Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World
Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life

By Joanna Weaver

WaterBrook PRESS

Copyright © 2000 Joanna Weaver. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-57856-258-9

Chapter One

A Tale of Two Sisters

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way,
he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
She had a sister called Mary,
who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said.

LUKE 10:38-39

* * *

Have you ever tried to do it all?

    I have, I do, and I probably always will. It's not only in my nature; it's also inmy job description—and yours, too. Being a woman requires more stamina,more creativity, and more wisdom than I ever dreamed as a young girl. Andthat's not just true for today's busy women. It has always been the case.

    In 1814, Martha Forman was married to a wealthy Maryland plantationowner. You might expect she spent her days sipping tea, being fitted for lovelygowns, and giving orders to her servants as she chatted with important guests.Instead, Martha worked right beside her servants from four in the morning toeleven o'clock at night. Among her daily activities were the following:

Making thirty to thirty-four pounds of old tallow into candles; cutting out fourteen shirts, jackets or trousers for the slaves (whom she always called "the people" or "our family"); knitting stockings; washing; dyeing and spinning wool; baking mince pies and potato puddings; sowing wheat or reaping it; killing farm animals and salting the meat; planting or picking fruits and vegetables; making jams, jellies, and preserves with her fruit; helping whitewash or paint walls; ironing; preparing for large parties; caring for sick family and slaves.

    So, what did you do today? You may not have slaughtered a hog or harvestedwheat, but I know you were busy. Whether you were out selling real estate or athome kissing boo-boos (or both), your day passed just as quickly. And yourmind and body are probably as tired as poor Martha Forman's as you steal a fewmoments to spend with this book.

    Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. The thought intrigues you.Deep inside of you there is a hunger, a calling, to know and love God. To trulyknow Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit. You're not after more headknowledge—it's heart-to-heart intimacy you long for.

    Yet a part of you hangs back. Exhausted, you wonder how to find thestrength or time. Nurturing your spiritual life seems like one more duty—onemore thing to add to a life that is spilling over with responsibilities.

    It's almost as if you're standing on the bottom rung of a ladder that stretchesup to heaven. Eager but daunted, you name the rungs with spiritual things you knowyou should do: study the Bible, pray, fellowship ...

    "He's up there somewhere," you say, swaying slightly as you peer upward,uncertain how to begin or if you even want to attempt the long, dizzy climb. Butto do nothing means you will miss what your heart already knows: There is moreto this Christian walk than you've experienced. And you're just hungryenough—just desperate enough—to want it all.

A Tale of Two Sisters

Perhaps no passage of Scripture better describes the conflict we feel as womenthan the one we find in the gospel of Luke. Just mention the names Mary andMartha around a group of Christian women and you'll get knowing looks andnervous giggles. We've all felt the struggle. We want to worship like Mary, butthe Martha inside keeps bossing us around.

    Here's a refresher course in case you've forgotten the story. It's found in Luke.It's the tale of two sisters. It's the tale of you and me.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (10:38-42)

A Martha World

When I read the first part of Mary and Martha's story, I must admit I find myselfcheering for Martha. I know we tend to sing Mary's praises in Bible studies. ButMartha, to be honest, appeals more to my perfectionist tendencies.

    What a woman! She opens her home to a band of thirteen hungry men, possiblymore. What a hostess! She doesn't whip up an impromptu casserole of Kraftmacaroni and cheese and Ballpark franks as I've been known to do on occasion.Not her! She is the original Martha Stewart, the New Testament'sProverbs 31 woman, and Israel's answer to Betty Crocker. Or at least that's theway I imagine her. She's the Queen of the Kitchen—and the rest of the house aswell.

    And Luke's story starts with Martha in her glory. After all, this is Jesus. Shescraps her ordinary everyday menu of soup and bread and pulls out all her cookbooks.This, she decides, will be a banquet fit for a messiah. For the Messiah.Martha sends one servant to the field to slaughter a lamb, another to the market topick up a few of those luscious pomegranates she saw yesterday. Like a militarygeneral, she barks commands to her kitchen staff. Soak the lentils! Pound the grain!Knead the dough!

