Martha & Mary (1) – Distraction

Martha & MaryWhile some of the stories in A Story to Tell are more difficult to fully relate to, although we do have a choice whether or not to learn from all of them, the story of Martha and Mary at home is probably the most ordinary, domestic incident to be found in the Gospels.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we, either as guest or in receiving guests. Some people sit chatting away, while others… well, you know how it is.

Please read Luke 10:38-42

Are you like Martha? Or are you like Mary?

Many people would say they want to be more like Mary – taking time to sit and listen to Jesus, to talk to him, to spend time with him, to get to know him. To give Jesus intentional attention. And yet, most of us probably feel much more comfortable being like Martha – being busy, doing things, being distracted, giving ourselves a sense of purpose, playing a role.

It’s often the case that when someone comes around for a meal one person looks after the cooking while someone else talks to the guest. And this happens here – Martha, in whose house this takes place, carries on getting everything ready while her younger sister, Mary, sits with Jesus, their guest.

Yet, in the heat of the kitchen, Martha is getting more and more uptight. ‘Oh no, the guests are waiting, the veg are ready but the fish isn’t… and there’s Mary, my sister, not helping at all… she’s just sat there talking to him.’ Martha’s angry and stressed. She needs help and the others are ignoring her.

One can imagine her storming out: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ And bear in mind, we don’t know what else was said either! (This isn’t the only time when Jesus has incurred Martha’s anger, by the way. When their brother Lazarus was dying, she sent for Jesus and made it quite clear how unhappy she was that he hadn’t come sooner – see John 11:21.)

Like Martha, we are often concerned about so much and worried and upset about many things – lots of them quite understandable. But let’s not forget Mary either. Maybe she is also in need of someone to help her: perhaps through her conversation she is wanting and receiving help. There was a reason why Mary needed to talk with Jesus.

This incident is one that challenges us to consider our priorities. Busyness will often crowd out God and it crowds out other people too. It distracts us from being with God and being with others. It distracts from spending time talking, listening and praying. Yet that very busyness, those tasks which need to be done, is also important. Without paying attention to those things, God’s work in our day to day lives would not be carried out. But how do we achieve the balance?

The events in Martha’s home help us to think about meeting God in the ordinary. And yet there is that very human inclination to ‘just do’ something else before we spend time in prayer and Bible reading. How do we have fulfilling and blessed times talking and listening to God when we too are ‘distracted by so many things’?

Whether we are like Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus, or like Martha, carrying out the ordinary tasks of life, God is present in all things and at all times so we can be in his presence in all things and at all times.

God cannot do the extraordinary things in life without the ordinary things in life.

In what ways do you see God in all things?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Nicodemus (1) – Darkness

NicodemusThe words of John 3:16 are one of the most well known verses and most quoted of Jesus’ sayings – and behind them lies another story.

Please read John 3:1-21

Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. It’s possible that throughout his life, Nicodemus may have simply accepted all that was taught to him by the Jewish rabbis. Learning the Psalms and the Law. Listening to the story of how Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Acquainting himself with the acts of Abraham, David Elijah, Elisha and so many more. And leading others in doing the same.

But now, afraid to show his interest to his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus has encountered someone who challenges all that received and perceived wisdom. A man who performs miracles. A man who is different to any other teacher he has ever known. Nicodemus knows that Jesus comes from God: he’s seen the miracles (‘signs’ as John calls them) and we can assume he’s heard the teaching.

Sounds familiar? Years of going to church. Singing choruses and hymns. Hearing the same liturgy (or not). And maybe we also feel uncomfortable with some of it. We don’t like to hear some of it. We’re happy with the easy bits. We decide what’s interesting or important. We tack on the bits we like to make them fit the way our churches do things and other aspects of the system we already live with. We come and listen when it suits us, and go back to our ordinary lives when we need to.

