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Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me” (Luke 10:40).

Yonder is a beautiful village homestead. The man of the house is dead, we assume, and his widow is head of household: Martha of Bethany. Yes, I will show you also the pet of the household: Mary, the younger sister, with a book under her arm, her face anxiousless and at peace. Company has come. Christ stands outside the door and, of course, there is a good deal of excitement inside the door. The room is hastily refreshed, the hair is brushed back, and the dresses are smoothed.

The ladies of the house did not keep Christ standing at the door, as some young ladies keep gentlemen waiting, until they were groomed for the occasion, or until they had elaborately arranged their hair, then coming out with affected surprise as though they had not heard the two or three knocks, saying, “Why, is that you?”

No. They were ladies. They were always presentable, though they may not have always had on their best—for none of us should always have on our best; if we did, our best would not be worth having on. They threw open the door and greeted Christ as one would greet an old friend. “Good morning, Master. Come in and be seated.”

Christ did not come alone; He had come with friends. Such an influx of city visitors would throw any country home into perturbation [anxiety]. I suppose also the walk from the city had been a good appetizer. The kitchen that day took on an immense importance, and I suppose that Martha had no sooner greeted her guests than she fled to that part of the house. Mary had no anxiety about household affairs. She had full confidence that Martha could cook up the best dinner in Bethany. She understood the division of labor. “Martha, you cook and I’ll sit down and be good.”

So you have often seen a great difference between two sisters. There is Martha, hard working, painstaking, a good manager, ever inventive of some new pastry, or discovering something in the art of cooking and housekeeping. There is Mary, also, fond of conversation, literary, so engaged in deep questions of ethics she has no time to attend to the questions of household welfare. It is noon. Mary is in the parlor with Christ. Martha is in the kitchen. It would have been better if they had divided the work, and then they could have divided the opportunity of listening to Jesus; but Mary monopolizes Christ, while Martha swelters at the fire.

It was important that they should have a good dinner that day. Christ was hungry, and He did not often have a good home-cooked meal. Alas, if the duty had devolved on Mary, what a repast that would have been! But something went wrong in the kitchen. Perhaps the fire would not burn, or the bread would not bake, or Martha scalded her hand, or something was burned black that ought only to have been made brown; and Martha lost her patience, and forgetting the proprieties of the occasion, with besweated brow, and perhaps with pitcher in one hand and tongs in the other, she rushes out of the kitchen into the presence of Christ, saying, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”

Christ scolded not a word. If it was scolding I needed, I would rather have His scolding than anybody else’s blessing. There was nothing acerb [sour]. He knew Martha had almost worked herself to death to get Him something to eat, and so He threw a world of tenderness into His tone as, it seems, He says, “My dear woman, do not worry. Let the dinner go. Sit down on this ottoman beside Mary, your younger sister.” Then, “Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful, and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41, 42). As Martha threw open that kitchen door, I look in and see a great many household perplexities and anxieties.

THE TRIAL OF NONAPPRECIATION

First, there is the trial of nonappreciation. That is what made Martha so mad with Mary. The younger sister had no estimate of her older sister’s fatigues. As now, men bothered with the anxieties of the store, office, and shop, or coming from the Stock Exchange, they say when they get home, “Oh, you ought to be in our factory a little while; you ought to have to manage eight, or ten, or twenty subordinates, and then you would know what trouble and anxiety are!”

Oh, sir, the wife and the mother has to conduct at the same time a university, a clothing establishment, a restaurant, a laundry, a library, while she is health officer, police, and president of her realm! She must do a thousand things, and do them well, to keep things going smoothly; and so her brain and her nerves are taxed to the utmost.

I know there are housekeepers who are so fortunate that they can sit in an armchair in the library, or lie on the belated pillow, and throw off all the care on subordinates who, having large wages and great experience, can attend to all of the affairs of the household. Those are the exception. I am speaking this morning of the great mass of housekeepers—the women to whom life is a struggle, and who, at thirty years of age, look as though they were forty, and at forty look as though they were fifty, and at fifty look as though they were sixty. The fallen at Chalons, Austerlitz, Gettysburg, and Waterloo are a small number compared with the slain in the great Armageddon of the kitchen.

