What I'm Learning from Mary   (personal spiritual growth)

I am going to describe two extremes to show the importance of something in the middle that otherwise might not seem profound. At one extreme is the point of view that Malcolm Gladwell described in his book Blink. He’s not a bad fellow and I’m not out to discredit him. The thesis of his book has merit. Sometimes you can arrive at a valid conclusion in a flash.

An example he gave sticks with me. A psychologist could tell in seconds whether a couple in marriage counseling had any hope of reconciling. He simply observed whether contempt was present. If one or both parties had contempt for the other, there was no hope. Blink. Apparently an accurate diagnosis of that is possible in an instant. That story was convincing.

Put Blink at one end of a spectrum. It has its place. In our fast-paced, over-messaged society, we understandably want to simplify and speed through obligations. While may have a desire to do what is right, we sure need to do it quickly! Even good people find themselves resorting to checklists for the weightier matters of life. Church: check. Giving: check. Something for the poor: check. Birthdays, holidays and other family obligations: check, check, check. This may not be a particularly rich or reflective way of life, but the Do List gets completed. This type of living is what I’m describing with Blink as the extreme symbol, at one end of a spectrum.

What is the other? The opposite extreme would be the monastic types who completely separate themselves from the world. In a way it is remarkably similar to science fiction movies, where sealed pods support life for long trips to other planets and space suits allow people to operate in hostile environments. People are hermetically sealed. Some try to live like that spiritually. They attempt to insulate themselves from turmoil they see around them. When they do, they don’t look like astronauts, however. Sometimes they drive horses and buggies.

Here again, I am not out to condemn anyone. Not Malcolm Gladwell at one extreme nor monks and the Amish at the other. They are important symbols that we do well to understand. Can you see the spectrum of worldview they represent? One extreme advocates running on personal instinct and snap judgments while the other seeks life that is isolated and contemplative avoiding many complex and difficult situations. There’s a lot more to this than abstract theory. At issue is how we look at life. What we expect. What we pursue. Those are hot topics for me these days.

By the way, lest the contemplative end of the spectrum appear naive or escapist, consider this. These people often meditate on the Lord, His word and His ways. They linger there. They try to live there. Instead of making decisions in a blink, these people take hours to revisit and meditate on what they think they already know. That is a world apart from the Blink approach. How do I operate? How do you?

Each of us is somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes of living in a world of intuition, dazzle and energy or at the other end, a life that is slow, attentive and reflective. Where will I, and where will you, spend most of our lives from here, as a ruminator or a blinker? Or what blend of the two?

There is truth in each of the extremes. James 1:27 brought that to mind. I typically quote that verse to describe our work with orphans and other hurting children around the world. Actually, the passage talks about more than children’s ministry. It says true religion is also that you “keep yourself unstained from the world.” Monasticism accomplishes that and has other benefits as well.

The reason behind my thinking about this spectrum is that since my wife died, I am at a major juncture. What do I do now? How will I live? Who will I be? I’ve never had more freedom. I’m debt free. Healthy. My options are wide open.

Questions about my future cause me to wonder how I might find answers. For now, I am not as concerned about specific conclusions like where to live, should I find another woman to love, change jobs, etc. Instead, I am focused on arriving at a good process rather than make immediate decisions.                

I think for most of us, we want to be somewhere in the middle between the two extremes on the spectrum. There are times when Blink is helpful. For instance, I don’t want to put more effort into buying a pair of shoes than I do reflecting on a scripture that I read today. I can blink with the shoes. For some situations, blink decisions work perfectly well.

For the important parts of life, I want to linger and reflect. Those parts are my relationships with God, my own self, my family and my calling. I both want to pause rather than blink for those…and…I want to meditate on what is beyond the obvious. I want to allow space for God to show me I may not have noticed. The best parts of my life often showed up as a surprise gift from God.

It was after Christmas that I happened to notice Luke chapter 2. That’s the familiar passage with the most popular version of the Christmas story. I reread how the shepherds came to see the baby Jesus. You know the story. I was drawn to Mary’s reaction to the shepherds and their comments. If I had been her, it would have been different. I might have thought something like, “This is extremely remarkable. Praise God for it. How delightful. Of course, I knew all this from the time when the angel told me I would conceive. My cousin told me, too. Joseph had a vision as well. I get it. Though this is unfolding in ways I could never have predicted, I’m good with this. I get it. I’m glad that God is pleased with me.” Trying to put myself in Mary’s shoes, or sandals, that is what I imagine I would have been thinking. Instead, her reaction to the shepherds was nothing like that. Here is what the Bible records, “Mary treasured all these words [what the shepherds told her] and pondered them in her heart.”

Today, I’m saying, “Thank you, Mary.” I need what you did. I’m going to ponder it. I am going to ponder what it means to ponder. Too often I’ve been taking a check-off approach to life. Luke 2 would not have been very inspiring if I had been Mary. No one two thousand years later would want to read my thoughts, “Yep. Shepherds having visions. That fits. I get it. Both Joseph and I had visitations too. What they said. Okay. That’s good. It checks. Approved. Oh, and speaking of approval, I guess all this still means I’m on good terms with God. Check.” This caused me to realize that my natural instincts are far too superficial and self-centered to live by blink alone.

