Mary, Martha, and Me . and Other Books for Mom
Reviewed by Catherine K. Arveseth

With Mother’s Day just days away, you may be wondering what book you can pick up for Mom.  Below are highlights from some of my favorite publications this year.  Any one of them would make a thoughtful gift.  But I will concentrate my comments on Camille Fronk Olson’s latest book – because it was exceptional.  It is a must-read for every woman, whether Mother or not.  Read on and you will see why. 

Mary, Martha, and Me

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Camille Fronk Olson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.  This is only her second book, but it is masterful, engaging and so insightful.  (Olson’s first book, a short but discerning read, is titled In the Hands of the Potter.)

How many times have we heard the Mary/Martha story rehearsed in Relief Society and wondered, how do I really apply that to my life?  Have you heard that voice in your head?  “I feel like I’m Martha so much of the time – I wish I could be more like Mary – but without Martha-esque living, my house would fall apart!”

What is it we have been missing about this interaction of two faithful sisters with the Savior?  Olson has the answers.  Everything she has to say about Mary, Martha and – let’s face it, us – resonates with truth and light.  Finishing Olson’s book was like unloading an unnecessary burden or heaving a sigh of relief.  For me, it was the chance to replace guilt with contentment and understanding.  Olson clears the confusion that has been generated by celebrating “Mary’s part” or “Martha’s part” as the better part.  She teaches that what the Lord simply wants us to do is seek the “one needful thing.”

One Thing is Needful

So here’s the rub – only “one thing” is needful.  I was under the impression this “one thing” was “Mary’s part,” setting aside the chores of the day to listen to the Lord’s voice or study His word.  And sometimes this is exactly what we need.  But Olson takes us to Luke 10 to recall the scene in its entirety. 

Martha receives Jesus as a guest in her home.  Martha has a sister, Mary, who Luke says, “also sat at Jesus’ feet,” meaning Martha must have sat at Jesus’ feet too, but in this particular moment, “Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?  Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

Olson believes our souls “yearn for one needful thing to. provide clear direction for our hectic schedules today and all our demanding tomorrows” (2).  She writes, “Emotions that rotate among defeat, anxiety, guilt, and arrogance become all too familiar companions in our attempt to be good disciples of Christ.  Where is the balance?  Where is the peace?  How can ‘one thing’ be the answer?” (1). 

We Need Him

Plowing through the first chapter, I was hungry for illumination.  Thankfully, Olson doesn’t leave us hanging for too long.  At the chapter’s end she boldly tells her readers, “Jesus Christ is the one needful thing. In my life of never-ending responsibilities, I do not need another checklist (derived from scripture or anywhere else) to define the Lord’s role for me. I need Him. I need His strength, His wisdom, His grace to perform work that will make a difference” (12). 

Olson describes her book as an “invitation to realign our focus away from the search for a perfect formula toward finding Christ and internalizing His truths” (13).  “The message of Mary and Martha is not a generic. answer to align me with one or the other of them. On the contrary, they give me confidence to ask God directly what He wants me – specifically me – to do” (13).

I embraced this interpretation immediately.  How plain and simple!  Why hadn’t I seen it before?  Re-read the passage from Luke.  It is there.  Martha had chosen to serve the Lord her way, while Mary was serving Him her way.  The Lord’s gentle rebuke towards Martha was not because she was preparing dinner for her guests rather than listening to Him, it was because for a moment, her focus moved from those she was serving to herself.  Luke describes this as being “cumbered” about much serving.

The Problem with Cumbered Service

Olson considers herself a Mary-type, a student of the gospel.  She contrasts her Mary-like tendencies with the ways of her grandmother.  “Grandma Harris” was a definite “Martha” – a devoted wife and mother who served her family and others endlessly.  She even woke at unearthly hours to be the first in the neighborhood to have her clean laundry out on the line.  This likening of the Mary/Martha story to Olson and her grandmother, allows readers access to Mary and Martha through contemporary means – contemporary chores, skills, aspirations, and pitfalls.

The word “cumbered” means to be “pulled in different directions, preoccupied, and distracted” (33).  Olson teaches that competition, comparison, recognition, and even perfectionism can “cumber” our service, diverting us from Christ as the One Needful Thing.  She calls it the “slippery slope of cumbered service” (46) and reminds us that it is how we serve that matters.  “According to the parable, the Lord.accepts no petty comparison over who helped Him most and who needs His Atonement least” (23).

