Thursday, October 22, 2009

Coming Attractions

Last Sunday Michael preached a sermon on James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples who, with a stunning lack of humility, conspired to reserve for themselves the seats of honor on Jesus’ right and on his left in his coming glory. Can you imagine? Wanting to be special like that? Sheesh.

Of course, as Michael suggested in his sermon, we probably all have a bit of that – ambition, a drive to be successful, to be great even – or at the very least, a need to be recognized, affirmed. In its most basic form, it seems to me, this is really just another way of saying that we all need to be loved.

Of course, our need to be loved can play itself out in many ways, some of them not so humble. Often, our need to be loved plays itself out as a need to be loved over and above everyone else, to be greater, better, more special. I mean really, James and John were already Jesus’ disciples for crying out loud! What more could you want?

I doubt Jesus’ response was all that satisfying to James and John, and it can be hard medicine for most of us still today: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve…” (Mark 10: 43-45) Jesus doesn’t say that we can’t be special, that we can’t be great, but he redefines greatness. As Michael put it, Jesus asks not that we give up our drive to be first, but rather that we turn our drive to be “first in love … first in service.” Michael suggested that Jesus “democratizes ‘greatness’ if you will. Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve…. Beloved," Michael continued, "Service is the rent we pay for the room we take up in this world. Not something we do in our spare time, with what’s left over. But our purpose in life. Everyone can be great. And it’s one of the most beautiful compensations in life that no one can sincerely try and help another without helping himself. The best way to become yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. Everyone can be great. ‘We cannot truly live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a 1000 invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run first as causes and then return as results’ (Herman Melville). Everyone can be great. We can’t foresee our lives’ twists and turns, but one thing we can know: the ones who live best will be those who’ve sought and found how to serve. Everyone can be great. Children of God, Disciples of Christ, find your real job, and do it. Understand real success and go for it. Everyone can be great. Amen.” (Michael Ward Caine, sermon to Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 18, 2009)

I agree with Michael that everyone can be great. I agree that Jesus calls us to a different standard of greatness than the world calls us to, and that Jesus’ standard is how well we love and serve one another.

I agree, wholeheartedly, indeed this is at the heart of my faith as a Christian … and yet, and yet … that doesn’t feel like the whole story to me. Or rather, I should say, that’s not my whole story. And I want to tell you my whole story about service and greatness and my need to be loved. I want to tell you because I think it is sort of easy to be a little polly-anna about how nice and good and right it is to serve others, but I am here to tell you it can be pretty fucking hard too. And our actions, that “run first as causes and then return as results”? Sometimes the results aren’t what you’d expect. And you still find yourself yearning for a pat on the back, to be special, to be loved.

A couple of years ago I stopped blogging at the wide tent for several reasons. One was that I found myself starting to feel ambitious as a writer, wanting to be read, and recognized, to be one of the important and successful bloggers – but I didn’t like the writer I became when I was motivated by ambition. I felt that my words, in my mouth, on my fingertips, that they were often righteous, and lacked humility, that I was trying to bring craft to my work not so that it would serve others but so that it would reflect well on me. And when I did try to approach my writing with humility, I would just be left wondering, “Who the hell am I anyway? Why do I think I have anything so special to say?” Either way, it was sort of paralyzing.

Another reason I stopped blogging was that I had hit a wall when it came to writing about race and poverty. I was and still am pretty in awe of Dawn’s writing about adoption, and as I have said before, I felt, and still feel, like I don’t have a whole lot to add. But poverty and racism – I felt like I actually did have something to say, and I was tired of the same old predictable white liberal script -- I wanted to break out, and talk about these things in new ways … but again, I just felt paralyzed.

Most importantly, though, I stopped blogging because I took a job, and I just really didn’t have any time. For almost two years, from early in 2007 until late fall of 2008, I became very involved in directing my church’s summer and after school programs for children and youth living in poverty in a neighborhood of Philadelphia called Kensington. By the end of 2008, I had burned through just about everything I thought I knew about myself, and I just collapsed.

Writing again here at my goodly heritage has been wildly theraputic, and while I don’t have all the answers about why I write, and how I write, and what it all means, I do know that I don’t feel so paralyzed any more. I feel like I have emerged with a new voice, and I will admit I like it. I also will admit that I like getting nice comments from all of you. I don’t know if I have more ambition than that right now, but I’m also pretty sure that if I do, it’s okay. And, I think, maybe I’m ready to tell you my story, my complicated story about service and greatness and needing to be loved.

This story is long, and it will most likely unfold over many months. So stay tuned. If you feel so moved, drop me a comment now and again and let me know what you think. I’m not too proud to tell you that it really does make my day!


Heather said...

I know I"m really looking forward to the story. :)

BarelyKnitTogether said...

I'm so sorry I haven't visited in a while - not because I think you've missed me, but because your writing is edifying and humbling and makes me think.

