by Cara Strickland
When I’m overwhelmed by my feelings, my schedule or my circumstances, my therapist often tells me to “just notice.” As I begin to slow down and focus, I see things more clearly. Often, this motivates me to action, but perhaps more often, I am content to linger a moment, realizing that my stress is temporary, and that I don’t run the world after all.
I like to think that Jesus had something similar in mind in Luke 10 when he identified Martha’s worry and distraction. This story has been used, I think unfairly, to pit contemplative people (like Mary, Martha’s sister) against the movers and shakers of the world. But I don’t hear any condemnation in Jesus’ response to Martha, who is overwhelmed and looking for some help. In fact, he repeats her name twice. To put this in perspective, he only does this one other time in all of Scripture, with Simon Peter, a member of his very inner circle. Martha is special; Jesus loves her. “Martha, Martha,” he says. “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” When I read these words, I wonder if Martha’s shoulders relaxed a little, if she took a deep breath. Only one thing. Just notice.
Perhaps she sat down next to her sister and settled in to listen.
An invitation to notice
Lent looks different for me from year to year, but lately I’ve been experiencing it as an invitation to notice just one thing at a time. If I choose to give up something, it makes room in my mind to be present more fully. If I lean into getting rid of distractions and the little luxuries that consume so much of my time, I find that I have the space to notice. I have the space to respond.
Sometimes, my Lenten devotions lead me to notice things I’d rather not. One year I gave up negativity. I was shocked at how often I wanted to complain or be contrary. The season of Lent shone a spotlight on an area I wanted to pursue long after Easter arrived. I like to think that I’m less negative now.
Likewise, when I’ve given up alcohol or shopping, I’ve learned about the ways I like to numb. Not only did I notice that when I was disappointed, I wanted to buy a new dress, but in the absence of shopping euphoria, I had to confront the reasons for my disappointment. I had nothing to distract me; I had to listen to myself. I had to find ways to comfort myself and to accept God’s comfort.
“There is need of only one thing.” Most days, this doesn’t feel true to me. I’ve got a long to-do list, I’m trying to plan for the future, and I’d love a nap. I’m sure Martha would have loved to sit with Mary at Jesus’ feet and learn from him, soaking up his words. He had the words of life, and she knew it. But other things got in the way—important, everyday things.
In preparing for Lent this year, I’m asking myself what I’m allowing to distract me. This season follows the last days of Jesus’ life on earth, before his death. Imminent death clarifies priorities. I wonder if he was wistful as he did things for the last time, or if he simply blazed forward, sure of what he needed to do.
Learning from Martha
This year, Martha pops up in the Lenten lectionary in John 11. It’s a far different scene from when we last saw her, and now her brother is very sick. She sends for Jesus with a heartbreaking message: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” I’m sure that in that moment, Martha was undistracted. Her brother was sick to the point of death, and she wanted Jesus to come and save him.
What Jesus—and my therapist—don’t promise is that noticing will be free of pain. Sometimes, when I rid myself of distractions, I’m forced to encounter circumstances or truths that I don’t want to deal with. Lent can be excruciating.
In our world today, even the briefest look around can be heartbreaking. The news seems to constantly bring tidings of sorrow, death and violence. The vulnerable are being exploited, the unethical are prosperous and sad things are happening in our own communities, homes and families. Frequently on Sunday mornings my pastor leads us in the Kyrie for a long time. Like Martha, we are sending a message to Jesus. Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. The ones you love are sick.
But what is the alternative? I, for one, don’t want to fail to notice the pain around me. I want to be present to those who are sick and needy. I want to be present to my own suffering, the ways that I need to be raised from the dead. I don’t want to stop sending messages to Jesus, asking him to come.
But Jesus didn’t come before Lazarus died. John thoughtfully tells us the other side of the story. Jesus is intentional about staying away, so that the glory of God could be more clearly seen. But Martha and Mary don’t know that. Their beloved brother slips away from them, and Jesus has not come. It is too late, and they are engulfed in sorrow.
Even so, when Jesus does come, Martha goes out to meet him. Even now, knee-deep in her grief, she notices, she responds. She is gutsy and doesn’t mince words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she says. “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” These are audacious words. They come from a woman secure in the love Jesus has for herself and her family. She is heartbroken, and she is hopeful, all at once.
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus says. It seems a simple sentence on the surface, but for those of us familiar with the story, we know that Jesus doesn’t mean someday, but today. Pay attention to what I’m going to do here, he seems to say. It’s going to be good. First, he asks her an interesting question—not the one I’d expect of someone coming to help mourn. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” says Martha. If I were in Martha’s shoes, I’m not sure that I would have responded the same way. I might have wondered about Jesus, wavering in my commitment to him. But she doesn’t.
Cara Strickland writes about food, faith and life from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She writes at carastrickland.com and is currently at work on a spiritual memoir about food.