Most of the book addresses this idea of how we serve.  Identifying the features of cumbered service is smart – all of us have teetered on that “slippery slope” from time to time.  Olson discusses fallible ideas like trying to pay the Lord back through service, condemning someone else’s service, overzealous agendas that leave us feeling like the victim or martyred servant, focusing on ourselves rather than those we serve, and serving with misguided motives.  “When we come to Christ, with diligent service born of a pure heart and no thought of reward, we find the One Needful Thing, in all His powerful accessibility” (49).

A View from Different Angles

Olson takes us on scriptural journey with Mary and Martha, not just to the moment in Luke 10, but to all of their interactions with the Savior.  We learn that Martha changed after being rebuked by the Lord.  She manifests great faith at the loss of her brother, Lazarus, bearing testimony of the resurrection without feeling neglected that the Lord waited four days to answer their request for Him to come (see John 11).  And when Mary anoints Jesus, preparatory for His burial, again in Martha’s home, we hardly notice Martha.  She is still serving, obviously preparing a large meal for her guests, but she does not complain. It is not Martha that anoints the Savior with oil, but her gift is absolutely selfless and meaningful in its own tender way.  Olson explains the two different offerings.

“Martha’s peaceful service allowed the focus to rightfully center on the only One who is needful” (94).

“The Savior’s clear acceptance of Mary’s offering reinforces the power of listening, pondering, and learning by the Spirit. Mary. found and accepted the One that is needful, which blessing would not be taken from her” (81).

This is where Olson masterfully teaches her readers.  She examines Martha, not just freeze-framed with bowl in hand, or Mary, obsequiously placed at the Savior’s feet, but throughout their entire journey with Christ.  From different angles, Olson helps us come to know Mary and Martha in their true discipleship. 

Setting Priorities

Most meaningful for me, however, was a chapter about priorities – putting God first.  Let me quote Olson.  Her words are direct with a message that cannot be missed.

“Setting priorities is not a problem of time; we each have exactly the same amount allotted each day.  With increasing opportunities to learn and to serve and so many good causes that would benefit from our help, we will always have more on our daily list than we can accomplish. That is where Martha and Mary help us to remember.  We may not accomplish number ten or even number three on our daily list, but we will most assuredly get to number one.  When God comes first in our lives, whatever comes second. will always be right” (106).

Praise be to the Sisters of Bethany

Reading Camille Fronk Olson’s treatise on the lives and offerings of Mary and Martha was an elevating experience.  It was like opening a window for fresh air and bright light.  The book is stunningly seamless in its transitions, themes, and circular truth.  I was wowed to say the least.  I also appreciate the fact that her supportive material was diverse, extending beyond LDS authorship.  Most importantly, Olson’s writing invoked within me very strong feelings for the Lord Jesus Christ.  I felt drawn to Him in new ways with new needs. 

I join Olson in her tribute to Mary and Martha, “Praise be to the sisters of Bethany for leading us to the One” (124).  “They wholeheartedly came to the Essential One and were consequently covered by His enabling power. His grace is sufficient. Sufficient means enough.  His wisdom and strength are enough to cover us, to see us through all our chaotic todays and turbulent tomorrows” (123).

Mary, Martha, and Me is my pick for every woman this Mother’s Day.  Don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn about these faithful women of Christ, and about yourself. 

A Light Shall Break Forth

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This collection of talks from the 2005 BYU Women’s Conference would be my second pick.  It contains twenty-six essays first presented at this Conference.  I always look forward to this re-cap of Women’s Conference, especially since I live outside of Utah and am unable to attend.  I devour these books.  They are a definite spiritual feast.  Some “old favorite” presenters are included as well as some new that may become your favorite. 

Here are some names you will recognize:  Mary Ellen Edmunds, Ann Madsen, Truman G. Madsen, Sandra Rogers, Cecil O. Samuelson, Andrew Skinner, Heidi S. Swinton, Susan W. Tanner, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, and John K. Carmack.

The essays center around the prophet Joseph Smith and the words spoken to him by the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 45:28, “And when the times of the Gentiles is come in, a light shall break forth among them that sit in darkness, and it shall be the fulness of my gospel.”

Here’s a taste.  I begin with this statement by Sandra Rogers – one worth memorizing.

