Wash the Next Dish

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Today, again, I am at the wide sink in our kitchen scrubbing up the dinner dishes.

We don’t own a dishwasher, and I don’t think we’ve ever owned one. I grew up on a chore rotation of dishwashing, so it never really struck me as a priority to have a dishwasher. Some days, however, I think about our burgeoning family of recently-seven and wonder if we’ve made a terrible error in judgment.

But this is not one of those days. The younger kids are all finally down for their naps, and my wife is out with our oldest on a mommy-daughter date. I have pressing things on my mind, but I know that cleaning up the kitchen comes first, so I settle into it.

I’m impatient on the best of days, but this simple ritual of taking fifteen minutes to wash up the dishes has become a haven for me. Maybe I just love the minuscule accomplishments of cleaning small things. It doesn’t take a day or two, or even an hour. In five seconds I can have a clean bowl, and I can set it aside. No matter that after breakfast tomorrow it will be dirty again. I can clean it again, without fuss or much energy. And as each newly-cleaned dish gathers in the drainer, my sense of accomplishment grows and grows. I even begin to think, illogically, that I can just as easily conquer the monstrous obligations lumbering in the shadows just beyond the bubble-clad light of the sink.

I make the process of stacking them all to dry a sort of Tetris challenge, to see how many I can fit before I have to hand-dry a few. I may not be good at following up on emails or planning ahead, but I am good at Tetris.

I kind of wish that my creative life was more like washing dishes. I set goals for myself all the time (don’t we all?) and try to carve out time to meet them. But it always seems like I’m staring at a pile of dirty dishes accumulating by the minute. I keep lists of my artistic dirty dishes: post that thing on Facebook, write another blog, edit those poems, write another chapter, tweet something so people know you actually have Twitter. Once in a while I even compile these lists into master lists. And since going to Hutchmoot, my pile of books I absolutely can’t do without reading has grown from hobbit-height to ent-height. In recent days I’ve mostly just glanced guiltily at this pile while watching another episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with my wife.

I’m this way with messages and emails too. I treat these two inboxes like an overstuffed closet—peeking in and mumbling something about “must go through that next weekend” but secretly fearful that the moment I open the door I will be suffocated in a deluge of information that will only serve to stress me out more than I already am. So I let it all linger behind the little red dot, accumulating guilt as I accumulate messages.

And this can often become the way of my spiritual life, acquiring nudge after nudge at the base of my skull: “you know, you really ought to pray/read Scripture/confess that thing/call up and encourage that person more than you are now…” until I finally get a free hour. Then, the moment I crack my Bible open, all the other things I know I need to do crowd in on me, and what was supposed to be a spiritually refreshing time becomes a battle to just clear everything out so I have headspace to talk to God.

There are ways to combat all of these things, I hear, twelve rules for living, or was it seven habits? Because what I need most when I’m overwhelmed is a dozen reminders of what I should be doing.

But right now I’m not thinking about decluttering my inbox, or sorting my to-do list into five other to-do lists, or scheduling out a better walk with God.

I’m finding a measure of comfort in washing dishes.

It’s the small motion of caring for the things that have been placed in my care. It’s the same comfort I receive from sweeping the floor, or pulling a weed, or taking a walk, or brushing my teeth, or boiling water for pasta, or building a train track with my sons.

Ordering the seemingly small and insignificant in my place becomes an act of defiance in the face of a world that pressures us all to achieve.

Chris Wheeler

Somehow these things seem so unimportant that engaging in them has become a weird sort of luxury. I could consider it procrastination, but it’s not solely avoidance when it’s housework, right? Of course I have to do them, but I care about them more because they are unseen by an online world, unmeasured by a quantity-based economy, untimed by an efficiency-obsessed culture. Ordering the seemingly small and insignificant in my place becomes an act of defiance in the face of a world that pressures us all to achieve. Every moment really does become an act of worship, something holy, when we focus on taking the time needed to do the next small thing well.