    So many things to do and so little time. She must make sure the centerpieceand the napkins match, that the servant pours the wine from the right and notthe left. Martha's mind is as busy as a room filled with kindergartners. Whatwould be just right for dessert? A little goat cheese with a tray of fresh fruit?Will Jesus and his followers stay overnight? Someone must change the sheets and foldsome towels.

    "Where's Mary? Has anyone seen Mary?" she asks a servant scurrying by. IfMary changed the sheets, Martha might have time to fashion an ark from thecheese and carve the fruit into little animals marching two by two. Productionsof this magnitude require the skill of a master planner. And Martha's an administratorextraordinaire—a whirling dervish of efficiency, with a touch ofTasmanian she-devil thrown in to motivate the servants.

    I happen to be the oldest in my family. Perhaps that's why I understand howfrustrated Martha must have felt when she finally found Mary. The entire household isin an uproar, busy making ready to entertain the most famous teacher of their day, theman most likely to become the next king of Israel. I can relate to the anger that boilsup inside of Martha at the sight of her lazy sibling sitting at the Master's feet inthe living room.

    It's simply too much. With everything still left to do, there sits little Mary, beingquite contrary, crashing a party meant only for men. But worse, she seems oblivious toall of Martha's gesturing from the hall.

    Martha tries clearing her throat. She even resorts to her most effective tool: the"evil eye," famous for stopping grown men in their tracks. But nothing she does has anyeffect on her baby sister. Mary only has eyes for Jesus.

    Pushed to the limit, Martha does something unprecedented. She interruptsthe boys' cub, certain that Jesus will take her side. After all, a woman's place is inthe kitchen. Her sister, Mary, should be helping prepare the meal.

    Martha realizes there is a cutting edge to her voice, but Jesus will understand. He,of all people, knows what it's like to carry the weight of the world.

    Now of course, you won't find all that in the Bible. Luke tends to downplaythe whole story, dedicating only four verses to an event that was destined tochange Martha's life forever. And mine as well. And yours, if you will let thesimple truth of this passage soak deep into your heart.

    Instead of applauding Martha, Jesus gently rebukes her, telling her Mary haschosen "what is better." Or, as another translation puts it, "Mary has chosen the betterpart" (NRSV).

    "The better part?" Martha must have echoed incredulously.

    "The better part!" I say to God in the midst of my own whirl of activity."You mean there's more? I have to do more?"

    No, no, comes the answer to my tired heart. Jesus' words in Luke 10 areincredibly freeing to those of us on the performance treadmill of life.

    It isn't "more" he requires of us.

    In fact, it may be less.

A Mary Heart

The Bible doesn't tell us a lot about Mary and Martha. They are mentioned byname only three times in Scripture: Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-44, and John12:1-11. But from these brief accounts, a fascinating picture develops of whatlife must have been like at the house in Bethany—and what life is often like for us.

    They say variety is the spice of life. Perhaps that's why God so often putspeople of such different personalities in the same family. (Either that, orhe's trying to prepare us for marriage!) Mary was the sunlight to Martha'sthunder. She was the caboose to Martha's locomotive. Mary's bent was tomeander through life, pausing to smell the roses. Martha was more likely topick the roses, quickly cut the stems at an angle, and arrange them in a vasewith baby's breath and ferns.

    That is not to say one is right and one is wrong. We are all different, andthat is just as God made us to be. Each gifting and personality has its own strengthsand weaknesses, its glories and temptations.

    I find it interesting that when Jesus corrected Martha, he didn't say, "Whycan't you be more like your sister, Mary?" He knew Martha would never beMary, and Mary would never be Martha. But when the two were faced with thesame choice---to work or to worship—Jesus said, "Mary has chosen the betterpart."

