I have a confession to make. My Advent wreath is still sitting on the breakfast table, next to the stack of newspapers and the recycling box. It has some squidgy old candles in it, instead of the nice new ones I got to replace them. (The new ones are under the kitchen counter, still in plastic and waiting to have their wicks trimmed.) The wreath was to have migrated to the dining room more than a week ago. There was also supposed to be an interlude with fresh table linens: the velvet holiday runner was to come out of its box; the silk poinsettia arrangement was to make its annual appearance.
There's no guarantee that these deficiencies will be rectified by the time you read this. But I have a strong sense that one reason I can't seem to get everything done this year is that I am supposed to write, this week, about the fact that God loves us anyway, and we can still be happy and content. There is never a bad time to let the reality of God's unconditional love wash over us, but Christmas is an exceptionally good one.
In terms of the Mary-Martha divide (Lk. 10:38-42), I have always been firmly in the Mary camp. I might plead for the Rapture to be postponed because I still haven't gotten after the scuff marks on the living room floor—but unlike Martha, I won't actually be doing anything about them. I admire Martha for her get-up-and-go: when she complains, she's up to her elbows in goo-remover, with the vacuum cleaner plugged in and the dry mop propped against the door.
That posture didn't impress Jesus, however, when Martha complained to him that Mary wasn't helping her with the housework. And I think we tend to forget why he wasn't swayed by Martha's representations. Jesus didn't lecture Martha about her focus being wrong, nor did he give her a detailed plan to reorder her priorities. He didn't speak to her in a tone of rebuke (although I believe we often interpret it that way), nor was he suggesting that household management and the necessities of daily life were unimportant. Here is what he did say:
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Lk. 10:41-42, NIV)
"You are worried and upset." Those first words out of Jesus' mouth are the ones we need to hear. How often do we quiet our spirits and realize that we are not supposed to be worried and upset? How often have we ever truly let those words sink in, past our false pride and our inner-directed certainties?
In everyday life, the mistake we often make instead is imagining that the way to not be worried and upset is to "get everything done," or at least to put it on a list or talk about it a lot, and thus assert some semblance of control over it. If only we can get it all done, we think, we won't have to be worried and upset.
But the problem with that line of thinking is that it neglects the one thing that everything in our God-given life is about, and that's us. We worry about what we think needs to be done, but God is concerned about us. He wants to develop good character in us, and, in many aspects of life, that does mean working hard and getting things done. He wants us to bless others with our strength, energy, and hard work. But if the products and outcomes themselves were what mattered most, God could just cause them to arrive, wrapped and perfect, on our doorsteps each morning.
He doesn't do that, however, because perfecting us is the project that matters. This year, I have come to realize that God is not going to let me move forward on the basis of an unhealthy, unbalanced attitude about "getting things done." A career in the Navy left me with some bad juggling habits and a tendency to run myself ragged in bursts of activity. One of our sayings in the service was "I'll sleep when I retire." As you might guess, I haven't necessarily been fulfilling that vow.
God isn't letting me get away with it anymore. A recurring shoulder problem is flaring up this holiday season, forcing me to rest from all the things I am sure I "have" to do. But interestingly, when I do rest—which includes resting my mind from worry, and enjoying the gifts of God all around me—I end up being more productive when I take up work again. It still seems to my insistent old nature as if I can't possibly give in to the weakness and put work aside for a while, but what I hear God saying is, "Listen to me. I want you to take proper care of yourself."