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The better part?

BLOG – The Better Part Sunday 17th June 2022

Today's lectionary includes the story of Jesus' visit to the home of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Reading this text as a neurodiverse person isn't easy. Not only does it suggest that attentiveness is a virtue, but that it is also a choice. Mary's lack of activity is contrasted with Martha's busyness and she is praised for choosing ‘the better part’.

I have always known that focus was hard for me. When invited in church to close my eyes to pray, the silence would send my brain into a whirl of activity. Despite all my efforts to quieten my thoughts, I found my mind still flitting from subject to subject as the silence continued. Until my diagnosis with ADHD, I attributed my distractability to a lack of piety and self-discipline. Previously, when I read this gospel story, I found myself empathising with Martha’s mixture of guilt and indignation. Like Martha, my focus would have been on arranging proper hospitality for a special guest like Jesus. Busying myself with a myriad of tasks would have been, for me, an act of devotion. In fact, trying to sit like Mary, at Jesus’ feet would have been incredibly stressful as my mind flooded with worries about all the jobs that were still to be completed.

As disabled people become more visible and vocal in our communities, we as Christians are being challenged to re-read the Scriptures through new lenses. I was very privileged to work alongside Prof John Hull at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham for a time. John’s reflections on his blindness was become a prohetic witness to the institutional Church which has, for too long, seen disability as, at best, a problem, and at worst, a sin. I still remember how challenged I was to sit alongside John in worship and hear blindness and deafness being used as synonyms for ignorance or obstinacy. How those words jarred when we were invited to confess our blindness and deafness?

When we read the Bible, we are engaging both with the lives of the characters portrayed and with the worldviews of the authors and editors. For those who passed on the stories of Jesus and those who eventually wrote them down and collated them into the gospels, there is little doubt that most of them believed that disabilities of all kinds were signs of God’s curse and not blessing. Any condition that limited a person’s ability to work for a living or care for a family was to be feared in a society without a welfare system – and still is! More fearful still was a disease that could not be seen other than through a person’s behaviour or mood. The assumption that any disability or divergence is a deviation from the norm leads inevitably to marginalisation, exclusion and demonisation.

So, in the conversation with Mary and Martha, is Jesus being insensitive to the possibility of neurodivergence at play? Is he mistaking preference for intention? As I read this story through the lens I have been given as a neurodiverse person, I begin to see elements of myself in both sisters: times of infuriating distractedness and other times of hyperfocus. Strange though it may seem to some, both sisters could be exhibiting classic ADHD traits.

What is troubling for me is the implication that attentiveness is a choice or an act of will. My experience of ADHD means getting to grips with a brain that requires significant interventions to keep it focussed but still functions best when it is let off the leash. That also means learning that productivity is not necessarily a result of doing one thing at a time or removing so-called distractions. Some of us need distractions, noise, outside stimuli, to be able to see what is really important. Even then, the idea that our attention is something I can control or direct at will is, to be frank, fanciful.

In spirituality, silence and stillness can be as intrusive to me, as noise is for others. That’s why I have a particular love of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions where worship can be a cacophony of sounds, sights and smells, and movement is not restricted. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when silence and stillness are what I most need, but the effort needed to enter into that place can be much greater for the neurodivergent mind.

In this context, healing means accepting that my attention is not something I can turn on and off and ‘training’ has only very limited benefits. Instead, I try to look for things that will provide a bit of scaffolding – rosary beads, icons, incense and candles, writing as I listen, even knitting! I look forward to the day when Methodists are allowed to move around as we worship and are not confined to one place for the duration of the service; sitting still can be as difficult for some adults as for children!

As for Mary and Martha, there is a message here of diversity, of learning to live with different responses to the divine and not misjudging preferences with intention. Martha is challenged by Jesus for her judgement of Mary’s inactivity as a lack of concern. We need reminding, again and again, that things are rarely what they seem.

Infinite God, I thank you that I am not made like other people

and that others are not made like me!

From the very beginning,

the diversity that fills our world

with colour and joy and meaning

has been at the very heart of your creation;

without it, life itself would not be possible.

Forgive me when I seek to

simplify the complexities around and within me.

May I confront the fear of difference

that prevents me from receiving others as siblings.

Give me the courage to use

the knowledge of my own uniqueness

to build communities where others may

receive the holy gift of themselves.

In the name of the One who was

wounded and marginalised for our sake. Amen.


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