Cynthia Taylor: Be present in the present

  • Follow Your Faith

I know it’s still summer, but I want to take you with me to a holiday meal – Thanksgiving in the Taylor family.

On Thanksgiving, my mother would get up at the crack of dawn to begin cooking the all-important turkey. As the rest of the family woke up and stumbled into the kitchen, she would immediately begin to assign each of us tasks (which nobody wanted to do). The four of us kids just wanted to watch the Thanksgiving parade. My father was gearing up for a whole day of football, while my mother was gearing up for the perfect dinner, which none of us really wanted. We just wanted to hang out together.

This clash of expectations meant there was always at least one meltdown before dinner was ever served. We never did achieve the perfect Thanksgiving. Which brings me to another special family dinner – the story of Martha and Mary. You might already know this one, about two sisters reacting in two different ways to having Jesus over for dinner.

Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, soaking it all in, while Martha scurries around the kitchen making sure there will be something for dinner for their honored friend. Nothing wrong with that, but there was a clash of expectations. Martha comes across as the crabby one, just because she is trying to get dinner on the table. I can almost hear how she said, “Jeeesuuus, my sister is just sitting there! Make her come in and help me!” Instead, Jesus says to her, “Martha, Martha – you are worried and distracted by many things. Mary is just fine where she is.”

This is a short gospel story, written in just five sentences, but in this brief paragraph, the word distracted is used twice and the word worry is used once. These two words are key.

I went to good old Webster’s dictionary to look up the word “distract.” The first definition I found was an archaic one. There was a time when the word “distract” meant insane or mad. I think it still does. I actually have a sister named Mary, who has more of a Martha personality. The quickest way to drive my Mary insane is when her boys are glued to their Xbox and manage to go suddenly deaf when she needs something done around the house. Distract equals mad. Really mad.

The other definitions for distraction are: “to draw apart or turn aside, to direct one’s attention to a different object” and, my favorite, “mental confusion.”

Can you begin to see why Jesus got after Martha for being so distracted? Her attention was misplaced – not her hospitality. She was so busy trying to get things right for Jesus that she ended up ignoring him. Right there. In her own house.

Before I leave Webster’s let me give you one other definition, this time for worry. The first way Webster’s defines worry is “to strangle, choke.” Only later do we get to the more familiar definition of worry as “anxiety.”

Does any of this begin to sound familiar to you? All the ways we get distracted and worried about our lives when the Lord of Life is sitting in our very presence? We imagine the worst possible outcomes, rather than the best outcome, which is Jesus with us and Jesus for us.

I think this is learned behavior. For each year of our lives, there is another thing to worry about, another thing to divert our attention. When we’re babies, our biggest worry is when we are going to get fed and the biggest distraction is having Mommy play “peek-a-boo.” Fast forward a couple of years and then there is the pressure to succeed on all those tests, especially the SAT. Do well on that and the options for your future open up. Get a low score and, well, that isn’t something you go around sharing.

When we’re in school, we dream about becoming adults, becoming our own people, no longer slaves to tests and term papers. But the fact is that as we grow up, so do the distractions and worries. When we’re at work, we worry about what is happening at home. That’s also called a distraction. When we’re at home, we worry that we should be doing something for work. Our bodies might be present but our minds are miles away.

You hear that in our language, especially the language of conflict. How many arguments contain the phrase, “You just aren’t here for me?” Or “You’re never really home and even when you are here, you’re someplace else.”

Texting and e-mail just exacerbate the problem. Our bodies might be present, but our minds are miles away. Martha isn’t the only one who is distracted and worried – we all are. And such a way of life will surely cut our lives short or shortly make our lives miserable.

I want to propose an alternative way of living and being and doing. I’ve never been an either/or person. I’m a both/and kind of person. I think we can be both Martha and Mary, and the way through this quagmire is through the ancient spiritual tradition of mindfulness – being mindful of what you are doing. Being mindful of how you are doing. Being mindful of why you are doing something. It is being present to the present, of looking to see where Jesus is at any given moment and being mindful of the spiritual truth that Jesus really is with us, even to the end of the ages.

I began by describing chaotic Thanksgiving dinners. But there are many other dinners I remember. I remember being too little to be of any help, but being in the kitchen with my mother, pulling out pots and pans and pretending they were hats. It had to be a mess but I don’t remember my mother ever getting cross about that. I do remember just being with her as she went about getting dinner ready.

Later, I remember the very act of getting dinner ready was as much a family affair as the meal itself. Chopping vegetables or setting the table was a time to be present to each other, to be mindful of one another. It was when we had some of our best conversations, even if a word was never spoken.

Mindfulness doesn’t change what we are doing, but it does change how we are being. Can you now imagine a different scenario in the Martha and Mary story? What if Martha were as mindful of what Jesus was teaching as she was mindful of what was on the stovetop? And what if, being mindful that such an experience was something to be savored, Martha had used paper plates and a Crockpot so that she could be part of this sacred time? Martha doesn’t have to stop being Martha. Mary doesn’t have to stop being Mary. It isn’t either/or. This is both/and.

Be mindful of what you are doing. Be mindful of how you are doing. Be mindful of why you are doing. It is being present to the present, of looking to see where Jesus is at any given moment and being mindful of the spiritual truth that Jesus really is with us, even to the end of the ages.

The Rev. Cynthia Taylor is pastor of Church of the Holy Comforter.


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