Mary, Martha, and the Modern Church

Sometimes, little conversations build to big ones, and I think it’s time to talk church.

Christian women are flocking to studies on books such as Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World and The Best Yes. While I haven’t read either book (Sorry, a little busy over here…), both address the issue, highlighted in Matthew 10:38-42, of listening to Christ, as Mary did, rather than being busy to distraction (Martha).

Anyone who’s attended church has heard the sermon. Be still. Sit at the feet of Christ, and know He is God. It’s a good sermon. The problem is…

The modern American church doesn’t support it any more than the modern American life does.

We have Sunday morning and mid-week programs and food drives and choirs and greeters and committees for everything under the sun, and when someone enters the church, we scramble to “plug them in.” We do not sit in the pew beside them, silently reveling in our fellowship with Christ and with one another. We mistakenly believe that if we give them a job, and if they serve faithfully, their needs are met.

Sometimes it’s true. Those who serve often derive deep joy from their service and experience immense growth. Too often, however, they burn out after a few years, perhaps because they’ve been too busy doing to just be.

The American church praises Mary, but prefers Martha.

I’ll go ahead and say it: I’ve been struggling a lot with our family’s schedule. There are things we do because we have decided they are good for our children. There are things we do because we wish to serve our local church. And there are things we do to preserve our sanity. (Trust me, if the husband hasn’t run in a week and I haven’t written in a week, you won’t get a lot of smiles!)

Our collective family plate is full to bursting, and it seems someone always wants to give us just one more scoop of mashed potatoes. (And if you know my family, with the exception of yours truly, we really don’t like mashed potatoes…)

Maybe I’m being selfish with my time and energy, but lately, I’ve been feeling a need to pull back, to go a little Evita on everyone and start singing – but not in the choir, don’t even ask – The Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines. Please don’t get me wrong. I love the things I’m doing, and I’ll most likely keep doing them because I believe in them. But there are things I’ve opted not to do because I need space to breathe, not more to do. (And as an introvert, anything that involves small talk falls automatically into the category of “more to do.”) Am I missing out? Perhaps. But I’m also not wearing a straightjacket, so that’s something.

A friend shared some thoughts on the issue this week, and I think she nails it. We, as a church institutional, are so busy making sure we fit God-gifted individuals into man-made programs that we neglect the souls of believers and unbelievers walking alongside us everyday in every sphere. We preach that God uses men and women in all our awkward, filthy rags, but we try to dress ourselves and others up. We preach that the whole earth belongs to the ever-creative Lord, but we prefer to keep everyone engaged in-house in ministries we know and understand. And though we say “The church is a hospital for the sick,” we assume everyone who enters is healthy, so long as they fit within our model of “church.”

But think on these words (slightly paraphrased to preserve the identity of the writer):

Can my ministry to the church (universal, not institutional) be simply being me?  God made me as myself, not as you, not as someone else. He calls me to be true to His creation. Can being openly and honestly me with all my flaws and imperfections be my purpose?  These are the things about me that point others to God – when it’s clear I’m also sick, but that the Great Physician has offered a cure for me, not when I seem healthy and preventative care is working.

I sometimes feel we pigeon-hole ourselves into serving God through institutional church, through ministries that are identifiable and separate from our core beings, and fail to minister through our very souls.

“Ministry” happens in my life on a daily basis, with people I meet everywhere.  It doesn’t happen in a church nursery. It doesn’t happen when I’m reading the Bible (which I don’t do much of). I’m not trying to be a missionary.  I’ve just decided to be myself. I have God, and that’s all I need.

I’m not trying to act Christian.  The Bible doesn’t tell us to “act holy” but to “be holy”…and we ARE holy simply because we have God, not because of what we’ve done or not done, but because of what He’s done.  Throughout the Bible, God consistently calls unlikely people (Gideon, Moses, Abraham, Noah, the disciples, David) and simply tells them, “follow me.”  He doesn’t say they need to sign up for a program or in a service role, he doesn’t ask them to be someone different from who they are (though he does change lives), he simply says follow me and I’ll be with you…that’s all.

So, if God goes with you into the nursery or the choir or the youth group, that’s great…but it’s more important to bring him with you into the grocery store, the sports fields, the swimming pool, and your neighborhood.

So what do we do? How do we, the local congregation, learn to live what we preach about stillness, about being holy rather than merely looking holy? I fully appreciate that we need Marthas in our midst – and that some people thrive on active service – but Martha needed Jesus to take her by the hand and say, “Sit.” Maybe we should follow His example before our sweet Marthas throw up their towels in defeat.

Martha is a lot more than the meal she makes. She’s a holy soul in need of care, a soul with more to offer than a pot of soup (however delicious it may be!) When Mary slips in through the back door… Oh, people, sit with Mary in her holy silence. And make sure you don’t expect her to be Martha.

I’ve probably written much more than I should have, but I think the heart of the matter is that we need to get to know Mary and Martha, to focus more on who they are than what they do. They’re people, not cogs in the church machine, and each of them requires special care. Each of them has unique gifts that God will use whether they serve in the nursery or sing in the choir or simply sit in silence. We cannot, if we love them, expect them to thrive if they are being anything but what God calls them to be.

Dear, dear church, an entire generation of women is yearning to be like Mary in a Martha world, a Martha church. How will you answer? How will you assure today’s wife and mother that she doesn’t have to do it all, that it’s okay – really, truly okay – for her to come to church for rest, rather than even more labor? Will you let her say “yes” only to the best, and will you trust her to know when stillness is best? And – because while I don’t know what the menfolk are reading in their book clubs, I’m sure women aren’t alone – will you extend this same grace to the men who long for stillness, too?

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2 thoughts on “Mary, Martha, and the Modern Church

    • Thank you. It IS hard, when there are things one wants to do and things one ought to do and just… things! But stillness is so important, as is being comfortable with who God has called you to be and stepping out in faith that He will be with you and bless you and others wherever He sends you, even if your path is far from the expected – or even the desired. (And here I could tie this all into Grit’s journey, but we’d have too much fun doing that!) 🙂

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