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:




2 responses to “A Knottier Wretch Post: Mary and Martha and Rest Vs. Work

  1. Know this is way off topic, but for the record, every Martha I have ever known, has been an antagonist (think Mrs. Olson from “Little House On The Prarie” bad) in her own right. And every Mary a lazy narcissistic self serving bum! Rather prophetic how that all came to pass. I love reading your blog posts because 99% of the time I see something I can totally relate to in them. Hope you are enjoying your downtime while you can. That fall semester is creeping ever closer each day. Please keep up the wonderful writing.

  2. have NEVER understood M & M – not even after your blog 🙂 but loved reading it anyway!

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