Martha, Martha

Feb 24, 2014

“Martha, Martha …there is need of only one thing.” [NSRV Luke 10:41] Poor, maligned Martha who is stressed and worried, frustrated that her sister is listening to Jesus and not helping Martha in the kitchen with the meal.

The version of this story that echoes in my head is the KJV: “but one thing is needful.” [It’s pretty impressive how the memory retains these passages learned as a child.] One thing is needed. Martha is scattered, resistant to the reality. She’s not asking for help, she is really whining about her sister’s attendance on Jesus. She’s not even talking directly to her sister, but to the Lord. And notice that Jesus is not saying, come sit at my feet. He knows that they will need to eat.

One thing is needed. In our world multitasking is the highest value. I can talk to you while I scan my emails on my phone. I can listen to my child and do housework at the same time. I can answer phone calls and think about the next project. Like Martha our focus is split between the task at hand and others pressing in on us. But what is Jesus saying here? One thing is needed. Focus? Concentration? Presence?

I think the Zen Buddhists understand this focused attention better than we Christians. They call it mindfulness. Being mindful is not just focusing on one thing at a time, it’s really bringing the whole of who we are to the task at hand. So if we’re washing dishes in the sink, we are aware of all the senses: the feel and the heat of the water, seeing the dirt washed away, feeling the smooth, clean plate, hearing the water splash, sensing the rhythm of how we work, how it feels to be standing for a while. It’s not just the eyes seeing, but the whole body/mind awareness of what’s happening.

And the mind is equally engaged in the task at hand. It’s not projecting into the future or ruminating about something in the past. It’s not wishing it were somewhere else. It, too, is present to the task. Present. Presence.

Have you ever sat listening to another person with the same mindfulness, what I would call presence? You will hear what they are saying, but you will also be noticing how what they are saying registers in your gut, what telltale clues you see, hear and sense about their real state of being beyond what they are presenting on the surface. Your mind will be absorbing what they are saying, not figuring out what you’re going to say next. Your heart is also engaged, seeing and hearing what the heart alone hears. And your soul will be listening for anything the Spirit might want you to say to this person.

There is an aliveness present in mindfulness/presence that multitasking can never achieve. When every part of our whole selves is engaged, we experience life hugely, on a vaster scale than our normal waking consciousness. I am sure you’ve felt this as you’ve watched a sunset and it stuns you with its beauty. Everything within you is present to the experience. The same thing happens when you are fully present, fully alive in the present moment. Try it with your spouse, your child, your friend, a stranger. It’s an amazing experience and can take a lot of practice at first.

In being present there is no stress, no pressure. There is only the here and now, who is present and what is happening. To be fully alive in the moment is to live on Auntie Mame’s scale: LIVE. LIVE. LIVE.

Mary is the one who is fully present. Mary is totally engaged with Jesus. Martha could be completely engaged in her tasks as well, but she is worried and the worry has taken her out of the present moment. Then Jesus reminds her to be present: only one thing is needed. And what you experience there in the present cannot be taken from you.


Questions to ponder over the week: How often am I fully present to what is happening, engaged in body. mind, heart and soul? Do I  hear echoes of the Great Commandment in the question above? What keeps me from being present to life, to this moment? What am I missing?

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