malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: November 2010

The Great Magician

This is the fifth in the series on my Faith Journey.

When I was a boy, I thought about Jesus as the “Great Magician” more than the “Great Physician.”

There are a lot of stories in the Bible that supported my magical thinking that included miracles of physical healing, exorcisms, resurrection of the dead, and control over nature.  All of them were pretty amazing.  A few of my favorites were:

  • Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding;
  • He told Peter to go to the sea and cast a line, and the first fish he caught to look in its mouth for a coin.  Peter did and sure enough, he found the coin.
  • Jesus walked on water in the sea and then climbed in the boat with his friends;
  • He told the storm to be still one day, and it did;
  • Jesus fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

These miracles may be hard for you to believe. If you picked up a book and read these same stories about a Joe or Jane doing these same things, what would you think?  Magic or fantasy?  Maybe.  Fiction?  Probably.

But if you had heard these stories all of your life, and everyone you trusted (family, friends, community members) told the stories with a straight and sincere face, you would believe them too.  And I did.  The stories were part of the formation of my faith journey as I viewed Jesus as a Magician.

As I grew up, I would ask God for certain magical miracles in my own life but they were never as spectacular as the ones I read about.

But when I went to seminary in my early twenties I heard my New Testament professor, Dr. Frank Stagg, say one day,

“Jesus never performed a miracle to simply impress or wow his audience.  Jesus ONLY performed miracles to teach us something about himself or God, or something about ourselves.”

Dr. Stagg pointed me towards a new path in my faith journey for which I am grateful.

My thinking about Jesus as a magician changed from asking Jesus to rescue me out of painful circumstances to seeing Jesus (or God) as a presence that I can’t always explain (mystery) but One who is a companion and guide in my life.

Another way of saying it is I shifted from asking God to miraculously rescue me out of life circumstances and started asking God, “What can I learn from this experience about you God?  What is this teaching me about myself?”

And I now see God as the one who can give me peace and comfort regardless of what I’m going through in life.  I can SEE that I really am the blind man in the story asking for sight, or at least a new viewpoint that I had previously been unable to see.

How has your view of Jesus or God changed from your early beliefs? What is something you once believed that has deepened or changed or matured?

I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Peace be with you.

Living AWAKE Retreat

My wife, Mary Sullivan, and I have similar purposes in life, though we come at it from different perspectives.

When we fell in love, Mary was the founder of Project Compassion in Chapel Hill, NC.  Project Compassion is a non-profit organization that creates community and provides innovative support for people living with serious illness, caregiving, end of life and grief.

I was the founder of The Support Team Network, a program that began in an HIV/AIDS Clinic in Birmingham, AL.  The Support Team Network taught persons how to organize volunteer teams to offer practical, emotional, and spiritual support to persons first with HIV, and eventually to persons with any health concern.

Project Compassion adopted the Support Team model and for Mary and me, the rest is history.

Today, Mary is an author, spiritual companion, and retreat leader.  She will enter seminary in the Fall of 2011 on her journey to become an Episcopal Priest.  I am the Director of Pastoral Care at a hospital where I lead a team of Chaplains who care for people from across the Southeast.

Both of us create community and connection to God and others through facilitating groups, working with individuals, speaking, and developing programs.  We have led a few things together in the past and have enjoyed it a great deal.

I am excited about leading our first retreat together on Friday night through Sunday morning on February 11-13, 2011.  We will be hosted at beautiful Camp McDowell, near Jasper, AL.  You are welcome to come alone, or with your spouse or partner, or with a friend.  Registration fee is $215 per person for a double room, and $265 for a single room. The fee includes meals from dinner on Friday evening to breakfast on Sunday, lodging, and retreat materials.  We are limiting the size of the group to twenty persons.

The title of the retreat is called Living AWAKE.  We will offer small group discussion, spiritual practices, and sabbath time that will allow you to remember what it means to pay attention to each day. Participants will experience renewal and energy from time for reflection, laughter, and just BEING in nature.  The time away is intentionally designed for you to have a retreat from your busy life.

We will use material from Mary’s latest book, Living AWAKE, as well as personal stories, and creative exercises.  You will have time to breathe, to sleep, to eat, to think, and to pray.

Mark your calendar, bring someone you love, or give a gift to yourself and come alone, and let us know if you can join us.  I hope you can.




Retreat brochure | Register here

What Do You Mean

This is the fourth in a series on my Faith Journey.

