Tag Archives: religion

A Knottier Wretch Post: Mary and Martha and Rest Vs. Work

Did you know that when you do an anagram of “Protestant Work Ethic,” you come up with “Procrastinate, Ewok!”

O.k., not really—it leaves a couple of letters unused and you have to throw in an extra “a.”

You do get “a thickset rotten prow” or “a sphincter totter wok” or “a thrice strew topknot,” however (all courtesy of a fun anagramming site, but you should also Google anagram). Overall, my general lack of anagramming skills is one of three or four things that would keep me from competing in an actual Scrabble tourney. But I really, really want to mess with that Protestant work ethos.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary and Martha this summer.

The basic story is in Luke 10: people are gathered at Mary and Martha and Lazarus’s house (L. will later be raised from the dead by Jesus), and Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t helping, “Don’t you care that she’s left me to do all the work by myself?” There may well have been a lot of work—Jesus was traveling with a crowd of up to 70 disciples (not that they were all in that one house together), and this is a time and a place where hospitality was taken very seriously. And the house is identified as Martha’s in the story. She has a prominent role in the gospels. In this story she’s an antagonist, but then she’s the first, even before Peter, to identify Jesus as the Messiah.

In this particular story, instead of helping, Mary was sitting at Jesus’s feet & listening to him. Jesus apparently enjoys that, because he tells Martha she’s worried and distracted, and that (in the King James Version), “only one thing is needful.” That Mary’s listening is more important than Martha’s bustling.

A blog post I like, “Mary and Martha: A Story About God’s Radical Hospitality,” on the “Grace Rules” blog (not sure who the author is but it was written in response to a request from Julie Goss Clawson, a writer I enjoy a lot) deals with the M&M story and says, after quoting Jesus’s response to Martha, “At this point, someone usually teaches a lesson about how important it is not to get so busy that we forget to spend quiet, contemplative time with Jesus. And while I think that is a good lesson I have a feeling we may be missing the point of what Jesus is talking about.” “Grace Rules” outlines how subversive Jesus was being here, and I think that’s exactly right. He’s upending expectations about gender roles and hospitality and busy-ness and lots of other things in the mix.

I was wondering a while back who would spend more time on Facebook—Mary, Martha, or Lazarus? I said I was pretty sure Jesus would have friended all three of them. Here are some of the responses:
⋅ “I think it would have to be Lazarus, since he would get a second chance at it.”
⋅ “How much would Jesus love FB and Twitter?!”
⋅ “Mary wins out. . .her sensitive, caring, compassionate side means that she would answer even the wildest commentary the social network has to offer …. In other words, she would be a terrific online friend. Lazarus, I fear, will probably just sit at the gate of the city, dreaming of his ordeal, not wishing to share with anyone. He would not be a good friend.”

I thought Lazarus would have one of the all-time great status updates, post-resurrection, though, if he chose to post it, “I’m baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!” or “Know how we all thought I was dead?”

We agreed that Martha would have short posts, things like “Just mopped again!” or slams, “Wish I had more time to spend on Facebook, but I have things to do, unlike some people I know.”

The thing is, of course, that sometimes, things just need to get done.

I also asked a more serious question this summer on Facebook—who’s your nominee for someone who does more than just “get a lot done,” someone who seems to get the right things done. I didn’t word it as clearly as I might have because there was a lot of confusion about whether I meant “do the right thing” as in a moral choice—but I mostly meant someone who isn’t just busy or efficient, but has real impact in important ways. I got several nominees, and I emailed those nominees to see if they could talk about HOW they do that (in my ongoing quest to figure out how to GET SHIT DONE). Three of them were nice enough to respond—

Michael Broh, a member of Spring Green’s Village Board and Production Manager at American Players Theatre, said, “I’m honored by the nomination, but I must decline. As far back as I can remember, I’ve believed myself to live in a subjective universe, one in which there is as little place for right as there is for wrong.

In terms of what drives me to make the decisions I do make, and when, I suppose it is a combination of self interest, and a feeble attempt to look beyond the immediate, and treat long term implications with equal importance.”

(I guess I’m not technically letting him decline since I’m mentioning him here—the nomination didn’t actually lead to anything other than a public compliment and a mention in an obscure blog, but it’s a sincere compliment, and he did say I could quote him.)

Melinda Van Slyke is the owner/operator of Heart of the Sky Fair Trade and a local Progressive activist. Here’s what she had to say:

“True story: One day at swimming lessons (I was probably 4 or 5 at the time) we were all lined up at the side of the pool with the instructions being to jump one by one into the arms of our awaiting swim teacher. The little boy in front of me would not jump in. He just stood there, refusing to jump in, knowing that he should, (in my little girl mind) holding up the show. I very calmly pushed him in and immediately jumped in right behind him.