I have a friend who always cited that argument among the disciples about who was the "greatest." He said, "If those regular schmoes can be friends with Jesus, than I guess I can be too!" I understood his point - that we all have those unfortunate human traits that we'd rather pretend we didn't.

Thank you for writing.

Sara said...

No doubt it'll be a good story - and it's a lovely circle that never ends eh? The writing feeds the comments which feed the writing...

Kate Haas said...

Marta, you are a fantastic writer. Even when I'm not commenting - like on all the Jesus-y stuff - I'm still reading and thinking, holy cow, this woman is eloquent! Have you ever thought about a memoir?

Melissa said...

I'll be curious to read this. I have found my life of service (as a SAHM)for the last eight years exceedingly difficult, and dull, and lonely, despite my best efforts! Then I hear stuff like this and think, this is what I *should* be doing. It's what we all should be doing! It's hard and not very gratifying, IMO. Maybe that's the point. But I don't like it ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to Michael's sermon! MLK's bit was familiar and I appreciated the way the rest wove together.

What you write resonates with my experience in many ways, including feeling paralyzed about writing sometimes.

My blog is primarily a way to express and grow into greater awareness. If being myself in God's world can be of use to anyone else, that's gravy.

I think I'd like to add you to my blogroll. Is that ok with you?

Marta said...

heather: thank you so much, and thanks for stopping by. i'm looking forward to exploring your blog (and your recipes! yum!)

barelyknittogether/jen: au contraire! i'm so glad to have you here, always (and not just because you always say such nice things, lol!) yeah, reading the gospels is good medicine for low self-esteem, cause those disciples were sorta stoopid sometimes, ya know? and not entirely worthy .. yet jesus chose them, right? we're probably all good enough too!

sara: yeah... just yeah. so glad to have you in the circle.

kate: as i've said before, i think i should just put you on retainer, lol! a memoir, huh? if it were that easy, sure! alas, maybe i should start a little smaller, huh? maybe i should pick your brain.... i have thought we should do a joint blog/zine effort, i dunno, sorta multi-media collaboration? hmmmm.....

melissa: i'm pretty sure if you don't like being a sahm, it's not the sort of service you are destined for. in the meantime, you ROCK, btw, and you have two awesome boys to show for it. and your time will come. soon i think! (two weeks, woo hoo!!)

jmomma: i'm glad you liked michael's sermon. he's pretty special (and cute too ;-) i'm just starting to scratch the surface of your blog, but loving it! thanks for all your honesty and lovely writing. i would be incredibly honored to be on your blogroll, and if i ever get around to putting one on my blog, i'd like to put you on it as well (but that's pretty technologically advanced for this luddite, so no promises! i should probably get a wordpress account and hire dawn to put a real blog together for me ... baby steps, you know?!)

Kate Haas said...

Have you read Take This Bread by Sara Miles? (San Francisco lesbian gets saved and opens a food kitchen. Good book, but you are so much the better writer.) You could totally do a memoir about love, faith, adoption/mothering and community, with the garden tying it all together as a big old metaphor. See? I figured it all out for you.

Marta said...

kate: yeah, i know it! here's what i wrote about it for gordon:

now, do you want to introduce me to your agent, lol!?

thanks again, you are the best! (and really, let's think about a collaboration, okay?)

Patrick said...

Once again, Dear Marta, you're grappling with questions much like ones I've been thinking about. The word 'ambition' has been coming up for me (and boy howdy, is New York City crawling with it), and making me examine how I want to be seen as special, why I do, and all of this has been intensified by losing James... I'm looking forward to hearing your story too! And I owe you an email, I haven't forgotten.


michael caine said...

dear marta, wow, that preacher you cited, he's great. not King, the other one! just joking. yes, we all have ambition. and needs, even fears. often they get in the way. paralyze us. hurt others. but sometimes, i believe, god can work through even our "shameful" parts. (actually, i think ambition is much more neutral than shameful, but i like the secondary biblical allusion.) keep writing. it's good for you and for others...

Marta said...

patrick: we're twins separated at birth, remember? ;-) and it's me who owes you, always, dear. but yes, be in touch. maybe we should take a writing retreat together, huh? there's nothing i can think of that i would love more in the bleak midwinter. i don't know if you want to pursue writing more about james, but that was some powerfully beautiful writing .... xoxo

michael: yeah, he's cute as a bug too. but he works too hard. maybe i should introduce the two of you, so you can give him some of your sage advice about pacing and god's time and all that. ;-)

i'm too much of a bible study novice to get the "shameful" allusion, but it's interesting that you bring it up. shame is not a big issue for me -- much like guilt, i just don't carry it much. but the only times i have struggled with feelings of shame have been around my relationship with poverty -- or rather, my inability to stay in relationship with those in poverty. both times i have found myself immersed in work with folks living in poverty, i've ended up cutting and running, and i'm certainly not proud of it..... more on that as the story emerges. thanks for stopping by.