In my last post, I wrote about learning that “God is love” through the way people in my church and community loved me.  Of course, not everyone experiences that kind of love in a congregation or neighborhood or community firsthand.

One of my friends asked me a practical question, “How would you explain what love actually is?”  Great question.

So often in my faith journey, I use language to describe it where I assume everyone else knows what I mean. Do you do this too?  But the truth is, sometimes I don’t even know exactly what I mean.  So often our faith language is so general we need to bring it back down to earth in the flesh.

When I have experienced “God is love” in my life, I have been touched in a way that is often like an unconditional and undeserved gift.  Most of the time it has been through other people, but sometimes it has been through an awareness that the Creator loves me despite all of my shortcomings.

My father and mother and stepmom did this for me throughout my life.  They were patient and kind, and they were not arrogant or rude.  Their love for me could bear all things, believe all things, and hope all things good for me (See I Corinthians 13). I am thankful.  And since I know what that is like, I  try to give it away to others as well.

I need to think about this one some more.

I ask the question of you my reader. What does “God is love” mean to you?  Keep it practical, real.  I’d love to hear your comments below.

Peace to you along the journey.

God is Love

This is the third in a series on My Faith Journey.

As I mentioned yesterday, I attended church for thousands of hours from the time I was born until I went to college.  But through all of the teaching and preaching I endured, one of the lessons I remember can be summarized in three simple words.

God is love.

God is love is the lesson I still carry close to my heart.  Simple, clear, straightforward.  God is love.

Not, God is hate.  Not, God is about rules.  Not,  God is against you.

I learned that God loves the world, and I figured that meant everybody.

But I learned this lesson through the way people treated me, the way they loved.  Yes, my parents loved me unconditionally, but my community did too.

I learned about love from persons like Marguerite Smith, Diane Martin, and Mrs. Bobbie Thornell.  I learned about it from Mrs. Strickland, Pat Stewart, and Worthy and Dot Seale.  The list is long of the people who showed me what God is love meant at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

These persons loved me through my grief when my mother died when I was ten when I thought God had abandoned me.  Long, tight hugs, words of encouragement, listening ears, and invitations to sit with them in church with their arms around me.  Others tutored me after school, and cooked for me and my family.  But this church lesson wasn’t restricted to people I knew from the four walls of the church building.

Persons from outside our church who lived on North Anton Drive and in the neighborhood taught me this valuable lesson.  The Hope family took me to the lake with them to ride in the boat, swim, and fish.  The Eley family lived across the street and treated me like their own son.  The Kenmore’s and the Long’s, and the Wright’s and the Crumpton’s opened their homes to me.  They all taught me about love by loving me.

On the other hand, I realize that some were not so fortunate.  Some of you experienced judgment from the church.  Others were rejected or shunned by neighbors.  A few of you knew an unwelcoming community.

We are loved, you and me, whether we know it or not. Red and yellow, black and white, we are all precious in God’s sight.

Tell me about your experience growing up.  Were you loved by persons outside your family, in your congregation, or in your community?

Love is a spark. Pass it on.

The Way

This is the second in a series on my Faith Journey.

When I was growing up, I only knew about one path to God.  And it was the Baptist way.

As far as I knew, it was the right way, the biblical way, God’s way.

I believed it was the only way to God.  And for good reason.

My father was a beloved Baptist pastor in Alabama for five decades.  His closest friends were Baptist ministers who were like my “uncles,” and I was named after one of them.  My paternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher.  The list goes on.

Like most Baptists I knew, I attended church with my family every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night for 7-10 hours per week during my first 18 years of life.

I am very grateful for what I was taught because I learned to go deeply in the way.  I was immersed in it.

And then I attended my first non-Baptist worship service when I was in college.  A different path was now visible.

I began to realize that some of my friends were also taught one way, but it was different from the way I learned.  And they believed, like me, their way was the only way.

I can remember the first time I heard the Bible I knew referred to as the “Protestant Bible,” and my Catholic friend showed me his Bible.  I was amazed that his Bible had seven more books in the “Old Testament” that I had never even heard of much less read.  It was not until seminary that I learned the difference between the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant books of the Hebrew (Old Testament) scriptures.  But that is enough discovery to discuss for now.

My point is that all of us believed we had been taught THE way to God in our spiritual journeys. Which one of us was right?

I began to realize that I had been taught “A” way in the spiritual path, but maybe not the “Only way.”