So that’s the secret to my so-called success. Don’t over think it. Just jump in and do it. Don’t wait for other people to be ready and sure as hell don’t wait for permission. But I like to think that now instead of pushing people *out* of my way I push (encourage) them to get involved and do things that they haven’t done before and hopefully they realize that hey, that wasn’t so bad after all.”

This is a terrific description of her mode, except I see her more as “offering to push.” And as I was diving into collecting signatures for Walker’s recall, for example—I was grateful for the push.

The other person who answered the email was Jan Swenson, who’s so good at getting things done she made the news. Her response to the question of how she gets things done was this: “I do the right things politically when the need arises (i.e. when ‘my’ candidate needs support or when a governor needs to be recalled). Musically, I do concerts when there is a need to raise money for something I want to support or when I can help publicize community events. My last choral concert was to raise money for our local food pantries and for ‘4 Pete’s Sake.’ The concert before that was in memory of Mitch Feiner (one of our finest musicians!) and was a fundraiser for his 3 children’s college educations. As for volunteering in the community, I do that because I love APT and want to support them any way I can, and my volunteer work at the school in Arena is to help those kids continue their amazing reading program. They read so many books that the librarian can’t keep up with filing the books!”

Not one of them mentioned the sort of stillness and listening and contemplation we associate with Mary in the M&M story (because, of course, that’s not what I asked them about, and not what they were nominated for–each nominated by more than one of my Facebook friends). They all sound productive, they truly are productive in important ways, I’m pleased to be a part of the community they’re active in, pleased to benefit from the fact that they are, in KJV lingo, “cumbered with many things.” They’re inspiring, and if I can generalize, I would say that they’re describing the need for vision, courage, and responsiveness, all three of which I know I am capable of only if there’s rest and contemplation on my to do list somewhere.

The thing that I find most difficult in balancing my Mary side with my Martha side is knowing WHEN to focus on resting versus acting. In recent blogs, I’ve described my struggles with figuring out how to honor the Sabbath (“Day of Rest, My Ass”) and figuring out how to procrastinate at just the right time (but not all the time) and stay busy (but not be consumed with busy-ness) and how burning trash is one of my all-time favorite activities, apparently (“Summer Theologica”).

It’s a hard balance—knowing when to get busy, and knowing when to rest and listen.

Even Jesus struggled with it. In the later story about Mary and Martha, Jesus shows up at their house because their brother Lazarus has died. Both sisters tell him that if he’d come sooner, they know he could have healed Lazarus. This is when we get the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” You could say he’s weeping in disappointment because his good friends Mary and Martha don’t understand he’s capable of raising the dead (though to be fair to them, he had done that only one other time that we know of, and that was in a different gospel than the one they appear in, so they might not have heard about it). I’m sure I heard sermons like that—that his tears were tears of judgment. I don’t think so. You could also say, and these are the sermons I’ve heard most often, that he’s showing his human side and his love for his friends. That comes closer to feeling like the truth for me, but what if—what IF he’s crying not just out of sadness, but out of frustration with himself?

I have to think he was a good friend, and a good friend might well think here, “Oh my God, they’re right. So what if I can raise him from the dead? If I’d gotten here sooner, I wouldn’t have to, and they wouldn’t be so torn up….”

(It is possible that Jesus would NOT say “oh my God,” but would instead say, “Oh I’m God” or perhaps not take the Lord’s name in vain at all, since that is one of the Top Ten.)

Fortunately for me, since I’m a writer, writing about work qualifies as work, or I’d have to admit that all my time blogging is neither restful (especially not these last three posts–I kept thinking I was writing about Mary and Martha but finding I had too much to say about the points I thought were going to lead quickly to M&M) nor productive.

Even when writing feels like hard work, it doesn’t feel like work–partly because I do it pro bono most of the time.

It’s all the other things on my to do list (28 things on today’s list, 15 of which I’d hoped to have done before I hit the sack tonight, which doesn’t seem likely, although writing this blog is on the list so I can check that off at least) that feel like work that make me wonder:

If I’m allowing myself to indulge in a Mary moment, am I really resting and listening? Or am I just procrastinating the next needful Martha moment? Am I giving due diligence to the “incubation” stage of creativity? Or am I resisting every other everything that has to be achieved for successful creativity?

