What's Tony Thinking

Being Present


It’s harder than it sounds. Being present. 

I think of a biblical story. Luke, chapter 10, v. 38 and following. A story of two sisters, Martha and Mary.

Martha and Mary are entertaining a guest — Jesus. Martha busies herself with all the work of hospitality and meal preparation. There’s lots to do. Really. And it’s important work. Ordering the house, fixing dinner for so great a guest. 

Martha’s sister, Mary, doesn’t do a damn thing. She sits at his feet and listens to what he has to say. She doesn’t do a thing — except be present.

Many of you readers know how this story goes and what happens next. A frustrated and angry Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t helping her. (“Triangulation,” Exhibit A) She’s left to do all the work by herself. “Tell my sister to help me,” says an indignant Martha.

Astonishingly, Jesus tells Martha to leave Mary be for Mary has “chosen the better part.” 

It is easy to criticize busy (and pissed off) Martha — perhaps because so many of us are like her. At least I often am. Frequently, I find it easier, almost natural, to be at a one step remove from presence as I busy myself with planning, preparing, evaluating. 

All that has it’s place and needs to be done. But it’s a different energy than that embodied in this story by Mary. And as the story suggests, Mary’s energy and way of being is easily misunderstood and judged. It won’t win any merit badges. Her’s is the energy of being rather than doing. Of being present in the moment to their guest, to his words and body language, and to her own feelings. 

We easily think, “Mary isn’t doing anything — she’s just sitting there!” But that wasn’t true. Being present is doing something. And it is a different kind of energy than the planning, producing energy that is probably more readily valued in our culture and even in the church. Busy, busy, busy. 

Recently I had a dream in which a church, one that I was part of, tried doing something I’ve written about elsewhere — using the practices of a 12-Step group. In a group people addressed their own wounds and their own stuff, without cross-talk from others.  

In my dream the group was fairly large to start with, but then it kept growing. From where I sat on the floor, I looked over my shoulder but couldn’t see to the back of the group, which has become rank upon rank of participants, filling the room to overflowing. It seemed like a sort of Pentecost, the church growing uncontrollably. (Alas, not a problem many churches seem to have.)

I thought, “This is way too many people for this to work. We will need to create more groups, more meeting times.” I had, in my dream, switched into Martha-mode, Martha energy. I was just about to speak up.

But then I thought better of exercising my “leader” and Martha instincts. I realized that if I spoke out along these lines, the energy would change and in some sense die. From honest and vulnerable speaking and careful listening, we would immediatly find ourselves debating whether to split up or stay together. And if we split up, when and where and what would work best. You can imagine it. You can probably even feel the shift of energy just in my description.

Oddly, it’s hard for us in the church to let Mary be, to let the Mary that is in us all, be. It’s hard to abide in that mode. To not be thinking about what’s next or who’s minding the store, so to speak. There’s a vulnerability in full presence, suggested by the postures in the story. Martha bustled. Mary sat, at Jesus’ feet. 

As I say, it’s not that these planning and doing things are unimportant. But it’s a different energy, familiar and readily deployed in our personal lives and in groups, like churches. The kind of energy Mary brought was different — and fragile. But an energy that was honored and protected by Jesus. 

I imagine I had this dream because we are soon to welcome guests of our own here at our cabin in the mountains. 

There will be things to do. Meals to prepare, dishes to wash, garbage to manage, fires to tend, etc., etc. My dream was telling me, pretty clearly, to not let that energy overwhelm the other, the more fragile energy of being present as a person to our guests (and to myself).

Of course, it will also be nice if someone fixes dinner!  

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