A better way

A better way (photo by Martin Malina 2019)
audio for ‘A better way’ by Martin Malina

In my first parish at St Peter’s Lutheran Church near Stratford, Ontario, the building’s steeple has two large bells in it. One bell is named Mary and the second bell is named Martha. Can you guess which is the bigger of the two?

By design, the makers of those bells wanted to reflect Jesus’ saying in today’s gospel reading, that “Mary chose the better way”[1]. Therefore she deserves the more prominent, bigger place in our buildings and our lives.

Countless debates have raged among Christians contrasting Martha and Mary. Which activity or posture in faith is the better way? Unfortunately the action-oriented folks are often offended by this text!

We are divided over this story because we get stuck in the either-or. Either it is being busy with all the good things that Martha does to welcome Jesus into her home. Martha does no wrong! Or, we must be sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, hanging on his every word. Mary does no wrong! So, who is right? And who is wrong? And round and round we go.

The part in this gospel that gets us out of this rut, I find, are the words that precede “Mary has chosen the better part”, when Jesus says: “There is need of only one thing.” Because now it’s not about doing or not doing. It’s not about what it is we do but rather the the how and the why. This gospel story, in the end, is more about examining our approach to the various occupations and activities in which we engage as people of faith. 

First the ‘how’. Let’s get over the false dichotomy. Both Mary and Martha are active in this story. This gospel is about doing the right thing at the right time. This gospel falls in the season after Pentecost when the main theme is how to live in the Spirit of God, how to be in the world and engage our lives with meaning and action. Being active in our faith, somehow.

Francis of Assisi from the twelfth century instructed the friars under his charge that “you only know as much as you do.”[2]

Francis didn’t bother questioning church doctrines and dogmas. He just tried to live the way that Jesus lived. Jesus was someone actually to imitate and not just to worship. Francis wanted to be a gospel practitioner. As the popular paraphrase of a line from Francis’s Rule goes, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”[3]

Notice in the telling of this story Mary doesn’t say a word. Rather, she showed by her actions—she moved her body, sat on the floor and most importantly engaged in the challenging work of listening. Listening to God. Mary is active in her listening.

Not only then ‘how’ we are active, but we must continually assess the ‘why’ of our busy-ness.

During the pandemic I became a big fan of the home office. Not only did I become more efficient and productive using the hours of the day for connecting with people, albeit online, I enjoyed being at home and not having to spend hours in traffic. 

And while, for example, the inperson benefits of meeting others at conventions I missed, the recent national convention of the ELCIC was held over two days online. The work was done, decisions made, prayers offered, and some interactive exercises online made the experience efficient and reasonably satisfying for me. No prolonged hours spent in airport concourses, flying halfway across the country and draining the church budget of thousands of dollars for room and board.

However, there is one drawback of working from home. It’s called the trap of multitasking. From the home office it is a short walk to the kitchen, into the living room with big windows looking onto our bird feeders and flower garden, and then to the laundry room. 

Countless times over the past couple of years I got up from my office chair simply to get a coffee, and ended up emptying and filling the dishwasher, opening a birdbook trying to identify a new feathered friend visiting our feeder, and starting a hot load for the laundry. Before I knew it, I had a dozen things on the go in five short minutes before running back to my office completely distracted. I had to regroup mentally when I sat back down at my desk.

We need to review the ‘why’. Because we have a choice in how we live. The reason Jesus tips his hat toward Mary’s behaviour in this story is found in his words, “Mary has chosen …”. 

Mary made a choice. She made a conscious decision. She didn’t just act compulsively. She didn’t just go-with-the-flow or do whatever felt good. She didn’t let her cultural conditioning take over to do what was expected of her. She didn’t conform to the norms of the day. Mary, in that moment, made a choice. She knew her choice to sit at Jesus’ feet meant that she wouldn’t be doing something else. She took a risk.

These days, I’m spending a lot more time asking myself the ‘why’ questions: Why am I doing such-and-such a task?—actions that I routinely and even mindlessly did before the pandemic. 

But because the rhythm of our lives was so disrupted early in the pandemic, it’s like a reset button was pressed. And now before jumping back in, we are given a healthy opportunity if we take it, to assess why we do certain things. Travelling to conventions might be a great thing and we would conclude it is definitely worth the cost.

And I believe that sort of evaluation is good. Because we may discover a truth about ourselves. Maybe we don’t really want to do some things that we always took for granted as habitual; “It’s the way we’ve always done it” could be our greatest albatross. Mary made a conscious choice to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he had to say. She did so with intention and awareness of the cost and the benefit.

Finally, in order to become more judicious in our activity, we need to slow down.

This power to act, the power to live a better way, the power to practice faith and align our actions with our beliefs is available to us today! We just need to get in sync with God’s rhythm. Just look to nature for a sense of this—sometimes fast like a windstorm, but also often very slow like a flower budding in Spring.

I have found that those who have sustained their passion and activity in faith over the long run are those who have also learned to slow down. They tend to demonstrate a presence of mind and stillness of being in all their activity. For us to tap into the energy of the Spirit, we also must be open-hearted, slow down and be willing to listen.

By the Spirit of God, Jesus Christ does the right things, good things, in us and through us. As the Body of Christ, the church, we are the hands, the feet, the eyes, the ears, the mouth of Jesus in the world. Because of Christ-in-us, we can do the right thing at the right time. We can say things and not say things. We can act when we can also be still. And through all our activity God is making the world better.

By God’s power at work in us God is able to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine.[4]God’s power in us can do infinitely more (other English translations: ) /abundantly more /above and beyond more /super-abundantly more /exceedingly more than we can ask or even imagine! This is God’s promise to, and truth in, us. 

Let’s let both Martha and Mary teach us about the nature of our activity. Because Jesus has something very important to tell us. Let’s open our hearts to hear what is being said. Let’s open the eyes of our hearts to see what God is doing. And let’s do something about it, together.

[1] Luke 10:38-42

[2] The Assisi Compilation, [105], in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New York: New City Press, 2000), 210.

[3] Richard Rohr, “The Joy of Not Counting—Practice of the Better” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 10 July 2022)

[4] Ephesians 3:20 NRSV

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