Saturday, 27 June 2020

A cycle of growth

I wonder if you feel like you've had to do a lot of growing lately?

For once I'm not talking about vegetable gardens (although the strawberries are ripening fast), but personal growth in response to events around us.  There have been so many things happening in the world that we have to understand and adapt to, and it often feels overwhelming.  How do we comprehend it?  What's the right thing to do?  How much do we have to change, personally?  What are we responsible for?

Changing and growing is complicated.  It's not like hopscotch, where you hop neatly from box to box and end up at the finish line.  Sometimes there are obvious changes to make and actions to take, but not always.  A good analogy might be a whirlpool, where each part swirls into the next, sometimes trapping you in an eddy, sometimes pushing you onwards.

I couldn't do a good diagram of a whirlpool, so you'll have to imagine this one being full of eddies and swirls instead of nice neat arrows and straight edges!  But I've found it helpful to think about growth as including these four steps, and to try to make time for each one.

hearing

This is usually the first step in realising we need to change something. We hear a new perspective, or encounter a new situation, which makes us think about the world differently.  For many of us recently, the shocking murder of George Floyd has made us re-evaluate our experience and understanding of systemic racism.  The images of pollution on Blue Planet made us reconsider how we use and dispose of plastic.  Or we may have talked to a friend about their struggle to get help for mental illness, or seen an article about living conditions for cocoa growers.

Last year I started to hear stories from LGBT+ people about their experience with church.  I'd been vaguely aware that it was a difficult area, but it was shocking to hear so many voices saying, "I was told God could never love anyone like me", "I prayed for years to be healed", "I felt like I had to choose between my faith and who I was".  Fortunately there were also some stories of acceptance and support, but these often came after years of struggle, not as a matter of course.  That was a first step for me in realising how narrow my experience of Christianity had been, and trying to learn more from people who come at faith from a very different direction.

When we hear, that new story opens up a possibility or a problem, and prompts us to find out more.

learning

Once we've heard that initial story, we will probably find that there are a lot more.  Suddenly we're immersed in statistics, figures, conflicting opinions and personal experiences.  We read books, watch documentaries, join Facebook groups, participate in discussions.  We are learning not just what we didn't know, but how much we didn't know.

It can be tempting to get bogged down in the learning quadrant, trying to find out everything at once, or to give up in despair and ignore the whole thing.  There's also the danger that we feel like learning is all we need to do - once we know about the issue, we don't actually have to do anything differently.  For me, reading books is easy; getting involved with actual people is much harder.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter, it's been easier than ever for those of us who are white to learn what life is like for our black neighbours.  I'm grateful to authors like Afua Hirsch, Ben Lindsay, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I'm grateful to my friends who have shared their experiences on Facebook or spoken up in church.  There is a lot that I simply had no idea about.  Learning more has been saddening, breathtaking, humbling and eye-opening.

Once we've started to sort through the mass of new information and emotions, the obvious question is, what do we do now?

following

This is the action quadrant.  I've titled it following partly because the original idea for this came from a Bible story, so the reference was to following Jesus; also in the sense that we follow the new ideas and stories to grow - they lead us to knowing different people, doing different things, organising our lives in different ways.  Hopefully.

The amazing Jen at Sustainable(ish) recently held a week-long online festival about all things eco.  It was packed with speakers on topics from mending clothes to growing veg to inspiring your family to get involved.  The one thing I really liked, though, was her persistent question, "What are you going to do now?"  Every talk was ended with the challenge to make one small change as a result, and there was a pledge page to say what you were going to do.  I found that pointer from learning to following enormously helpful.  It was also great to have the emphasis on little steps, rather than feeling like you had to save the whole planet in one go.

As we follow and make changes, it inevitably leads us back to learning more and hearing more.  But the final step is also important.

sitting down

We need rest.  Changing and growing is exhausting, especially if we are trying to convince others to change too, or battling against opposition and circumstances.  We need time to sit down; or to walk, dance, lose ourselves in a book or play silly games with the kids.

Sitting down also carries the idea of reflecting and attending.  It gives us space to think about what we are doing and why we are doing it, and it gives us time to allow our creativity and imagination to work.  If we are following God, we sit down, like Mary, to attend to his words and spend time in his presence.  We "re-centre our scattered senses" in the words of Lectio 365.  Time spent sitting down isn't a waste, or an optional extra.  It's a full part of what we need to do.

