The Lifegiving Home: an interview with Sally and Sarah Clarkson

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Sally and Sarah Clarkson released a beautiful book into the world this week: The Lifegiving Home. I’m sure I need only say that our own dear Sarah had a hand in it to make everyone rush out and buy it without delay. But let me add that, not only is it penned by a mother-daughter duo we love and admire, it’s an absolute feast of ideals and inspiration, weaving everything from family devotions to picture books to picnic hikes to soup and bread suppers into a story of tangible, touchable love. What’s more, it’s a story for everyone.

The Lifegiving Home is a cup of cold water to weary mothers parched for encouragement, and it’s a gladsome challenge to the newly launched young adult just setting out into the world for the first time. It is a book for grandmothers, roommates, husbands, and children. More than memoir or mere instruction manual, The Lifegiving Home is an ally in the lifelong adventure of creating kingdom outposts in the spaces of our lives.

For homes don’t just happen, the Clarksons insist, they are made. And The Lifegiving Home is a celebration of all that it means to make home, in every sense of the word. Sally and Sarah champion the essential belonging a real home can provide in the midst of a heartsick, homesick world. They cast a vision for a lively center of fellowship, ministry, discipleship, and healing, and then they build a strong foundation of scriptural unction and practical application beneath it. The Lifegiving Home is the deeply personal story of the Clarkson family, told with warmth, honesty, and staggering generosity. But it’s also the story of all pilgrim-believers, “wending our way through unknown country, Home.”

Sally is the mentor so many of us long for, and Sarah is a wise and kindhearted comrade along the way. I had the joy of talking with Sarah about The Lifegiving Home earlier this week (and Sally stepped in for a bit!) and I’m delighted to share a foretaste of this timely gift of a book. Enjoy, friends.

And congratulations, Sarah and Sally. I am so happy to see this story come into the world, as I know lives will be enriched, nourished, and changed by it.

Lanier: One of the things I love best about your book is the universality of its message. While many in this world would only connect the concept of homemaking with marriage and family life, you cast a vivid vision for “making home” in any place and season you happen to occupy. What are some of the ways you have cultivated “home” in this season in your life? What are some of the distinct challenges you have faced as you enflesh your ideals in a physical space of “belonging and becoming?”

Sarah: Home, like beauty, is something we tend to pigeonhole as peripheral to faith. We give great attention to the list of things we believe, but not the spaces in which we incarnate, discover, and choose those beliefs, embodying their veracity in the way we love, relate, cook, play, and exist on a daily basis. Home is an incarnational work in which we work out our belief amidst the stuff of the ordinary. Our everyday spaces and rhythms become the image of the beauty and love that we believe to be at the heart of reality. That’s a long preamble to say that I think home is a work and a world that every lover of Christ, regardless of place or season, is called to by the nature of their incarnational faith.

I definitely have to remember and choose that on a daily basis. In my season of life, as a full-time student, with an intensive part-time job, and freelance writing on the side, I feel sometimes that I barely have energy and margin enough to cook a meal, let alone make a home. But the cultivation of home is very much a discipline, a habit of creativity I practice by conviction because I know that if I create a space of comfort and hospitality, friendships will form, meals will happen, late-night talks will proceed, and contemplation will occur that would never take place otherwise.

I live in a little cottage near Oxford town center. I have my one room and share a kitchen with several others. We don’t really have a sitting room (despite our ingenious maneuvering of the kitchen table to make space for a couple of extra chairs), so I managed to cram a sofa into my little upstairs nook, creating a corner with flowers, books, a few favorite pictures. That corner is the spot that waits to receive me with calm and quiet at the end of a frantic day. If I can manage nothing else, I try to keep it straight and spend time just breathing in the mornings and evenings. I think that’s the first major cultivation I would list, the making of a single space for quiet, a place that reflects in some sense, the inner room in my soul where, as St. Teresa says, the Beloved waits to meet with me. Just to know that space is there is one step toward being present to the Love waiting to invade it.

The making of a homey kitchen was another specific cultivation. Oxford is crammed with people who don’t quite know where they belong. People just arriving, people on their way out, people, more than anything, with a thousand questions and hungers. We girls who live in this house made a community decision in the first weeks that we wanted to be a place of feasting and friendship. So we cram guests in random chairs around our rickety table. We’ve covered the walls with art prints. We stock our shelves with delectables in preparation for random events. We made the house one that is ready to receive people, and it has meant dozens of meals shared, talks held late into the night, laughter, and grace.

The challenge here primarily, is to keep a vision for home, and to give the necessary work and verve to its creation. This is a hurry-up, nonstop world. Of course, I think most people in the modern world live somewhere on the hurry-up spectrum, if only by virtue of the sleepless presence of the internet. But I think it is vital to step back from that buzz, to create space in which rest and quiet can grow once more, because those are the rich soil in which wonder and worship grow within us.

