July 14, 2010

Knowing the One Thing

by Kyle Childress
Amos 8: 1-12; Luke 10: 38-42

Luke tells us that Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha.  They welcome him into their home and Martha gets busy doing the many things a good hostess does: preparing food, setting the table, straightening the room, picking up the newspapers that have piled up, and on and on.  Meanwhile sister Mary sits in front of Jesus listening to what he has to say.  Martha, understandably frustrated says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister just sits there while I do all the work?  Tell her to get up and help!”  Jesus replies, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part …”

Several years ago I attended a national meeting of about two hundred clergy from around the country and representing various church traditions across the ecumenical spectrum.  In preparation we were asked to name what we considered the major obstacles to our church members’ growth as disciples.  Without a close second, church members’ busy-ness was easily agreed upon by clergy as the number one problem keeping them from growing in Christ.

Charles Campbell in his book, The Word Before the Powers, says that one of the strategies of the principalities and powers use to accomplish their deadly purposes is diversion.  The powers will do almost anything to keep us diverted from noticing what they’re doing as well as diverting us from knowing God (p. 37).  Entertainment and busy-ness are two primary ways we are diverted and distracted.  We become too busy to notice or care about anything beyond our daily routines, and therefore we become more fully captive to the powers.

And if this is true of lay-people, it is also true of clergy.  The most common exchange of greetings between clergy seems to be, “How are you?” and the reply usually is, “Busy.”  Our busy-ness in running the institutional church keeps us distracted from knowing God and discerning the work of the powers and we end up becoming “burned-out.”

Eugene Peterson said that although we all go through periods when we’re busier than at other times, overall our lives should be have an integrity about them; integrated in such a way that we are not running frenetically all of the time.  We are too busy, he says, because we are vain.  We want to appear important.  Significant.  And the crowded schedule and the heavy demands on my time are proof that I am important.  We live in a society that says busy-ness is proof of importance so we do the same.

Secondly, Peterson says, that we are too busy because we are lazy.  We let others decide what we will do instead of deciding ourselves.  C. S. Lewis used to say that only lazy people work hard.  By lazily abdicating what is important we let others decide what we do with our time and we end up doing everything but what is essential.

The prophet Amos says that the people can’t wait for church to be over so they can get back to their business of exploitation of the poor; they can’t wait for Sunday to end and Monday to begin.  Have they been distracted so long from God and the work of the powers that their distractions have become their obsessions?

So who are we and what are we to do?  Jesus says that Mary knew the one thing most needful as she sat at his feet and listened to him.  Jesus did not say we’re not to work; after all, Luke just told us the Parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”  But with his face turned to Jerusalem, Jesus is acutely aware of the central importance of who he is and what he has to say, as well as how distractions keep us from hearing him and following him.

Peterson reminds us of the scene in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in which a whaleboat is being rowed through rough seas and wind and salt spray chasing the great white whale.  Sailors are laboring fiercely; rowing the oars, everyone in the boat is intently focused on the task of catching and harpooning the Great White, Moby Dick.  The big story is the larger than life conflict between good and evil, sea monster versus the morally outraged and deranged man, Captain Ahab and the captain shouts encouragement to his men to row faster and faster; then he threatens them and berates them to get them to row faster and faster.  Yet, in the front of the boat is one man who does nothing.  He is just sitting there.  He doesn’t hold an oar no matter how much the captain yells and no matter how much help the men need he does not pitch in to help.  This man does not even break a sweat.  No shouting, in fact he is completely silent with all of the crashing and cursing around him.  This man is the harpooner, quiet, poised, waiting.  And Melville writes this sentence, “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.”

What a great sentence.  This harpooner knows who he is and he knows what is essential and what is not.  He does not get entangled in what would get in the way of what is important.  And he can only do the important by sitting in preparation.  Sitting makes all of his other activity possible.

Melville’s sentence brings to mind the Psalmist.  Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  And Isaiah 30:15, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”  Perhaps there is a connection in knowing and spending focused restful time with Christ and in Christ and our ability to “go and do likewise” in serving the needy?  Without the one thing most needful in Jesus, we not only become frenetically busy, but worse, we become pawns of the powers in exploiting and oppressing people who are poor.


ET1 said...

Wonderful commentary. Each paragraph is rich with ideas to ponder. The notion of "Busyness" as lazyness---interesting concept to consider. I love the harpoon image too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. This invites so much prayer.