I am Mary and Martha


I worry about stuff. I wonder if I’m forgetting something. I get tiny palpitations when the phone rings (“Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?”). I sometimes get stressed as early as 3 sips into my morning coffee about whether or not I’ll be able to “get everything done” in a given day.

This morning, about 3 sips into my morning coffee, I read in Luke 10 about Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha. It’s a great and short story, and I recommend reading it really quickly.  I have read this little story a number of times but this morning, for some reason, it was real to me. Jesus comes to their house, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching while Martha is stuck with all the work, Martha asks Jesus to make Mary get back in the kitchen and help, and Jesus in a nutshell says no.

It was real to me this morning because I felt like I was in the story. First, when Jesus responds to Martha. True to form, Jesus answers the question beneath the question. He speaks to her anxious heart, hiding behind concerns about Mary helping with housework. In other words, she comes to Him about Mary and he responds to her about Martha. And instead of chiding her for tattling and not minding her own business, He comforts her. He says her name twice, which my husband just told me was an especially affectionate and tender way of addressing someone in their culture. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better share, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus comforts her, calls out her sin, and instructs her all in one sentence. This morning, I felt like Martha in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from your expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me take care of the details. That is all that’s really necessary.”

Jesus doesn’t dialogue with Mary in this story, which might be why there haven’t been as many “Chicken Soup for the Soul” reflections on her. But this morning, I felt like Mary in the story, as well. See, I’ve written a lot on my blog about my anxiety concerning budgets, grocery lists, and to-do lists, but I haven’t written a lot about my anxiety as a seminary student. A female seminary student.

I didn’t start school expecting to feel this way, but in the last few years I’ve begun to notice that in many ways, I am in a man’s world. Often I am the only woman in the room or seated at the table. Being fairly loud and obnoxious, most of the time I can be brave about it. But every now and then, I find myself thinking, “Jesus, am I just elbowing my way to Your table, inviting myself to sit in and listen in on something that’s not really “for” me? Do you just tolerate my presence like I’m the kid sister in the corner, listening in?” Every now and then, I feel like the third (or twenty-third) wheel in the world of Christian ministry and theology.

But then I read this story and realize Mary probably had it even worse. I read recently that the most shocking part of this whole scenario is not Martha being left to work alone, but Mary having the audacity to enter the “man’s domain” of her culture and sit at the Rabbi’s (teacher’s) feet with the men. Imagine the eyes burning a hole in her back. Imagine the courage she must have had to sit there anyway, and the desperation she must have had to hear more of Jesus’ words, no matter the cost. That is how I feel about being in seminary. It may be awkward at times, and I may feel uncomfortable or even feel eyes burning a hole in my back at times, but I want to hear what Jesus has to say. I must. Even if it means being the twenty-third wheel, it’s worth it to me if it means I can get closer to Jesus.

But then I see how Jesus handled Mary’s situation, “It will not be taken away from her.”  I see that Jesus – Jesus — defended Mary’s spot at his feet next to all his male disciples, and I realize that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. The Rabbi says I have a right to be here. I realize that He has called me to Himself, He invites me to sit at His feet, and He declares it won’t be taken away from me. I realize, “He doesn’t see me as a third-wheel. I’m not an outsider to Him.”

This morning, I felt like Mary in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from others’ expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me defend your right to do so. That is all that’s really necessary.”


Playing Dress Up

There I stood, looking at myself in the mirror.  I had done this many times before.  As a little girl playing dress up, I recall stuffing tissues into the backs of my mom’s heels and proudly stomping around the house.  I recall putting on deep red lipstick, borrowed from my five-year-old best friend, a precious ruby red form of what I thought to be womanhood.  And I recall filling the tops of my dresses with two pairs of socks and staring admirably at the woman I had yet to grow into.

Yet this time was different.  It was November 2011, over Thanksgiving weekend.  My husband and I had volunteered to help my mom clear out my dad’s office at the church he served as head pastor for 23 years.  My dad had just died of cancer and there hadn’t been time to clean out his office.  We sorted through accordions of files, all dedicated to the ministry.  On the files we saw titles like “Session,” “Capital Campaign,” “Christmas Eve Services,” “Vision Planning.”  We sorted books on the church, on trips to the Holy Land, on different Bible translations.  While my husband and mom began toting the trash into the bin outside, I decided to conquer the task of cleaning out my dad’s bathroom.

I found them in the closet: my dad’s stoles, thick rainbows of fabric hanging on each shoulder of hangers, each strand of cloth representing a strand of ministry my dad performed—a stole for baptisms, a stole for Communion, a stole from mission trips, a stole for Advent.  I was lost in the memories, in the meaning of these stoles until my mom interrupted me.  “Sweetie, you can take any of those you want.  Dad would have loved nothing more than for you to have those.”

She went back to sorting files and I eagerly assumed my dress up role.  I placed one stole on my shoulders after another, carefully arranging each one to lay flat over my chest, meticulously pulling my hair out from the collar each time, and there I stood, looking at myself in the mirror. How many times had my dad straightened the collar of his stole here?  How many times had my dad arranged his microphone here?  How many times did my dad go over the order of service here with this stole on?  How many people did my dad hug after he preached in these stoles?  How many people did he baptize and call children of God in this one?  How many people all over the world would recognize my dad as the pastor on the mission field in this one?  How many times did my dad say “On the night he was betrayed” in this one?    How many times did my dad light the Advent candle and preach of Jesus’ birth in this one?  I suddenly felt the weight of the fabric and the heat accumulating on my shoulders as I looked at myself.

Near the end of Exodus, God commands Moses to set up a tent of meeting. The passage is full of detailed descriptions of elements in the tabernacle: an altar for incense, a basin for washing, a lamp stand. And there are priestly garments for Aaron.  In Exodus 28:2-3, God commands Moses, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor. Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest.”  So Aaron serves as priest throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  And near the end of Numbers, God says to Moses:  “’Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.’ Moses did as the LORD commanded: They went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain” (Numbers 20:25-28).

There wasn’t time for my dad to remove his stoles and place them on me before he died. But in that moment, as I looked at myself in the mirror in my dad’s office, I was not a little girl playing dress up.  I was a woman called by God and encouraged and inspired by my dad to continue ministry.  Just as my dad exclaimed in delight “This one’s mine!” on the day of my birth because I was the first child with his dimples, so God delights in my calling to ministry, so God delights in watching me play dress up in the stoles I can’t wait to wear, so God exclaims “This one’s mine!”

The stoles still hang as thick rainbows of fabric, although now they hang as strands of ministry in my closet, strands of ministry to which I am called and to which I will be ordained soon enough.  And although now I do have the adult feet to fit into heels, the option of wearing lipstick, and a chest that doesn’t need socks to fill it out, I now have the most excitement about getting to wear my dad’s stoles and turning dress up into a real life calling.

Mary Beth McSwain is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School (M. Div., 2010).  She recently moved to Tucson, Arizona from Spokane, Washington and is currently acquainting herself with ministerial life in the Southwest.  She hopes to find a place to serve in ministry soon.

photo credit: pathlost via photo pin cc