I was uncomfortable for awhile with this new truth, but eventually it gave me a whole new view on my spiritual journey.

What about you?  How did you grow up?  Did you believe you had all the truth?

I’d love to learn about your experience, your spiritual journey. Won’t you share in the comments below?


A Faith Journey

This is the first in a series on a discussion of my personal faith journey.

What is a faith journey?

For me, my faith journey is a process of moving from one point to another in life as I try to understand how God relates to me, to the world, and to others.

It is a framework for thinking, feeling, and living as I try to make sense of my life and purpose in this world.

I think a faith journey is also a call to learn, to change, to be honest with yourself, God, and others.

A faith journey gives hope when you don’t understand what is happening in your life or why things are happening the way they are.

Life crises appear like pop tests to see what you have learned, or need to learn along the way.

So how do you define your faith journey? Why are you on a faith journey, or why have you resisted?  What difference does it make for you?

Let’s get started and compare our stories.

Mine starts with the Baptists, but more about that tomorrow . . .


It’s amazing what can happen when we give ourselves time together.

When we set aside our watches, our pagers, and our smartphones; a new space is created for relationships.

When our calendar appointments are suspended, the past is less important, the present is more authentic, and the future is filled with new possibilities.

When we ask one another questions in this context, and leave time for the long silences inbetween our answers; deep, vulnerable responses bubble up from our souls.

We understand each other better, we value the variety and uniqueness of our gifts more.

We discover when we let go of expectations for you to be like me, then we welcome and celebrate our differences and we are no longer threatened by the other.  Meaningful relationships are nurtured.

When we break bread together, laugh together, and make time for casual conversations together, we are changed even when we can’t describe just how.

When we play together, or sit in silence reading together, or soak up sunshine together, a new connection is created.

And at the end of the day, we make a covenant with one another that includes two vows:

  1. We will be authentic with one another; and
  2. We will be vulnerable with one another.

And when we are faithful to our vows, lives will be changed–including our own, wherever we go and whatever we do.

Thank you God.

Living AWAKE

I want you to know about my wife, Mary Sullivan’s, second book, Living AWAKE — Forty Days Toward Renewal.

I got to hold a copy in my hand today and I have to say it is a beautiful book, both the cover and especially the content.

Imagine renewal in fifteen minutes a day. This forty-day program includes simple, yet meaningful spiritual reflections and practices that will guide you on the path toward emotional, physical, and spiritual restoration.

In this book, simplicity reigns-just show up every day for forty days and trust the process. Living AWAKE is a gentle reminder that all in life is sacred.

Busy people will welcome Living AWAKE’s clear and straightforward approach. Drawing from diverse sources and the author’s own experience as a retreat leader and spiritual companion, Living AWAKE is accessible to all, regardless of faith or background.

This book is a great gift for someone who wants to thoughtfully prepare for Christmas, or as a study guide during Lent leading up to Easter.

You can pre-order your copy here and be one of the first to receive it in the next couple of weeks.

I’m going to be reading it and I hope you will join me.



Lessons from my Car

Sometimes life lessons come from unexpected places.  Take my 1996 Volvo, please.

My fourteen year old car started teaching me life lessons when it was about ten.  Or maybe that was when I started paying attention to the lessons.

When things stopped working in my car, I found myself asking, “Is it worth fixing?” AND “What can I learn from this?”

Here is the short list of the top ten things that have stopped working on my car and what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Half of the dashboard lights are out.  Look up, there is a light there when you need it.
  2. The odometer stopped.  If you get where you are going, it doesn’t matter how far it is.
  3. The radio quit. Silence is a gift.
  4. The air-conditioning is hot on the driver’s side.  Share the cooler vents with your passenger.
  5. The driver’s door hinge sounds like a gunshot when you open/close the door.  Humility comes in handy when heads turn in the parking lot.
  6. The speedometer died.  I found a free digital speedometer app on my Smartphone that works great, and I felt creative.
  7. The moonroof leaks. I think about people who have roofs at home that leak, or those who have no roof.
  8. Cruise control doesn’t cruise–Pay attention to how fast everyone else is going and just go a little slower.
  9. Anti-lock brakes quit, but the regular brakes work–If you’re not in a hurry, you don’t have to stop as fast.
  10. Left front bumper has a wrinkle–just like many parts of my body that I’m learning to accept.

So when things stop working in your life, is it worth fixing?  What are you learning?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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