    To me, this implies the Better Part was available to both Mary and Martha.And it's available to each one of us, regardless of our gifting or personality. It'sa choice we each can make.

    It is true that, personality-wise, the choice may have come easier to Marythan it did to Martha. Mary does seem more mellow by nature, more prone towalk in the dew of the morning than to get caught up in the "dos" of the day.

    I'm sure when Jesus dropped by unexpectedly that afternoon, Mary probablybegan the visit by serving, just as she had many times before. I can see hertaking walking staffs and sleeping rolls as the disciples spill into her sister'swell-ordered home. Buried beneath cloaks and backpacks, she watches the man who hastaken the heart of Israel captive by his words. There is such joy and winsomeness abouthim, she can't help but be drawn to this man.

    Could Jesus be the Messiah the people say he is? Mary wonders. She knowshe's a great teacher, but could this actually be the Son of God admiring the tapestryshe wove, drawing her out of her shyness and into the circle of his closest friends?

    She drops the disciples' belongings in a corner and hurries to pour wine forthe thirsty crew. There is an ease about them, a true camaraderie. The men laughat each other's jokes as they wash down the dust of the road with the liquid sheprovides. Then they settle on low couches around the room, and Jesus begins toteach.

    He speaks as none she ever heard before. There is a magnetism about hiswords, as though they contain breath and life—breath and life Mary hasn'tknown she needed until this day. She creeps closer and stands in a dark cornerlistening to Jesus, her arms wrapped around the empty pitcher.

    She's aware of movement around her. Several servants busy themselves washingdirty feet, while another sets the table at the other end of the room for themeal to come. Mary knows there is plenty to do. And yet she is unable tomove—except closer.

    It isn't customary for a woman to sit with a group of men, but his words welcome her.Despite her natural reticence, she gradually moves forward until she's kneeling at hisfeet. His teaching envelops her, revealing truth to her hungry heart.

    The Bible isn't clear whether or not this was Jesus' first visit to the home inBethany. Martha's openness with Christ seems to indicate a prior acquaintance, butwhatever the case, this day Mary chose to let someone else do the serving so shecould do some listening. It isn't every day God visits your house. So she ignorestradition, she breaks social etiquette, and she presses closer. As close to Jesusas possible.

    It doesn't matter that she might be misunderstood. She cares little that thedisciples look at her strangely. Somewhere in the distance she hears her name,but it is drowned by the call of her Master. The call to come. The call to listen.

    And listen she does.

A Tale of Every Woman

Against this Bethany backdrop of unexpected guests, I see the struggle I faceevery day when work and worship collide.

    Part of me is Mary. I want to worship extravagantly. I want to sit at his feet.

    But part of me is Martha—and there's just so much to do!

    So many legitimate needs surround me, compelling me to work. I hearGod's tender call to come away, and I respond, "Yes, Lord, I will come." Butthen the phone rings, or I'm reminded of the check I was supposed to deposit-yesterday.Suddenly all of my good intentions about worship disappear, swallowedup by what Charles Hummel calls "the tyranny of the urgent."

    "We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important,"Hummel writes. "The problem is that the important task rarely must be donetoday or even this week. Extra hours of prayer and Bible study can wait. But theurgent tasks call for instant action—endless demands pressure every hour andday."

    Does that sound familiar? It does to me. The twenty-four hours allotted toeach day rarely stretch far enough to meet all the obligations I face. I have ahousehold to run, a husband to love, children to care for, and a dog to feed. Ihave church commitments, writing deadlines, lunch engagements to keep. Andvery little of this is what I would call deadwood. Long ago I tried to cut out whatI thought was extraneous. This is my life---and the hours are packed full.

    Not long ago, Today's Christian Woman magazine sponsored a survey of morethan a thousand Christian women. Over 60 percent indicated they work full timeoutside the home. Add housework and errands to a forty-hour-a-week career,and you have a recipe for weariness. Women who choose to stay at home findtheir lives just as full. Chasing toddlers, carpooling to soccer, volunteering atschool, baby-sitting the neighbor kids—life seems hectic at every level.

