Tag Archives: spirituality

Choosing the Better Part

Christ at the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velázquez (1618)

My sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 10:38-42

Having people over is very enjoyable, but it can also be a lot of work. The apartment has to be cleaned, and depending how long people are staying, a guest room may have to be prepared, even if it is a make-shift room. food has to be planned and prepared, often more than one typically is used to preparing. Additionally, if you are anything like me, I much like to prepare better fare than I typically have. While I’m fine with rice and beans, I like my guests to have something a bit more exciting, tasty, a bit more intensive. While I am satisfied with spending an evening reading, having guests often means making plans. A lot of work, for sure, but important work, worthwhile work, hospitable work.

We see something similar in our reading today, but first, where are we in the story?

Jesus is traveling again. This passage comes right on the heels of the story that we read last week, when the lawyer asked Jesus exactly who is my neighbor, the one that he needed to love, and when Jesus told him, love even the person you grew up to hate, the person of a different ethnicity and religion, love the foreigner. Immediately after this, we have our story of Jesus visiting these two sisters, Martha and Mary.

We’re not sure if Jesus just showed up at their doorstep or if he told them in advance that he was coming. So Jesus came, and the Middle Eastern codes of hospitality required them to care for Jesus. We typically think that hospitality is offering coffee or tea and cookies or something. We see it as just being nice, but in first century Palestine it was a serious matter, life or death. Remember, this is largely a desert and if you don’t care for people who come to you, chances are they will die. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all put a large emphasis on the importance of hospitality, and this continues today.

So, Martha is busy making preparations for Jesus’ stay. We aren’t told exactly what she was preparing, but we can probably safely assume that it was a meal.

But Martha can’t just prepare any meal. Jesus is a well known and well respected (by some, greatly hated by others, of course) religious leader. In fact, here, Martha calls Jesus “Lord”, so the chance is great that she had an inkling at least that he was more than just that. So she can’t just make any meal. She likely wants to prepare the best meal. So she is working really hard to show the best hospitality to Jesus, but what is going on?  Her sister Mary is just sitting, listening to Jesus. Martha, overworked and underpaid, as the colloquialism goes, gets fed up with having to prepare the food, set the table, and make a nice and welcoming environment and in all her running around, she sees her sister, not helping. One thing leads to another, every time Martha passes the entrance to the room, she sees her sister sitting there while she continues to run around. Finally, she can’t take it anymore.

She slams down her utensils on the counter-top removes her apron and stomps out into the main room where Jesus and Mary sit.

“Lord,” she addresses Jesus respectfully, but we can sense a bit of impatience and frustration under her voice. “Don’t you care that my sister has abandoned all of this work to me alone? Tell her to come and help me!”

With Jesus’ reply, we can put two different inflections to it which give two different nuances to the words. We can see it as a chastisement, a reprimand, a rebuke. Or we can see it as an invitation. The best reading, I think, is to see it as an invitation.

Notice, what we have here with with Martha and Mary is not a contrast between good and bad. Martha didn’t really do anything wrong. She was being hospitable, something that Jesus certainly appreciated, after all, the importance of hospitality is plastered all over the pages of scripture from the very first book to the last.  No, Martha wasn’t doing anything particularly wrong, which is one of the reasons that I don’t think that this was a rebuke. No, she wasn’t doing anything particularly bad, she was doing most things right, she was just missing one piece.

Hospitality is not just about providing things for guests, which is important, but the foundation of hospitality is to care for those whom God brings to you. Therefore, an important piece that Martha was missing was not in her work, but rather in her neglect of paying attention to their guest, to Jesus.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t say anything about her being busy, he said that she was worried and distracted by many things. She was worried and distracted by many things. Jesus was not yelling at Martha, but rather offering an invitation and showing concern for Martha.

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “You are worried and distracted by many things.”

