On Martha, Mary, Jackson Devereaux, and Sally
I first met Jackson Devereaux more than thirty years ago, when I was taking an interterm course at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I was in my early twenties at the time, and he was probably more than twice as old, although – looking back – I have to say that he carried it well, as he was at that time more or less the age that I am now and I think time had been kinder to him than it has been to me. I wonder if that's because he rarely smiled and thus hadn't developed any laugh lines. Of course, running marathons, watching what he ate, and proudly never having had a drop of liquor touch his lips didn't hurt, I'm sure. Since, in my twenties, I couldn't even imagine a life of running marathons, watching what I ate, and never touching hooch, Jackson seemed almost like an alien to me, one of those pod people one sees in horror films who are just a little too perfect to be real. I wrote the words Stepford Baptist in my journal, and that – for me – was Jackson in a nutshell.
Jackson Devereaux was never wrong (even when he clearly was). I had the misfortune of being put in his group for an end-of-term project that we had to present to the class, and it soon became quite evident that there was nothing group-y about it at all. There were four us in the group, and – in Jackson's mind – there was clearly something about the other three that just didn't quite arrive at his level. Two were women, so right away he dismissed them, a big fan as he was of St. Paul's less-than-feminist-friendly theology. And I wasn't Southern Baptist (he would say – never to me, of course – that he didn't really think I was even a Christian) and so obviously in a project that was Bible-related I was about as weighty as the smoke of the incense that he seemed to be able to smell on me three days – and four showers – after I had been exposed to it.
Possessed of the enviable ability never to be wrong, and with unbridled energy and focus, Jackson took over the project, which had to do with Martin Luther. As hard as some of us tried to make suggestions and divide things up according to those areas where our abilities might make us effective leaders, he tended to bulldoze over us and would eventually wear us down so that we just didn't care to fight anymore. The fact that one of the members of the group – Leah – had lived for ten years in Germany and could thus perhaps shed unique light on texts written by Luther didn't seem to matter. The fact that I was a monk and could thus perhaps shed unique light on Luther's experience of the religious life didn't seem to matter. And poor Sally didn't seem to have anything to offer at all. A quiet girl who constantly chewed her fingernails, she seemed to look at her shoes more than her books.
Sometimes the fight is worth it and sometimes it's not; Leah, Sally, and I decided just to let Jackson Devereaux get on with it. He told us what to do, and we did it. It just seemed to work better that way.
Until the day of the presentation, that is. Because one thing Jackson Devereaux didn't count on was that the professor – a German, as it so happened – might just want to hear from someone else. He began with me, asking what my contribution had been. I stuttered my way through something that was both inelegant and unconvincing. Leah was even worse and – to make matters worse – developed a severe case of the hiccups whilst trying to defend herself. And then it was poor Sally's turn, who was so horrified she just shoved her finger in her mouth and started chewing at whatever fingernail she had left, not saying a word.
“So, no one except Jackson contributed to this?” asked the professor. Leah and I were mute, but Sally uncharacteristically looked up and answered. “I prayed,” she said. “I prayed really hard.”
There were some titters in the class. Jackson Devereaux let out a rather protracted and theatrical sigh, a sigh that spoke of the sheer weight that always being right and doing everything placed on his starched, oxford-cloth shoulders.
The silence seemed to last longer than a sermon in a non-air-conditioned southern church in August. I was moved by Sally's words because I knew them to be sincere. My mind went immediately to the story of Martha and Mary, a version of which seemed to be playing out in our very midst. Surely the professor – an esteemed Scripture scholar – would make the connection that while it appeared that Jackson had done everything, Sally helped keep the whole thing afloat with her prayer. I looked at him and almost waited for him to actually say the words, “Sally has chosen that good part.” How I love it, I thought, when the stories of Scripture play out in the stories of everyday life!
“Well,” the professor said, “praying wasn't the assignment, so I don't think that counts, does it?”
“It does to me,” said Sally under her breath almost like a prayer itself.
And so it should to us all. In a world positively obsessed both with being right and achievement, filled with people who frequently get their identity from what they do or what they have done, we're called to acknowledge that prayer does count. And, especially in this period when so many of us cannot do the things we usually do, I think we are being challenged to be something, to be someone who understands that more is wrought from the change of heart that comes about as a result of prayer than we could ever imagine.
People who pray may not always be right. People who pray may not always be holier. People who pray may not be as materially productive as others. But it really is the good part, and I believe if we are open to God in prayer, we'll then be able to do what needs to be done. And I think millennia of the Christian experience backs me up on this.
It's a good lesson for us all, especially these days when we are discussing the opening of our church buildings. The whole point of it all is to give people a special place to pray. That's it. That's the entire reason we're taking this next step.
“Does that really count?” a cynical world could well ask.
I hope we answer like Mary at the feet of the Lord, and like Sally of the stubby fingernails: It does to us.