I bought a copy of the first issue of Real Simple, the new magazine aimed at busy women who "go to sleep with tomorrow's to-do list scrolling in our minds," as the editor puts it in her welcome letter. I still haven't figured out the cover photo--a bunch of pale pink roses with the stems lopped off, floating in a vase of water. Real Simple calls this "the simplest flower arrangement in the world."

Call me cranky, but given that roses are among the most short-lived of cut flowers, I don't think of them as "simple." I guess the idea is you simply throw the roses in a vase, and then two days later, after they've turned brown, you simply go out and buy more flowers.

But I looked past the cover at the other advice. "Creating islands of calm in your home is easy if you keep it simple," an interior design article proclaims. It would be a cheap shot for me to point out that all the furniture pictured in the article is white. Instead I will focus on the declaration, "Use every room for its intended purpose, and use it only for that purpose."

Shortly after my kids were born, I pronounced the living room a No Toys Zone, and it has remained a reasonably serene haven for conversation and reading ever since. But there are newspapers on our dining room table, there's a treadmill in the den in front of the TV set, and I am writing this piece on the computer in our upstairs hall, which is wedged between a piano, a file cabinet, and a basket of free weights.

My way of simplifying is to accept all this. I like to think of our eclectic approach to room organization as serving the varied interests of everyone in our family--which is, as I see it, the "intended purpose" of our home.

The last straw was the recommendation to empty your medicine cabinet once a month and spritz the shelves with all-purpose cleaner. The only time the medicine cabinet gets much attention around here is when someone has a fever and is searching for the thermometer. For this I should spritz monthly? In my house, those expired bottles of Tylenol will just have to go on collecting dust, I'm afraid. I tend to focus on housework that has a direct impact on the quality of family life--like cooking dinner.

Turns out, I'm not the only one who tries to keep my focus narrow. Just last month, a study was released by Suzanne M. Bianchi, a University of Maryland sociologist, who found that today's working mothers spend about the same number of waking hours a day with our children as our jobless counterparts did in 1965. How do we do it? Simple, says Bianchi. We sleep less, we spend less time on housework, we do less volunteer work, and we have a lot less free time. (So we can assume that the busy readers of Real Simple are not likely to be sitting around beheading roses or spritzing medicine cabinets.)

But editors aren't the only ones who haven't quite caught up with the reality of women's lives today. Too often, life in our churches, whose very existence is supposed to convey a felt sense of the grace of God and to promote God's work in the world, seems to add to women's stress. Events and activities that were central to church life in the days when women were home in the daytime--rummage sales, thrift shops, even Sunday school--often leave today's moms feeling stressed-out and guilty.

And when the guilt gets really bad, women give up on church. That's the conclusion of the Barna Research Group, a market-research company that focuses on cultural trends and Christianity, which published a study of its own last month. Among the findings: Women in Christian churches today are overworked. Women, the study found, are more involved than men in every aspect of church life--from leadership to volunteering to making donations. At the same time, women's attendance in churches has declined more than 20% since 1991, and among those who do attend volunteering has declined by about the same percentage during this period.

"Women's monumental effort to support the work of the Christian church may be running on fumes," commented George Barna, president of the research firm. "Churches need to consider whether or not they are providing sufficient opportunities for women to receive ministry and not just provide ministry to others. We may continue to see tens of thousands of women leaving the church unless there is a widespread, aggressive, thoughtful approach to recognizing and appreciating women."

Obviously, George Barna gets it. So...what would happen if parishes began to recognize and appreciate women and the realities of our lives? Well, in forward-looking churches--congregations that are growing, congregations where women claim their voices instead of getting mired in guilt or voting with their feet--change is already happening. Instead of clinging to traditions that were once sustained by legions of at-home mothers, these churches find innovative ways to bring scattered families together and to deepen the spiritual dimension of parish life:

  • Rather than shuttling children off to child care on Sundays, creative clergy are offering shortened services with liturgies and hymns appropriate for children so that busy working families can worship side by side in the pews.
  • Resourceful leaders of thrift shops and other outreach projects are encouraging mothers, fathers, and children to volunteer in intergenerational teams.
  • Choir directors are welcoming the voices of children as well as adults.
  • Sensitive pastors are recognizing that today's women long for opportunities to share simple presence--retreats, book groups, and other quiet times when we can talk with one another and with our families about our longings, struggles, and everyday experiences of God.
  • As we search for new ways to build our faith communities, we are paring down and focusing on that which is truly central. That's it. Real simple.

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