The issue here is not at all that Martha was doing anything wrong by making preparations for Jesus’ visit, it was that in her preparations, she seems to have forgotten what she was actually doing. She became so engrossed in what she was preparing, that she seemed to have forgotten who was sitting right there in her living room.

Some have used this to argue that a contemplative spirituality is superior to a working spirituality, that somehow sitting still at the feet of Jesus is superior to work, to being busy to getting things done. But this is not at all.  Nowhere does scripture ever downplay the importance of doing things. I mean, where would the church be without people who do things…without people who connect with God through service?

No, this is not at all, but it says something important. It says that while we work, regardless of what we are doing we need to do two things, first, we must listen to the voice of God, and second, we cannot lose focus of the fact that God is always here with us, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. Martha lost track of the fact that God was sitting in her living room while she frantically ran to and fro to get things ready, but in the process, she lost sight of who she was with, of the whole point of hospitality.

I wonder if any of you can resonate with this. Do you ever feel like you get so busy with things, that you forget about God? Do you ever get so worried and distracted by many things that you find that you didn’t pray, that you didn’t have a chance to read scripture, that you didn’t have the opportunity to, even for fifteen minutes, listen to what God might be saying to you?  Now, I don’t say this to make you feel bad. People who are busy don’t need lectures about how they need to pray more, or how they need to read the Bible more. While this is often accurate, guilting ourselves or each other into this is not the point.

Rather, see this as an invitation.

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite brother in France in who lived in in the middle of the 17th century. Brother Lawrence worked in the kitchen. He prepared food for the other brothers and he cleaned up afterwards. Day in and day out. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Day in and day out. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. What helps us remember Brother Lawrence, however, was not the food that he cooked or his ability to scrub pots until they shined. No, the reason that we remember Brother Lawrence, but throughout all of his mundane work, he developed the discipline to experience the deep and abiding presence of God even in the four walls of his kitchen with stoves burning, pots clanging, and dishwater smelling.

You see, Brother Lawrence grew in the ability to be both Martha and Mary at the same time. He kept his hands busy with important, albeit mundane, repetitive, and tedious work.

Brother Lawrence writes, “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him… It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

His work, his unspiritual and tedious work of preparing meals and scrubbing pots, but he always worked to always have a sense of God’s presence. He chose the better part.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence. It took him years to develop this. It didn’t bring him notoriety within his lifetime, it was his writings that brought him fame long after his death. But fame wasn’t what we was seeking, he simply wanted to be able to pay attention to God while he prepared things for God’s people, while he did his work, he simply wanted to be able to choose the better part in his work.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence, and it likely won’t be easy for us either. It is not easy, but it is important, it is worthwhile, it is the better part.

Be aware of God’s presence where you are. Listen for God’s voice among the clamour of your daily life. Work is good, and there is nothing wrong with being busy, but remember that God is right with you, and we cannot ignore this fact. Perhaps the story here of Martha and Mary isn’t to present us with an either/or, perhaps it is a both/and.

I want to close with a prayer generally attributed to Brother Lawrence. Whether it was actually written by him, I do not know, and it does not matter, because I think that it describes well what we all strive for:

O Lord of pots and pans and things,
Since I have no time to be
a great saint by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming Heaven’s gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
Forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food
in room, or by the sea,
Accept the service that I do-
I do it unto Thee.

Gazing out the window

Girl Looking Out the Window

By Jeannie (madlyinlovewithlife) on Flickr

I have this thing…I need my desk, or wherever I work, to be near a window out of which I can easily see.

As I work (read, study, write), I spend a good deal of time gazing out the window.

Right now I am looking out of our front window, and there is nothing particularly beautiful about it, it simply faces the street. I see houses, a tree on which I am daily watching and waiting for buds, the street with cars, and people walking. Nothing particularly special, but it is life.

