In recent days after the tragic school shooting in Newtown, we’ve seen a marked change in people all around us. Often, those who were irritated or annoyed at the scamperings and antics of small children have become much more patient and tolerant. Many of us have treasured our own families and youngsters more. Countless thoughtful people have pondered how such a thing could happen, and how a repetition might be avoided.
In a Bible Study I attended that following weekend, the question was asked, “How is it that such events have such a profound impact on so many people?”
It seemed like people tend to draw together, to become more thoughtful, to treat one another better, after any earth-shattering tragedy, whether natural or man-made. I’ve seen this with hurricanes, with tornadoes, even severe winter storms. We saw this in the wake of the Towers coming down, the Oklahoma City Bombing, (for those old enough) the Challenger Shuttle Disaster, or (for the even older) the Assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.
There is something utterly arresting about inconceivable tragedy. It draws our gaze hypnotically. We tend to watch the event over and over again on our television screens. We hover over our news outlets to glean every new detail as it surfaces. We start conversations with total strangers in public places, as if hungry for the simple human contact, like needing to assure ourselves that we are alive but the event really happened. And then we often close up into some nook or cranny for private reflection for a time. We have to process this… somehow we have to weave this anomaly into the fabric of our lives and sense of reality.
I won’t pretend to know the answer to “Why do we do this?” But I’ve observed one thing, whether a tragedy is individual and personal, or whether it ripples across an entire culture, country, or the world…
That is: Shocking tragedy focuses the attention on a single point and issue, like a laser beam.
It seems as if the event, whatever it is, sits in the middle of a table in front of us, like a gigantic centerpiece. We can hardly take our eyes off it. We can hardly discuss anything else. All the other events of our lives that go on around us, seem filtered and interpreted in light of this Centerpiece Event.
My personal theory is that we relate, personally, to such an event as Newtown. We see our own children or grandchildren as having been potential targets. We feel the pain of heartbroken parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers. We hug our own loved ones just a bit closer, grateful that we are where we are, and Newtown is where it is. Suddenly, nearly instantly, these sometimes “annoying little people” are SIGNIFICANT! These relationships are the most important things in our lives, and everything else seems a bit trivial. Little handprints on windows and mirrors can be wiped off, broken lamps can be replaced. But these precious loved ones, these relationships… THESE are fragile. These are irreplaceable.
There is a profound truth beneath all of this, that we seldom see so clearly. The truth is: These relationships are real and important, and our “stuff” with which we usually keep ourselves so very busy… is not. Each of us are granted one single “lifetime”, and we have absolutely no idea how long or short that is. It is measured, moment by moment, in breaths and heartbeats granted by our infinitely loving and gracious God, from His breath to ours as free gift. And we, unutterably privileged as we are, get to decide how we spend them.
Centerpiece Events, like Newtown, tend to remind us of this… and prompt us to think and deliberate just a little bit, on how we spend them. It’s as if we spend much of our day sleepwalking, just doing what we do because it’s there in front of us to be done, with little reflection or question. Then a Centerpiece Event explodes on our horizon like a thunderclap, suddenly jolting us from our somnambulence and reverie into uncomfortable wakefulness.
There’s the fundamental battle of the Christian Life. The constant tension between the Significant and the trivial, the Important and the meaningless, the Truth and the facts. It doesn’t seem to matter how often we hear the lesson… sometimes we just need to hear it again, don’t we?
Now as they were traveling along, He entered a certain village; and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. And she had a sister called Mary, who moreover was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But The Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Luke 10: 38-42
As with all scripture, there’s a vast array of Truth contained in this narrative, but The Lord focuses me here on just the issue at hand. Jesus quietly contrasts the Significant from the Trivial in His response to Martha. I hear this message echoed throughout these days both individually, and institutionally.
There’s a few things to notice here, between Mary and Martha. One, it is clearly Martha’s house, that is, she is the elder of the sisters. It is SHE who invites Jesus in, and scripture says she “welcomed him into her home”. Of Mary we see two things… both what she DID (listened to the Lord’s word), and where/how she did it (seated at His feet, a posture and location of a student or child). We see her fixed attention on who Jesus is, what Jesus is (teacher and Lord), and what Jesus says. She chooses to spend her time, her heartbeats, on her relationship with Him, on the attention she can give to Him as He speaks, and the blessing she can receive from Him as she hears and learns.
Martha, on the other hand, chooses to expend her heartbeats on different priorities. Please notice, these are not BAD priorities, not “wrongful acts” or what anyone could consider “sin”. They are just different than Mary’s. Martha is the hostess of The Lord, and goes about the activities appropriate to the role, preparing the place, the meal, possibly His lodgings if He is staying for the night. The Gospel tells us these preparations “distract” her, taking her attention away from focus on her Guest directly, placing her “preparation agenda” higher than her “relationship” directly with Him. When she DOES address Him, in fact, we see a remarkable thing. She tries to “use” Him, to “leverage His authority” to get Him to enter into her agenda, and rebuke her sister, forcing Mary to aid in her work.
