash

Out of the hamper onto the floor,
the wash lies in a heap and I must sort
the dark clothes from the light,
the delicate from the ordinary
before they are washed.

Categories —
I think about how much we use them.
This is not that.
This belongs. That does not.
We cannot do without sorting,
without categories,
without definitions.
Even in this activity I know that without sorting,
the colours could bleed in the wash.
They have to be separated according to kind.

In how many countless situations
have I named, separated and judged
instead of celebrated.
In how many ways have I observed,
evaluated, sorted, and pulled away.
My preferences rule me.

Amidst this pile of wash I want to learn again
to participate and to be open to difference:
to celebrate the dark, to honour the light,
to bow to the delicate as well as the sturdy,
to appreciate texture and weight.
To be more equally
with the various and the strange.

Soon the clothes will be drenched
in water and soap.
It will be a different time,
and sorting will no longer matter
in the midst of the wash cycle.
I need to learn this in life:
when to recognise, to name, and to sort —
and when to immerse, to soak, to tumble,
and be rinsed free of opinions.
Grant that I may as much as possible
honour You in all things.

Gunilla Norris, Being Home: A Book of Meditations, New York: Bell Tower, 1991, 30-31.