wo days after my college graduation I set out to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Constructed more than 65 years ago, the Appalachian Trail begins in the state of Georgia and follows the Appalachian Mountain range north through 14 states, ending in Maine—a total of more than 2,100 miles. Hundreds of people through-hike, or hike the entire trail, every year. Some do it year after year.
One of the purposes of this adventure was to focus on my connection with God, to have some time just to “be”; to cultivate a slower pace after finishing college. But “being,” I learned, is a state of mind that can be difficult to achieve—either in the city or in the woods, even in Jesus’ presence.
I didn’t complete the entire trail, but four months of walking in the woods taught me a lot. I learned that wherever you go, there you are—with all your strengths and weaknesses, personality quirks, and spiritual battles. You take it all with you. And the more you focus on your weaknesses, the stronger hold they have on you.
I learned that success has a broader definition than simply achieving a goal. I learned the concept of interdependence. Independence is necessary, but helping others and allowing them to help you is valuable too.
My most important lesson? Even out in the woods where there are no distractions, there are distractions.
I hiked six days a week, then rested on Sabbath. Some Sabbaths I made it to a town with a little Adventist church, but on several I landed alone, miles from civilization, in a little three-sided shelter with just a roof and a sleeping platform. One ought to be able to refocus there. But throughout the summer I found various diversions. Goals, for instance: “I want to hike 100 miles this week.” Or people: adjusting my schedule to stay with the fellow hikers I befriended. And challenges: Smelly socks, bugs, and body odor, and being wet from almost constant rain distracted me.
Journaling became a distraction, as I recorded every day’s miles, significant events, and thoughts. Sometimes I filled in the previous week’s entries on Sabbath because I hiked so far on the weekdays (to reach a goal) that I’d run out of energy to journal at the end of the day. Reading, too, was distracting, because although I usually carried only my Bible, finding another hiker’s discarded book or half a book (it’s less weight to carry them in pieces) in the shelters is not uncommon. None of these are bad things, but they did keep me in that busy “I-must-be-doing-something” mode, and prevented me from focusing on God.
After completing my hike, I went to Norway as a student missionary to work at Fredheim Health Center, a branch of the Heartgood Foundation. In Fredheim’s relaxed atmosphere I think I felt stressed maybe once. In a whole year I made only a handful of to-do lists. Yet after work I busied myself with things such as reading, my computer, people, eating, exercising, journaling, music, even studying Bible doctrines.
As I wrote in my journal while on the Appalachian Trail, sometimes it seemed like I did almost anything to avoid coming face-to-face with my Creator. It reminded me of a sermon I heard once entitled “Human Being, or Human Doing?”
Martha and Mary
I identify with Martha in the story in Luke 10:38-42:* “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”
In The New Birth Order Book, Kevin Leman writes about birth order, its effect on personality development, and the characteristics typical to each position in the family. I’ve concluded Martha was a firstborn. Luke says she opened her home, implying she was the one in charge of the household; and we find her, like a typical firstborn, being the responsible one, running around making sure everything was perfect. Although she was probably well-organized and disliked asking for help, she was entertaining Jesus—the Lord, the Messiah. The pressure overwhelmed her and she went to find Mary, who was lounging at Jesus’ feet.
Mary may have been the youngest and Lazarus the middle, because if we give heed to characteristics cited as a result of birth order, except for the story of his death and resurrection in John 11, Lazarus is kind of overlooked, not uncommon for middle children.
Lastborns, on the other hand, are used to being the “darlings” of the family and learn how to charm, clown around, and be cute. They like to be the center of attention, and, sure enough, several stories in the Gospels feature Mary. As a lastborn, she may have lacked self-discipline. Perhaps decisions were difficult to make because someone older and wiser had always made them for her. Lastborns are least likely to follow family traditions and can be rebellious and break social rules. As the youngest sister, Mary was probably feminine and flirtatious.
Several times Mary appears at Jesus’ feet. Not only does this position symbolize humility; it also implies an eagerness to learn. Did you catch what Mary was doing this time? Luke says she was at Jesus’ feet listening. As a human “being,” she was listening to what He had to say.
Now visualize Martha tasting soup, directing servants, arranging place settings, organizing seating. She was a good person; she opened her home to Jesus. But she wasn’t focused on Jesus, because she was judging her sister. “Tell Mary to help me!” she demanded.
Having grown up with two older sisters, I often joke about having three mothers. Firstborns usually enjoy giving directions, and without thinking twice Martha directed the Lord of the universe. She knew from experience that bossing Mary around wouldn’t get her anywhere, so she appealed to Jesus. But gently Jesus corrected her.
Notice, too, that despite Martha’s frustration, her communication with Jesus allowed Him to teach her something. Would she have learned as quickly or thoroughly if she hadn’t talked to Him?
Nevertheless, as a firstborn, Martha may have had difficulty accepting even a Friend’s gentle correction. “Only one thing is needed,” Jesus told her. All the many things Martha worried about (the firstborn’s perfectionist syndrome? a little sibling rivalry?) would soon pass away, but her relationship with Him had eternal implications. Jesus wanted quality time with His friends, just to “be” with them.
Do you ever feel awkward just sitting and talking with friends? In our go-go-go society we’re more comfortable on a walk, eating, watching a movie, playing a game—doing anything together rather than just sitting and “being.” Like us, Martha was a human “doing,” more at ease working for Jesus than just being with Him. Human nature hasn’t changed in 6,000 years! Our cultures may differ, but people struggled with the same things then as they do now.
Because of our tendency to place our selfish desires ?ahead of His, such exposure to God can be intimidating. Our wretched sinfulness also is distracting. But if, as some scholars believe, Martha’s sister was, in fact, Mary Magdalene the prostitute (whose demons Jesus cast out seven times), then what a portrait this is of God’s immense, unconditional, accepting grace—and the peace we receive when we accept it.
Being Candid With God
There are times I say to God candidly, “Here is how I feel, God!” even when how I feel is not very Christian-like. Yet I find peace and liberation in that honesty. Regardless of our unrighteous feelings, shortcomings, spiritual defeats, or bad choices, Jesus still welcomes us to sit at His feet. Isn’t that awesome?
Whatever our place in life—school, retirement, even working in a ministry such as the Heartgood Foundation—we can become so consumed by what we’re doing that we miss the communion with the One we’re doing it for.
Ellen White wrote: “We must individually hear Him speaking to the heart. When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 58).
What do you use to drown out the silence of your soul? What distractions prevent you from sitting down and listening at Jesus’ feet? Are you a human being, or a human doing?
Mary recognized that “one thing that is needed” to rightly prioritize her life. May we, too, learn to listen at Jesus’ feet, to be humans being, not humans doing.
*Bible texts taken from the New International Version.
Emily Simmons is a wellness coach, massage therapist, and freelance writer living in Collegedale, Tennessee. This article was published May 20, 2010.