malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: May 2009

Surprised by Interruptions

jeff-thomas1We had our first “Heartsong @ 1917” gathering yesterday to create community and connection with one another and God.  We didn’t know if anyone would show up.  Thankfully they did.

But it didn’t go as planned.

Just before we began,  “John” who was in his early 20’s stopped by the room, stuck his head in the door and asked for prayers for his grandmother.  “I can’t stay,” he said, “but I saw your signs about this group having  a connection with God so I thought I’d ask you to pray for her.”  We promised we would.  He left as quickly as he had come.

We began by sitting in a circle, introduced ourselves, and remembered for a moment what was special about past Heartsong Retreats.

Heartsong reminds me that I am not alone in living with HIV,” Jeff began.  “I was diagnosed with HIV 19 years ago and Heartsong helped me to remember that I have a lot to be thankful for in my life,” as he listed a dozen gratitudes off the top of his head.

Greg added, “I made new friends at Heartsong and I need all of those I can get right now, ” as he mentioned he was diagnosed with HIV just three months ago.

I added, “Heartsong always surprises me, because the least likely person or event always teaches me something I need to learn.” Others mentioned they loved being in a safe community where they can “just be who they are and be honest with God and one another, and not worry about labels or stereotypes.”

I talked about our vision for Heartsong @ 1917 to be a place and time where we could listen to one another, learn from one another, and love one another on a weekly basis.  Our theme for the day was “Meeting God in the Present.”

And then, just as we were discussing meeting God in the here and now, the electrical power went out in our whole building.   I mean it was the “pitch-black-kind-of-dark” except for a thin beam of sunlight peeking in the door that we had left slightly ajar.   We sat for about a minute in the dark before the lights came back on.

I could feel my frustration growing over the power outage as we waited for the very loud overhead speaker system to stop beeping as we could barely hear one another over it.  Finally, silence.

We were about to begin our “Centering Prayer” to help us focus on the present and how God is experienced in the present tense, the right here, the right now, and especially in each other.

There was a quick knock on the door and two maintenance men came walking into the room and said, “We need to get to that closet door on the other side of the room to check out the electrical system,” as they walked through the center of the circle.

“Now?” I asked, trying to get them to see they were interrupting our meeting.

“I’m sorry, we really need to get in here,” they insisted.

I got up and moved a table and other furniture so they could get into the electrical closet.  I asked the group if they wanted to wait for the workers to do their job, before we started our centering prayer exercise.

Jeff just laughed it off and said, “This is cool, just like real life interruptions!  Let’s go ahead and start the centering prayer.”

So we began.  And you guessed it.

As we were sitting with our eyes closed, focusing on our own “sacred word” to help us let go of thoughts and distractions of the outside world, the men came out of the closet (no pun intended) and said, “Sorry for the interruption.  We’re done.  Have a nice day.”  I opened one eye and said, “Take care,” trying to refocus unsuccessfully.

After a few minutes, I asked the group to open their eyes and we debriefed the experience.

Joe discussed that “life is our prayer, in fact, everything we do is a prayer.  The line between prayer and living our lives doesn’t really exist,” he said as he led us to think about prayer in a different way.  He might have said that “God is even in the interruptions,” but I was too distracted to hear him if he did.

We had fifteen minutes to go so I pressed on.

I shared a reading about God being in the present, and then led the participants in a “Wisdom Circle” from the Native American tradition that my wife had taught me.  Everyone had a chance to respond to the reading.

We watched a powerful five-minute “YouTube” video and talked about how music is another way to experience community and connection with others and God (see what we watched below).

We concluded the group by going around the circle  one person at a time saying to the person on our left, “You are a child of God,” followed by silence.  Then the one being spoken to responded with, “I receive your blessing.”  My colleague of thirteen years, Kelly, was near the end and turned and said, “Joe, you are a child of God.”  “Kelly, I receive your blessing.”

Joe and I worked at the clinic together as chaplains between 1994-2006.  He is like a second father to me, a mentor, and a very close friend.  We’ve been through a lot together including my divorce in 1996 and eventual remarriage in 2004, as well as the recent death of Joe’s wife of 56 years.  Joe looked at me and said, “Malcolm, you are a child of God.”

