Sunday, July 28, 2013

Perfect things aren't always easy to swallow

Several weeks ago, we had a lovely visit to Victoria. On one outing, I asked my husband to follow a sign that promised perfectly balanced spring water straight from the depths of the earth. He doesn't always go along with spantaneous whims, but this time he did. We drove for miles down a country track full of virgin Australian bush and fearless animal life. Just when we were thinking of turning back, we found ourselves in a deserted car park with a hand pump. We figured that was what we'd come to see.

The rusty metal plaque on the pump's base confirmed how ultra-healthy the water is. It contains the perfect balance of minerals for the ideal health tonic. I wanted to get straight into it, having images of people from the Regency era flocking to Bath  and other spa towns for similar restorative water.

We had to prime the pump several times. Just when we were beginning to think nothing would happen, a trickle appeared, and soon a torrent gushed forth. We filled a bottle which I offered to the kids first. I watched Emma's and Blake's faces change as they took their sips. Something about the way they said, "Mum, it's really nice water," seemed a bit fishy. As I brought the bottle up to my lips, they burst out laughing.

The stink alerted me first. It was like sulphur, rotten eggs or what I'd imagine smoke from a dragon's nostrils to smell like. The flavour was bitter and very metallic. I couldn't take a proper sip but just wet my lips. I hope not to offend anyone here, but our little boy liked this analogy - it was like a robot passing wind.

Even knowing how healthy that water is supposed to be, we couldn't force ourselves to drink much. Our taste buds rebelled. Emma thought she'd like to take a bottle home to her best friend, for a joke, but the sediments in the bottle turned crazy shades of colour and I began to dread the whiffs when we opened the lid. We tipped it out back at the caravan park, thinking that if we aren't allowed to take fruit back into South Australia, I wouldn't want to take that either.

It's been on my mind. A beverage that's supposedly so perfect, it's unpalatable. I've heard of similar things in nature before. The durian fruit is said to be wonderfully healthy, but its stench wafts out the sweat pores of those brave enough to eat any. I wondered if this observation is the same with perfect people? Are they hard to swallow?

That seemed to be a silly thought. Surely the more perfect people are, the more they must be well-loved by everyone they come into contact with. Look at Jesus, who many of us declare is the only truly perfect person who ever lived. Straight away, I saw not everyone in his time thought he was perfect. He offended some and confused others. Some of the words people probably used to describe him were abrasive, elusive, confrontational, deluded, a stirrer. Many left in droves, shaking their heads and muttering that his teachings were too hard to swallow. He ended up getting himself crucified by people who reacted to him as we did to that water. If he returned to earth, he'd probably get the same reaction from many people, because humanity doesn't change.

Then I thought about other renowned people we may think as close to perfect as possible. How about Mother Teresa? She was a legend. Yet, photos reveal the toll her lifestyle took on her in her stooped shoulders and weather-beaten, wrinkled face. It seemed that majoring on one area of her life detracted from another area which many celebrities think is extremely important for perfection. She didn't have the time, means or inclination to go to beauty parlors or cosmetic surgeons. And maybe many who do these things, do so at the expense of other areas of their lives. Perhaps the fictional perfection of Barbie, whose cartoon movies show her to be super beautiful, generous and good in one package, is less accurate. In reality, personal goodness (and everyone is different) may not always be what we think easy to swallow.

So is being well-loved by everyone we come across a reliable gauge that we are closer to 'good' than 'bad'? I used to think so but now I think differently. So many heroes through history had moments of being severely criticised for their choices and habits, which many now applaud. When we're making waves, or at least a few ripples, and some people are mumbling about us, this is not necessarily a sign that we're getting off track, but maybe a clue that we are right where we are meant to be, doing what we are meant to be doing.

For authors like me, if our books get some low reviews, that doesn't mean that the stories aren't just how they are meant to be. Maybe when a few others find us hard to swallow, it may show that we are on the right track with our callings. Whatever it is that you do, consider that when a few people react unfavourably to you, it doesn't mean that you are not in the perfect place, doing the perfect thing for you.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

That Mary is still being shamed and criticised by Martha

I've seen lots of literature urging Martha-like women to slow down and be more like Mary. It seems to me, because these books are so prolific, there must be far more Marthas in the world than Marys. At least their activity thrusts them more in the limelight. Hard-working, self-sacrificing ladies who see just what needs to be done, plow ahead and do it, then crash in their beds each night. They sometimes snap with exhaustion and sob, "I'm doing all this good work and nobody even appreciates it. Look at her, doing nothing. I'm burned-out and fed up. If anyone deserves to have a nervous breakdown, it's me." I imagine those in the medical and counselling professions may be burned-out too, from being inundated with these Marthas as clients.

