Published February 24, 2005
I am in charge of setting up coffee hour after the liturgy at our church this Sunday. In a moment of wild generosity, I volunteered about six months ago and was astonished when I realized the date was upon me.
Providing goodies for coffee hour might seem like a simple task for most people, but I am a lifelong worrier, so of course I bring to the job an astonishing amount of angst.
Some women at church put out a grand spread, consisting of sliced meats, various cheeses and dips, fresh bread and yummy desserts. Fortunately, when I volunteered, the lady in charge assured me that simple also was fine. Which is a good thing, given the state of my bank account.
As I get ready for the event, I confront one of my biggest fears, no doubt inherited from my mother, which has to do with running out of food. We never did run out when we had guests, but perhaps that was because my mother always put out “more than enough.”
But how do you even know what “enough” is, I wonder, if you are not sure how many guests to expect? Problem is, the crowd that shows up for coffee hour varies from Sunday to Sunday from about 50 to 100 people.
And as I study the pastries at the bakery and feel myself going into high-gear worrying mode, I realize what is really going on here. God is getting me ready to give up something really big for Lent. He is asking me to surrender my tendency to fret over even the smallest events.
Still, I must confess, I have my doubts. Can a worrywart really change? Can a Martha turn into a Mary?
You remember Mary and Martha from the Gospels: They were Lazarus’ sisters, and when Jesus came to visit them, Martha ran herself ragged in the kitchen while Mary sat in the other room, listening to Jesus.
At one point, Martha was so irritated with her sister that she went to Jesus and asked him to reprimand her. What a shock it must have been when Jesus told Martha that her quiet sister had chosen what he called “the better part.”
I suspect Martha’s problem wasn’t so much that she was busy, but that she was, in the words of Jesus, “troubled and worried about many things.” Because, let’s face it: Being worried is the exact opposite of trusting in God.
And, of course, that is precisely my problem, I realize, as I shell out money for dozens of bagels and doughnuts for coffee hour. I also purchase 70 ounces of cream cheese, a few giant bottles of soft drinks, juice for the kids, and then throw in four bags of cookies, just in case.
As Sunday morning draws nearer, I am totally Martha. I have recurrent visions of huge crowds of people showing up after liturgy, all of them starving—and me running out of food.
My patient husband assures me, over and over, that I have enough provisions. I check with Zoe, a lovely young mother at church who has overseen coffee hours before and seems to possess a secret practical knowledge, which I, much older, lack.
“You’ll be fine,” she assures me. “You have plenty.”
Still, the morning of coffee hour, I awaken with icy dread in my heart. I keep picturing the parishioners staring at me with big hungry eyes, while I am forced to utter the terrible words, the words no woman ever wants to say: “We are out of food.”
I head to church with the car packed with boxes of doughnuts and bags of bagels and all the other goodies. Right after Communion, I rush to the nearby cultural center to put the food out, with Zoe at my side. She gets the coffee pots going, while I arrange bagels and cream cheese on platters and open doughnut boxes. Soon, the folks from church have arrived, and after we say grace, everyone digs in.
And here’s the big joke of the day: We don’t run out of food at all. Instead, at the end of coffee hour, I am walking out with a huge pile of extra bagels, all the cookies, plus more cream cheese than my husband and I could eat in a year.
Obviously there is a big lesson here, but as any worrier can attest, the lessons don’t come easy. Because at the heart of worrying, there are so many other negative emotions that fuel the frenzy.
In my case, there was the fear of disappointing other people if I failed to feed them enough—and the fear they would reject me as a result.
Fear, I know, doesn’t come from God. After all, Jesus said time and again to his friends: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” and “Fear not.” His words suggest that fear thrives in a bleak place inside us, where the Prince of Darkness, a.k.a. the devil, often gets the upper hand.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. And although we aren’t given the details, I would assume that since Jesus was planning to fast for 40 days, he didn’t haul a lot of stuff with him.
Forty days in the desert without food is the very essence of trusting in the Father. Keep in mind that Jesus was there alone, and he could have been bitten by a snake or attacked by wild animals. As for me, I doubt that I would last even three days in the desert, especially if I were all alone with my own wacky fears and mental stuff.
However, hope does spring eternal. And so my Lenten plan this year is to drop some of my usual baggage as I follow Jesus into the desert. I hope to shake off my habit of worrying and learn to be more trusting.
No doubt I will meet my own wild animals in my Lenten desert: all the old voices and ingrained habits that fuel my worry machine. And no doubt the devil will show up to tempt me with new scenarios to fret over.
Still, here is my dream: I am going to walk into the desert as Martha and emerge on Easter Sunday as Mary.
And maybe, with many prayers and the grace of God, I will eventually feel inclined to volunteer to head another coffee hour, with very little agony involved. And even some joy.
Lorraine Murray writes a column every other Saturday for the Faith and Values section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and occasionally writes for America, the Jesuit magazine. She lives in Decatur with her husband, Jef, a gerbil named Scruffy, a cat named Tinker Bell, and an elusive hamster known as Ignatius. You may e-mail her at: email@example.com.