The Common Good
July-August 1999

Choosing the Better Part

by Chris Rice | July-August 1999

With our family's move last year from urban Jackson, Mississippi, to small-town Vermont, I exchanged the blackest state for the whitest and neighborhood drive-bys for wild turkey dive-bys.

With our family's move last year from urban Jackson, Mississippi, to small-town Vermont, I exchanged the blackest state for the whitest and neighborhood drive-bys for wild turkey dive-bys. Instead of 20-plus around a communal dinner table, now it's just our family's five, plus Grandma and Grandpa most nights. In a stillness broken only by Cub Scouts and chickadees, there are no earth-shaking meetings to attend, no lives in crisis to save.

My theology honed over 17 years of intense activism didn't prepare me for a place like this. Depression set in.

Martha of Bethany, an activist at heart, would have understood. It is deeply disturbing when the yardstick you have always used to measure your significance, even your devotion to God, is suddenly challenged. Martha holds two house parties, with the Messiah as guest of honor at both. While she slaves away serving, her sister Mary took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, anointed the feet of Jesus, wiped his feet with her hair, and filled the house with the fragrance of perfume (Matthew 26:6-13, John 12:1-8). A year's worth of a common laborer's salary. Dior with gold flecks has just been dumped on one who taught his disciples to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

"Why this waste?" ask the indignant disciples. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor." Expecting an echo from Jesus, instead they get a reprimand. "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing for me." At the second party, as Martha works, Mary sits still listening to Jesus. When Martha protests, Jesus' response is completely unfair. "You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke10:38-42).

Mary's acts of beauty and stillness paint a portrait of extravagant devotion that seems completely out of place and irrelevant, even scandalous, in a world of pressing need and injustice. The more I consider this, the more I am bothered by how different God's measure of time and transformation is from ours.

One of the most profound but openly disregarded distinctives of Christian lifestyle is that one day of every seven we are commanded to cease, rest, and worship. And what is prayer but unproductivity, a waste of time that could be better spent controlling and influencing people and events directly?

But it is disturbing to be still and let God be God. Self-worth can plummet. Standing may be lost in others' eyes. We may see at what cost we have ignored the people closest to us, even our own soul. For who are we without our activism, apart from our busyness? If God stripped away your works, who would you be?

Our activism can become a form of idolatry that more serves our own needs than God's. Ego. Getting credit. Keeping up with someone else. Feeling worthy. Indispensable. Productive. Useful. In control. Needed. So we become a mile wide in frantic activity and an inch deep in clarity, peacefulness, and effectiveness.

The alternative is to be still, to listen, and to internalize the voice that Jesus heard in the waters as he was baptized by John, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased." Jesus' ministry hadn't even started; he was beloved without doing anything.

In the face of so much to be done, when we worship, rest, recreate, and feast we celebrate our belovedness; we relinquish control. We proclaim there really is a difference between us and God, between God's activism in the world and ours. We surrender our strivings to the invisible grace of God at work—loving from the foundations of the world, sweating and toiling even while we sleep, and celebrating it until the end of time.

Extravagant devotion then becomes just as radical as doing justice, just as much a discipline, just as much a test of obedience, just as much death to self. And it carries just as much transformational power. For it was not in the bustling marketplace or among the teeming crowds, but in the desert and garden, alone, that Jesus faced dark temptation, heard and wrestled with the deepest voice and will of God, put self aside, and internalized the way forward.

Activists need more Mary, less Martha. There is only one God worth serving, but loving that God can be a real waste of time.

Chris Rice, co-founder of Reconcilers Fellowship, had lived and worked in an interracial community in Jackson, Mississippi, for 17 years when this article appeared.

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