    So where do we find the time to follow Mary to the feet of Jesus? Where dowe find the energy to serve him?

    How do we choose the Better Part and still get done what really has to getdone?

    Jesus is our supreme example. He was never in a hurry. He knew who he wasand where he was going. He wasn't held hostage to the world's demands or evenits desperate needs. "I only do what the Father tells me to do," Jesus told his disciples.

    Someone has said that Jesus went from place of prayer to place of prayer anddid miracles in between. How incredible to be so in tune with God that not oneaction is wasted, not one word falls to the ground!

    That is the intimacy that Jesus invites us to share. He invites us to knowhim, to see him so clearly that when we look upon him, we see the face of God aswell.

    Just as he welcomed Mary to sit at his feet in the living room, just as heinvited Martha to leave the kitchen for a while and share in the Better Part, Jesusbids us to come.

    In obedience to his invitation, we find the key to our longings, the secret toliving beyond the daily pressures that would otherwise tear us apart. For as welearn what it means to choose the Better Part of intimacy with Christ, we beginto be changed.

    This is no cookie-cutter conversion. This is a Savior who accepts us just theway we are—Mary or Martha or a combination of both—but loves us too muchto leave us that way. He is the one who can give us a Mary heart in a Marthaworld.

    This transformation is exactly what we see in the continuing stories of Maryand Martha in the Gospels. Martha, as we will discover, doesn't lay aside herpersonality, give up her hobbies, and burn her cookbooks in order to worship Jesus.She doesn't try to mimic Mary the Little Lamb; she simply obeys. She receives Jesus'rebuke and learns that while there is a time for work, there is also a time forworship. The Martha we see later in the Gospels is no longer frantic and resentful,but full of faith and trust. The kind of faith and trust that come only from spendingtime at Jesus' feet.

    Mary does some changing too. For although her contemplative naturemakes her a natural worshiper, it also leaves her vulnerable to despair, as we'll seelater in the Gospels. When disaster strikes, Mary's tendency is to be swamped withsorrow and paralyzed with questions. But in the end, when she realizes Jesus' time isshort, Mary puts into action what she has learned in worship. She steps forward andseizes the opportunity to serve both beautifully and sacrificially.

    That's what I see in the biblical portraits of the two sisters of Bethany. Twocompletely different women undergo a transformation right before our eyes: aholy makeover. The bold one becomes meek, the mild one courageous. For it isimpossible to be in the presence of Jesus and not be changed.

    As you read the following chapters, I pray you will allow the Holy Spiritaccess to all the hidden corners of your life. Whether you tend to be a bit driven,like Martha, or more contemplative, like Mary, God is calling you to intimacy with himthrough Jesus Christ.

    The choice he offered to these two very different sisters—and the transformationthey experienced—is exactly what he offers to each of us as well.

First Things First

The Living Room Intimacy Mary enjoyed with Jesus will never come out of thebusyness of Martha's Kitchen. Busyness, by itself, breeds distraction. Luke 10:38shows us a woman with the gift of hospitality. Martha opened her home to Jesus,but that doesn't automatically mean she opened her heart. In her eagerness toserve Jesus, she almost missed the opportunity to know Jesus.

    Luke tells us that "Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had tobe made." Key word: had. In Martha's mind, nothing less than the very bestwould do. She had to go all out for Jesus.

    We can get caught in the same performance trap, feeling as though we mustprove our love for God by doing great things for him. So we rush past theintimacy of the Living Room to get busy for him in the Kitchen—implementinggreat ministries and wonderful projects, all in an effort to spread the goodnews. We do all our works in his name. We call him "Lord, Lord." But in theend, will he know us? Will we know him?

    The kingdom of God, you see, is a paradox. While the world applaudsachievement, God desires companionship. The world clamors, "Do more! Be allthat you can be!" But our Father whispers, "Be still and know that I am God."He isn't looking as much for workers as he is looking for sons and daughters—apeople to pour his life into.