Well, today I'm here to talk from the other side. I always identified more with Mary in the first place. I'd be the one with my nose stuck in a book, busily scribbling notes or trying to figure out how this new idea gels with what I've always understood. All the while, I wouldn't have a clue about all the things that required practical attention around me. I'm the sort of person who needs to ask what I may do to help, because it doesn't pop out at me, as it would to a Martha.

I'm not a good person to have in traditional 'helps' jobs and ministries. This is not because I'm not willing to help but because I often don't tend to notice things that seem to stand out as glaringly obvious to others. I'd be the one to say, "Another working bee? The place looks pretty good to me," while others roll their eyes and my husband comes straight out and say, "You've got to be joking! There's enough work to keep an army going." That's sometimes made me feel really guilty and upset.

I'm the person who gets looked past for any 'important' role, because, of course, I'd be no good. Too dreamy and dithery, like an 'arty' person. I've had that accusation flung at me as an insult more than once. This also, has made me want to retreat into my shell and cry, at times, wondering what I'm good for.

While I never thought I was useful for much, I knew what I enjoyed. That's reading, listening, mulling over ideas, pondering, trying to express something I feel fresh and new. But I've felt a lot of guilt because those things seemed self-indulgent and of no use to anybody else.

I wonder how Mary felt when her sister, at the end of her tether, snapped that famous remark to Jesus. In effect, Martha said, "Can't you see I'm doing everything out here. Please tell her to get off her lazy backside and help me." The Bible says nothing about Mary's reaction to this, but I can imagine how it might have been. If I'd been her, I would've flinched before doing anything else. Then I would've started scrambling to my feet, fully expecting to hear, "Yes, first things first. Your sister needs help. We can save this for later, when the more pressing and urgent things are out of the way." I would've started trying to speak humble apologies, wanting to explain that I genuinely didn't know how badly needed I was, fully expecting the others to scoff, "Oh yeah, that's a good one." The reply Jesus did make would have stunned me.

What I would've found most of a shock was the last part of what he said. "Mary has chosen the better thing and it will not be taken away from her." Hey, what? He didn't say it was equally as important as all the cleany, cooky stuff (to which we may add paper work and whatever else keeps our 21st century heads and hands occupied). He said it was better!

The fact that I've grown up with this sort of guilt complex because of my priorities indicates that there must still be other Marys out there too. I'm certain I'm not the only one.  I think we need liberation as much as the New Testament Mary did. We still live in a world where Marthas are lauded and praised while we are chastised and rebuked. I've read about children with Protestant work ethic type parents who who, on seeing them reading a book, would ask, "Don't you have anything to do?"

We see people parading how busy they are on social media, fully expecting pats on the back, which are sure enough forthcoming. The Marys of the world, represented by people more like me, still contend with shame, feeling belittled, wondering if we're just being lazy, silly and selfish.

I love Jesus' response to Martha because it reminds me, at times, that I'm doing okay. Of course I know that those who don't work don't eat. The Bible is also clear about that. But we need to remember that Mary's default choice, and that of people like me, isn't laziness at all. That's just us taking on the erroneous opinion of all the Martha-types who elevate all that busy work to a high position it shouldn't have. (Hey, I'm not the one who said it shouldn't be highest. Jesus did).

A world without sitting back to reflect, to study the words of Jesus, to read about the opinions and experiences of other thinkers, to try to think and process our own experiences, would be a poorer world indeed. It's not as 'in-your-face' as the Martha-work, but more important. (Once again, I was going to type the word 'equally', but he said it, not me.) I do clean my house and look after all the household members. If I didn't who would? But I don't always struggle to get it out of the way first. A sudden idea to jot down, or a conversation about spiritual or world issues with the kids will come first, even if it is sunny enough to hang another load of washing.

