If we are to take I Cor. 7 seriously, it is clear that there are “ordinary Christian lives” and ones that are more “extraordinary” – for those who have been so gifted.* Therefore, things are on a continuum of sorts: some lives are simply heroic and others are super-heroic.
Nevertheless, both are indispensible as God serves the world with His grace in its myriad forms (I Peter 4:10) Many of us find ourselves in that “ordinary” Christian life. That is what I am speaking to now.
This post is meant for young Christians who are open to the extraordinary but do not feel called to that. In which case, you are looking primarily at something that throughout history has been very ordinary indeed!: marriage and children.
Let me say some things that challenge our culture tremendously now: First, married couples who are able to do so are called to bring new life into the world. Whatever you might hear out there, perpetual deliberate childlessness is not an option for you. Second, God made children by fathers and mothers and intends to raise them with both parents as well (in other words, you are not to attempt to bring them into the world without this whole package – see here). Third… well, let me wait on that for a minute.
The other day, I came across an article by Susan Venker called “SAHMs [that is, Stay-At-Home-Moms]: the new underclass”. In it, she talked about the “complete lack of respect associated with mothering”:
Mothering requires major sacrifice, and sacrifice has become a dirty world. To make something of yourself, you have to not only earn a paycheck but be recognizable and important in the outside world. Anything less isn’t good enough. The expectation is clear: educated women should pursue careers, and children shouldn’t get in the way. This pressure weighs on SAHMs, making them question their self-worth.
After my wife – who is heroically raising our five boys – read that, I showed her another blog post by Rod Dreher, where he quoted the following lines of a person reacting to his new book, The Little Way of Ruth Lemming:
“….the message echoing throughout Little Way: sometimes our highest calling is simply to be with our spouses, children, friends, family, and communities. Sometimes the biggest way to live is to do the small, hard things of a quiet life spent trying to relate to — and reconcile with — those who know us best. Some will be called to rush toward those doomed buildings and leave others behind, like many did on September 11th. But many more of us are meant to return to our homes, go about our non-romantic jobs, and love no less faithfully those whom we see each day.
Little Way is about dying, too. Some of us will die in moments of great heroism and sacrifice. But others of us will die like Ruthie: in our own living rooms coughing up the cancer that has ravaged our last days and seared the memories of our children. We will have lived our last days within earshot of the same good people who saw us into the world, who sent us money at graduation, who stood beside us at our wedding, who sent us flowers at the birth of our children, and who will carry our caskets to our graves. And that is no less heroic.
These are messages we need to hear more of these days, especially we Christian millennials. Between Matt’s dustup with the Radical Movement, Anthony Bradley’s provocative thoughts on the “new legalism” of the change-the-world ethos, and Keith Miller’s pushback against suburb critics, it’s pretty clear we’re still tempted by the one-size-fits-all lifestyle that will unleash all the social, spiritual, and cultural capital Christianity offers the world. Little Way reminds us that no such universal lifestyle exists outside the call to live well-ordered lives devoted to Christ. That requires one big thing: knowing where on the big way/little way spectrum we fall. It requires each of us to know our various callings (vocation, family, place, etc.), to know that others will have different callings, and to respect (if not appreciate) the diversity therein. That’s a freeing message, and by the end of the book Dreher begins to grasp what that freedom looks like (bold mine)
To my ears, Dreher’s reader sounds very Lutheran here, extolling what we like to call “the doctrine of vocation”. Some see this as an antidote of sorts to the feverish view of the Christian life many evangelical leaders seem to have (see here and here to start exploring this)
Back to Venker’s article:
“Find the courage and strength to tune out the culture—because our culture has never been more messed up in its values. You are doing the right thing, and you will not regret it. Neither will your husband or children.”
That said, let me come to my third controversial point, which is the third rail where even Suzanne will not tread**: if you are a married mother, you are uniquely equipped to be your child’s primary caregiver. The little ones prefer mom, which, among other things, has something to do with this natural thing called breastfeeding, which very few women are unable to do. Further, my wife has come across many families where the mother did work and the dad stayed at home and this actually caused either a lot of resentment (perhaps they resent the fact that they married a man who is unable to support them in something they really want to do or at least think they should be doing) or a lot of regret later in life. Generally speaking, I don’t think working dads suffer from that kind of regret. Now I am not saying that there could never be reasons outside of economic necessity for a married woman to be the primary breadwinner, but that should always be the exception, not the rule.***
You may not like me saying that, but I think it is true that if we don’t say it, SAHMs will be much more inclined to question their self-worth and the work that they are doing to raise children.
This is ordinary indeed, but there is nothing unimportant about it. And the fact is, in the self-obsessed culture that we live in, this kind of married life itself has become extraordinary. Freakish. Not of this world. Wrong. It is as the monk, St. Anthony said: “a time is coming when people will go mad… And when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”
Yes, you will be a stranger and an alien – and you may feel this way even among your fellow Christians. You may read “What to expect when no one’s expecting” and think everyone should heed the reason found therein – but be patient! (see post here)
Join the train and stand firm.
In a post later on this week, I will talk more about how God guides us in our lives in the now, whether they be ordinary or extraordinary – to the glory of God.
*As I commented here, “we can all be told that its possible that God might have something extraordinary to do (like doing missions in Africa, for example) – but that even suburb living is pleasing to God. That’s what I do. That said, its not a bad thing to think about: am I available to live with less, to sacrifice more, to go “over there” – if God would lead me to do so….Not to be “better” than Joe Christian over there, but because all the parts of the body are needed (think of Paul extolling celibacy in I Cor. 7).”
**UPDATE: Suzanne was kind enough to email me when I shared this post with her: “I don’t disagree at all that mothers are better suited to childrearing, and that the their children prefer it that way. I’m just not willing to call it “wrong” is all. Given the overwhelming problems cause by absentee parenting, I’ll take dad home over nannies and day care any day. So I’m not sure we disagree, per se.” I based my “fear to tread” comment on what she recently wrote here.
Image of Dreher and late sister from: http://www.npr.org/2013/04/29/176568280/a-grieving-brother-finds-solace-in-his-sisters-small-town