Let me just meditate on each moment of my answer to the above questions:




Day of Rest, My Ass

When I say Sunday dinner I mean lunch (although on other days, “dinner” means supper—I don’t know why) and I also mean hot meat of some sort. Today it was baked chicken, real mashed potatoes (skins-on), and three-bean salad (cheated on that—it came from a can).

In an alternate universe, this meal would have been served by me, wearing an apron, after a morning spent in church.

In this particular universe, there was no apron and no morning in church.

I never remember to put on an apron, and organized religion and I are spending some time apart. I am participating in what Wendell Berry’s character Jayber Crow called “disorganized religion,” which I typically call being a Zen Baptist.

What about you? Are you resting on this day of rest?

Some of the people who take the Bible most literally, who insist that Genesis is a literal description of creation (despite the fact that there are two creation stories in Genesis and a third in Proverbs 8), are adept at ignoring Genesis 2:2-3, when God rested and created the Sabbath—something Yahweh cared enough about, apparently, to put it on his Top Ten list, (this from Exodus 20)“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work….”

Of course, there are those who take this commandment very seriously, who won’t drive on the Sabbath, who work hard the day before to make food that can be eaten without work to prepare it. But that’s not what I grew up with, not my adult experience, although one of the reasons I love living in Spring Green is that I can function really well without driving anywhere. (Walking home from the bars is only a small part of that pleasure.)

It’s one of the more striking ironies of my life–any time I’ve belonged to a faith community, been an active participant in one, Sunday was anything BUT a day of rest.

Stretches when I’m in a wilderness time (which can be nasty and involve dehydration, or wonderful, like now), Sunday stands a much better chance of actually being a day of rest.

What do I mean by wilderness time? It’s a reference to Jesus’s time in the wilderness, first of all. Three of the four gospels tell the story of Jesus going into the desert, immediately after being baptized, to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. He’s tempted by Satan there (the best depiction of which I’ve ever seen occurs in the movie Jesus of Montreal, when the actor portraying Jesus in a suddenly-popular passion play has a lawyer telling him all the ways he could parlay this into fame and fortune).

If you focus on the gospels (as opposed to the epistles of the apostle Paul), one of the things that stands out is how often Jesus heads out on his own. My friend Tammy is the first person I recall hearing preach on this–she’s also the first person I remember pointing out to me that God pronounces he is “well pleased” with Jesus before Jesus has done anything we consider part of his work on Earth. Even after he begins that work, Jesus sneaks off a number of times, which should comfort both my slacker and my introvert friends.

I’m not saying that he was resting, exactly, as he was fasting and being tempted, but it was sort of a pause, an episode of time off the clock. His ministry won’t start until he leaves the desert, but it can’t start until he’s spent enough time in the desert.

Once his ministry starts, he somehow gets a reputation as a “wine-bibber and glutton,” which I grew up understanding was slander, that people were falsely accusing him of that. Really? I don’t know. I think Jesus had a prescription for chill pills, and knew when to take one.

Matthew 11 is a really interesting chapter. John the Baptist is in prison and sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he’s the Messiah (when John baptized Jesus, he didn’t seem to have any doubts about the matter). Jesus sends them back to John with a list of what he’s accomplished, a sort of short-form resume, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Then he adds, bizarrely coming at the end of this list, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

He spends some time praising John the Baptist, and then does a little comparison/contrast:

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

(I personally prefer “winebibber” to “drunkard,” because it sounds like so much more fun.)

It’s not literal, of course, John did eat and drink (honey and locusts, at the very least), and we don’t have Biblical evidence of Jesus eating too much or getting tipsy, but we do have evidence he appreciated good wine. Otherwise why would his first miracle be turning water into, not just wine, but wine pronounced as good wine?

The chapter ends with verses I’m pleased to take literally (and poetically, which is why I quote the King James version here): “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Never, not once, has my participation in a faith community felt easy or light. It has felt terrific, and right, and sustaining, and wonderful at times (not so great at other times). But easy? Or light? Not that I’m remembering.

So was Jesus just being ironic there?

I don’t think so, although he says things other times that contradict this (“Take up your cross daily” comes to mind—I often feel that just getting out of bed is my cross).

As someone who is nearly always teetering on the edge of burnout, I want to cling to those verses, make them real.

The title of this blog, “Day of Rest, My Ass,” is a poem written by a character in an old novel draft of mine, written during my first sabbatical, in 2004. She’s a burned-out preacher trying to find her way by working at a church camp one summer.

I understand why Jesus blesses anyone who doesn’t take offense. He did and said so many things to upset the apple quo, and advocating rest, for me a lot of days, tops the list.