The first session I went to at Hutchmoot 2019 was John Pattison’s candid discussion on Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems. We talked about how the concept of Sabbath, built as it was out of the seventh day of Genesis 2, was akin to the afterglow of birth. After God created, He established a full day just to delight in His creation.

At least one-seventh of our time is to be set aside purely for the purpose of enjoyment of God and His works, without the pressure of striving or achieving. We get to be still and know that He is God, and we are His deeply-loved children. We get the comforting reminder that we are not in control and it’s okay. If we take our hands off the wheel for a day, the world will still turn.

God holds this rest out to us as a gift, that we may cease striving once a week. Sabbath, at its core, is an essential reminder to ourselves that we do not make the world go round, nor do we cure the deepest ills in our souls, nor does our work hold sway over our value as God’s children. One day a week, we are to receive.

But what about those who find it practically impossible to cease labor due to a particular season of life, or who cannot just stop ministering to the sick, feeding the hungry, binding up the broken, or caring for those in their care? Where do we find rest along the way, until we can partake of another Sabbath? The days are long enough as it is that Sabbath days already seem further and further apart, and even when we find them they are interrupted. We know that we need to prioritize rest better and seek out help from our communities in difficult seasons. But as some of us discussed after the session, we still find respite only in quick gulps, like Midwesterners soaking up an hour of sun during a false spring. It’s never enough.

But is it not possible to find rest in the unfolding of our working lives as well? We are constantly lifting up our eyes to our Provider, seeking strength for the work ahead as well as rest in our weariness.

We join our work to Heaven’s gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy
Of widest worth.

“1982: VII,” from This Day, Wendell Berry

I’m hoping, in my idealism, to devote this upcoming Sunday purely to resting and receiving. Yet, even on that day, I will still make a meal, wash dishes, change diapers, take a shower, and play with my children—as acts of delight and defiance, a measure of Sabbath. For Sabbath can be found not only on Sundays, even though they act as a tangible reminder to rest. It can also be found in a moment of letting go of all other pressing concerns and doing the next simple, necessary task well.

Through this lens, my habits can become havens. I begin to believe that even when I put my hands back on the wheel, the world will still turn.

What if I were to submit myself to the task before me, trusting that what I do now is freely done, for a Father who loves me? What if I trusted that God held all the worries and dreams and chores ahead of me, that He knows my weakness and gives me His strength in the midst of it? What if I believed that something as simple as washing a dish, writing a paragraph of a story, or changing my toddler’s diaper carries eternal significance?

That would indeed be a Sabbath-filled life, a life that finds comfort in the ultimate rest ahead.

Many are the things that must be daily done.
Meet me therefore, O Lord,
in the doing of the small, repetitive tasks,
In the cleaning and ordering and
maintenance and stewardship of things—
Of dishes, of floors, of carpets
And toilets and tubs,
of scrubbing and sweeping
and dusting and laundering—
That by such stewardship I might bring
a greater order to my own life,
and to the lives of any I am given to serve,
so that in those ordered spaces
bright things might flourish:
fellowship and companionship,
creativity and conversation,
learning and laughter
and enjoyment and health.

As I steward the small, daily tasks,
may I remember these good ends,
and so discover in my labors
the promise of the eternal hopes
that underlie them.

“A Liturgy for Domestic Days,” from Every Moment Holy

3 Comments

  1. Reagan Dregge

    @rdregge

    Dishwashing is my favorite ritual, even above hanging the laundry up to line-dry and sweeping the floor, but those also satisfy. Thank you for putting good work (and good rest) into good words.

  2. Rob Collins

    As I read this piece I immediately started thinking of everything I needed to do after. Not by your fault Chris, as I’m sure you know. It’s part of the journey of finding sabbath, dealing with life and lists and tasks. I’m going to slow down and “wash some dishes” today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and practices.

  3. Matthew Morris

    @mlmorris

    I often struggle with the small thing. I think I need to be doing big things, important things, the things that REALLY mater to God. Thank you for reminding me that everything is important to God.
    “I have found that it is the small everyday deed of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” ~ Gandalf

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