The reading this morning from Luke about Mary and Martha is a favorite of mine. Jesus clearly suggests a new order, a new priority where the distractions of business as usual are to be set aside. Martha is distracted by the usual and “proper” woman’s role of cleaning up while the men talk and pray. Martha has chosen to do the housework. She thinks Mary should, too and asks Jesus to help set Mary straight. Jesus suggests another way of looking at it: Martha has chosen to be distracted by her concerns and her duties. Mary has chosen the better course to ignore tradition and give herself completely over to listening and praying with Jesus. In this text, Jesus suggests a choice to all of us and perhaps especially to women.
I have lived a life around leading females. My grandmother stood her ground and was ordained by the UCC in 1942. She was among the first after a backlash that held women away from the post of senior pastor for 60 years. My aunt is the first woman pastor for the Presbyterian Church in her town. My mother was a first woman pastor for a small Mennonite church in Iowa. Before I married, I dated a Catholic priest, a woman who refused to have her call ignored and is now ordained in the schismatic ECC. One of their congregations will celebrate here this evening with a woman priest.
It is heartening to see Jesus so clearly give permission for everyone to participate in praying, learning, teaching and leading his movement. It is thought that the women in Jesus and Paul’s movements were critical in establishing the early church. Without them, it is thought that Christianity would not have overcome the Roman Empire. Maybe that is still true.
A woman of considerable influence in religious circles these days is Anne or Annie Lamott. She is a self-confessed junkie and drunk, a struggling mother and a “fallen person”. She was an agnostic for much of this time of distraction. Then…. as she was pregnant with her son, she saw clearly at one particular moment the gift that her son was to be. She was overwhelmed with the awareness of how her current drug-soaked, wandering life might impact her little one. In that moment, she transformed her life.
In that moment, Annie remembered a faith introduced to her at Vacation Bible School. Her parents sent her there during the summers. Her parents were tired of screeching, squabbling kids, and worst of all, Annie. These parents heard the clarion call. The angels from the Baptist church on the corner promised 5 hours of peace at home with free babysitting and a free meal. These atheist parents sent Annie and her brothers and sister to Bible School.
Annie offers the most compelling testimony for Bible School experiences that I have ever heard or read. In her moment of terror and love for her unborn child, Annie remembered from Bible School that God could answer prayers and deliver from evil. In the midst of her “mess” as she calls it, she felt hope. She was finally able to declare her life broken and, for her, unfixable. She was ready for God. In that moment Annie set herself to praying for help.
This may be why God appears so often to the poor, the mentally ill and the deeply troubled. Like Annie, people in extremis have room for God. There is nothing else in their lives but the commitment to “something else but this”. They have discovered that they are inside their own handmade prison that they only know how to build, not dismantle. If God is their hope --- their only hope -- then they will be a living prayer for help. Who they are, all that they can be at that moment, is at “full stop”. They are expectant, hoping without worry over what they have or don’t have, hoping without a plan. They are just, simply, being a request for God’s presence, and God’s hand. This is the prayer, “Help!”
In my work as a social worker with the mentally ill, I have had the privilege of standing with those who have found themselves in this place. I worked with the medical and psychiatric team to manage behaviors, offer help with coping with mental illness. I offered hope that residents could eventually “get out” into the open floors or out of the facility all together.
One woman resident, I will call Janice had a very tenuous grasp on her dignity and purpose in life. So tenuous that she was compelled to challenge everything and everyone. To feel important and a part of the community, she involved others in intrigue against the staff, gossip and insurrections. We would call this “borderline personality disorder”. It is a dysfunction that leaves a person unable to love or be loved. All that life offers for such a person is the excitement of the game, the winning and losing of conflict and the fleeting attachment of allies in an endless conflict.
After a year with us, Janice took very ill unexpectedly. She felt alone, unable to fight any more, and was restricted to a geri-chair near the nursing station. Janice began to ask for help and we responded every time. She could never say what help she needed, but our presence seemed to offer comfort. The unconditional love that was offered by our team become very important for Janice. We made a point of seeing her one at a time every morning just after breakfast. A literal parade of people, we each let her know we cared. Janice would smile, occasionally hold a hand.
We kept offering love and Janice would ask after those who missed the post-breakfast trysts. One day she started struggling with something at the mid-morning lovefest. But the next day, Janice’s face was cleared of its frown and she smiled. As we each came to her, she apologized for her actions. Janice said, “Thank you. I love you.” When she had done that for about week, Janice began to say, “I love you,” and “I’m ready.” Ready for what, she would not say. She began smiling and for the first time in our experience, Janice sang songs after lunch. She sang children’s songs and hymns. We would compliment her on her singing. At the end of that week, right after the entire lovefest parade, Janice said goodbye to the last one of us, smiled and breathed her last. She had become a prayer for help and Janice was delivered of her suffering.
Annie offers a second kind of prayer, she calls “Wow.” Sometimes we are presented with evidence of God’s handiwork so profound that we are again, emptied of all pretense, all sense of ourselves and our world and are confronted with the obvious existence of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than humanity, with more possibility than we can imagine.
We might be witnessing the transformation of a bitter, contentious woman into a loving being. We might be standing at the Grand Canyon for the first time, or on the moon or seeing the Milky Way. It could be when our child first looks at us in the delivery room or the love of a cat or dog at some special moment.
It is a moment of silence. A break in our nearly ceaseless mental chattering. It is the moment true peace comes over us and we are completely and utterly in awe. My mental chattering tells me that I must tell you: The Bible often calls this “the fear of God” but “awe” is a better English word for the Hebrew concept.
But let’s return to the silence, to that “the peace of God which is beyond our understanding,” as Paul writes. That moment when you are empty of anything but the presence of God as experienced in the majesty of our earth, the miracle of our heavens or the existence and love of a new child or a pet. Let’s go back to that time when the love and power of God is present and totally fills you.
This is again a time when you are a living prayer, being in love with the God in your world and in your life. This is a time when a still and small possibility can infect you. Like David in the field, like Jesus in the desert, and like Paul on a dirt road to Damascus. Being in awe of God, being invited by God to co-create a world, sometimes to co-create by your merely living in it, sometimes to co-create with some great call. But always with the faith that you are living in the hand and in the love of God.
That is the prayer, as Annie calls it, “Wow!”
Lastly, Annie offers the prayer, “Thanks!” There are times when we are in the presence of gifts that are overwhelming. Times that offer a glimpse of God’s love and God’s plan for us and for our world. For example, the face of a newly born child in its mother’s arms. The image of warring soldiers from opposing sides playing a Christmas soccer game. The generosity of neighbors caring for people who have lost everything in a tornado. The restored vision of a cataract sufferer. The moment of clarity for a resident in a month of dementia, delirium or delusion.
In my life there have been a few of these moments…
My mother was the first woman pastor in a small rural church. They were not ready for her. In the extreme challenges and the fear of dismissal, she did not sleep well. On a usually short trip to see family she ran off the road. It was fortunate that she was found quickly. However, sufficient damage was done that she went into a coma. I was able to get to her hospital a day later. She had reacted to a pin prick. She could breathe on her own. However, she would not awaken for the nurses. Her prognosis was therefore “guarded.” When I went to her, there were tubes everywhere. She was breathing shallowly. I reached out and held her hand. Her eyes flickered and opened. She looked at me and smiled.
In that moment, there was only the miracle of love. The attachment of love for family and a hope for life fulfilled. Prayers for help answered and then pure ‘awe’. An awe at the value of a life and the power of love. Then the feeling of pure gratitude. There were only these prayers as I held my mother’s hand and looked into her comprehending eyes.
Help. Wow. Thanks!