Lenten Conversations: Dr. Martin Marty on Family Time
Another Way for week of March 10, 2017
Lenten Conversations: Martin Marty on Family Time
Editor’s note: Third in a six-week Lenten series of interviews Melodie Davis conducted with influential Christians.
One of the persons I felt most privileged to interview several years ago was Dr. Martin Marty, longtime editor, prolific author, and columnist at Christian Century magazine. That he would agree to an interview with a pretty much unknown writer/producer says something about his humble spirit. Among many laurels, The University of Chicago Divinity School named their institute for advanced research in the study of religion “The Martin Marty Center.”
As a Lutheran, Marty was named of course for Martin Luther, the great reformer. 2017 marks 500 years since Martin Luther wrote and nailed his “95 Theses” (on why the church needed reforming) to the door of the Wittenberg church in Germany. What an inspirational model for the young Martin Marty.
For years I enjoyed his weekly “M.E.M.O” column in the Christian Century. If Marty’s good health and remarkable mind continue, he will soon be 90 and still publishing (now contributes to the Sightings column). I will admit that his writing is sometimes too thick and academic for my inadequate brain.
Yet I will forever treasure his humor, his spirit (he always seems to be smiling as if keeping a
secret joke), and his willingness to welcome me into his Chicago condo and office looking out on a glorious view of Lake Michigan. I was recording an interview for the Mennonite church’s radio program on family issues, a denominational group which Marty respects highly. Marty of course is amply familiar with Mennonites from his wide academic study of religion, but he also came to know the small denomination through Richard Kauffman, book review editor at the Century for many years.
Marty also wrote the foreword for my book, Whatever Happened to Dinner: Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime. Publishers today have a bit of age bias as they look for up and coming younger names as foreword writers for books. But there’s nothing wrong, I hope, with folks pushing 90 and still publishing.
I started by asking Marty where he grew up: “I have a very strong sense of place and heritage, and though I’m very far from it, every day I somehow draw on my Nebraska roots,” he replied with feeling.
The Martys lived in a small town, but the children spent summers on the farms of relatives. It was the 1930s Dust Bowl era, and Marty says his parents had to have felt the agony of the Depression. “But we children were kind of protected from that.” His father went to summer school every year, so for six weeks he and his siblings were “farmed out” to relatives (grandfather and an aunt and uncle) on literal Nebraska farms. “They were almost a parallel family to us,” said Marty. They lived 65 miles away and costly to buy gas to go that far. “So summer was just unbroken pleasure on the farm. It was a warm, rich community environment, everybody knew everybody, and took care of each other,” Marty noted.
Marty and Elsa (his first wife, who died of cancer), also had the goal and joy of camping in almost every state with five kids plus two who joined the family as foster children. “We got to all states except Hawaii and Alaska, (and forgot Delaware!),” he recalled. Marty reflected: “If you take a three-or-so-week camping trip with each other, you really get to know each other. Each had his own assignment on tent set-ups and camping gear and so on.” Marty is happy to observe his children following the camping tradition with their own families.
At one point the Martys had seven boys aged 9-14 around the table every night. “My sainted wife managed that more than I did, although the kids always remember how every day when I came home, we’d toss the football. We lived near parks and had a swimming pool; of course a lot of friends came over.”
Even though Marty traveled a lot because of his professional life, he worked very hard to spend time with the family together, and on an individual basis. The children took turns traveling with him on business when it could be arranged. They also didn’t watch television during the week. “They’d watch hockey on Saturday some, but we watched very little during the week. We had a reading circle every night around the table.”
As Lutherans I’m sure they observed a “holy Lent” and read frequently from the Bible. They enjoyed rich discussions involving theology, the world and how Christians should put faith into action. I’m also sure they argued as well (because we all do)—even Mary and Martha in the oft-told story of Jesus visiting their home for a meal when Martha was all a flutter with meal prep. Mary, however, relished sitting at the feet of Jesus to hear his teachings and stories.
This past Sunday was “Children’s Sunday” at my daughter’s church, and we enjoyed a short children’s musical of the Mary and Martha story, ending with this reminder which is good for all of us as we find time to meditate this Lent: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away.” (Luke 10:41-42).
These Lenten Conversations will be available as a free small booklet (PDF portable document format) right before Easter. You will be able to download it, or if you don’t go online, send your name, address, and two U.S. postage stamps and I’ll send a copy. Send to email@example.com or Another Way Media, Box 363 , Singers Glen, Va. 22850.
Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.