Another challenge is simply to keep a tender and livened heart. Exhaustion has a way of turning one inward. Because everything costs energy, everything, from a meal to a conversation to an hour of work, becomes demanding. In the midst of that, it is often difficult to look beyond the borders of my own life into the needs and presence of others. But that is, I think, vital to knowing the living reality of Christ, “playing in ten thousand places” in the people of the world. To sit in the kitchen, to brew a cup of tea, eat a biscuit (otherwise known as a cookie), and do it with a friend, is to reorder and reaffirm what I value most: Christ, his people, and the love with which he fills the world.

Lanier: Throughout The Lifegiving Home, you and your mother continually treat the concept of making a home as a spiritual vocation, worthy of our best efforts and most focused love. You espouse the cultivation of natural gifts within an infinite range of individual possibility, but you are careful to maintain an eternal perspective. What are some of the ways you seek to maintain this perspective, particularly in life’s more challenging seasons? How has your vision of homemaking as both an art form and an act of worship impacted your relationship with God, your family, and other people?  

Sarah: Home is very much something cultivated and chosen in the face of a dark, broken world, a world that has lost its identity as a home because of its disconnection from the Creator. In many ways, the cultivation of home is, I believe, part of the kingdom come, the taking of my “one place on earth” to use a Wendell Berry phrase, and making it a place of belonging, a named, known, and hospitable “here,” which is what I believe God meant us to experience in the great gift of his world.

In some of my loneliest seasons, in times of deep despair, the choice to create beauty within the spaces of my life, to affirm goodness by the cooking of a meal or the lighting of a candle, was a defiant act, one made in opposition to grief and loss. The making of home wasn’t a denial or escape from broken relationships, sickness, or struggle, it was an answer to them, an affirmation of a Goodness much larger than the dark circumstances of the moment. To make home was to embody hope.

In this sense, homemaking, for me, is very much an act of worship. It’s my immediate, practical, embodied response to the promises of Scripture. It’s the way I extend the love of Christ, the way I make my hope in a saving, redemptive love something that I, and others who need it, can taste and see.

In my own times of struggle, the invitation to enter someone else’s home, to be sheltered by their provision, love, and hospitality, has given me the space and nourishment I needed to hope for one more day. That’s a gift I always want to give in the spaces of my own home.

Lanier: Your parents have been so intentional, both in building a vision for your family and putting a strong foundation under it, and now you and your siblings are all out in the world espousing that vision in your own uniquely creative ways. What were some of the original sources of inspiration that fed into the family culture they created? What are some of the ways your parents (or your family in general) have worked together over the years to bring this culture to life, and how have your personality types enhanced and contributed to it?

Sarah: I think both of my parents inherited a sense of the value for hospitality from their own families. But I think my parents were blessed to be living in different situations overseas in the early years of their marriage. Their time in Vienna, especially, a city known for its celebration of art, music, and conversation, deeply formed their ideals of community, education, and home. It’s not that they couldn’t have come by those values in other ways, but it quickened and revived their idea of what a home culture could be.

One of the things I love to realize about my childhood home when I look back now, is how crammed it was with art and books, and how formed by music. My parents realized early on the impact of beauty on the spiritual sensibilities of a child. We were immersed in a world in which there was always more goodness to discover and that sense of the great richness of the world is something that still drives my love for study and my conviction that beauty communicates the vibrant reality of God.

I know that Edith Schaeffer was a huge influence on my mom with her account of life at L’Abri (French for “shelter”) and the idea of a faith both thoroughly known and richly lived.

Not to over-spiritualize, but God was a lively presence in and amidst our making of home. There was a sense in which the meals we ate, the music we made, the spaces we filled with beauty, were all done in participation with a laughing, creating, ever-ingenious God. My brother once, when he was about twelve and just discovering the joys of coffee, lifted his overflowing mug of mocha and said “I just love it that God made coffee and whipped cream.” We created in company with the Creator, we made a home in the presence of a God who formed his garden of a world and made it our place of belonging. And I think that made home, not a Martha Stewart enterprise, or simply a list of chores to do, but rather a living, daily creation that took hard work, but reflected the deepest goodness of reality.

Of course, that required things like actually having to make chore charts (because wild idealists like to think that house elves really do exist) and enforce them. It meant forming rhythms so that there was time and space in which to make good meals and let deep relationships happen. It meant a lot of forgiveness, but home is nothing if not an enterprise carried out by deeply sinful people.

And ah, personality. Home is a place where personalities are all jostled together. The inevitable reality of fallen humanity is that jostled personalities cause all kinds of irritation, emotion, and, well, sin. But the beauty of home is that it is a circle of a place in which irritation doesn’t mean one can just jump ship. Home is a community in which we work out what it means to love, give, and forgive.

Home is also a place where the diversity of God’s personality shimmers and gleams. We have so many different—and sometimes divergent—strengths in my family. For MBTI types, we’re a fairly even divide of introverts and extraverts, thinkers and feelers. Dinner table conversation is generally intense because we all have an opinion, and we all know the best way to cook/clean/host/whatever. To learn how to weave those disparate strengths together, allowing them to create a stronger pattern than merely to fray, is part of learning what it means to love.