I have previously felt somewhat ashamed of this, that I spend a good deal of time gazing out the window. I look lazy, distracted. At times I feel lazy. People are not supposed to look out the window and be idle. After all, the way to work is to cram everyone into a sea of cubicles where the light of day can never touch. The best way to work is to block out the outside world and focus on one thing and one thing only: the task at hand.

So I do what I am supposed to do. I go to my office at church and sit at my desk. Because of the way the room is set up, including the fixed furniture, I cannot see out a window. In fact, the windows are colored translucent panes, so one cannot see through the glass anyway. And I work — or try to work. I am there to take phone calls if they come, I am there in case someone needs to see me. I return emails. I try to read. I try to write. I try to help open the biblical texts for my people in ways that speak to their lives in a meaningful way.

But it is those days when I write at home, or even write at my favorite coffee shop — and have access to a window out of which to see — that I am actually able to get words committed to paper, or more accurately, pixels turning from white to black in the form of letters, much more easily. Words flow better. My efficiency increases. Blocks that are otherwise there are gone. It is something about being able to stare out a window that makes me work better.

So I sit here and gaze out the window, and Jesus’ words come to mind, “Consider the lilies ..” (Lk 12:27), “Look at the birds of the air…” (Mt 6:26).

Jesus could have said, “take, for instance, the lilies.” Or, he could have said, “One example, is lilies.” But Jesus said consider. While translation is interpretation, but the original Greek word does carry connotations of contemplation, of looking reflectively upon, of thinking carefully about. Jesus doesn’t simply give an illustration, Jesus tells us to consider, to think on, to contemplate — to gaze.

***

Although this conflicts, somewhat, with the work ethic of my small-town Midwestern upbringing, I think that there is something holy and something beneficial to a degree of idleness. Of slowing down, of noticing, of gazing out the window, and of considering.

There is something about seeing the world which enables me to work, even if it is just window-gazing. Perhaps it is something that is better embraced than shied away from. Perhaps it is something which is better acknowledged than be embarrassed about. If Jesus can help his disciples learn something by telling them to contemplate on the lilies, perhaps I can learn something by looking at the world on the other side of the pane.

So, if you see me someday, and I’m looking out a window at a pub, coffee shop, or my flat, I’m not daydreaming, I’m not lazy, I’m just working — which often begins with a healthy dose of window gazing.

The Saturday Demon

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

It’s simple really. All I have to do is put one word in front of another, types of words ordered in a particular way. As I often do when I am having difficulty writing, I begin gazing around my bookshelf and my eyes stop at Stephen Dobyns’s book, Best Words, Best Order. That’s it, I think, all I have to do is find the best words and put them in the best order.

I have the opportunity to tell the story of grace and redemption every single week. I cannot think of a greater privilege than this.

But today it does not feel like a privilege. The best words cannot be found and the best order cannot be mapped.

It is the Saturday Demon.

The Saturday Demon comes around on Saturday when I am trying to put the finishing touches on my sermon for Sunday. I have spent all week studying, reading, praying, researching, translating, and beginning to write, but Saturday is my finishing day.

“It doesn’t really matter” the demon whispers in my ear. “None of it really matters.”

For me, the real danger that the Saturday Demon poses is not that it creates doubt, it is that it highlight and fortifies the doubts which are already so present.

“You’re a fraud,” it tells me. “You lie to people and give them false hope.”

The Saturday Demon knows exactly how to attack. I begin to wonder if this is worth it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps I am doing this all for nothing, perhaps none of this is real.

Confession time: I am a pastor, and I have great doubt.

***

I’m a doubting Thomas, as some might call me, although I loathe this term. Why does Thomas get such a bad rap? Peter denied that he knew anything about Jesus of Nazareth not once, not twice, but three times. Do we remember Peter only as a denier?  Do we call someone a “I Don’t Know Him Peter”? No.

But Thomas’s reputation is forever stained as being a doubter, and doubting is seen as something terrible. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, we tell our young people, doubting is weakness. Doubting is sin, we say, God wants us to have confidence.