Go out to the cemetery, and you will see that the tombstones are beautifully poetic; but if those tombstones would speak the truth, thousands would say, “Here lies a woman killed by too much mending, sewing, baking, scrubbing, and scouring; the weapon that killed her was a broom, a sewing machine, or a ladle. She worked herself to death.”

THE TRIAL OF A WEARING LIFE

You think, O man of the world, that you have all the cares and anxieties. If the cares and anxieties of the household would come on you for one week, you would be a fit candidate for Bloomingdale—I mean insane asylum. The half-rested housekeeper arises in the morning. She must have the morning repast prepared at an irrevocable hour. What if the fire will not light; what if the marketing did not come; what if the clock has stopped—no matter, she must have the morning repast at an irrevocable hour.

Then the children must be got off to school. What if their garments are torn; what if they do not know their lessons; what if they have lost a hat or sash—they must be ready. Then you have all the diet of the day, and perhaps of several days, to plan; but what if the butcher has sent meat unmasticable [inedible], or the grocer has sent articles of food adulterated, and what if some piece of silver be gone, or some favorite chalice be cracked, or the roof leak, or the plumbing fail, or any one of a thousand things occur—you must be ready.

Spring weather comes, and there must be a revolution in the family wardrobe, or autumn comes, and you must shut out the northern blast; but what if the moth has preceded you to the chest; what if, during the year, the children have outgrown the apparel of last year; what if the fashions have changed. Your house must be an apothecary’s shop; it must be a dispensary; there must be medicines for all sorts of ailments—something to loosen the croup, something to cool the burn, something to poultice the inflammation, something to silence the jumping tooth, something to soothe the earache. You must be in half a dozen places at the same time, or you must attempt to be.

If, under all this wear and tear of life, Martha makes an impatient rush on the library or drawing room, be patient, be lenient. O woman, though I may fail to stir up an appreciation in the souls of others in regard to your household toils, let me assure you, from the kindliness with which Jesus Christ met Martha, that He appreciates all your work from garret to cellar; and that the God of Deborah (Judges 4:1-24; 5:1-31), Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-28; 2:1-11), Abigail (1 Samuel 25:2-43), Grandmother Lois (2 Timothy 1:5), Elizabeth Fry, and Hannah More is the God of the housekeeper.

Jesus was never married that He might be the special friend and confidante of a whole world of troubled womanhood. I blunder; Christ was married. The Bible says that the Church is “the Lamb’s wife” (Revelation 21:9), and that makes me know that all Christian women have a right to go to Christ and tell Him of their annoyances and troubles, since by His oath of conjugal fidelity He is sworn to sympathize. George Herbert, the Christian poet, wrote two or three verses on this subject:

Teach me, my God and King,
in all things Thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for Thee.
~George Herbert, “The Elixir” (1633)

THE TRIAL OF RESOURCES

Out of 1,000 households, 999 are subjected to economic struggle—some under more and some under less stress of circumstances. If a man smokes expensive cigars and dines at costly restaurants, he will strain the household budget. This is what kills tens of thousands of women—attempting to make $5 do the work of $7. How the bills come in! The woman is the banker of the household; she is the president, the cashier, the teller, the discount clerk; and there is a panic every few weeks! This thirty years’ war against high prices, this perpetual study of economics, this lifelong attempt to keep the outgo less than the income, exhausts millions of housekeepers.

O my sister, this is a part of the divine discipline! If it were best for you, all you would have to do would be to open the front windows and the ravens would fly in with food. After you had baked fifty times from the barrel in the pantry, the barrel, like the one of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-16), would be full; the shoes of the children would last as long as the shoes of the Israelites in the wilderness—forty years (Deuteronomy 8:4; 29:5; Nehemiah 9:21).

