The movie, “City Slickers,” captured the longing spirit of an entire generation in the early 1990s. An unhappy Manhattan yuppie on the verge of turning 40 is roped into vacationing with two middle-aged friends on a cattle drive in the Southwest. The trio pays big money to live the cowboy life, helping a team of ranchers drive cattle from New Mexico to Colorado, all while trying to navigate their own personal mid-life crises.
Along the way, they meet the ill-tempered, intimidating trail boss named Curly—a stereotypical tough and crusty cowboy who teaches them not only how to be real cowboys, but how to be real humans.
In one memorable scene, Curly is riding alongside Mitch, one of the city slickers, when their conversation turns existential. Mitch looks at Curly and asks if his life makes sense to him.
Curly replies: “You city folk. You worry a lot… You all come up here about the same age. You spend fifty weeks getting knots in your rope and you think two weeks up here will untie them for you. None of you get it.”
Curly pauses and says: “You know what the secret to life is…? One thing,” says Curly, holding up one finger. “Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean nothing.”
“That’s great,” says Mitch, “but what’s the one thing?”
Curly gives him a long stare and says, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
What’s the “one thing?” It’s what we’d all like to figure out. The secret of life, the meaning of life. Who among us cannot relate to the plight of Mitch and his friends, buried by the endless routines and toils of their lives, longing for something more meaningful?
We leave little margin in our lives for finding and making meaning. We rush from activity to activity, moment to moment, caught between distractions and daydreams. From dusk till dawn, every second of downtime can be so filled with diversions and drudgeries that we often fall into bed unsure of what we accomplished in any given day.
“City Slickers” was prophetic for its day. In the 1980s, diverse forces conspired to speed up the pace of life. Fax machines, pagers, and cell phones made people available in ways they’d never been before. Women had entered the workforce in droves. Traditional gender roles and responsibilities changed. The cultural zeitgeist shifted to a celebration of individualism where “having it all” and “doing it all” became the new aspiration.
At the time, futurist Faith Popcorn noted that Americans were quickly feeling overloaded, overwhelmed, and overstressed. 80% of Americans said they were looking for ways to simplify their lives. The pace of life was too fast; our time too stretched; our roles too many.
This “societal schizophrenia” gave birth to the cultural trend Popcorn called “99 Lives.”
Popcorn predicted that time would become the new money, and that we’d be willing to spend money on products if it meant we could buy more time.
“99 Lives” is about searching for mechanisms to recover personal time and avoid over-scheduling. It allows us to do more in less time. Today, we call it “stream-lining,” “multi-tasking,” and “life-hacking.” Because there’s not enough time in the day, we look for efficiencies.
This 99 Lives trend gave us some amazing innovations in the 80s: microwavable foods like HotPockets, Le Menu, and “L’Eggo by Eggo.”
Food on the go, like Go-Gurt—because, apparently, some parents didn’t even have time to get their kids a spoon.
Dr. Pepper Gum—because who has enough time to drink and chew gum at once?
VCRs. Books on Tape. ATM machines dispensing not only cash—but stamps, light-rail pass, and movie tickets.
Today, the trend has given us Door dash, HelloFresh, Instacart, and same-day denture delivery.
You can even buy a car from a vending machine and have it delivered to your driveway by tomorrow.
Because we only have so much time, and we have all these things we want to do before we run out of it.
Jesus wasn’t a big fan of multi-tasking, streamlining, and life-hacking. He knew how it would invariably lead to exhaustion, emptiness, and even enslavement—the three chronic conditions of modern life.
Exhaustion. Do you ever feel tired all the time, like you can’t keep up the pace, like you’re overloaded and worn out?
Emptiness. Do you ever say, “I just don’t have anything left to give; I’m stretched to the limit; I’ve given so much to others that the well is dry and I’m running on empty”?
Enslavement. Does it ever feel like you’re stuck, running in circles, trapped in some loop that keeps repeating, over and over?
Exhaustion, emptiness, and enslavement—the evidence of a deep spiritual struggle that speaks of loss of meaning, balance, groundedness.
It’s rarely easy to spot when it happens to us. But we can all spot it when it happens to others.
That’s why we’re given this story in Luke about Mary and Martha—to show us what it looks like when we’ve lost sight of what matters most.
Jesus stops by Martha and Mary’s place for dinner one night. Jesus is an extra-ordinary guest in the home of rather ordinary people. Martha sees it as an opportunity to pull out her best China, chill the chardonnay, kick on all four burners and do the full-scale Martha Stewart routine. This meal will be a labor of love.
So she cooks the meal, sets the table, cleans the kitchen, washes dishes.
Mary, on the other hand, never leaves the table. She sits at Jesus’ feet all night, listening to his every word, oblivious to Martha’s plight in the kitchen.
Martha seems to be overworked, underappreciated, exhausted, frustrated, grumpy, empty, and trapped
Mary appears to be something like a Christian Dali Lama, the portrait of contentment and peace.
Predictably, Martha finally snaps. Elbow-deep in soapsuds, a scowling look of resentment on her face, she says, “Jesus, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to help me!”
Can you see Martha waving her wooden spoon, standing at the kitchen doorway in her apron and hair net glaring at her freeloading sister?
And we say: Poor Martha. This is what happens when we don’t focus on Jesus and we worry about the wrong things.
But before we make Martha into a caricature, remember she’s simply doing what was expected of any first century Jewish woman: entertaining and feeding her guest, offering hospitality, serving Jesus in the only way she knows how.