***

The more I try to ignore the Saturday Demon, the louder is speaks. Rather than trying to ignore it, I decide to listen to it for a moment. Hear it out. After all, Jesus didn’t just try to ignore the devil when he was being tempted in the desert, he carried on a conversation.

“Just stop,” it tells me, “none of this matters anyway, you’re just wasting your time.”

“Are you finished?” I ask the Saturday Demon. “I’m going to get back to work now,” and I continue pounding away on the keyboard trying to find the best words and trying to find the best order. The Saturday Demon continues to assault me, but it is important that I do not give in to its attack, I cannot become defeated, and the best way to do this is to keep working, even when these doubts erupt on schedule like Old Faithful. After all, I have people who depend on me.

I’m a pastor. I’m a doubter. Maybe this is why God has called me to this kind of ministry at this point in my life, so that even when I have great doubts, I still have to show up, stand in front of the congregation, and tell them the good news of the story of grace and redemption. It is through telling of the same story over and over again that I can, in some way, continue to believe even with my doubts.

Perhaps the reason that we will always link doubt and Thomas together, perhaps the reason that we remember Thomas for nothing other than his doubts is that we see ourselves in Thomas. In seeing in this mirror, we can see in ourselves what we so greatly despise, and we attempt to ensure that we keep him and his doubts at arm’s length.

This disapproving way that we speak of doubt is incredibly unfortunate. Truly, if doubt has no place in the church, it is no wonder why so many young people leave the church. If doubt has no place in the journey of faith, it is no wonder why there are an increasing number of “nones” when asked about religion.

Perhaps it is not the absence of doubt which is to be prized, but the ability to have faith and doubt at the same time, and live with the tension.

Hurry as an Enemy of Faith

I’m back!  It has been a busy week, pastorally speaking.  We had a sudden death in our congregation and the pastoral tasks that go along with something of the like are great. My days (and nights) have been so consumed with work that I have not been able to even think about my blog which has been sitting sadly idle.  I, however, am back to regular life, and I am back to writing.  I try not to make too many extended absences, but alas, pastoral life is often unpredictable.

This past week, despite my resolution to slow down this Advent, was not able to slow down. I was logging thirteen to sixteen hour days, my mind was always consumed with the details of the memorial services, details of the upcoming and regular worship service, details with some of the Christmas activities at church. How was I going to get everything done? How was I going to get both sermons done? How were we going to have enough space to hold all of the activities we need to do?  On top of this, we are having guests visit the church, who grew up in the Presbyterian church to which our building formerly belonged, and I don’t want them to think bad things about me, or us, because our building is cluttered and with so much deferred maintenance.

Not only were my early mornings and late nights consumed with these concerns, so were my dreams.

I nearly forgot that it was Advent, I nearly forgot about Advent as a season of preparation, and as a season of repentance, a season of hope and expectation. I nearly forgot to stop and listen to God.

I am eager to blame everything that is going on, I am eager to blame all of the things that I have to do for this. I am eager to point to the fact that I have so much to do, and this is the reason why my own experience and my own formation as a disciple of Christ had been pushed to the back burner.

The culprit, however, was not necessarily busy-ness, but rather hurry.

Hurry is an interesting concept Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, defines “hurry” in many ways, among them: “to carry or cause to go with haste” and “to perform with undue haste.”  Noticeably absent is the mention of outside forces, that the problem of hurry is outside of us.

Hurry is a state of being, it is an outlook, often times, it is an orientation to life.

Hurry is the insidious enemy of delighting in God. I think of Mary and Martha — Martha so busy and frustrated at Mary for not helping, and Mary who simply sat at the feet of Jesus — and it was Martha who was admonished! (Luke 10:38-42). I think of John the Baptizer, an individual who must have seemed crazy at the time (and if we saw him today, we would be certain he had a psychiatric disorder), who preached in the wilderness to prepare the way for Jesus (Luke 3:1-18; Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8).  When asked for particular ways to repent, John told them that if someone had two coats, to give one to someone who did not have one, if someone had food, to share with someone who did not.

