Sitting in the Presence of the Holy: Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38-42

I found myself walking under pine trees one day last week. The sight, the sound, the smell of that moment took me back to when I was seven years old.

I grew up in a family where there were four of us girls — all close together in age. From time to time our household expanded to include others — cousins, sometimes — a grandparent at others: all together in a four bedroom house with one bathroom. My parents were easy with us, yes, but sometimes the pressures on them had to be great. Without a doubt, they, like all of us often found themselves in Martha’s corner today: “worried and distracted by many things.”

Of course, I am quite certain that my seven year old awareness could not fully comprehend this at the time. What I do know is this. Once a year we would go on vacation for Family Week at Pine Lake Bible Camp outside of Waupaca, Wisconsin. Somehow, more than the swimming and the playing and the music and the nightly campfires and the daily Bible stories, I remember this. I remember being stretched out in the way back of our family station wagon looking at the sky passing over head as we made our way north. I remember the sound of our tires hitting the ruts of the gravel road as we turned onto the drive of the camp. I remember the first sight of pine trees overhead. And I remember the deep sense of well being that filled me up as I anticipated the week to come. No doubt this was partly because of all the fun adventures which were in store. But it was also this. In that week when my parents were able to rely on someone else to be sure there was a meal on the table and where there would be learning and refreshment for them as well, they were different, too. More present, somehow, in a way they simply were not able to be the other 51 weeks of the year.

I think of that now and I realize how you and I as leaders in any system set the tone. And I am deeply aware that if I am ‘worried and distracted by many things’ — no doubt that also potentially adds to the anxiety of everyone else around me. Ironically, too, when my heart and mind get that ‘busy,’ I also become less clear about what it is I am actually called to do.

Now in spite of the way this story is too often heard, I am not convinced that the ways of Martha and Mary are necessarily an either/or option. All of us, much of the time, have to be ‘doers’ as Martha was. It’s just that worried and distracted part we must learn to let go. And yes, sometimes, the contemplative practice modeled by Mary leads to action. Sitting in the presence of the Holy can well give clarity to what we are called to do next.

This is how I saw this play out in these last difficult days.

Along with countless, countless others,  I have been glued to the news coverage: first Baton Rouge. Then suburban St. Paul. With the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on my mind and in my heart I texted a colleague, an African American leader in our community. I expressed my pain. He responded in kind with his own chillingly prophetic prediction that if something isn’t done things will get much worse.

That very night I grew weary of watching the Chicago Cubs play (they are in the midst of a painful losing streak) and I switched channels to catch the news. With the nation, I sat up straight, horrified at what I saw living out before my eyes in Dallas.

I hardly slept that night.

In the midst of my angst I sent an email to local colleagues asking if they would gather the next day. I set our meeting time for later in the day as I had a memorial service in the early afternoon and I wanted to be sure the group had a chance to respond. Early morning would likely have excluded some.

A handful responded. We sat down over warm cookies at Panera and stumbled in our sharing with each other. We knew our need to be together. We just didn’t know what we needed to do next. Mohammad Labadi, the president of the DeKalb Islamic Center arrived last. He pulled up a chair and confessed that he had not really heard what happened. I was surprised, but in fits and starts we recounted the news.

He listened intently. He shook his head with us. And then he looked up and he said, “Let’s go.” “Go where?” I asked. “Let’s go to the police station. Let’s take flowers and cookies.”

And so we did.

Now Mohammad prays five times a day. In the absence of an imam, he often leads the prayers for his community. In addition to his responsibilities at the Islamic Center, he runs several businesses. And yet, as busy as he is, he is also one of the most ‘restful people’ I know. I am imagining now that his faithful and frequent practice of “sitting in the presence of the Holy,” much like Mary, gives him a certain clarity about what to do next. At least it did this last Friday afternoon.

We covenanted, too, to go together to New Hope Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday morning. By now I was following Mohammad’s lead when I contacted my colleague there to tell him that some Lutherans and others, too, would be coming to worship. I would have to leave early, but asked if I would be able to speak. The day before I did my best to have a ‘restful’ day so that I could be more fully present to those dear people whose hearts are also breaking now.

So you see, I don’t think Martha and Mary are exclusive of one another. Contemplation can lead to thoughtful and authentic action. We need both. No, Martha and Mary are not mutually exclusive. Except that bit about being ‘worried and distracted.’ And I don’t know about you, but I’m still working on that.

  • How do you hear the story of Mary and Martha today? Are the examples they set mutually exclusive one another in terms of their preference for us? What do you think?
  • In my reflection here I have offered the example of a Muslim leader as a parallel to Mary. Does that ‘preach?’ Why or why not?
  • Although I have not directly addressed this above, I am wondering what helps you to keep from being ‘worried and distracted?’

4 comments

  1. Thank you so much. I always enjoy reading your reflections and this week you reminded me of what I know but often "forget" to practice. As a pastor who had "one of those weeks," this was just what I needed to hear.

  2. Thank you so much. I always enjoy reading your reflections and this week you reminded me of what I know but often "forget" to practice. As a pastor who had "one of those weeks," this was just what I needed to hear.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much Janet for your words. The events of last week sit heavy on my heart. My son-in-law is black so some of my grandchildren are black. We live in Canada but we will feel the pain deeply for our neighbours to the south and the knowledge that it is up to everyone to bring peace to each other.
    I also never tied together the Martha and Mary story and the events of last week. Thank you for doing that as I prepare for next Sunday.

  4. I agree that the the two ways of being are not to be exclusive of one call over the other. I also th think that spending time in the presence of holy mystery daily gives us fresh space in which to be renewed, find rest, comfort and solace. Mint tea is also good for anxiety. I find that At Times like these the more I speak out about the fears, anxiety, and strive to be hopeful in seeking solutions I don't feel alone. I also find t prayer, walking by the beach, and looking at people, making eye contact and saying hello, I see you and being seen is a good grounded way tobe calm. Thanks for your reflection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *