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This One Thing

One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after (David)
Psalm 27:4
This one thing I do. (Apostle Paul)
Philippians 3:13
There is need of only one thing.* (Jesus Christ)
Luke 10:42

It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movies. It comes in City Slickers, when Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch, is alone with Curly, played by Jack Palance. Tough as nails Curly is giving Mitch some wisdom for life:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? (holding up one finger)
This. Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that…………”.

Like Curly’s secret of life, so was the secret of life for King David, for the Apostle Paul, and the Lord Jesus. One thing! Find the one thing and stick with it!

I have been struck by the wisdom of the one thing as I have been preparing to teach a class for Fuller Seminary Southwest on Christian Traditions and Practices. In the class we will explore the Christian life as it has been lived and taught across 1,800 years of church history. As I have been studying the exemplar lives of spiritual giants such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Ignatius, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Metropolitan Anthony, and Mother Teresa, I have been impressed by the simplicity. They make it far more simple than we have made it. I don’t mean easy, but simple. 

These friends of God all remind me that following Jesus has never been complicated. It is we who have complicated it with methods, formulas, and theories. In fact, Jesus said that following Him was so simple that it is best done by little children. 

For most of us, going deeper with God and coming alive spiritually will not mean doing more, but doing less. Most of us already have too much to do. We are already the weary and heavy laden to whom Jesus promised rest. But then come the ministers, priests, and spiritual teachers, ready to pile on our load yet something more to do. We feel like giving up!
This takes us back to the remarkable story in Luke 10, when Jesus is visiting in the home of Mary and Martha. Perhaps you remember the scene and how it plays out:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks. (Luke 10:38-40).

When Jesus sees Martha racing about He tenderly corrects her: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things” (verse 40). It is important for us to see that Jesus is not saying that Martha should stop caring about “many things.” Rather Jesus is warning Martha that she is “worried” about many things, and worried to the point of being “distracted“. The Greek word translated as “distracted” means literally “to be pulled in many directions.” It is a word which has a twenty-first century sound to it!

It is to the distracted Martha that Jesus gently says: “There is need of only one thing.” Then pointing to Mary, Jesus adds: Mary has chosen the better part, which will  not be taken from her.” Mary has found the one thing!

We live in the Age of Distraction. We even pride ourselves in being pulled in many directions at once. We boast of being busy. We adapt to multitasking in a 24/7 world, where we chat on our cell phones, as we watch television, while catching up on our email.

Then Hollywood and Madison Avenue add to the confusion, complicating already complicated lives by telling us that we “can have it all.” And we do try to have it all! We keep filling up our closets and calendars and are surprised that we are left wanting more.

Henry David Thoreau lived in a time far simpler and slower than ours, but even he bemoaned the distraction: “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify!” What might Thoreau say of the need to simplify in our world of the Internet, iPods, and 300 television stations to choose from? It is so easy to get distracted from the one thing. I know it is for me!

Retreating from the world is not the answer. It never has been. But there is the need for us to simplify. There is the need to cut down on distraction, cut down on being pulled in all different directions. There is the need to zero in and focus on the one thing.

I am grateful to spiritual giants of the last 1,800 years for reminding me that I have made the Christian life more complicated than it is. And I have asked people to do more, when I should have been asking them to do less.

It is after all about the one thing. And what is the one thing? The one thing will be for us as it was for Mary: spending time with Jesus and listening to what He is saying to us. That is, Jesus says, the one thing that will not be taken from us.

Grace and peace—Tim Smith
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