Diane's Voice

Living with Our Whole Heart

When I was asked to teach a course in Christian Lifestyles to high school seniors I was both excited and terrified. I had started work at school in the fall covering a maternity leave in the English department, teaching AP Language and Composition–a class roughly equivalent to the first-year writing classes I’ve taught, on and off, my entire professional career. I was trained to teach first-year writing. I studied first-year writing. My dissertation was on the effects of technology in the first-year writing classroom. I’m also an essayist, researcher, and academic, so I was teaching what I practice.

When it came to Christian Lifestyles, however, that last qualification–that I was teaching what I practice–was all I had. My training is not in theology. I have no degrees in it, and certainly no doctorate. Granted, I’ve been teaching catechism, in some form or another, since my eldest daughter was in preschool–so going on 15 years–so I guess I have some experience teaching about Christianity. But the main qualification I had was that I have spent my entire conscious life–so, since I’m 50, let’s say 45 years–as a practicing Catholic. And I always say that I call myself a practicing Catholic because I’m really bad at it and I need to keep practicing.

My newest practice–born of the pandemic, when I was brought so low by anxiety, fear, and despair–is to let God control the direction of my life. At the height of the political unrest in our country, when the racial issues combined with the health issues in the summer of 2020, I was mired in emotional and mental pain. I had no idea what to do or where to turn. I couldn’t control, or fix, or even wrap my head around what the world had become. I felt incapable of doing more than breathing. And in that lowest of my low points, I just said, “God. I have nothing. I can’t do anything. I am powerless. But I know You love me, and I know You have plans for me, and if it’s for my life to end in this pandemic, so be it. I can’t live in this fear and isolation any more. I’m giving you my life. Do with it what you will. I’m listening, and I promise when I know you are calling me I’ll say yes.”

An hour later I got a call from a friend, asking me to do some writing for a non-profit organization called Angels for Change. They were just starting out (and by now they have come so far they were even featured on CNN!) At the time, they wanted me to jump in and help with telling their story. I’ve written before about “God Winks.” This was a God-sledgehammer.

I felt God’s call a number of other times after that, and I said yes. Then, I was asked to teach at my daughters’ Catholic school. Another yes. So when the request to teach this class came up, I again gave my yes.

For those reading who are not versed in Christian theology, giving one’s “yes” is an essential part of Christian living. I’ve heard it said that God is a gentleman; He will not force His will on us. If we look at the story of the Annunciation, Mary is asked to be the bearer of Christ. She’s not told. She’s not ordered. She has the free will to say no, in much the same way as Adam and Eve had the free will to choose whether or not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So when we choose to turn our lives over to God and allow Him to direct our path, we have to listen, discern what He’s calling us to do, and then say “Yes.”

Saying yes to teaching a religion course carried a great amount of weight for me. Granted, I was given a curriculum to follow so I had lots of guideposts–the same as any course. Unlike other courses I taught, however, there wasn’t an exam to pass at the end of the semester or a level of academic achievement they had to reach. In my mind, the outcome held much deeper consequence. I was probably going to be the last teacher in a school to talk to them about God. At minimum, I didn’t want to do anything to turn them away from Him; ideally, I’d give them some of the fortitude to continue to turn to Him for their entire lives, more often than I did when I was their age, when they emerged from the Catholic school bubble into a world that is often incredibly hostile to the faith.

So I approached my lesson planning very intentionally, but also with an ear open to hear if I was being called to go in a different direction. And as so often has been happening when I invite God into my work, I was struck by something profound.

I had finished teaching my lesson on cooperation vs. competition that day, part of a unit on work. My lesson plan for the next class was to do a lectio divina on the Gospel reading in Luke 10: 38-42 about Mary and Martha, which is so dear to my heart that I’ve written about it here before. But so far that’s all I had, and I had been praying every day for God to tell me if there was something I needed to add. Well, that day I got into my car, and plugged my phone into my sound system. Immediately, Brene Brown’s book, The Gift of Imperfection started playing from my Audible app–but not from the beginning. It started playing Guidepost #9, “Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and ‘Supposed to.'”

