In Luke 10:40, Martha complains to Jesus about having to do all the kitchen work by herself. Jesus responds. “Martha, you’re distracted by many things, but only one thing is necessary.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t give Martha a list of seven or 47 things that are essential to life. Just one thing. If that doesn’t give focus to our spiritual journeys, I don’t know what will.
Martha is busy doing “good works.” She is serving others. This is an important part of the story we shouldn’t rush through, but there is no substitute for the one essential thing. We don’t get a free pass on the one necessary thing as long as we’re busy doing many good things. This will require some of us to rethink how we’ve been raised and cultured. A transformed life requires a renewed mind.
This year, I discovered anew my need for a renewed mind. My preoccupation with many good things—like ministry, family, church, Scripture, theology, finances and lawn maintenance—often results in me neglecting the one essential thing. One reason for this was that I didn’t have a clear understanding of what the one essential thing was.
Jesus points us to Mary to understand the one essential thing. In this scene she is fully present in the moment, completely attentive to the presence of God on earth, in Jesus. That’s it. The one necessary thing.
The kingdom of God is here and now. That was Jesus’ primary message. Now is the eternal moment, the only time we can access God. Now is the only portal to Divine Presence, power and peace. The only way I can encounter the Great “I Am” is when “I am.” You can only meet and commune with God when and where you are, and that is in the present.
This doesn’t mean the past and future have no value. It means the past and future only have value in the present. The value of the past is learning from it and applying what we’ve learned. Of course, the only time you can do that is in the present. The value of the future is to visualize, hope, plan and create a brighter tomorrow, but the only time you can do that is now, in the present. The past and future inform us, but only the present moment transforms us.
God is always present—right here, right now. The problem is that we are usually somewhere else mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The only way to be in tune with God’s presence is to be present ourselves.
In Matthew 6:33, Jesus says our top priority in life is to seek the kingdom of God. “Kingdom” language is no longer accessible to a growing number of people today, so I’ve asked God to help me find fresh language to articulate this central teaching of Jesus without losing its substance. Here’s the short version of what I’ve come up with.
The kingdom of God is wherever and whenever the presence of God is recognized and responded to appropriately. I believe Jesus is saying that our top priority, every minute, every day, is to recognize and respond to Divine Presence. Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century monk, calls this “practising the presence.”
Some people are reluctant to “practise the presence” for fear it will make them “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” A stereotypical image of “practising the presence” is people sitting cross-legged with eyes closed, paying attention to their breathing.
Meditation and contemplative prayer are extremely valuable, life changing disciplines. However, “practising the presence” is not a 20-minute exercise. It is a way of life. It is being aware of, and responsive to, Divine Presence all the time: during intense business dealings, stressful parenting moments, evening television watching and the busyness of doing many good things.
Tuning in to Spirit isn’t tuning out the world around me. Quite the opposite. It’s having my eyes opened to see the world set ablaze with God’s presence. It’s awakening to the incredible beauty, hope, peace and love around me. It’s seeing, really seeing, people I usually don’t notice because I’m busy and in a hurry. Seeing them as God’s beloved children, my brothers and sisters. It’s seeing and seizing the opportunities each day to join the Holy Spirit at work in my own life and in the people and places around me.
The “one thing necessary” is to see and respond to God’s presence within us and around us. All day, every day.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.
For another reflection on Mary and Martha, see Troy’s column “You’re getting worked up over nothing.”