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16th sunday in ordinary time

Luke 10:38-42

Sitting In The Presence of God

The Age of Multitasking

History has already marked this era as the age of multitasking—the ability to do more than one thing at a time. A television commercial for a new generation of IBM personal computers once featured an excited new owner lauding her machine by noting with awe: "I couldn't believe it. There I was, cruising on-line with the Internet while keeping my primary document on-screen and checking the office memos. And I was sending a fax at the same time!!!" Some of you parents may have witnessed your teenager engaging in the same behavior. They will sit at a computer and send instant messages to their friends on the computer or a cell phone while they are also doing their homework, listening to the radio, watching TV and playing an on-line game. The only thing that teenagers cannot seem to include in their sophisticated multitasking sessions is listening to their parent's reminder that their chores need to be done. Not wanting to be outdone by the younger generation, I have also been developing my multitasking skills. Unfortunately, as the video attests, I have a long way to go before I become proficient.

Martha would have felt very comfortable in this multitasking environment. I do not have to stretch my imagination to picture her zipping about the kitchen and moving from one task to another. I can see her finishing the last bit of kneading the dinner bread and then sliding it into the outside oven. Then she hurries back inside to check on the meat that is roasting over a fire. While she issues orders to her children and servants to set the tables, distribute the fresh fruit and pour the wine, she mixes together the recipe for the dessert that she will later serve. Martha was undoubtedly a dynamic one-person operation. She was task oriented, efficient, thorough, organized and humble. She was not after praise. She dedicated her work to serving her guests. She felt obligated to honor them by preparing the very best meal; by ensuring that all the arrangements were perfect. This was her offering of love. She only expected one thing—help from her sister Mary. When that help was not forthcoming, Martha let Jesus know that she was not very happy.

Over the years people have viewed this story in many different ways. Some have focused on the theme of hospitality. Martha and Mary represent two very different, contrasting personalities that are necessary in a host family. Someone must be willing to do the work in the kitchen to prepare the meal and another person must be willing to attend to the needs of the guests. Neither can be neglected. The guests must be fed and they must also feel welcomed.

The Woman's Role

Recently I read that one scholar believes the story undermines the role of strong women such as Martha in favor of the docile Mary-types. The female scholar was attempting to show how the male leaders of the church were able to subtly usurp any authority that women may have had in the early church. While this is a very creative interpretation, its borders on the absurd and shows how some will twist the meaning of Scripture to fit their own agenda. Luke is more sensitive to women than any other author in the New Testament. He frequently mentions how they responded to Jesus' messages and how Jesus responded to their needs. Never once does Luke mention a story that puts women in a negative light.

I prefer to see the story as a helpful reminder of the role of prayer in the Christian life. In ministry a pastor can easily fill his or her day with many activities. A pastor can easily fall victim to the task oriented role. There is so much to do and so little time to do it. Lay people do not come home from one job so that they can devote all their free time to doing the projects of ministry. Telephone calls need to be made. Supplies always need to be ordered. Roofs leak. The list is long and frustrating because a pastor is constantly reminded of the leaking roof by the steady drip of water from the ceiling into a bucket on his desk. A deacon may send a card but the pastor is expected to visit the member who is in the hospital. The pastor sees prayer requests that others do not see. She or he hears confidential stories. A pastor's prayer list is usually much longer than a typical member in the congregation. So the pastor can understand Martha. A pastor can feel her frustration as she wipes the sweat from her brow and looks up to see Mary just sitting, talking to Jesus.

However, both a pastor and a lay person need to remind themselves that each person is called to perform the roles of a Martha and a Mary. We are all called to active service. We are all called to feed the hungry, to offer hospitality to the sojourner and to show love and respect to all. The lay person should never consider using the role of Mary to escape serving. Mary is not avoiding work but doing the work in which she is more gifted—listening.

We seldom think of prayer as listening. We typically define prayer as talking to God. We assume by that definition that we are suppose to talk and God is suppose to listen. This form of prayer is called discursive. In this form of prayer we focus on God and communicate our thoughts and ideas through words. Mary may have been talking to Jesus while he rested but we also know that she listened to him. She put away her own ideas and allowed in Jesus' thoughts. This is referred to as contemplative prayer.


In contemplative prayer we are immersed in the presence of God not by our words but by our silence. One father believed that this form of prayer thoroughly heals and is most pleasing to God. This ancient monk claimed that by silence the saints of old grew in their faith, learned the mysteries of faith and were filled with the power of God.

In contemplative prayer we enjoy not only dwelling, sitting in the presence of God, but also union with God. This form of prayer is the fulfillment of Jesus' instructions to his disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you,” and elsewhere “I am the vine and you are the branches apart from me you can do nothing.” In his final prayer Jesus asked that this mystical reality be accomplished when he prayed, “I ask that they may all be one; as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us. (John 15:4,5, 11; 17:21)” In this union our personalities are transformed by the essence of love.

Contemplative prayer is the most difficult form of prayer to achieve. Richard Foster states that it should never be tried by the novice. However, that is like saying we should never play golf because we cannot play at the level of Tiger Woods. Each of us in our own small way can experience brief moments of this mystical presence of God. With practice and discipline this may expand and we will grow in our faith in ways that we would never have imagined.

Contemplative prayer requires four elements. A longing within the soul of a person for a deeper experience. We must have that driving passion to seek God; not to earn his favor but to overcome our resistance. We are accustom to being entertained. We are used to sitting passively in a chair and have an electronic device stimulate our mind. In contemplation we sit with nothing before us. The presence of God cannot be seen. It does not come in vivid colors or exciting shapes. We cannot control it with a joy stick or a channel changer.

Secondly, contemplative prayer requires a holy life. God is pure and cannot unite with impurity. In the physical world two elements require similar natures before they can unite. Helium cannot bind with pure carbon that is in the form of a lump of coal or a diamond. Gold ore resides in common dirt but does not unite with the dirt. When fire is introduced the dirt is burned off and the small particles of gold that are in the dirt come together to form one shining brick of gold. God cannot and will not remain in the presence of someone who is engaged in active, willful sin. Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.(Matthew 5:8)”

The third element is waiting. Contemplative prayer does not just happen. We do not press a button to enter the mysteries of God. Many pills will produce a psychedelic experience but none will replicate an authentic spiritual experience. It requires much time to master freeing our thoughts from the cares of the world. The practice requires much discipline and many attempts. Often we will think that we are merely wasting our time because we do not have anything to show for the time we spent in quiet time.

Fourth, we must fill our thoughts with God. We must focus on Jesus and him alone. This is very different from the practice advocated by the New Age spirituality. In the latest Harry Potter movie, The Order of the Phoenix, Professor Snape is assigned by Professor Dumbledore to teach Harry the magical art of Occlumency in which Harry must empty his mind of all of his thoughts. Past experiences of fear and failure must be pushed out of his cognitive realm. Memories of embarrassing experiences must be stripped from his recollection. In contemplative prayer we do more then eliminate negative thoughts. We also allow God to fill our thoughts. This usually requires for the novice adding a meditative technique.

Only One Task

Contemplative prayer strikes at the heart of multitasking. It is requires the discipline of bring all our mental powers to focus on one and one thought or idea. It is involves pushing aside all the superfluous activity of life to focus on the eternal. It is not for the person who is mesmerized by the worldly trinkets. It is not for the person who thinks that busyness is a sign of importance. It is only for the person who wishes to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his voice.

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