    Because we are his children, Kitchen Service will be the natural result ofLiving Room Intimacy with God. Like Jesus, we must be about our Father'sbusiness. The closer we draw to the heart of the Father, the more we see his heartfor the world. And so we serve, we minister, and we love, knowing that when wedo it to "the least of these," we have done it unto Christ.

    When we put work before worship, we put the cart before the horse. Thecart is important; so is the horse. But the horse must come first, or we end uppulling the cart ourselves. Frustrated and weary, we can nearly break under thepressure of service, for there is always something that needs to be done.

    When we first spend time in his presence—when we take time to hear hisvoice—God provides the horsepower we need to pull the heaviest load. Hesaddles up Grace and invites us to take a ride.

The Call

I'll never forget crying in the darkness one night many years ago. My husbandwas an associate pastor at a large church, and our lives were incredibly busy.Carrying a double portfolio of music and Christian education meant we workedlong hours on project after project, and the size of the church meant there werealways people in need. I would go to bed at night worried about the people whohad slipped through the cracks—the marriages in trouble, the children in crisis.I worried about all the things I didn't accomplish and should have, about all thethings I'd accomplished, but not very well.

    I remember dinging to my husband that night and sobbing as he tried tocomfort me. "What's wrong, honey?" he asked, caressing my hair. But I couldn'texplain. I was completely overwhelmed.

    The only thing that came out between sobs was a broken plea, "Tell methe good news," I begged him. "I honestly can't remember ... Tell me the goodnews."

    Perhaps you have felt the same way. You've known the Lord your whole life,and yet you haven't found the peace and fulfillment you've always longed for. Soyou've stepped up the pace, hoping that in offering more service, somehow youwill merit more love. You volunteer for everything: you sing in the choir, youteach Sunday school, you host Backyard Bible Club, you visit the nursing homeweekly. And yet you find yourself staring into the night and wondering if this isall there is.

    Or perhaps you've withdrawn from service. You've gone the route I'vedescribed above and, frankly, you've had it. You've stopped volunteering, stoppedsaying yes. No one calls anymore. No one asks anymore. You're out of the loop andglad for it. And yet the peace and quiet holds no peace and quiet. The stillnesshasn't led to the closer walk with God you'd hoped for, just a sense of resentment.Your heart feels leaden and cold. You go to church; you go through the motions ofworship, then leave and go home the same. And at night, sometimes you wonder, "Whatis the good news? Can someone tell me? I can't remember."

The Good News

The good news is woven through the New Testament in a grace-filled strand thatshines especially bright in the Gospel stories of Mary and Martha. The messageis this: Salvation isn't about what I do; it's about what Jesus did.

    The Cross did more than pay for my sins; it set me free from the bondage ofthe "shoulds" and "if onlys" and "what might have beens." And Jesus' words toMartha are the words he wants to speak to your heart and mine: "You are worriedand upset about many things, but only one thing is needed."

    The "one thing" is not found in doing more.

    It's found by sitting at his feet.

    Catch that: Mary sat at his feet. She didn't move a muscle. She listened. Shedidn't come up with clever responses or a doctrinal thesis. Her gift was availability.(In the end, I believe that was Martha's gift as well.)

    The only requirement for a deeper friendship with God is showing up witha heart open and ready to receive. Jesus said: "Come to me, all you who areweary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learnfrom me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yoursouls" (Matthew 11:28-29).

    Jesus invites us to come and rest, to spend time with him in this incredibleLiving Room Intimacy. Intimacy that allows us to be honest in our complaints,bold in our approach, and lavish in our love. Intimacy that allows us to hear ourFather's voice and discern our Father's will. Intimacy that so fills us with his loveand his nature that it spills out to our dry, thirsty world in Kitchen Service.

    In the Living Room. That's where it all begins. Down at his feet.