“Joseph Smith stood by Christ, and now the faithful stand by Joseph” (5).  Sandra Rogers

“Joseph possessed ‘the pure love of Christ’; he was clothed in bonds of charity in a very bitter world.  When Joseph was asked why scores followed him and stayed with him through severe trial, why they left their farms, homelands, and even families to join what he called ‘the cause of Christ,’ his answer was simple: ‘It is because I possess the principle of love.  All I can offer the world is a good heart and a good hand.'” (55) Heidi S. Swinton

“When our minds are stocked with scriptures, they become the language of our revelations. Do you see?  Scriptures stored in our hearts enter our prayers effortlessly. We speak God’s language back to him” (92). Ann Madsen

“We are living in a great season for all women in the Church.  You are an essential part of our Heavenly Father’s plan for eternal happiness. You women are the real builders of nations wherever you live, because strong homes of love and peace will bring security to any nation” (148).  Elder Dieter F Uchtdorf

“The superwoman syndrome is. insidious. an imaginary or fictional woman with superhuman powers who succeeds in combining several roles and does it all with apparent ease; she exhibits a group of signs and symptoms that together are characteristic or indicative of a specific disease or other disorder and form a recognizable pattern of something undesirable. We don’t plan to become part of the superwoman syndrome, but sometimes our life just falls into that category by default; it slips from our control when we are trying to do too much in too little time” (180). Susan Robison

Runaway Mom

This short novel, written by Carol Lynn Pearson is a nice escape.  Pure fiction with a bit of satire, sarcasm and a lot of humor – it will help any stressed-out Mom laugh at life and appreciate what she has.  Or. it could inspire action like that of Pearson’s heroine, Alison, who runs away from home for Mother’s Day – an unusual but intriguing idea.  Alison, divorced single mom, finds out that her teen and pre-teen children are only participating in the Mother’s Day program because they have been bribed.  That’s the last straw for Alison. 

So she heads to the nicest hotel in town, for some R&R and VIP treatment with instructions for the front desk that she not be disturbed for any reason.  When her children hunt her down (on bike) and beg the front desk to tell their mother they need her, she goes so far as to tell the front desk to have her children arrested.

Alison’s perceived imperfections are stacked against her flawless neighbor, Martha Harris, who is chosen by the ward to be “Sister Celestial” in the Mother’s Day program.  Now I have to say “Sister Celestial” is a little over the top.  If any ward actually chose to have a “Sister Celestial,” I think most moms would gag.  Martha Harris, herself, is also a bit unbelievable but makes the book fun and gives stark contrast to the diverse types of mothers.

I was reminded of how good it is to laugh.  Here’s a snippet taken from Alison’s “runaway” thoughts as she bemoans her lack of motherly talent. 

“If she were a better mother, she would not have responded to Jamie’s complaint that he was sick of those little round slice-and-bake cookies by cutting them on the diagonal. If she were a better mother, she would never have had to apologize to the Sears people for little Melissa not knowing the bathroom set was only for display. And she would have known that the cars for the Cub Scout pinewood derby needed to have their wheels sanded before you put graphite on them.  And Melissa would not be developing a weight problem at age eleven. And Jamie would never, never have gotten into trouble at school because he scratched a bad word on the principal’s door” (12).

You get the idea.  Read Runaway Mother to find out if Alison ever makes it to the Mother’s Day program and what tragedy befalls our beloved “Sister Celestial.”

If Life Were Easy, It wouldn’t be Hard

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This is Sheri Dew’s latest book.  It is Dew in true form – bright, engaging, and enjoyable to read.  I really appreciated the chapter on change with its attention to charity.  Dew says charity may be the spiritual gift that is “most underestimated and even the least understood” (56).  With encouragement to develop charity, Dew cautions readers against the “3 C’s” – “comparing, competing, and categorizing” (70).

Dew discusses concepts such as purity, burdens (and making sure we understand the Lord will carry our burdens but not our baggage – loved that idea!), and the ills of our current society from pornography and celebrity worship, to the dissolution of the family. 

Some of what Dew writes may sound repetitious to readers, specifically her comments about the family.  She acknowledges this.  “At the risk of repeating myself at least to some degree, I can’t resist addressing it again because of my compelling concern” (81).  Dew makes a fantastic defense for chastity – one you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

Commenting on the reason for her rather obvious title, Dew writes, “We will experience moments and episodes where the intensity of the challenge nearly defeats us.  Apparently it was meant to be so.if life were easy, it wouldn’t be hard.  However, it may be that many of us are making life far more difficult than it needs or is supposed to be” (124-125).

I loved this final thought from Dew about the need to involve the Lord intimately in our lives.  “Is anything too insignificant to discuss with the Lord?  Is any heartache too petty?  Is any anxiety or worry too trivial?  Is any weakness too insignificant to deal with?  The Lord doesn’t seem to think so. He has invited us to weary Him with our requests and needs” (133).

If Life Were Easy, It Wouldn’t Be Hard is not just for women, but a good read for anyone who wants to consider the Lord as the answer for all difficulties.

A Heart Like His

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I have shouted this book from the rooftops.  If you’d like to read a more in-depth review of this book by Virginia H. Pearce, click here.