Lanier: I love the way you Clarksons celebrate life! Celebration and tradition are the heart of your story, imaging the Story of God’s love and redemption in your lives. You have made choices, year after year, to anchor your family in this “tale within a tale,” and your memories are all the richer for it. But I know that the relationship between tradition and flexibility is a delicate dance. What are some of the ways you maintain tradition while keeping your heart and hands open to the changing landscape of your lives? Is there a natural give-and-take of certain family rituals based on the season you are in, or have you had to make some hard decisions regarding which customs to keep and which ones to let go?

Sarah: It’s funny. There are some things that remain the same no matter how long we’re gone, the deep, key beats in the song of our home life that remain, however the melody of our coming and goings alters things on the surface.

I may have been away for six months, there may be only two siblings home, but every Sunday we will have teatime on the Gmunden china my mother carted home from Austria. We will always keep the same round of Christmas traditions—Shepherd’s Meal on Christmas Eve, stockings, breakfast at a hotel near our house, lunch later on at home—these are anchors so integral and familiar to our rhythms as a family that they continue to root and refamiliarize us with our own history whenever any of us kids go home for a visit. They are the practices that provide a sense of identity.

But then, we stretch and change too. As the demands of work, school, and relationships have taken us far from our childhood home and changed our rhythms of relationship, we’ve had to adapt. Some things do fall by the wayside. Whether that’s the cancellation of one of the traditional Christmas parties (because every minute when we’re actually home together is rare and precious now), or simply the acceptance that we cannot maintain the number of homemade meals as before, there’s an opening of the hands that has to accompany the advance of the years. Some traditions fade. New ones begin.

The fun part is discovering new things, encountering a new tradition added by a friend or significant other who visits. I’m sure I’ve brought home a few little traditions from England, as have my siblings from other places.

Home is, by essence, incarnational, reflecting the dynamic, forward motion of Christ coming into the world. Home isn’t static. Home is a place and an idea that can stretch to fit new loves and fresh traditions. That’s the nature of the kingdom coming into the world.

Lanier: And now, a question for Sally. Crafting the kind of home you write about doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve been so faithful to remind your readers that it takes a sacrificial commitment of time to invest that kind of practical love in the members of your family. But you never portray your home as a self-contained nucleus—on the contrary, you are passionate about discipleship, mentoring relationships, hospitality and fellowship. Home, as you present it, is not only a refuge for your family, it’s a center of ministry. How do you establish boundaries between the two? What are some ways you’ve learned to protect your family time while embracing a ministry of hospitality?

Sally: I had to learn the secret of boundaries through the years, learning that it was ok to say no to people. Making plans for all of us and putting it into a calendar helped determine what we could commit to and what we could accept. We had a night each week when we would have friends or company over. School nights were pretty protected. Our ministry nights in our home, like my women’s Bible study, were held on a monthly basis since our schedules were so busy.

I would also keep my eyes on the state of Clay and the kids. If they seemed exhausted or overwhelmed, I would purposely leave as many private days open as possible until it seemed we had caught up on life. Often, we would all schedule a weekend away to rest, so no one could find us. A lovely mountain timeshare became a private haven for us each year.

Being overbooked for a little while happens to every family, but I learned to create a pretty focused weekly schedule that helped us with outside friends. All of us needed a break from the crowds once in a while. We planned times in our schedule when only family would be together. (Of course this was a general rule that could be broken if something special came up.)

Lanier: Sarah, you and your mother describe home as both refuge and launching pad, which is about the most perfect description of a real home I can think of. But in an intentionally close family the “launching” aspect can be a bit tricky to navigate. (I think your parents have done an outstanding job!) What are some of the ways they have launched you and your siblings into the world, without loss of your identity as a family and the vision you share? 

Sarah: I think a lot of successful launching has to do with identity, and where that is rooted. If we had been a family whose concept of home was one tied to the exact ways my parents did things and a life in a specific place, home would soon have become too small to contain the restless needs of the children growing to adulthood within it. But our concepts of home (as well as family) weren’t of home as the end point of our identity, or family as goal of our traditions. Those were both secondary to the first reality of God, and the fact that we were part of making his kingdom come. Home, then, was based on our values to love and know God, to love each other, to create in such a way that we reflected his beauty. Our identity, then, was based on the shared values of kingdom living—of shared stories, music, and art, of friendship between parents and siblings—but also on our value for ideals and following God to whatever new adventure he choose. Our identity didn’t end in home, it began there.

But the rootedness of our shared identity, of the story we formed together in the space of our home, gave us a shelter from which to foray, and a refuge always awaiting our return. It also gave us the freedom to take that heritage and create is afresh in every situation in which we found ourselves. My little cottage in Oxford is connected by spiritual roots to my childhood home in Colorado. Home is heritage to be continued, a grace to be given again, a gift passed on, ever-living, ever-new, to each generation.

Lanier: Thank you, ladies, and Godspeed to The Lifegiving Home!

[The Lifegiving Home is available in the Rabbit Room Store.]

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Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


1 Comment

  1. April

    I love this interview. And this book. Sarah’s second chapter articulates so perfectly, so exquisitely a theology of Home. I feel as though I need to copy out the entire thing. It really is wonderful.
    This will be required reading at our house. Thanks, Clarksons, for a lovely work.

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