‘There are many ways through the garden,’ someone once said to me. Our journey through the ‘Garden of Faith’ has the capacity to take us in different directions, going deeper and deeper in to the growth and the undergrowth that exists there. It is up to us to sniff the flowers. To climb the trees. And to dig up a few weeds.

If we have been used to one particular type of church or a specific approach towards the teaching from the Bible, for example, it can be confusing when God begins to take us to a new part of the Garden. We may be reluctant to get up from the particular bench (or pew) we’ve sat on for years or to turn away from the view we’ve always had. It can be unsettling and disorientating. We may feel lost. Cut adrift from God. We crave stability but the ground in the garden is shifting.

The ground under Nicodemus was shifting and he began to realise there was another way through the garden: that there was more to God than he had ever thought. God will always take us to an even better place. A place of growth and depth beyond our expectations.

Nicodemus came, in the darkness, seeking spiritual direction. In times of our own spiritual ‘darkness’, it can be helpful to seek assistance from someone else to take us through the garden. A guide. A companion. A wise teacher. While none of us will be able to have a spiritual guide quite the same as Nicodemus, seeking out such advice and support can be helpful.

One approach can be to have a spiritual director. It may well be helpful to seek such direction or accompaniment from someone who is not in the same church as you are. Maybe also from a different background or tradition or churchmanship: if we need space to ask questions or explore uncertainties it’s important to be able to do so with someone who is going to travel with you and not dismiss your explorations. Of particular importance is to see someone who has received formal and structured training as a spiritual director. If you are part of an established church (e.g. Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, URC etc) then contact a central body (e.g. Diocese) for information about what is available. Guided retreats and Quiet Days can also be helpful: taking time out of the demands of everyday life for prayer and reflection. (Maybe take a look at retreats.org.uk)

Which part of the garden do you want to explore?

Would it help to have someone to guide you?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Pontius Pilate (2) – Discernment *

Pontius Pilate had a problem.

Please read Matthew 27:24-26 & John 19:16-22

For all his gesture  and protestation, Pilate was still obliged to have the final word, and he did so in a probably characteristically sadistic way: he had this innocent man flogged and crucified. Often used as a preliminary to crucifixion, flogging or scourging was no token beating but as Josephus described the process, meant someone was ‘flayed to the bone’ and it was sometimes fatal in itself.

All the same, despite his misgivings – his self-betrayal perhaps – Pilate did have the very final word. Above the cross, as was common at the time, a plaque is placed stating the person’s misdemeanour. Pilate had written the words: ‘The King of the Jews’. And to further emphasise the point, John’s Gospel tells us it was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Just to make it absolutely clear to all who were present. People of every language.

Challenged by the Chief Priests to change it. This time Pilate stays firm: ‘What I have written I have written.’

For most of my employment career I was a public servant, working for the civil service and then the NHS. A long time ago, I was looking for another job in a totally different field of work and at one interview I was asked how I would cope with a situation where I was asked to represent the prospective employer in a way with which I personally disagreed. Possibly somewhat to their astonishment I told them that as a public servant one faces such dilemmas a lot of the time (I didn’t get the job!).

In the same way that most of us have faced dilemmas, we have probably all had to do something that, deep down, we disagreed with or knew was not right. Such untenable situations are often times when we need to discern what our response is and what God is saying through them.

When we are discerning what we believe to be God’s will, we may find ourselves experiencing a range of emotions and thoughts. We might write a list of pros and cons of each aspect of the dilemma. We might talk to other people and gain their opinion and insight. We might take the ‘Gideon’s Fleece’ approach – laying out the options before God and asking for specific guidance. And all those approaches may well be beneficial in discerning the way forward. Some situations may ultimately lead us to ‘wash our hands’ of it. To stick with what we personally believe. To maintain our own integrity. To say ‘what I have written I have written’.

Bring to mind an occasion when you were trying to discern God’s will about a specific situation.

What feelings did you have?

What or who was helpful in discerning the way forward?