Pause Points (Luke 10:38-42)
Reactions to a Story
The story of Mary and Martha is familiar, and it prompts different reactions in people. Some love the story, especially who are more naturally like Mary, quiet and contemplative. Other people have a hard time with the story, people who identify more with Martha, people who have lots of responsibilities and who would love time to rest and reflect if only there weren’t so many demands on them. This story makes this second group feel guilty and frustrated.
I’d like to talk about the Mary and Martha story in a way that is invitation, not condemnation. I think this story invites us to make some small changes in our lives, changes that could have a great effect on our souls and our peace of mind.
Flustered at a Dinner Party
So Jesus shows up at Martha’s home one day. And notice that it’s her home, not a man’s home. That’s important. She has a sense of ownership and responsibility.
Jesus doesn’t come alone. He has 12 apostles with him. Some of them are married, so there may be wives in the group too. There might be children. There might be other women, like Mary Magdalene. There might be other men who are not formally apostles. Let’s do a little guesswork and say there are two dozen of them. And they are all staying for dinner! Can you get a sense of the pressure Martha is under? She has a lot of guests under her roof, or in her atrium, and she wants them all to feel at home. She wants to be a good host to them. But there are a lot of mouths to feed.
In the middle of the meal, Martha becomes frazzled and frustrated. The story says she became ‘distracted.’ The word literally means pulled in different directions. You have been there, I am sure. One person needs this, another person needs that. Conflicting needs.
Now it’s important to remember how much we love Martha. We love Martha! Martha gets things done. Martha makes the world go.
At our church we have a new picnic pavilion almost finished. Do you know who built it? Martha did! Martha poured the concrete. Martha set the posts and put the trusses in place. Martha unloaded all the shingles on the roof, soon to be laid down. Martha worked in the kitchen to provide food for Martha as she worked outside. We love Martha!
But the Martha in our Bible story has an embarrassing moment. She gets so frustrated that she boils over. Jesus is seated as a rabbi should be, teaching his followers seated around him. Mary is there among them. Martha goes in and interrupts. She scolds Jesus for not caring about all the work she is doing. Then she orders him to order her sister to come help her in the kitchen.
What follows first is silence. Everyone looks at Martha. Martha’s face turns red, and she puts a hand over her mouth.
A Distracted Priest
Now let’s leave Martha there for a minute and go back to the story right before this one. It’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Another familiar story. A man is on his way to Jericho when he is attacked by robbers and left beaten at the side of the road. A priest goes by but doesn’t help the injured man; he passes by on the other side. Then another comes and passes by too. Finally a Samaritan stops to help. Moral of the story: we should help people in need. We get it, Jesus, although it can be hard to put into practice.
I sympathize with the priest who passes by. Not just that I am one myself, but I understand his hesitation. Actually, he is just trying to follow the law of Moses, which said that if you touched a dead body, or any bodily fluid like blood, then you became ritually unclean and you couldn’t do your priestly duties anymore. Also, there may still be robbers around. In a sense, passing by was the smart thing for him to do, and within the law of Moses. But it was also the wrong thing to do.
After Martha’s outburst at the dinner party, Jesus says to her, “Only one thing is needed.” This is true. In life there is usually only one thing I need to do in a certain situation. But in the press of the moment, when I am flustered or afraid, it can be hard to see what the one thing is that I need to do. It is very easy to miss the one thing needed.
There is a surgeon named Atul Gawande, and he wrote a book called The Checklist Manifesto. He recommended that hospitals adopt special checklists for surgery. His checklist includes three ‘pause points.’ Pause before anesthesia, pause before the first incision, pause before leaving the operating room. The pauses only last for a minute or so, but slow down the pace, give people a chance to breathe, and help people to make sure everything is in order. When hospitals began to adopt these pause points, they found that complications and deaths dropped dramatically. Gawande recommends that other professions, such as airline pilots, have similar checklists with pause points.
This reminds me of something Rose Hackett recommended in the hospice training. In times of stress, she said, put your hands over your eyes for a minute, and take several deep breaths. Then continue on. This kind of pause will help to center you and calm you.
I want to take the idea of pause points and apply it in different ways. There is a painfully familiar story that we have been watching in the news recently. It involves a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida who killed a teenager he thought was acting suspiciously, after a confrontation. It is all very complicated, I know. Lots of layers. I only want to ask a question. What if that neighborhood watch volunteer had paused? He had already called the police. What if he had waited, rather than acted? There is a time to wait and a time to act. It seems to me if he had waited — paused — an awful thing might not have happened.
What if the priest on the road to Jericho, after he had made that instant decision to pass by, had paused for a second look. Just stop and look at the man lying there for a minute. He may have noticed the injured man move or groan. He may have realized that helping a human being was more important than staying ritually clean. He may have realized what the one thing needed was.
And what if Martha had paused? She might have thought to herself, “I am not always going to have Jesus with me. Maybe I should sit down and join my sister and listen to him.” A pause point may have made all the difference for her in knowing what the one thing needed then was.
I’d like to finish by just referring to this painting. It’s by Vermeer, and it’s called Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. The painting itself is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This is one of my favorite paintings. Here is a busy woman, taking care of her household. But here she stops between tasks. She pauses. She waits. In the midst of her Martha life, she has a Mary moment. She listens, centers herself for what is next.
Incorporate pause points in your day. Stop. Center yourself. Breathe. Listen for the still small voice within. This practice will help you to discover the one thing needed.