My aim is not to criticise the Martha-mindset of others, but just to encourage other Marys to not let it get us all down. Sure, Martha needed to learn that lesson, but I'm sure her sister did equally. It seems Mary did take it on board, because she had the right understanding and frame of mind to make that lavish gesture of worship later, when she poured the bottle of beautiful smelling lard over Jesus' feet. At least, I've read that attributed to Mary of Bethany several times. If so, I believe she wouldn't have necessarily felt the desire to do this, if she hadn't made getting to know him and ponder his words her priority over cooking and cleaning for his visits.

Mary-ladies, even though our natural inclinations may seem useless, they won't be taken away from us. So anyone who reads this, in the midst of all the Marthas who may be running around and organising as usual, don't forget that several Marys may be feeling equally bad and need their own type of encouraging feedback. Even though Marthas get overloaded with stress and need sympathy and understanding, Marys also need to feel as if we're valuable people and not essentially space-takers.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Which of two kings I may be like.

It has sometimes occurred to me to honestly wonder which of two kings I may be most like. They were the first two kings in the history of Israel's monarchy, King Saul and King David. We'd all like to think that we'd be most like David, but is it always the case?

I've got to admit, King Saul's downfall fills my heart with a bit of sympathy. He started off so well. Not only did he attain sudden celebrity status but back in those early days, he seemed to do it in a very humble and courteous way. He was one of the people the Bible bothered to describe as good looking. Not only was he handsome but head and shoulders above most other men. Probably every Hebrew girl's crush, the sort of guy who would be splashed across the covers of many magazines if he'd been alive in a much later era.

When you read through his story, you see that many of his big mistakes had to do with personal relations, keeping up his desire for looking good in front of the people and not slipping in the popularity polls. Without actually having it stated in the Bible, he was one of the first of many P.R. casualties who have crashed and burned.

I think it's good to put ourselves in his place and challenge ourselves to honestly assess whether we might not have at least considered making the same moves in his place. There is the incident in 1Samuel 13, when he was under military pressure and Samuel, the priest, hadn't showed up to make the prescribed sacrifices. With his soldiers slipping away right and left, I can imagine the desperation that urged Saul to say, "Bring the burnt offering and the peace offering!" I can also get his explanation, when he told Samuel, "I was losing my army... you hadn't come when you said you would... I didn't know what to do... the Philistines were about to come upon me and I hadn't asked for God's help, so I took it into my own hands." In fact, if I'd been him, I might have even added, "Where were you, anyway? How about keeping your word and getting here on time?"

Without padding this out with any more examples, of which there were many, we see there was one crucial difference between Saul and David, his eventual replacement. Saul did things to please people and desperately try to hitch up his popularity, whenever he perceived it might be sagging. David's normal motivation was to please God, not people. His Psalms are full of it. Saul sought the gifts, David sought the giver. Saul wanted answers, David wanted the Answerer. Saul wanted to maintain his own reputation intact, David didn't give a fig for all that, if it meant that his relationship with God would be compromised. I want to be a David, but in many ways, Saul is still easy to relate to.

I see him not as a villain but as a promising hero who made wrong choices and spiralled downward. A man who wanted to cling so tightly to the good things he had without losing any of them that he let his judgment and perspective get skewed. A man who allowed the lesser emotions of jealousy, envy, rage and resentment drag him into deep melancholic depression. Then in the end, he reminds me of a little boy who wanted so badly to preserve his ice-cream that it melted in his hand. How sad that the humble young man who was found hiding among the baggage at the beginning of his inauguration became the same man who was busy erecting a victory monument in his own honour toward the end.

I came across these passages from Thomas Merton's letter to a young activist, which make me think of King Saul's deep attitute, which I think is often easy to recognise in ourselves too.

"You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God's love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without you knowing it."

"Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not, perhaps, results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."

Modern author Joan Borisenko, had this to say in a book about burnout. "Here's a thought worth contemplating. People who have the greatest investment in projects and ideas are much likelier to burn out than those who are less attached to the outcome of whatever they're involved in. Although commitment to a cause , a job, your children, may seem selfless and virtuous, there's often an underlying ambition and motivation to prove your importance and worth that predisposes you to becoming fried." 

I sometimes find myself tired out and frazzled, and must admit that when I contemplate this possible reason for it, I often do have to admit a deep desire to impress and an anxiety about the results of whatever I'm doing that makes me feel as if I'm tied in knots. How refreshing, to take on boards the attitudes of King David and Thomas Merton.
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