Monday, July 19, 2010

Standing in the Mystery

Among the readings for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost are Colossians 1:15-28 and Luke 10:38-42

It must have been fall when Mary Oliver wrote her poem “In Blackwater Woods.” Listen to its opening lines:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment…

The poem gives voice to a bittersweet melancholic aching over the beauty of the moment that soon will dissolve into the change and loss of a season. And the poem ends:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

That’s a poem I brought to a graveside in June, when Sherry’s family gathered in the College cemetery for the interment of her ashes. Mary Oliver, writing from the pain of her own deep loss in the death of her life partner Molly, has given us words that go to the heart of being mortal—words that recognize the pain of a family standing at the brink of a grave.

I’m judging that Oliver’s poem is a good place to start, as we consider the little family of Mary and Martha today. Each woman deals with her own mortality in a rather classical way. I wonder what happens when we see their story through the lens of that poem, and watch each of them holding something against her bones, knowing that her life depends on it, and then must let it go.

I celebrated the eucharist at Williamstown Commons on Wednesday, and read this Gospel there. In the circle were ten women and two men. I asked if they saw themselves as Martha, or as Mary. I got no takers, either time.

I wondered if this had something to do with where they are in life now, so I regrouped and asked, “What if we went back twenty years? Were any of you Martha when you were younger?’ That drew a smile from one lady.

Linda, from the activities staff, came in from the sidelines and tried her hand at it: “If Jesus came to your house, would you cook for him or wait on him?”

“Both!” answered Ruth.

Whereupon I, proper Anglican that I try to be, pounced on that moment of synthesis and agreed, “Yes, Jesus does need us to be both, doesn’t he? Both the activist and the contemplative are in us. We’re called to cook for him, and we’re called to sit with him.” (I didn’t think Linda had gone contemplative enough when she suggested that Mary had waited on Jesus: she had waited with him, in him, for him.)

So yes, this little story helps feed theology for two thousand years of teaching that we are saved, not by our good works, nor by our formulas and practices of faith: we are saved by God’s grace working through both faith and works, God’s goodness leavening the lump of both our believing and our serving, God’s Spirit shaping and reshaping us from the inside out and from the outside in.

The good news in this little story is that when our lives are completed, we aren’t going to be judged by how good we’ve been, either at cooking meals for Jesus or at developing our prayer life with Jesus. We’re shown in our second lesson today how we stand before God, and that is in the rich glory of a mystery, which is Christ in us, the hope of glory. We’re given the grace to stand before God, neither defining ourselves as Christian activists nor certified as Anglican contemplatives, but persuaded that Jesus Christ is in us and we are in him.

We stand in this mystery here at this table of new life, and we stand in this mystery at home in our kitchens, in our living rooms, at our workplaces, and in the great outdoors, in nursing homes, at graveside, at all times and in all places. What is expected of us, as we stand in this mystery, is that we be aware of what is being given to us, that we be alert to what is being asked of us, that we recognize the Spirit of God.

In our Gospel today, Mary’s doing fine at that, but Martha needs some coaching. The help she wants isn’t the help she needs. What she’s holding against her bones, believing that her life depends on it, is her work at the stove. It’s not all drudgery. This is part of her mortal life that she loves, feeding people, and she’s good at it. Her nature is to do. She’s at home in a culture of doing, and I’ll bet a whole lot of people around her depended on all that she did.

If I put myself in her sandals, I might need to admit that what I’m holding against my bones is my reputation as an in-charge competent person, and perhaps my high standards and demanding self-expectation. Don’t tell me I have to let go of my abilities and my standards! That’s not the help I want. I want someone to help me in-keeping-with my abilities and standards and expectation. Do I have to let go of those?

It would seem so, because Jesus is offering something more valuable, and more demanding, not what I want, but what I need.

And if I try to slip into the sandals of Mary, I’m receiving what I need as I sit with Jesus, who opens me to be all that I am, invites me into a culture of being that will keep renewing me all my days-- but the purity and intensity of these moments cannot last. What I’m hearing I will continue to hold against my bones, knowing that my life depends on it, but what I’m hearing calls me to active love, fruitful service, and, yes, to my sister, who has a proper claim on me. To act on what I know, it’s soon time for me to let go of this tutorial with the Teacher, and to get on with life in service to this larger life that he gives.

There is need of only one thing, we hear him say. Not contemplation, not action, but hearing the call, receiving the gift, recognizing the Spirit, exercising the freedom to choose, loving God in all and above all.

(Mary Oliver’s poem appears in her “New and Selected Poems, Volume Two,” Beacon Press, 2004.)