I was surprised and couldn’t speak.  I needed the silence.  I squeaked out the words, “Joe, I receive your blessing,” and wiped the tears from my face a bit embarrassed.

I looked at everyone and said, “Amen.”  I couldn’t say anything more.

And today, as I reflect on our first gathering . . .

I am learning  a new song from my heart.  A heart-song that says God is right here, right in front of us, especially in the interruptions.

Note to Self:  Pay attention, Malcolm.


From the award-winning documentary, “Playing For Change: Peace Through Music”, comes the first of many “songs around the world” being released independently. Featured is a cover of the Ben E. King classic by musicians around the world adding their part to the song as it traveled the globe. (Also see  We used this video in “Heartsong @ 1917” yesterday.

About Heartsong @ 1917


For some time now, I have wanted to start “something” that would bring our patients together to discuss how a connection with the Sacred makes a difference in our lives.

A time that would help us connect with something larger than ourselves in order to give purpose and meaning in life.

A place that would not be confined to a specific denomination or religion, and a place where questions would be valued even more than the answers.

I’ve wanted it to be especially for persons who have been told that they are not part of God’s family because they are HIV positive, or for any other reason for that matter.

And now is the time.

Heartsong @ 1917 began on Wednesday, May 13, 2009 from 10:45-12 noon at The 1917 Clinic.   This will be a unique gathering of persons who are HIV positive (and friends and family) in Alabama from every walk of life.  Heartsong @ 1917 will meet every Wednesday at the clinic.  Participants are welcome to come whenever they can.

We will create community with one another, and discuss how a connection with God empowers us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. The group will be open to persons of all faiths and those with no faith.  We will draw from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Native American, and many other ways to connect with our Creator.

Since 1993, The 1917 Clinic has sponsored an annual spiritual retreat called the Alabama Heartsong Retreat“Heartsong @ 1917” will take many of the lessons we have learned from Heartsong and integrate it into a weekly gathering while creating something new.

Music, meditation, prayers, video, readings, blessings, and discussion are part of this wonderful gathering.

We meet downstairs in Room 151 on the first floor of the clinic.  Signs make it easy to find the room.  I will lead Heartsong @ 1917 along with my long-time colleague, Joe Elmore.  We will invite other clinic staff to assist us from time to time.

Come as you are.  And spread the good news.  Something new is starting at 1917.


For more information, contact Malcolm Marler at 205-975-8923 or

Got Hope?

Music and dance are a powerful expression of hope in the world.

If you need a little hope today, watch this 4 minute video.

More than 200 dancers were performing their version of “Do Re Mi”, in the Central Station of Antwerp.  With just 2 rehearsals they created this amazing stunt.

Pay attention to the faces of those watching, it is inspiring.

Got hope now?

I hope so.

Heartsong – Lessons for the Journey

campmcdowellI love to go hiking.   The only problem is I get lost almost every time I go.

I get distracted by the trees, the flowers, the birds and the butterflies.  I love to smell the pine and feel the breeze by streams of water.  But I forget about the little painted marks on the side of trees showing the way.  Hiking maps are a mystery to me.

And so last week at Heartsong, it happened again.

Heartsong staff members—Wes, Gina, Jeff, and I had free time on Tuesday afternoon and decided to explore some of the 1100 acres of the beautiful and secluded woods, streams, and canyons on Camp McDowell’s land.  As we walked, two of our Heartsong participants, Cleveland and Robert, saw us walking and asked if they could come along.

I was concerned about Cleveland’s overall health and wondered if he could keep up.  I tried to discourage him by saying, “Now Cleveland, we’re probably going to be walking for a couple of hours or so.  Are you sure you can make it?”  “No problem,” he responded with his childlike voice.  I secretly shook my head, and off we went.

Swinging bridge with other folks crossing.Before long, we found the swinging bridge and needed to cross to the other side over the creek. It’s a little scary to walk over water when the bridge is moving up and down, side to side, every time you take a step.  Add 5 or 6 people walking on it at the same time, and you get the picture.

Robert wasn’t so sure about crossing on the swinging bridge as he watched all of us go to the other side.  “Come on Robert, you can do it!” we encouraged.  He was obviously nervous and uncomfortable, but he trusted his friends and slowly made his way across one step at a time.  We clapped and yelled encouragement.

