Sunday, March 17, 2013

Martha and Mary

I'm going to give myself a short break from writing about the farm. I mostly want this blog to be about our garden and animal successes and failures and what we learn from them, but right now I need a pause for more introspection. Being a part time farmer and writing about it should feel fun. If it feels like work I need to do a little internal housekeeping and figure out why.

In related news, I have been thinking almost daily about the Bible story of Martha and Mary. I am not religious in any conventional sense, but I still find myself seeking wisdom from others who were wise before me. Jesus surely qualifies.

The sisters Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus, are part of Jesus' social set. We see him going to their house in a way that makes it sound like what he would naturally do when he was in the area. He brings a bunch of followers along.

Martha welcomes them and busily starts to serve them. Mary sits at Jesus' feet, listening to him as he presumably preaches the good word. Martha complains about Mary's failure to help. She asks Jesus to intervene, to make Mary help with the chores. Instead, Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.

As so often happens in the bible, the story favors the younger, traditionally less entitled, sibling.

It's almost impossible to read the story without assuming certain things. Martha - an older sister. Maybe bossy. Or maybe just aware of all the things that have to be done. Mary is younger, dreamy, and used to letting Martha take the lead. But inside her is a desire for spiritual richness, something she can't explain to her bustling sister.

Lazarus, when we see him, is often sick, dying, dead,  resurrected, or being plotted against. But even with these pathetic facts, he is clearly a devoted follower of Jesus, and perhaps initiated the special connection between Jesus and their family.

In a male dominated society, Martha seems to have family leadership. Perhaps she is a very strong woman, or possibly Lazarus has been in poor health for so long they assumed non-traditional roles. Maybe both. Their parents must be dead. They are three unmarried, deeply spiritual adults, living together and caring for each other, but not without their tension.

My sister and I both read the Martha and Mary story growing up. Without ever discussing it, we both thought the same thing. "This is unfair to Martha". Also we both thought "Sarah is like Mary. Deborah is like Martha". I thought it was unfair, even though I identified with Mary. I didn't like that someone had to be Martha, but I still wanted to sit at the feet of wisdom and learn!

I used to rebel when a greatly respected story reflected an unfair situation. I thought - "how dare scripture support this. It's wrong". As I get older, I'm more inclined to see  my favorite parts of scripture as describing how things really are.

             Sisters really complain about unfair work loads.

                   Listening with all your heart really is more blessed than bustling about helping.

                        But help really needs to be done, and helping is a blessing too.

                                The tension never resolves.

                                       It isn't fair.


If anything, the idea of fairness is a lovely, human construct, invented to make life more livable but not rooted in the facts of the universe. The bible didn't invent unfairness, and it doesn't exist to enforce it or to put us on the losing side of it. This kind of unfairness is a real condition in the world and we all end up either benefiting or suffering from that imbalance.

I'm grownup now and a lot of Martha has gotten into me. I was recently at a family gathering where I spent far too much of my time planning, taking phone calls, tracking down room reservations -and not enough time listening. At some point I started to feel very Martha. I had to remind myself that I used to be Mary and I still have her in me.

The fact is, I'm an introvert. I don't naturally feel energized by being around other people. So I fall into the trap of acting like Martha - taking care of the physical needs and hoping it will be enough. I use the excuse of being busy to avoid the hard work of listening to people's spiritual needs. Then I end up resenting the tasks that kept me busy. II could call it unfair, or I could seek some way to solve it as best I can.

There are certain moments when I can appreciate my surroundings and friends while knowing I'm being of service. There's an easy camaraderie that I don't need to strain for. I can be Mary and Martha at once.

Mine may not be the same as anyone else's, but I list them to remind myself, and to encourage others to do the same.

  1. My worst bad habit is phone calls. I'm not good at them, and with family far away, they are important. I'll be having a real conversation, till I let my eyes drift to something that needs cleaning. I'm trying to keep my gaze resting on something calm and neutral.
  2. I get to be Mary and Martha when I stay to help clean up after an event or fundraiser. In hindsight, I can reflect and enjoy - while in the moment I find such encounters stressful.
  3. I've had some of my most meaningful personal encounters while doing a task - picking fruit, repairing a fence, cleaning up after a storm, making jam. If you're shy, you know the benefits of sometimes not needing eye contact. Even if you're gregarious, you might be surprised at how much this allows things to be said.
  4. As a parent, I've learned to view "chauffeur" time as spiritual time too. No video games in the car. No radio. Just quiet, and soon a little voice starts up from the back, telling me about his day. 
  5. I like bringing things for people. If the neighbors need me to shop for them, I'm happy to. If a friend is sick I can bring soup. I'm not good at just visiting. That's more awkward - I'm not there yet.

If I can grow the list of things I do for others that also leave me feeling full, I can stop obsessing on whether the workload is fair or not.

What do you do to bring out Mary and help Martha find her peace?

adorned from above
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