And by all the cultural expectations of the day, her sister Mary, is not.
And yet Jesus says, “Martha, you’re all worked up over nothing. Only one thing is essential, and Mary has chosen it.”
That’s the punch line of the story, but like the City Slicker, Mitch, we say, “That’s great. But what’s the one thing?”
It’s easy to say that Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet all night was better than Martha’s choice to work in the kitchen—although given the choice, I’d much prefer sitting to doing the dishes.
Was Jesus suggesting Martha’s work wasn’t important? That if only she were less busy, like Mary, she’d be happier?
But I think the deeper truth is not what Mary and Martha chose to do, but how they chose to do it.
There’s a time to go and do; there is a time to stop and listen. A time to cause and a time to pause. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus who we’re supposed to be, Mary or Martha, his answer would probably be “Yes.”
Martha’s problem is not that she’s working too hard. Her problem is that she doesn’t know, in that moment, what her true work really is.
Does that sound familiar?
There are times in our lives when fulfilling our necessary roles and meeting the expectations of others who are counting on us is a beautiful expression of following the will of God. We are all Martha, to some extent. Martha makes the world go around. The world wouldn’t spin without her. She’s the one who changes diapers, repairs the air conditioner when the fuses blow, does the grocery shopping, changes the oil every 3,000 miles.
Martha makes the world go around. Her work isn’t glamorous. It’s often overlooked, unnoticed. And yet, where would we be without Martha? She’s all around us, and we are her. For all of us, there are common tasks that must be completed in our lives – some of which give us meaning, many of which feel like drudgery, but all of which, when we do them, constitute acts of deep love and faithfulness.
But in the midst of a busy life, we need to cultivate the spirit of Mary within us—that desire and permission to sit in stillness and silence, to pause to hear the Word of life, the whisper of Grace, without which our lives are meaningless, without which our work leads only to exhaustion, emptiness, and enslavement.
Maybe what both Curly and Jesus know about the secret of life is this: we can’t be in two places at once.
Mary’s attention seems to be undivided. She appears to be fully present in the moment.
Martha, on the other hand, seems torn—as if she’s trying to be in two places at once, and not fully present in either.
The writer, Bob Benson, wrote about his custom of never going to bed without kissing his kids, whether they were awake or asleep. One night he bent over and kissed his son, Patrick, on the cheek and quickly stood up to leave the room. He was tired and in a rush to get to bed. But his son’s question stopped him cold and brought him back to his bedside. He son said, “Dad, why do you kiss me so fast?”
Why do we often allow the most meaningful moments of our lives to go by so fast? In search of 99 lives, we forget to live the one we’re living in the here and now.
There’s an old Radiohead song that goes:
Sometimes I get overcharged
That’s when you
They ask me where the heck
At a thousand feet per second
Hey man, slow down
Slow down, idiot…
One of the myths of life and love in the modern world is that “It’s not quantity, but quality.”
That’s a lie—an excuse for not showing up and being fully present in the moment.
If we really believed that it’s not about quantity but quality, we’d have no problem going to work on Monday and telling the boss that we’d like to put in fewer hours for the same pay because it’s the quality of our work and not the quantity that counts.
That’s not called quality time. That’s just called part-time.
The “one thing” Jesus is trying to teach Martha is that life and love are comprised of two kinds of time: a time to work and make a difference, and a time to pause to reflect on what kind of difference our work is making.
The great pianist, Artur Schnabel, once said, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists.
But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.”
It’s all music. The work, the rest, the quantity, the quality. It’s all part of the beauty.
Writer Kate Daniels describes a typical evening in her home. She and her husband come home from their jobs, the kids are trying to do their schoolwork, but are mostly squabbling while she prepares a meal. The dog overturns the kitchen garbage can and runs away, leaving garbagy paw prints all over the house.
At the end of the day each family member is tired and overstimulated. She knows in her heart that each is seeking love, and healing, and nourishment. But all too often weariness, frustration, and irritation boil to the surface, and family conversation is bitter and sharp rather than gentle and kind.
“Try as I may,” Daniels writes, “I have a hard time browning the ground turkey I’m planning to mix with canned spaghetti sauce for the glory of God.” But, she adds, “I try to find the poetry that exists, even here.”
It’s all poetry, all music, all beauty.
“Only one thing is essential,’ says Jesus: to find beauty in the toil.
Kathleen Norris wrote about the endless struggle of caring for her husband, who was battling cancer. There was a lot of worry and drudgery in caring for him through his cancer treatments, But she said she also encountered peace, and goodness, and even joy in it all—nestling in front of the TV and laugh themselves silly watching reruns of Bugs Bunny cartoons; the goodness they found in so many of the doctors, nurses, aides who found many small ways to offer them kindness; the joy that came when she remembered to be grateful for the sheer wonder of life itself: the beauty of creation, the miracle of her marriage, the love of family and friends.
“My Christian religion… is not about sweetness and light and unattainable holiness. It gets down to the nitty gritty. The Jesus I encounter in the scriptures is the same one I find in the daily newspaper, on the street, in my home, in my low and high moments, and even in my place of drudgery. And when I recognize who it is that is with me in all the busy-ness of life, I do feel myself—my weak, weary, and withered self—to be every bit as rich as a queen.”
Our take-aways for today:
We can never be in two places at once.
The music resides in the pauses between the notes.
Only one thing is essential: to find beauty in the toil.