Just short of rebuke, we see Jesus respond with a simple, “No.” No, He will not yield to Martha’s will here. Mary has got it right, Martha has missed the point, and Jesus will not “play her game”.
In short, Mary has chosen the “Significant”, Martha the “trivial”, and Jesus is not about to move the right person the wrong direction. Mary rests in her relationship with Jesus, listening and adoring. Martha seeks to “work for” Jesus, doing all these things she can do to be pleasing to Him and to look like a good hostess in His sight.
Jesus says Mary has chosen the “good part”.
Now, this passage is often preached and taught in terms of the contrast of time expenditure between “prayer” and “ministry of action” or “works”. And that is certainly true. For traditions that recognize the distinctions between the contemplative and the active in ministry, this passage is iconic as illustrating that contrast. All such teaching is true, good, and real.
But for just a moment let’s look at this another way. As individuals, especially in light of these momentary “wake up calls” we get when we focus on shocking tragedy, don’t we seem to experience these “Mary/Martha” moments? Don’t we tend to live our lives, day to day, in something of a “Martha Mode”? Aren’t we constantly keeping ourselves busy and distracted, even as Christians, “doing stuff FOR Jesus”, rather than focused on just “being WITH Jesus” and enjoying the fellowship, the close intimacy, of that?
In terms of the current discussion, by the way, I’m not talking so much about “prayer” or “religious” activity as being Jesus’ focus. To show my age, for a moment, I’m saying “The Medium is the Message”. That Jesus said the Significant was “relationship and intimacy, mutual enjoyment”, and what was trivial was “preparation, busy-ness, and activity”. THIS is the truth we are reminded of in a tragedy. When there IS something concrete and helpful to be done, as in the aftermath of a disaster, by all means we do that! But even there, even then, we tend to be more focused on people, on their hearts, on their needs for comfort and fellowship, than simply on their hunger or thirst.
Institutionally, as we gather as “Church”, do we not see this same dynamic at play week after week? Is it an uncomfortable question to ask, “Are we, as a Body of Christ and local church, more concerned with our busy-ness, our activities, our schedule, our ‘preparations’, than we are about our relationships… both to the lost and the community around us, and among ourselves?”
It is SUCH an easy slippery slope to slide into… at least for me! Like gravity pulls the chocolate to the bottom of a glass of chocolate milk over time. Tragedy seems to “stir the glass” from time to time, emulsifying and rebalancing the Significant with other activity. Reminding us of the sacredness of people, and the importance of relationships and touching hearts, beyond simply “maintaining the mechanics of our ministries”.
Need concrete examples? Am I sounding too “theoretical”? Well, I’ve caught myself becoming so enslaved to my daily calendar that I’ve sometimes hesitated to respond to someone’s urgent need for a counseling appointment because my calendar dictates that that afternoon I’m doing shut-in visits. Or I’ve seen a query made to a vibrant adolescent youth ministry in a church (touching teens who are often the “only Christian” in their unchurched homes) from church financial leaders asking, “How often do your youth go get seconds at the Wednesday night supper, and why?”
Gentle Reader, so often I am asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “How can a loving all-powerful God allow such tragedy and evil?” I make no pretense of having the answers to these questions. I bow my head to the nature of “mystery”, and to the Father’s thoughts above my own. But I can tell you this… I can see one “effect” of such things… they are huge wake-up calls to the “Significant” versus the “trivial”. Am I saying this is “Why?”, or that “God does or allows this for such and such reason?” Absolutely not! No such thing! Only He can answer for Himself in such matters…
But, Gentle Reader, I am so a work in progress… yet so frail and subject to the trivial… and, from what I observe, I am not alone in this. So, in my own life, such events provide FOCUS on what Jesus declared to be the “good part”… the relationship, the sacredness, the fellowship. And that I should never EVER see my relationship with Him (or, frankly with anyone else) as a simple “means to an end” of executing my own agenda and To-Do List.
Are “activities” good things? Are there real chores in Kingdom? Of course. Jesus had the disciples do many things, conduct many activities, perform many chores. But each of them were in response to relationships in two directions: One, obedience to Him. Two, meeting the needs of others. Relationship is the “good part”, and “activity” is in the service of the former.
My prayer, then is: “Dear Lord, please use me to extend Your love and grace to others through relationship as the most important item on my agenda. Help me attend to the Significant, rather than getting caught up in the trivial. When I pull all my activities and busy-ness about me like a cloak, I only puff myself up seeking Your recognition of my merit and my significance, and that is foolish illusion. Let me treasure Your sacred children, and relationships, with Your heart and Spirit… without having to rely on the reminder of tragedies to waken me from my sleepwalking. Amen.”
Please keep me, and my frailty, in your prayers, Gentle Readers! Grace to you all.