Edith Schaeffer Her Home – A Place of Grace
Weddings are wonderful times for joyful anticipation of a new couple's life together. At almost every wedding we hear prayer that God will bless them in their new life together; that He will be with them in their new home, etc. But how often do we hear prayer that their home will be a blessing to others? By this I don't mean a blessing to any children God might give them, or even to their immediate or extended family. I mean a blessing to strangers – to the unbeliever in need of the gospel, to the lonely in need of comfort, and to the young in faith, for guidance and instruction. Scripture abounds with teaching on the topic of hospitality; and with good reason. It is through hospitality that God's work of grace in hearts and lives is often most effectively accomplished. As one hospitable Christian woman put it, their kitchen table was the place she and her husband passed on the faith to visitors, taught young Christians, disciplined their children; and indeed, was the focus of most of their useful work in Christ's service.
Edith Schaeffer, together with her husband, Francis, were excellent practitioners of the art of Christian hospitality. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was their practice of hospitality that lay at the heart of their famous late 20th century work of discipleship at L'Abri. When Francis and Edith married in 1935, poor students about to begin theological study in Philadelphia, it was simply as natural as breathing to think of their home as a place of witness, of cheer, and of comfort and encouragement to others.
Edith Schaeffer, known so well to so many of us through her writings, was born the daughter of missionaries in China. She grew up hearing the sound of crying abandoned baby girls: she knew what it meant to live in a family devoted to sharing the gospel in a culture without hope. Some years later, the family moved back to the U.S. and because of her mother's ill health they were unable to return to China. Edith then grew up as the child of a Presbyterian minister. When it came time to go to College (i.e. undergraduate university) she decided on a Home Economics course at Beaver College in Philadelphia. This was a Christian college that offered well-rounded degree courses including history, literature and philosophy as well as the more applied aspects of subjects like Home Economics. As it turned out, Edith had chosen a course of study that could not have been better designed to fit her for the work God had in store for her and Francis. They were never by modern standards wealthy, but she developed a masterly skill of using simple resources attractively and creatively to bring beauty and graciousness into a spontaneously open home. Inexpensive and homemade did not mean ugly for Edith – she always made her own clothes (she and her mother always swore by Vogue patterns – they believed in style!) and she had 100 ways of making dinners attractive and fun with very little expense. Similarly, her more academic subjects gave her a sound base of knowledge from which to draw when teaching children and young people the foundations of the Christian faith
Francis and Edith met when she was at Beaver College and he was at another college in Virginia, completing an undergraduate course in the humanities. They married just before Francis began his theological studies at the new Westminster Seminary. When he graduated from there, he accepted a call to serve at a Presbyterian church in rural Pennsylvania, and then another to serve in St Louis, Missouri. By then they had two children, and Edith entered with enthusiasm into teaching summer bible school lessons to neighbourhood children of similar age to their own. Francis gathered in the children, and together they taught hundreds in their home. Soon they discovered there was a lack of suitable material, so they started writing their own. It was this work which led to their being asked to go to Europe in the immediate post-war years. The war, and Nazi depravations, had left Europe in physical ruins; but even worse was the general spiritual weakness of Protestant churches. Francis was asked to make a quick tour of churches that had appealed for help in the summer of 1947; and he was shocked to find how far Neo-Orthodoxy had weakened trust in the authority of the Scriptures in many countries. Great interest was shown in the Schaeffers' way of teaching the Scriptures to children. In the end, Francis and Edith's church mission board decided to send them to Europe, to answer the call to "come over and help us". It was, the board wrote, a call to "help strengthen the things that remain."
The way the Schaeffers did this, beginning in their base in Lausanne (Switzerland) in 1949, was twofold. First, Francis travelled by train all over western Europe, speaking wherever he was asked. Secondly, they made friends. And it was the second work which was almost undoubtedly the more effective. This happened as naturally as it always has with outgoing Christians. They talked with their landlady in the pension where they lived; and the children brought friends home from school. Little Swiss girls loved Edith's cakes and Francis's conversation about the gospel as much as their own daughters did, and soon afternoon teas became regular fixtures. Later on, they invited English, French and American girls at a nearby finishing school to their chalet for discussions about spiritual questions, and more afternoon teas. Later still, their daughters began studies at the University of Lausanne, and again, they brought their friends home to enjoy the company of their parents. Soon more and more students came – lonely, confused about the world in a day of shifting values and the tens became scores and then hundreds – and L'Abri was born. Through his books Francis Schaeffer became an internationally-known name in the 1960s, and the crowds of young people who wanted careful answers to their intellectual doubts, or reassurance that the faith was not simply for the unthinking, came in droves to the Schaeffer chalet at Huemoz. Edith's domestic arts were stretched to the utmost in catering for the eating and sleeping arrangements of the frequently unannounced visitors. In the decades after this she received the help of her daughters and other friends, but countless young people recall the friendly welcome of Edith Schaeffer, and her meals which provided the backdrop for earnest conversations about Christian truth.
Without doubt, the ministry of Francis and Edith Schaeffer has been of enormous benefit to late twentieth-century Christians. Were they, then, spiritual giants with extraordinary gifts? Almost certainly, no. They were simply faithful servants who had been trained well, and who were prepared to use their training to good effect whenever they saw opportunity. As homemaker, Edith's work had particular importance. She knew well that warm hospitality which serves the gospel does not mean the best of everything, prepared meticulously with the emphasis on effect. She was content without affluence, but likewise she used every creative art she possessed to make her home and her meals lovely, interesting, and fun. She would even include her spontaneous guests in spontaneous meal preparation. They all had to help. How she organised this is certainly masterly (it is not easy to have strangers helping conveniently in your own kitchen), but she did it. And she was a fervent, spontaneous prayer who was convinced God would answer her prayer for help with the unexpected. (This is how she coped with unannounced busloads of young people arriving to stay). Her secret? She truly believed that her home, her life, and all her time, energy and abilities were at the Lord's disposal for kingdom work. And she found joy in it.
Are our homes places of grace? Or do we live for ourselves and our families alone? How willing are we to use our homes as means for the love and service of others? It is not hard, it does not require complicated planning. As Edith and Francis Schaeffer would testify, all it takes is using the natural opportunities our families have as we mingle with others in the daily business of life, if we are simply, and spiritually outgoing, our lives and our homes will be full.