“What’s your primary ministry?”
The question jolted me. Pick just one? How?!
I was first asked this question about three years ago when I was pushing myself to cross another thing off my to-do list. There I was, in a fluorescently lighted, multi-purpose church basement about to start my first cantor formation class. I certainly didn’t sign up to face the question of defining my so-called primary ministry. It stared me down as I entered a state of inward puzzlement and outward improvisation. One by one, the small group responded. One by one, my mind raced through several seemingly noble answers from my life across ministries, work, family and community. After stating "music ministry," I knew in my heart that it was a temporarily professed primary ministry. That question awakened in me a new desire for my true answer. And so, I added another item to my to-do list: figure out my primary ministry.
The idea of categorizing, prioritizing, or (what I know have learned to call it) discerning one primary ministry, one vocation, one dream was foreign to me. In looking back now, what followed was a series of small, Spirit-driven steps that ultimately have led – and continue to bring – significant movements in my life. And although the simplicity of the question seemed to invite a simple answer, that just wasn't the case for me. Why did this question trouble me so much, anyway? Of the top reasons slowly revealed to me, here’s the primary one:
I’m a Martha.
In case you’re not familiar with the “Martha and Mary” dichotomy, here is the passage from Luke 10:38-42 that describes their interplay with the Lord.
“As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her."
On a nearly daily basis, I cope with the insistence the heroine of this passage is not Martha. Serving, working and over-scheduling myself has always made much more sense to me than what scripture says is the “better part” of Mary. Martha being “burdened with much serving” causes an immediate reaction in me to get that poor woman some help. Martha even uses my favorite two little words, “to do” when she speaks to Jesus. I resisted the idea that just sitting beside God and listening is the right decision when there’s work to be done. I resisted a commitment to one primary ministry because it would require me to sit and listen, like Mary.
It haunted me even more deeply because it came at a time when I was in full worship of the god of busy. Working too many hours, saying yes to too many people, serving too many causes. The "better part" of Mary had to take a backseat while my to-do lists propagated their to-do lists. As a result, my spirit was suffocating, and the most cherished people in my life and those whom God entrusts to me to serve first and most are left with the least and the worst of my time, energy, and patience.
My husband, stepson, and daughter are indescribably core to my identity. And yet, I began to realize being busy formed my identity. For years I had felt an inner desire to prioritize my marriage and motherhood, but it seemed impossible to let go of the activities that were in the way. Being just a wife and mother didn't look like it was enough – and many well-intentioned influences at the time agreed with me. In some moments, I convinced myself that letting go would mean burying my God-given gifts. I buried my inner desire and made room for racing around in circles at the feet of the god of busy.
When God stirred my soul with the question, the good God also supported me with an ecosystem of spiritual sustenance for the journey toward the true answer. Through retreats, bible study, prayer, meditation, spiritual direction, messengers, and most lovingly, giving my husband the patience of Job, God has been helping me to loosen my grip on to-do lists and begin the prison break from busy.
By the grace of God, I’ve been shown that my true answer to “What’s your primary ministry" is as wife and mother, that God needs my vocation as a wife and mother. God dreams of me embracing it. And I’m not there yet. But I have the desire and daily opportunities to release my inner Martha and make way for Mary. To think of my calendar as a living, breathing, moral document that serves to remind me of God’s dream for me by carving out time for my vocation.
If you are a Martha, I offer this for reflection. Martha may not be the heroine in the scripture passage, but Martha is there with the Lord. The passage identifies Martha by name and is the first to welcome Jesus. Martha and Mary are both graced by the presence of the Lord. Martha looks upon the face of the Lord and is doing what she knows to be fitting before this encounter. Just as the question, “What’s your primary ministry?” awakened my soul, how must have Martha’s soul been stirred by the Lord’s words to her? In this very moment, Jesus speaks those same words to me and you.
I invite you to re-read the passage and place yourself there as Martha. Imagine Jesus looking at you with great love and mercy as he says your name instead of Martha’s.
Then read it one more time, and imagine you are Mary. See if you notice a difference in your vision of being rather than doing.