In the autumn I attended an away day run by the Bishop of Derby.  Often a conference day will leave me so full of information that I feel like I need another day to process it all!  But this one was different.  Bishop Libby had structured it so that each section of speaking was followed by an equal amount of silent time to consider what we had heard.  We could pray (there were prompts if required), write, walk around the neighbourhood, or just sit in the beautiful building.  I came away feeling refreshed.  That time to sit down had been just what I needed in the busyness of life.

So sitting down re-invigorates us for the challenge of making changes.  We gain a new focus as we hear, learn, follow, and grow in new ways.

Image from Pixabay

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Martha and Mary: What happened next?

My name is Martha and I work in a church kitchen.  So I tend to have a certain affinity with the Biblical story of Martha and Mary.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the traditional version is this.
Jesus and his friends went to stay with two sisters, Martha and Mary.  Mary spent her time sitting with Jesus and listening to all his stories, whereas Martha was trying to keep up with all the housework.  Finally Martha got fed up and went to Jesus.  "Don't you care that I'm doing all the work while Mary just sits here?" she asked him.  "Can't you tell her to help?"  But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her."
Source: Wikimedia Commons

(I rather like this picture.  Martha looks like she might just lob a dead bird at Jesus if he doesn't get up and help, pronto.)


Or the meme version:
This is Martha.

Martha runs around doing all the work.

This is Mary.

Mary sits and listens to Jesus.

Don't be like Martha.

Be like Mary.

Mary, clearly, is the one who has her priorities right in this story.  But you won't be surprised to hear that I have some sympathy with Martha.  After all, the work needed doing - she had a house full of people to look after.  Was she being unreasonable?

I think Martha was being very reasonable to stop and ask for help.  Because we don't, do we?  We soldier on, listening to our families sitting around, waiting in vain for them to realise what we want them to do.  We'll make cryptic comments, or hold whole conversations inside our own heads, but we'll never ask, because it should be obvious what needs doing!

But Martha asked.  So either she was desperate, or she was better than most of us at recognising her passive-aggressive tendencies.  At any rate, she went to Jesus and asked for what she needed.  And Jesus, as he did so often, looked at her and told her that actually, she needed something else.

The question is, how did he do it?  If you re-read the story, you'll see that it stops on quite a cliffhanger.  Jesus has uttered his nice neat phrase, but then what?  Does Martha sit down?  Or throw a dead bird at him?  Here are a few more possibilities.

But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her." Mary smiled smugly at Martha.  Then Mary and Jesus turned away and continued their conversation.  Martha stood there for a moment, then returned to the kitchen and vented her anger on the pots and pans, muttering darkly about people who just turned up at other people's house and expected to be fed.  Jesus shook his head sadly.  "Some people just don't get it, do they Mary?"

2  But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her."  Martha hesitated, thinking of everything that needed to be done, but Jesus patted the seat next to him.  "Come on Martha, I've hardly seen you.  We don't mind if lunch is a bit late.  Sit with us a few minutes, and then Mary will come and help.  Won't you, Mary?"

But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her."  There was a pause.  Then Jesus grinned.  "You know I'm right, Martha, but we have been a bit selfish, letting you run around and take care of us.  Come on Mary, you help in the kitchen.  Peter, why don't you lay the table, John can carve the lamb, and I'll sort out the bread and wine.  We'll have dinner ready in no time, and then Martha and I can have a nice chat in the garden this afternoon."

Which scenario would you prefer?  Or do you think there was a different ending?

*******************

Talking of endings, all the ones I tried for this post didn't seem to work.  Should I discuss how we often seem to value the Marthas more than the Marys in our churches?  Should I talk about how our perception of Jesus' likely actions is influenced by our culture and experiences?  Should I say that the Christian faith can often feel like another list of things to do, not an invitation to stop and listen?

Or should I say that to me, the only way the Christian story makes any sense is by understanding it as Jesus alongside us.  If he is not in the mess and the pain and the busyness with us, right there, feeling it with us, then the whole thing falls apart.  We are left with a God who sits on a heavenly cushion and issues unhelpful memes about how it would all be fine if we'd just do things a bit differently.  "Don't be like Martha.  Be like Mary."

But I think Martha could say, "Don't you care...?" to Jesus because she knew he did care.  Because she knew he wouldn't belittle her for asking for help.  And I think that as Jesus worked alongside Martha, and as she learned more about what it was to work alongside him, then she understood why he said that about the better part, too.

I was going to say that we can never know what the ending to the story is.  That's partly true.  We don't know what happened to Mary and Martha that day.  But we can find out what happens when we have a similar story in our own lives.  Does it stop with an unhelpful meme?  Or does it continue as we learn to work alongside Jesus, and as he teaches us how to find the better part, which won't be taken away.