One of the beautiful canyons and waterfalls on our hiking journey.We continued on the trail and stopped by a cavern with a waterfall that was cool and refreshing.  We talked with an experienced Camp McDowell staff member we ran into on the trail, and he explained all of the options we had for various trails ahead of us.

He gave us so many options that as we walked away, I was hoping someone else listened better than I. They didn’t.

We expected the trail to loop around to our original starting point and after walking for an hour and a half, Jeff and I began to wonder out loud, “Is this the right trail?  Where are we on the map?  We should be closer by now.”

And then Cleveland spoke up, who by the way was keeping up with the group better than anyone expected.  He said innocently,  “Do you think we ought to go back the way we know?

I responded, “Maybe it’s just a little further down this trail, come on Cleveland you can do it.”  We kept walking, and walking, and walking.  Nothing on the map matched the trail we were on.

Time was getting short and I was nervous.  Two of the four workshop leaders for the afternoon were with us and if we didn’t make it back soon, the whole retreat would be off schedule.

ClevelandAnother fifteen minutes went by and it wasn’t getting any better.  Cleveland repeated his question, “Do you think we ought to go back the way we know?”   I was out of ideas.

Jeff (a Cub Scout leader, but not an Eagle Scout he kept reminding us) and I looked at one another, nodded and said, “Cleveland, we think you are right.  Let’s go back the way we know.”  He grinned from ear to ear.

I was aware of the time the whole way back, beating myself up for being so stubborn earlier.

After pushing ourselves a little,  we made it back with 5 minutes to spare.  Gina and Wes walked into their workshops and began without missing a beat.

And me?  I learned a few things about life.

  1. Trust your friends when your steps are unsteady.
  2. Be open to learning from everyone, you may be surprised.
  3. Enjoy the beauty of the journey, while looking for signs along the way.
  4. When lost,  retrace familiar steps to get back home.
  5. Keep exploring, getting lost is worth it.

Thanks Cleveland, I’m glad you came along for the journey.

Heartsong–Opening My Eyes

One participant's art work at HeartsongI experienced Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:1-12) in a new way at the Alabama Heartsong Retreat last week.  I realize now I had been blind, but now I see in a new way.  Let me explain.

I moved around the circle of 50 placing my hand on a different head in random order as I read a verse or blessing.

5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

I saw Arreba and Keyona who rode a Greyhound bus from South Alabama to Birmingham, and waited half a day before they got in the van from the clinic without complaint in order to attend Heartsong.

2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

I looked into Janet’s eyes who had been given a 72 hour pass from her nursing home so that she could could be here one more time.

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I placed my hand on Jessica’s head who said she had not felt a sense of peace in her life since she was 8 years old, 24 years ago.

4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

I looked at Joe with misty eyes whose wife, Carolyn, of 57 years had died the previous month.

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I made eye contact with Eric who had taken it on himself to acquire fifty devotional books from a publisher so that all participants could have a free book to draw them closer to God.

6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

I saw Wayne who announced this would probably his last Heartsong because he was going back to work full-time, and had realized the dream of seeing his daughter graduate from high school when he didn’t think he would live this long.

7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

I could see Cleveland smiling who has overcome mental health challenges that would hold most people back.

8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

I looked at Jackie and remembered the Support Team of volunteers we had created for her thirteen years earlier, which she no longer needs.

9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I smiled at Greg, nicknamed Hillary (that’s another story), who walks with a cane and has a sweet spirit, and is always making others laugh.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I could see Shannon who has had a rough year in relationships but did not let that stop her from showing up.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

I could see Wendell who finally got the courage to tell his pastor that he is HIV positive and thankfully, also received support from his church.

12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I also thanked God for Mary, Joyce, Gregory, Michael, Daniel, Misty, Greg, Tony, Darryl, Robert, Michael, Clarence, Gregg, Steve, James, Brett, Jimmy, Paul,  Tony, Robert, Jeff, Wes, Gina, Kelly, Barbara, Charles, Tommie, Brandon, Guy, Clarisa, Sharon, Tory, Ceonte, Joe, Richard, and Alan.  Each one of them have remarkable stories to tell.  Each one is blessed, and is a blessing to others.

I was blind.  But now I see.

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