by Shelley Curtis Weaver | 10 August 2023 |
My mother was the women’s ministry director when I was a young adult. I’m not sure exactly how that position came to be. During my childhood, there were only women at the helm of children’s divisions and the Dorcas Society. By the time our young family moved back to my hometown, “Dorcas” had become Community Services, and there was suddenly a Women’s Ministry program. It was not to be confused with women in a formal ministry from the pulpit; that concept had already received its first General Conference down-vote.
It was nevertheless curiously laden with evangelistic baggage. We had entered the evangelical-gimmicky nineties, where my friends in Baptist, Methodist, and even the Mormon churches in our area, would speak of “innovative” ideas for outreach.
I remember a couple local churches passing out nine-volt batteries for smoke detectors at Halloween, with a note reminding neighbors that Jesus and the local church wanted to spare them from fire now and in the hereafter. That wasn’t an idea our congregation was theologically able to support, but it showcased the pressure we all felt to break free of the old revival-meeting format to find something “relevant,” and most importantly, “effective.”
That pressure was underscored when conference visits and camp meetings would address the subject of Women’s Ministry and outreach. The end-goal of our programs was to be church growth.
My mother was conflicted about this. First of all, she felt it detracted from the needs of the local members. How could people be spiritually fed, or relax and enjoy an event, with an accompanying pressure to appeal, impress, and attract visitors to join us next Sabbath?
Second was the distasteful prospect of inviting people who would know they were our evangelistic targets. How would they know? Because their own churches were doing the same thing. When my mother questioned the methodology, she was chided about being “unwilling to grow” our local church. So my mom eventually staged a silent revolt as only my non-confrontational mother could do: she honed in on what she really thought women needed, and provided it.
I was dragged along for the experience. Mom would call me to bounce ideas and themes off of my unsparing critique. Once the plan was in place she would gather decorations and recipes and design what she knew women needed—an evening of relaxation, amusement, attention, and affection—with no strings attached. All along the course of planning, she would fret, “I know this isn’t outreach. I don’t suppose this is what Women’s Ministry is supposed to be.”
Then, after all that musing and fretting, she would do it anyway. In preparation, I’d spend hours hanging streamers and decorating tables while my mom and her talented friends prepared the food. The women entered that room in the evening with wonder and delight at what had been prepared for them.
Mom had invited first and foremost the church ladies, but she also invited from her nondenominational prayer circle, her good friend at the hardware store, her hairdresser—so many faces from her life in that community. She would begin each welcome with some version of “we women work hard caring for everyone, and we deserve a night for ourselves.” I would laugh internally at my mother’s mild, but powerful “un-evangelism.”
The busy-ness of church work
It’s from this perspective that I am jolted by the response Jesus gives to Martha in the story of her frantic dinner party and uncooperative sister in Luke 10:38-42. Because I am in every way Mary in that story, I’ve always rooted for and cheered her endorsement by Jesus.
However, the older I get, and the more meals I’ve prepared with my paltry culinary skills, the more I’ve felt for Martha, and wondered if Jesus was really quite fair to her. After all, the meal was for him, and “people gotta eat.”
And we are all a little consumed about what’s fair. After one of my mom’s programs, I was getting a haircut when the stylist mentioned how much she’d enjoyed the evening.
“Your mom doesn’t put any pressure on people to come to church,” she said. I sat there a little stunned by her clarity. “No, I mean it,” she continued. “Everyone wants you to join their church. And do you know why? It’s because they are plain sick and tired of doing all the work themselves. They want some help. They want someone else to shovel the walks and give offering for the bills, and lead the kids’ classes.”
I had to laugh at that. When you’re caught, you’re caught.
“Your mom just makes us feel like she’s happy to see us. She’s happy to have us there.”
It strikes me as significant that Jesus tells Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things.” Things, not people. The frenzy, the headcount, the production, and even Martha’s resentment, was not really about feeding anyone. It was about multitasking and labor. It’s easy to make hard work, church work, especially, look like spiritual commitment. But Jesus says all of that misses the good things, and the one essential component. These worries diminish the joy of simply having his company.