This is what is going to make heaven the more attractive by contrast. The saints never hunger in heaven, and, consequently, there will be none of the nuisances of catering to appetite. And in the land of the white robe they never have to mend anything, and the air in that hill country makes everybody well. There is no rent to pay; every man owns his own house, and a mansion at that.

It will not be so great a change for you to have a chariot in heaven if you have been in the habit of riding in this world. It will not be so great a change for you to sit down on the banks of the river of life if in this world you had a country seat. But if you have walked with tired feet in this world, what a glorious change to mount celestial equipage [carriage]! If your life on earth was domestic martyrdom, oh, the joy of an eternity in which you will have nothing to do except what you choose to do! Martha has had no drudgery for eighteen centuries!

I quarrel with the theologians who want to distribute all the thrones of heaven among the John Knoxes, the Hugh Latimers, and the Theban Legion. Some of the brightest thrones of heaven will be kept for Christian housekeepers. Oh, what a change from here to there—from the time when they put down the rolling pin to when they take up the scepter! If Chatsworth Park and the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue were to be lifted into the celestial city, they would be considered uninhabitable rookeries, and glorified Lazarus would be ashamed to be seen going in and out of either of them.

THE TRIAL OF SICKNESS

There are many housekeepers who could get along with their toils if it were not for sickness and trouble. The fact is that one-half of the women of the land are more or less invalids. The mountain lass, who has never had an ache or pain, may consider household toil inconsiderable. Toward evening she may skip away miles to the fields and drive home the cattle. She may until ten o’clock at night fill the house with laughing racket. But, oh, to do the work of life with wornout constitution, when whooping cough has been raging for six weeks in the household, making the night as sleepless as the day—that is not so easy.

Perhaps this comes after the nerves have been shattered by some bereavement that has left desolation in every room of the house, and set the crib in the garret, because the occupant has been hushed into a slumber that needs no mother’s lullaby. Oh, she could provide for the whole group a great deal better than she can for a part of the group now that the rest are gone! Though you may tell her God is taking care of those who are gone, it is motherlike to brood both flocks. One wing she puts over the flock in the house; the other she puts over the flock in the grave.

THE TRIAL OF HOME LIFE

There is nothing but the old-fashioned faith of Jesus Christ that will take a woman through the trials of home life. At first, there may be a romance or a novelty that will do for a substitute. The marriage hour has just passed, and the perplexities of the household are more than atoned by the joy of being together, and by the fact that when it is late, the couple does not have to discuss the question as to whether it is time for him to go! The mishaps of the household, instead of being a matter of anxiety and apprehension, are a matter of merriment—the loaf of bread turned into a geological specimen, the slushy custards, the jaundiced or measly biscuits. It is a bright sunlight that falls on the cutlery and the mantel ornaments of a new home.

But after a while the romance is gone, and then there is something to be prepared for the table that Cookery Taught in Twelve Lessons will not teach. The receipt for making it is not a handful of this, a cup of that, and a spoonful of something else. It is not something sweetened with ordinary condiments, flavored with ordinary flavors, or baked in ordinary ovens. It is the loaf of domestic happiness. All the ingredients come down from heaven, and the fruits are plucked from the tree of life. It is sweetened with the new wine of the Kingdom, and it is baked in the oven of home trial.

Solomon had a wretched home—a man cannot be happy with two wives, much less 700—and he says, writing out of his own experience, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox with hatred” (Proverbs 15:17).

GLORIOUS SELF-SACRIFICE

How great are the responsibilities of housekeepers! Sometimes an indigestible article of food, by its effect on a commander or king, has defeated an army or overthrown an empire. Housekeepers by the food they provide, by the couches they spread, by the books they introduce, by the influences they bring around the home, are deciding the physical, intellectual, moral, and eternal destiny of the race.

You say your life is one of sacrifice. I know it. But, my sisters, that is the only life worth living. That was the life of Florence Nightingale§; that was the life of Edward Payson; that was the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We admire it in others, but how hard it is for us to cultivate ourselves.