Though I am a huge Brene Brown follower, and have been working on living a wholehearted life since I first heard her speak six years ago, I had not been listening to her book recently. As I drove home, I was amazed at how much she was saying about this guidepost related to what I was teaching my students about work. I continued to listen through the next guideposts, like “cultivating rest and play” and “cultivating laughter, song, and dance.” I thought “everything Brown is saying not only relates to this course curriculum, but to the reading about Mary and Martha that I planned for next class.”

I asked my family if they had been listening to her book on Audible. None of them had. That book started playing at that time, on that chapter, on that day, in my car, when I was alone and driving home quietly. It could not have been a coincidence. It wasn’t a sledgehammer, but it wasn’t just a wink, either.

The next class I started, as planned, with Lectio Divina on the story of Mary and Martha. Again and again I read about Martha working so hard to accommodate the people Jesus brought to her house that she gets angry at Mary for sitting at Christ’s feet rather than helping her. Again and again I read about how Martha turns to Christ and demands He tell her sister to help. Again and again I read about how He gently reprimands Martha saying “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.”

Then I played Brown’s TED talk on wholehearted living, and brought up her Ten Guideposts:

As I went through them, it hit me. In the story of Mary and Martha, Mary fits into the “cultivating” at least 6 out of 10 of Brown’s wholehearted living guideposts; Martha fits the “letting go.” While “the better part” that Mary is choosing is, obviously, to listen at the feet of God, in modern parlance some might say that the “better part” Mary is choosing is a wholehearted life.

Martha is intensely worried about what people think as she serves all her guests. Mary lives authentically in just sitting at Jesus’s feet and listening to Him. She doesn’t care what others expect of her. She doesn’t sit on a chair, or at table. She sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet. She has no sense of pride, perhaps not even a sense of decorum. She just wants to be with her Lord and sits down where she finds most fitting.

Martha wants everything to be perfect for her guests. Mary is self-compassionate–she gives herself permission to sit with her guest and listen to His teaching.

Could Martha be using her busy-ness as numbing because she would otherwise feel powerless? An argument could be made that she is–I know I do. Was Mary cultivating a resilient spirit by listening to the Lord? Most likely, but she was most definitely cultivating gratitude and joy as well as trusting faith. Was Martha operating out of scarcity and fear of the dark and a need for certainty? Perhaps.

Martha was definitely comparing herself to Mary. Was Mary cultivating creativity? Again, it’s possible that sitting at the feet of the Creator could be viewed that way.

Martha pretty much defines herself by “exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth,” while Mary is resting in God’s presence.

Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things,” and if that doesn’t fit “anxiety as a lifestyle” I don’t know what does. Mary, on the other hand, is calm and still.

Martha is doing everything she is doing because she believes she is “supposed to;” Mary is not doing what others expect. She is doing the work of her soul.

Martha is the definition of “in control.” Mary may not be laughing, singing, or dancing, but she is most certainly in a state of joy listening to Christ.

This realization, this connection, profoundly struck me. I said to my students, “So whether we look at a two-thousand-year-old Bible passage or modern research based on 6,000 interviews and over six years of scholarly work, we get the same answer. Brene Brown finds that the one thing that distinguishes people who live their lives as if they are worthy of love and belonging from those who don’t, is that those who do believe they are worthy of love and belonging. For at least four years, you have been learning this faith, which teaches us that we are worthy of love and belonging because we are unique children of God and He has a purpose for us if we accept it. We can choose to live our lives worrying about what people think of us, trying to be perfect, numbing ourselves with work, work as if there will never be enough, demand certainty, compare ourselves to others, wear exhaustion as badge, believe we are only as worthy as what we produce, make anxiety a lifestyle, live in self-doubt, only do things because we’re supposed to, and try to always be in control. And we can be deeply unhappy and risk a nervous breakdown by the time we’re forty. Or we can live as the unique children of God that we are, make time to love ourselves as God loves us, bounce back from suffering, trust our faith, take time to cultivate our creativity, rest with and in God with calm and stillness, do work that has meaning, and take time to laugh, sing, and dance. Essentially we can sit at His feet in all of our imperfection, let go of what the world tells us to value, and be happy.”

“Are you going to make this another blog post?” one of my students asked. I laughed and said, “Yeah. Probably.”

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