What we pay attention to matters. I wish I could expend quality focus on a lot of things at once, but it’s not possible. Attention is a scarce commodity.
So where should we choose to focus? What deserves our attention? Two sisters, Mary and Martha, wondered this, too.
Mary and Martha were Jesus’ friends. There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke (chapter 10) about a specific visit Jesus made to the sisters. Martha was excited for Jesus to come over; she looked forward to welcoming him into her home. Her attention was laser focused on getting the house ready.
The story is a few millennia old, but it’s timeless. I can absolutely identify with Martha because when guests are coming over to our house, I transform into someone who sounds a lot like her! Whether it’s hosting an upcoming book club or getting ready for a casual dinner with friends, I fixate on getting everything tidy. I want to make sure the floors are vacuumed and washed, the toilet scrubbed, and any dog hair removed from all surfaces! I’m no fun at all until these tasks are accomplished and the house is prepared. I’d even say that sometimes I get into what author Joyce Rupp calls "a tizzy."
Martha was in a tizzy as she was getting the house ready. Maybe she didn’t have a lot of advance notice on Jesus’ impending arrival. Perhaps she was trying to deep clean the house with limited time. Jesus arrives before she has the house ready. Tizzy time! Luke describes Martha as "distracted by her many tasks." The Greek word originally used the Gospel of Luke is peripaso. It means "attention drawn away." Instead of being present with her beloved guest, Martha’s focus was drawn away to the dust bunnies under the furniture. Mary, meanwhile, immediately sits down with Jesus to listen and share a conversation.
Martha goes on to ask, "Jesus, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me." I cringe a bit at that point in the story. Certainly Martha and Mary didn’t intend for a sibling argument to get center stage during such a special visit from a friend. And yet it makes sense. When our attention is stretched thin like Martha’s was, it’s our most irrational selves that seem to shine. There is something so utterly relatable about Martha as she pleads for Jesus to make her sister provide assistance. Sometimes we just want someone to notice how hard we’re working; sometimes we just want something to help us.
Jesus guides Martha’s focus a different direction. "Martha, Martha," he says. "You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." In affirming Mary, Jesus was highlighting that she had placed her attention in the right direction; she was fully present with Jesus.
My role at work has recently shifted, and I’m learning new responsibilities. I have less time available for responding to emails and calls. Instead of being proficient at my daily tasks, I’m now back at square one. I love it and am experiencing whole new levels of energy and anticipation. But sometimes I miss the feeling of completing tasks and being "caught up." Now I’m perpetually behind. The story of Mary and Martha keeps coming to mind, and as it does, I feel Spirit reminding me, "Pay attention to presence more than productivity. Step toward Mary’s example. Notice where she’s keeping her focus."
I don’t think anyone is either all Martha or all Mary. I think we are all both. That’s hopeful.
Notice where you extend your attention and be discerning about it. Slow down. Remember that presence is generally a lot more important that productivity.