When in this city young Dr James Howell Hutchinson (1834-1889), having spent a whole night in a diphtheritic room for the relief of a patient, became saturated with the poison and died, we all felt as if we would like to put garlands on his grave; everybody appreciates that.

When in the burning hotel at St Louis a young man on the fifth story broke open the door of the room where his mother was sleeping, plunged into smoke and fire, crying, “Mother, where are you?” and never came out, our heart applauded that young man.

But how few of us have the Christlike spirit—a willingness to suffer for others!

A rough schoolteacher called out a poor, half-starved lad, for some minor infraction of the rules, and said, “Take off your coat, sir.”

When the boy refused to take it off, the schoolteacher again said, “Take off your coat, sir,” as he swung the whip through the air.

The boy refused. Not because he was afraid of the lash—he was used to that at home—but from shame: he was shirtless. Under the coat was nothing but bare flesh.

At the third command the boy slowly removed his coat, and a sob went through the classroom. They saw the shoulder-blades almost through the skin, from malnourishment.

A stout, healthy boy rose up, went to the schoolteacher, and said, “Oh, sir, please don’t hurt this poor fellow! Whip me! See, he’s nothing but a poor chap. Don’t you hurt him—he’s poor! Whip me!”

“Well,” said the schoolteacher, “it’s going to be a severe whipping, but I am willing to take you as a substitute.”

“Well,” said the boy, “I don’t care! You whip me, if you will let this poor fellow go.”

The stout, healthy boy took the scourging without an outcry.

“Bravo,” says every man—”Bravo!” How many of us are willing to take the scourging, the suffering, the toil, and the anxiety for other people! Beautiful thing to admire, but how little we have of that spirit! God give us that self-denying spirit, so that whether we are in humble sphere or in conspicuous sphere we may perform our whole duty—for this struggle will soon be over.

A CHRISTIAN HOUSEKEEPER

One of the most affecting reminiscences of my mother is my remembrance of her as a Christian housekeeper. She worked hard; and when we would come in from summer play, sit down at the table at noon, I remember how she used to come in with beads of perspiration along the line of her gray hair, how sometimes she would sit down at the table, put her head against her wrinkled hand, and say, “Well, the fact is, I’m too tired to eat.”

Long after she might have delegated this duty to others, she would not be satisfied unless she attended to the matter herself. In fact, we all preferred to have her do so, for somehow things tasted better when she prepared them.

Sometime ago, in an express train, I shot past that old homestead. I looked out of the window and tried to peer through the darkness. While I was doing so, one of my old schoolmates, whom I had not seen for many years, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “DeWitt, I see you are looking out at the scenes of your boyhood.”

“Oh, yes,” I replied, “I was looking out at the old place where my mother lived and died.”

That night, in the train car, the whole scene came back to me. There was the country home. There was the noonday table. There were the younger children on either side of the table, most of the older ones gone. At one end of the table my father, with a smile that never left his countenance even when he lay in his coffin. It was an 86-year smile—not the smile of inanimation, but of Christian courage and of Christian hope. At the other end of the table was a beautiful, benignant [benevolent], hard-working, and aged Christian housekeeper: my mother. She was tired. I am glad that she, like the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11), found here no permanent resting place, because now she is with the Lord in that land of perfect rest.

“There remains, therefore, a rest to the people of God. For he who is entered into his rest has ceased from his own works … Let us labor, therefore, to enter into that rest” (Hebrews 4:9-11).

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord … that they may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Wedding Rings

*Adapted from “Trials of Housekeeping,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], The Wedding Ring: A Series of Discourses for Husbands and Wives and Those Contemplating Matrimony (New York: Louis Klopsch, 1896). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

§ Florence Nightingale was an 82-year-old recluse when Talmage came to England to speak. Having read his sermon in the newspaper, next day she sent him a handwritten note to come see her. When he came, she told him that she had never known that she had been called “The Lady of the Lamp” by the soldiers of the Crimean War (1856) till she read of it in his sermon.

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