I used to love going to summer camp. My friends and I would either load up in a bus or our parents’ cars and head to exotic places like Missouri to spend a coupe of weeks sleeping in bunk beds, participating in outdoor activities, competing in themed games, and hiding magazine tear-outs of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Andrew Keegan in our bunks. (Fun Fact: My contraband Bop Magazine collection was confiscated one summer and mailed to my mom as punishment.)
I attended one camp during my middle school years where the counselors handed out ribbons at the end of our session, giving us a name associated with the Bible character we most emulated (according to their observations). I will never forget the day when the girls around me were given ribbons that said things like “Ruth” and “Mary” and “Elizabeth”. When it came time to receive my ribbon, my counselor handed it to me with a huge smile and said, “You are such a Martha!”
My heart sunk. I knew who Martha was. She was the lady Jesus scolded for being too busy to listen to him. She was the Type A clean-freak who was encouraged to be more like her sister, Mary. In that moment I was, in my mind, labeled as an overachieving control-freak who needed to have my hand slapped by Jesus.
So maybe I took this ritual a little personally, but I will never forget how hurt I felt that day. I thought I was intelligent, creative, outgoing, and responsible (my 10-year-old-self confidence had not yet been marred by the world). I didn’t know I was also aggressive, controlling, and incapable of sitting still. I was always taught Martha was the “bad one”, and that Jesus “preferred” her sister because her sister listened and was quiet and did what she was told. To me, that ribbon meant something was wrong with me, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
About a decade later, a popular book was published titled Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. All the Southern Christian ladies had a copy and were reading and quoting it. I read it as well, painfully remembering my Martha Label and how much it had hurt me. Maybe this book would help me be less Martha-ish!
It didn’t. In fact, I don’t think I ever finished the book because I felt worse after reading it. Once again, Martha was used to describe one’s busyness and lack of attention to the important things in life.
I continue to wrestle with my “Martha-ness”. I was once described in a process group as a sailor on a sailboat who spent so much time running around attending to all of the boat’s needs that I never took time to sit and enjoy the experience of sailing. Basically, I was told I didn’t know how to rest.
I don’t think Martha was less-preferred or less-than her sister, Mary. My guess is Martha just had a hard time resting. In a sermon this past Sunday, I learned that Martha was actually one of the very few female home owners during her day. She funded Jesus’ ministry and often hosted and lead those who followed Jesus, including Jesus himself. Her determination, hard work, and financial stability made a lot of ministry possible. It turns out she was a strong woman who probably just didn’t know how to stop when the time came to just BE.
I relate to that. My husband is good at resting. When we get to his parents’ condo in Fort Myers Beach, his blood pressure lowers and his anxieties drift away and he is able to enjoy the beauty of South Florida. I, on the other hand, require at least 48 hours to wind down after I have made sure we have everything we need from groceries to clean bathing suits to streak-free windows. I struggle with this at home, too. I can’t sit still until the sink is empty, the laundry is done, the litter boxes are cleaned and the trash is out. I feel this overwhelming urge to make sure certain things are in order before I can even consider sitting down to collect my thoughts and feelings from the day.
I wrestle with finding a balance between the positive side of my drivenness and my inability to slow down when needed. The world needs people like me – people who get things done, see needs for improvement, and can multitask. My husband, family, friends, and clients also need me to know when it is time to slow down and just be present in the world around me. Without accountability, I will work myself into the ground and completely burn out, which is not only detrimental to my own health but also devastating to all of my relationships.
What I failed to see as a Middle Schooler was that it is ok to be a Martha, as long as I am a Martha who knows how to take it easy and rest. Martha can’t be Martha if she is passed out from exhaustion. Sometimes we need the Marthas in our lives to help us organize and mobilize and get things done. And sometimes we need the Marys in our lives to remind us when to stop and just be present in the midst of a chaotic world.
I think what my camp counselor failed to explain was that there was more to Martha’s story than that time when Jesus told her to emulate her sister’s behavior. I mean, let’s be honest… who one wants to be told to be more like their sibling?!?! That was just one moment in Martha’s entire life where, I think, she just forgot to slow down. There was so much more to her and her story that was shadowed by this one passage in the Gospel of Luke.
I believe that if I can learn to rest and embrace my Martha-ness, maybe I can learn to see that it takes all of us working together to make powerful change happen. I don’t need to be less me, I just need to take care of myself in the process. Maybe being “such a Martha” isn’t such a bad thing after all.