Jesus is precise and unsparing about this. It is no accident that he tells a story where people describe a lot of things that sound a lot like church and evangelism, and Jesus doesn’t recognize any of it (Matthew 8:21-23). The things they describe are major undertakings. But Jesus says they do not know him. They’ve decorated a table with all the trappings of faith and fellowship, but failed to make a place for him.
Serving God as “the least of these”
Jesus places his identity with the least, the most humble—the shameful, imprisoned and disgraced, because it’s the identity of God/Jesus/Spirit to rush in and address human need and suffering. When we alleviate suffering and offer comfort, when we see and understand human need, we bear the spark of God’s kingdom and character in the middle of a troubled world. We are reminded by his teaching that those we serve bear that spark of the kingdom, too.
This is why motive matters. For those loving the artistry of organs, choirs, stained-glass, and a finely-crafted sermon, this is good news. The human spirit also suffers, and our soul needs to be fed as well. What is meaningful in the artistry of the high church tradition is not just that God is praised, but that our need to worship, to sing, to create and illustrate is put to practical service. Art is also ministry to the soul; beauty lessens the suffering in life.
Jesus recognizes the motive in the elaborate gift. He does not scold Mary at another dinner party when she pours an expensive bottle of perfume over his feet. While that story is often told as an act of gratitude, Jesus adds another detail. He underscores the sorrow she’s experiencing. He mentions the grief that will come to the group of female followers who will be unable to anoint his body.
In this moment, Mary goes to the head of the class among his followers. Mary is offering this elaborate service in response to Jesus’s imminent suffering and death, a teaching so many of the other disciples have chosen to argue and ignore. When Jesus’s male followers fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane only a few days later, the lingering smell of Mary’s expensive gift must have come as a comfort to him.
There is a transition here. Something important has changed between the meal-prep at Bethany and the anointing of Jesus’s feet. Something moved Mary from merely listening to performing a sacrificial act of service. Something changed in Martha, too. Whatever seems shallow and distracted in Martha at the dinner party, it is significant to acknowledge that it is Martha who steps up in faith when their brother, Lazarus, dies. While Mary’s faith in Jesus’s power is shaken in her heartbreak, it is Martha who declares that Jesus has authority over death.
Changed focus, changed lives
Whenever we are tempted to judge Mary, Martha, or anyone else, this story reminds us that we outside the story are rarely privy to the moment the heart changes. But Jesus knows. Perhaps the day at the dinner party, Martha learned to pause and listen to Jesus. Perhaps at their brother’s tomb, Mary learned how to weep, comfort, and serve the suffering.
Natural growth was ignored during Adventism’s gimmicks-for-growth years. As we polished our worship service, scheduled talented speakers, and wrote a church mission statement, we also passed out spiritual gift inventories at business meetings. This natural church growth model was businesslike and efficient in mining the congregation for the natural resources of spiritual gifts.
It was a technique that reduced members to raw resources. “Here is your gift. Here is your niche. Go bear fruit.” It’s significant to remember that kids growing up in the church during this time watched their parents (and often themselves) persistently assessed for usefulness.
The result is that of the young Adventists who remain interested in the church, many are dismissing religious strategies and addressing need and suffering instead. Priorities such as securing people’s food and housing, rejecting racism and bigotry, and the conscientious care and stewardship of our planet seem like a needed salve to society’s battered feet. Whether the second coming is today or tomorrow, these young people propose to fill the meantime serving Jesus as “the least of these.”
The church taught these young people something important—perhaps without meaning to. As the need for spiritual growth and relational ministry was denied their parents and grandparents, they witnessed how badly it was needed. Like Martha, they learned the importance of jettisoning programming for following Jesus. For this reason, they focus on spiritual growth, healthy relationships and sustaining friendships for themselves, having seen parents and grandparents serve from empty reservoirs.
I am hopeful for the fruit of these changes after my lifetime of revival meetings and market-based plans and gimmicks. Though some are quick to condemn the smell of its fragrance working its way through the room, these are the responses of the young people sitting at Jesus’s feet. He knows the gifts, experiences, and growth that brought them to him. In the face of human need, an anointing is rushing in to dress the wounds of Jesus in the suffering of this world.
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness Addiction Recovery curriculum from AdventSource.