It takes an unhurried worldview to listen to God, to travel out into the wilderness to listen to what may seem like rantings of the insane, to share with those who lack because it takes time to notice them.

How many times have I passed someone on the street, sometimes even without noticing, because I was hurried? I dare not even guess a number.

Keri Wyatt Kent uses the image of a jar of river water, all shaken up, to speak about a hurried life. River water contains all sorts of sediment, particles, minerals, and murky, when it settles, the water is able to become clear (Deeply Loved, ch. 25). The problem with Martha is not that she was busy, it was that she was living in a state of hurry, so much so that she was unable to experience and enjoy the gift that she had with Jesus in her home.

Last week, I was busy, that is to be sure. however, the bigger problem is that I was hurried, and this hurry is something we must always work against, because hurry pulls us away from God, away from the experience of God, and distracts us from the fullness of what we are called to: love for God and love and care for others

This Advent, I will begin to remove hurry from my life, even when I am busy, and I invite you to do the same.

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This post is in the Deeply Loved Advent Blog Hop Series hosted by Angie Mabry-Nauta

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A Fresh Start

hatching

By Sarahluv on Flickr (cc)

The lure of a fresh start is ubiquitous. The idea that we are not tied to our past, that we are not destined to repeat the mistakes we had made, the idea that change and redemption is possible, and if only we could make a fresh start without our past following us, we could live into who we are supposed to be.

This is why we make New Year’s resolutions. A new year is a fresh start. The image for the old year is an very old man, with a long white beard, slumped over a cane. Conversely, the new year is a small child who has their whole life ahead of them, no past to follow them. So we make resolutions to do things, to be better people. Resolutions that will help us to be the people we want to be. We make resolutions because we can, in a way, start afresh. Like many people, this year I will resolve to lose weight (again), and I will resolve to stop procrastinating (again), and I will resolve to be more organized (again).

I like fresh starts, and I will guess that you do too.

This is the beauty of Advent. Advent provides a time for the church year to start over, but also for each of us to refocus our lives, both individually and as a body. Advent, of course, is more than simply a season in the church year, Advent is a orientation of life in which we are always standing in the already (Christ has already come and redemption has begun), looking forward to the not yet (Christ has not yet returned and redemption is not yet accomplished). It is fitting, then, that the first season in the Church calendar is one that models what the rest of the year is to be — always living in the tension that the reign of God has come, but has not yet fully arrived.

In Deeply Loved, Keri Wyatt Kent discusses the practice of “Review of the Day” which is a recovery of the ancient practice of the Examen of Consciousness. Far from simply ruminating on our shortcomings, a practice of retrospective remembering where God was faithful even in times in which we were not; where God showed up even in times when we did not. This daily look on the past day solely exists to help us tomorrow. We only have a future because we have a past.  Several times in scripture, we are told to remember. We remember the past because it illumines the path before us.

Advent is a season of repentance, which requires looking back, but looking back only so that we can move forward. It is so fitting that Advent is a time in which we examine the past year, not only individually, but corporately as well.

I look back at my past year and I can see God working, but I also see places where I didn’t realize that God was working.  I see times in which I was faithless, times that I would love to do over. I can see times in which I was so wrapped up in the hurry of life, that I have forgotten to pay any attention to God, and I can see where, regardless, God continues to pay attention to me.

I am sure I am not alone here.

Advent is about new beginnings. Advent brings a fresh start. We look back so that we can move forward.

We live in the already, and we remember the already because it points us toward the not yet, and this is where the good news is in all of this.

So this Advent, not only am I slowing down, I am also looking back, because this is the only way that we can look forward.

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This post is in the Deeply Loved Advent Blog Hop Series hosted by Angie Mabry-Nauta

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