Time for the Intangibles

Wisdom from Jesus and the Corn Guy

No one’s in the kitchen with Martha

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things,” said Jesus (Luke 10:38-42) after a productive Martha rebuked her lazy sister Mary for sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him speak instead of helping her. An indignant Martha stormed back to the kitchen and continued making a snack for her company. Jesus was on a house visit and the very least she could do was to feed him.

This scolding may sound more like something out of the Brady Bunch than the Bible, but lately I’ve found a lot of wisdom in it.

Like a lot of people, I identify with Martha’s compulsion to be productive. Within our culture, we value the “Martha time” that’s spent earning money or working towards something we can accomplish but rarely the “Mary time” spent on the intangibles such as listening.

The service card and the relationship card
Working with the homeless population in Nashville at Campus for Human Development this year has taught me how to be more like Mary. At Campus, we offer services to homeless folks—mail, identification, alcohol and drug counseling, a place to stay at night during the winter, GED classes, and lunch tickets, to name a few.

Offering these services makes my co-workers, volunteers, and me feel great because, like Martha, we do something concrete to help out.

While it is very important that these services are offered, the reality of them is that they are often only a quick fix that shields us from trying to understand the root causes of a person’s homelessness. I believe the most important service I can offer is a listening ear.

Plain and simple, the relationship card trumps the service card, because it opens the door for sharing, takes me out of my position of power where I control the resources, and potentially plants seeds of love or self discovery in myself and my conversation partner.

The view from the other side
On Wednesdays, Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville serves lunch to anyone who walks through the door (meaning, the homeless). The first time I went, I decided to go as a participant instead of as a volunteer.

Uncomfortable as it was, I allowed myself to be Mary and accepted the hospitality of Downtown Pres., ate as one of the participants, and had a wonderful conversation with a few guys who don’t often come by Campus. I got a small glimpse of what the people I serve everyday feel at the receiving end of charity.

I left with a question. How does it feel to have the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing) always served to you? So I asked a few of the guys:

“I’m grateful.”

“What else can we do?”

“We should help out more.”

“Grateful, but I wish people would take time to talk with me instead of hiding behind that big scoop of corn in the serving line.”

I appreciated that last comment. (And besides, a scoop of corn doesn’t hide a person very well. If I remember correctly, I would still see a head, arms, and legs on the other side.)

Love and mystery
Jesus taught us that God is love and mystery. I know God’s love though the love of human beings. Understanding the mystery of God requires stepping beyond the boundaries of self. I won’t discover God just by doing things and feeling good about myself, but by being engaged with real human beings, by understanding their pain, by sharing their journey as well as offering what help and solidarity I can.

Or in the words of the corn guy, “Mary had it going on, and Martha should take a few lessons.”