Mary did not check off and set aside. She wasn’t at that end of the spectrum. She treasured the incident with the shepherds. When you treasure something, you keep it in a prominent place, at least in your mind and heart, where you can revisit it and re-experience it often. To her, treasure meant more than something to merely look at. She “pondered in her heart.” That is so different from jumping to a conclusion or smiling and moving on to the next thing. It is a continuing, open process. This went on for years. A few verses down the page, Luke 2:51 notes that more than a decade later, Mary, “…continued to treasure all these things in her heart.” This treasuring and pondering described in Luke 2:19 could easily be overlooked. Don’t take it lightly. Something exceptional is happening. The previous verse, Luke 2:18, says, “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said…” Then the next verse begins, “but Mary.” What Mary did was different. It was a difference of monumental proportion. I am working diligently to understand how to embrace what she did. Others were impressed and amazed by God’s great deeds. Isn’t that good? But Mary was different somehow. She took the experience further and deeper. I want to be like her.

We can learn something here from technology. That’s a switch, isn’t it, going from the nativity to high tech? Stay with me to see the connection. Thanks to computers, we’ve now accumulated vast quantities of information. In recent years this spawned a professional specialty called Data Mining. The idea is to take all that information and hunt through it for buried insights. Doing so frequently turns up remarkable facts.

Here’s a small personal example. When I was leading Opportunity International, we discovered a pattern. Almost all of our very largest donors, those who gave fifty thousand dollars, a hundred thousand or more, almost always gave modest initial gifts, typically five hundred or one thousand dollars. With that insight, we learned to pay close attention to people who made initial donations of five hundred or one thousand dollars. Now if data mining can yield results as valuable as that, how much more enriching might spiritual life-mining be? That’s the difference between what Mary was doing in Luke 2 and everyone else. They all witnessed the same visit by the shepherds. They heard what the shepherds said. Everyone recognized it as miraculous and historic. Apparently only Mary mined it. She treasured and pondered its implications. Likewise, you and I have a wealth of experiences. We have treasure in God’s word. How well do we mine those?  

This technical illustration matches perfectly with the scripture. When it says Mary pondered all she saw and heard, the original language in Luke 2:19 literally means she was trying to put things together. She was weighing the meaning. As Warren Wiersbe’s commentary puts it, “Mary sought for some pattern that would help her understand God’s will.” That’s very similar to data mining. We Americans love good experiences. We pursue entertainment. Yet, the real treasure, greatest insights and ultimate meaning for life comes elsewhere. It is hidden and cannot be found without mining.

These thoughts are especially significant to me right now as I am wondering how to plan my future. Pennie and I knew how to build a life together, but that’s over. Now what? I used to have confidence in how my life worked. Friends heard me say often in recent years, “My life is simple now. I am fully invested in just two things: my family and my ministry.” That was true. Today, my family is broken. What now?

A few folks speculated that I’d climb aboard our fancy RV and drive off into the sunset. I could. I considered that briefly. Part of me likes the idea, but it doesn’t seem like much fun going alone. Besides, escaping is not a healthy way to pursue the future.

As for family, losing Pennie is drawing the three of us who remain closer together. I’m very thankful for Mark and Courtney. The last two months with them was superb. We’ll stay close, but I know better than to turn all my attention on them. They need to build their own lives and families. I will to stay close with my daughter and son, but I cannot and should not be central in their lives. I love them too much to dominate them.

Still, I wonder, “Now what?” When you are married as long as Pennie and I were, you develop a bunch of habitual routines. Those antics were fun which is, of course, why we repeated them. One that comes to mind is Pennie saying, “What’s going to become of us?” She would shrug her shoulders, toss up her hands with a smirk on her face when she voiced those words. It was her way of saying, “Here we go again.” It wasn’t an expression of dismay; it was actually rather flippant. Our lives took so many peculiar twists and turns over the years that the only thing predictable for us was change. We lived an extraordinary adventure together. She was up for it and often blurted her quip as a way of saying, “Of course, more change and uncertainty. Bring it on!”

Today, the question I have is slightly different. It is, “What’s going to become of me?” There is no more us. Yet, I want to cling to the tone I heard in Pennie’s voice when she wondered aloud. She wasn’t anxious, instead, open and expectant.  While I don’t know what’s ahead, I’m not too worried. Mary helped me this Christmas. From her example, I’ve determined that the best way to prepare for my future is to treasure and ponder, as she did. She didn’t merely experience or enjoy the shepherds’ visit. She treasured and pondered it. I resolve to do more than just survive this time of transition in my life. I am looking for ways to treasure and ponder what I am experiencing.

As you can tell, I’m on a whole new path. My future cannot be anything like my past. My life is radically different without Pennie. She was a wonderful companion and ally. Her courage and wisdom helped enormously with life’s big decisions. So far, in my new reality as an older single guy, I don’t have any clarity about big changes ahead, driving off into the sunset or otherwise. There may not be any changes soon. I don’t know. All I have concluded is that my best chance for making the most of life from here is neither blinking nor joining a monastery. Instead, I will treasure and ponder. There will be times to be decisive. The rest of the time, I intend to stay open and observant.

Mary couldn’t discern with only a blink. Yet, if anyone could have, she ought to have been able. An angel told her she had favor with God. She had other divine encounters revealing her future, even before meeting those shepherds. Still, she ruminated. No simplistic jumping to a conclusion and then getting on with life. She pondered. My spiritual sensitivity and discernment are certainly no match for hers. I need to learn from Mary. That’s why treasuring, pondering, ruminating, and meditating are among my favorite words these days. I am weighing the pieces of my life to see how it all fits together for the future.

I offer these thoughts to others on the possibility that Mary’s experience and mine may be something of benefit to you as well.


© Eric Thurman 2015