Monday, March 07, 2011

More Martha than Mary?

Some of you know that I went on a trip to Lui (our companion diocese in South Sudan) in early 2006.

When I landed in Lui after 26 hours in transit, I got a bit freaked out. I was half a world away. I was with people in our diocese whom I had met only once. I was in an alien part of the world. The rest of our team went out the first day to visit our friends in Lui. But I could not. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I came to realize later that I needed to “make my nest.”

The quarters were meager. In one hut, Sandy and I had two twin beds and a tiny table between them. That was all.


While the rest of the team went visiting, I busied myself in our tukel. I had bungee cords and caribiners and some Ziplok bags. I also had a water bottle and a candle. When Sandy got back to Lui that night, she was gobsmacked at how I had made our little hut a home. She joked good-naturedly with me that I was the Martha Stewart of our little team. I was a little embarrassed; I didn’t think I had a homemaking bone in my body.

But things happened in Sudan. Things that changed me. On the airplane leaving Lui in March 2006, this is what I wrote:

Before we made this trip, I asked Archdeacon Robert about what would be my role. Others had obvious roles: Bishop’s representative (Robert), priest & youth leader (Father Bob), carpenter and builder (Rick), educator and Companion Diocese Committee rep (Sandy). In our pre-trip meeting, I inquired about my role – feeling very strongly that I had no obvious one. At that early stage, Robert glibly quipped, “At the end of the trip, you’ll know why you’ve come.”

I thought about his words many times all through the trip. I never did feel I had a clear use – never did feel that I brought an obvious or meaningful asset to the mission.But as Sandy & I were talking on this plane ride [home], one fact about my "purpose" hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s not just that I and the whole team saw the snare of materialism, consumerism, and spiritual poverty of our culture. It was more personal for me: I saw the selfishness that has pervaded my life. It’s all been about me, my, and mine. Early on in the time in Lui, Sandy started kidding me about being “Martha” because of my organization and homey touches in the tukel. But after a couple of days, I became aware I was unconsciously adopting the Biblical “Martha” role. Checking that people took their medications. Patiently "hanging-back" when I was so hungry that I wanted to run to the head of the line to eat our meals in the compound. Consciously trying to talk less and listen more. Telling team members things I value about them. And mostly this role was not hard. It was deeply, profoundly satisfying.

At this moment – suspended between the struggling, suffering life of Lui behind me and the return to the U.S. looming ahead of me – I feel more humble than I can recall ever feeling in my life – because for once, it’s not about me. It’s been about my team and the Moru people.

I feel a sense of gratitude – genuine and profound – that I cannot remember ever feeling before. Grateful for tiny things – like Robert buying us Diet Pepsi’s in Loki. Grateful for the cool air blowing in the plane. Immensely grateful for these people’s friendship.

And I feel now even more strongly – though I have felt it often during the trip – that I know I am being held up in prayer by my friends, my parish, my family. Only the Holy Spirit could have done this. This is not me!

Please God, please, strengthen me to sustain this attitude, this perspective when I get home. The Moru have taught me: It’s all about servanthood. Jesus taught that too. But it seems I only “got it” by going halfway around the world and meeting desperately poor people who would wash my hands with water when they are dying of thirst, would give me food when they’re dying of hunger, who would attend to our needs as if we were Christ himself.

I'm reminded of the Bible passage – in Paul’s letter to the Romans, I think – about the fact that Jesus, though being in the form of God, did not presume to be the equal of God, but put on the form of a servant. That is the model we need to emulate.

I wrote that in 2006. Five years later, I am reflecting again on those words.

The reason I remember them? Partly because of what’s been happening in my parish in the last couple of months. But also because I have been asked to serve on a committee that is important (and quite visible) in the life of our parish. After much thought and prayer, I declined the invitation. This is part of the note I sent to them:

After a couple of weeks of reflection, I must decline this invitation. For me, it's a "Mary and Martha" thing. Mary was the one who was close to Christ, often present in his public ministry. Martha's the one who did the dishes and took out the trash ... but still as a sign of her commitment to Christ. Just now, I feel more called to "Martha-esque" ministries – those that are more behind the scenes. So I've curtailed my work at the altar, taken on the kitchen recycling, and just recently agreed to work on the parish library. Those ministries well suit "where my spirit is now."
At this point, I feel called to be more Martha than Mary. Serving “behind the scenes” suits me best. I want to get back to that sense I had when I was coming home from Sudan in 2006.

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