Busy with what?

October 17th, 2017

Wishing Jesus hadn’t said that

Some folks call my wife Marsha, the nickname she acquired in college, but her parents named her Martha. And it fits! She really wishes Jesus hadn’t said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41)

Martha was busy in the kitchen fixing supper for Jesus and his disciples while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” She had good reason to ask, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” (My Martha has been known to say something like that to me!)

It helps to notice that Martha’s story comes immediately after Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan with it’s closing command, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) That may be the story Jesus was telling when Martha came in from the kitchen. The back-to-back stories paint the picture of the basic rhythm of the Christian life. It’s the balance of being and doing; prayer and action; listening to Jesus’ words and doing what Jesus tells us to do.

Jesus’ word to Martha is a hard word for hyperactive, do-it-now, get-the-job-done Americans to hear. Our tendency is often to “go and do likewise” rather than to “sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he is saying.”

We Methodists are generally “go and do likewise” people. Our version of a familiar nursery rhyme goes:

Mary had a little lamb,
She also had a sheep.
She joined the United Methodist Church
And died for lack of sleep.

Busy with prayer

October 10 is the day when the Episcopal Church remembers Vida Dutton Scudder. Her life demonstrated the rhythm of intense social activism and vibrant spirituality. She wrote, “If prayer is the deep secret creative force that Jesus tells us it is, we should be very busy with it.”

It led me to think about what it means to be as busy with prayer as I am busy with so many other things in my life. Here’s what I wrote in my journal.

O God, I want to believe that the best, deepest, strongest thing I can do in response to what I see in the world around me, my concerns for the United Methodist Church, and my deepest hopes for my children and grandchildren is to be busy in prayer….spending quiet time in your presence so that your Spirit can shape my thinking, transform my convictions, inspire my hopes, and be alive in my relationships.

Prayer doesn’t mean pounding on the door of heaven to present my list of demands to you, but living in humble openness to the often unnoticed way your Spirit enters into our world and our lives, often in ways we never would have asked or demanded.

Busy with prayer means being soaked in scripture so that the Spirit who inspires the written word can make it a living word in us.

The cure for our anxiety

Don’t miss the way Jesus told Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things.” So much of the tension and anger of our times is rooted in anxiety and fear. It’s when we are busy in prayer that we discover the peace Paul promised when he wrote:

Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

The promise is that if we are busy in the spiritual disciplines of prayer and reflection on Scripture, we will experience a peace that is beyond human understanding. Then we will be ready to “go and do likewise” with a calm courage, gracious patience, and relentless hope.

What if the only effective way to be busy doing things is by being just as busy in prayer? At least it’s worth trying!

Jim Harnish is the author of A Disciple's Heart and Earn. Save. Give. He blogs at at JimHarnish.org.

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