malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: June 2011

Looking Back, Moving Forward

This is the eleventh in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary.  Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.

He Said . . . by Malcolm Marler

An acquaintance asked me the other day how I felt about Mary going to seminary in Virginia.  It wasn’t the first time I had been asked a form of this question.

I think it is very cool,” I answered with a grin from ear to ear as I had a flashback to the steps Mary had taken to get to this point.

Mary has been discerning her calling in life long before she swept me off my feet on January 29, 2003.  But since that time, I have had the privilege to be a companion in her journey. Previous steps can be read in her first book, Dancing Naked Under the Moon Uncovering the Wisdom Within.

One of the first steps I witnessed was Mary courageously handing off an amazing non-profit organization she founded in 2000 called Project Compassion in Chapel Hill, NC.  This organization still creates community and provides innovative support for people living with serious illness, care giving, end of life issues, and grief.  She hired the first full-time paid director in 2003 and let go to move forward with her life.

I respected her decision to leave a Vice President of shareholders job in a business that met her financial needs but conflicted with her personal ethics.  Many persons would have looked the other way.

I watched with wonder when she started a new business called LifeDesign Studio.  She became a life coach to help persons design their lives to find meaning and purpose in their lives.  I heard her say one day, “What many of my clients need is a spiritual center.”  Looking back now, this was like a slight turning of the head that gave her a new point of view, a new vision and yearning.

I encouraged her sabbatical time when she and Brendan and Kiki moved to Alabama after we married.  She used this time to catch her breath and to write her first book, Dancing Naked Under the Moon Uncovering the Wisdom Within, which helped her to frame where her spiritual journey was taking her.

She soon changed her business name from LifeDesign Studio to Mary Bea Sullivan, LLC, to become a spiritual companion who has walked alongside persons in their spiritual journeys.  She began to lead spiritual retreats, workshops, and to offer individual sessions throughout the southeast and wrote her second book, Living Awake–Forty Days Toward Renewal.  There were several invitations to preach in churches along the way and more affirmation of her gifts followed.  Many persons encouraged her towards a more formal, professional role in ministry.  Many of us could see it before she could.

In my view, there is been one constant through all of these steps.

Mary has been faithful in her own personal, daily spiritual practice.  She has made time for Centering Prayer, journaling, reading the Bible, intercessory prayer, and putting her faith into action in the world.   This daily practice, in my opinion, has been been the compass in her journey that has kept her connected to the Spirit and to the path ahead.

And now in just a few weeks, she will begin a new three-year journey at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria on the path to the priesthood.

This path is so much clearer when we look backwards, isn’t it?  Believe me, it was not always so clear when she was going through it.  But reflecting on the past can help us have the confidence to move forward.  And based on what I’ve seen in the past, Virginia Theological Seminary is the perfect place for Mary Bea.

Pretty cool indeed.

As you look back on your life experiences, can you see more clearly now how the Spirit has guided you?  What has been helpful?  What has gotten in the way?  I’d love to read your reflections in the Comments section below.

Peace be with you on the journey.

A Way of Being

This is the tenth in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary.  Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.

“She Said” by Mary Bea Sullivan

Much of our simplification journey has focused on “stuff,” what to give away, throw out, or keep. We have cataloged pictures, and passed along food-filled tupperware.  Each load out the door lightening a load within.  My former life coach instructor, Jim Vuocolo was right when he said, “The outer reflects the inner.”

I remember when I was taking training from Jim some seven years ago, he assigned the task of cleaning out my office as a way of creating a fresh start for my work.  I found the process so liberating I moved on to the closets in my bedroom.  (I know it is sick, but I had two and they were packed.)  Malcolm and I had been dating for more than a year and he used to “kid” that he wasn’t sure there was enough room in my home for him.

Sparked by Jim’s challenge, I spent an entire Saturday culling and clearing. By evening I stepped back admiring one empty and one organized closet realizing, there is more than enough room for Malcolm in this home; and in my heart. One week later when Malcolm returned from an extended trip in Africa, we decided to marry.  (I imagine I’ve lost some of my life-partner seeking readers–they are busy throwing out old bridesmaid dresses or double-breasted suits.)

Yes, the outer does reflect the inner. Perhaps one of the gifts from the disappointment of not selling our home, although I am hesitant to start announcing “gifts” so soon, is the opportunity to consider simplicity from a deeper place.  What does simplicity look like as a way of being?  Oh, my heart yearns for such wisdom, for such a way.

I believe I’ve been given glimpses of this way of being. When I am sitting with a client–cell phone silenced, laptop shut, candle lit, awareness heightened, and prayers permeating the air. As we come together, “lifting up our hearts,” leaving space for the Spirit to dance among us, there is a piercing clarity of purpose–to listen for how God is working in our lives in this moment.

Simplicity’s sweet song washes over me when I fully offer myself to the task at hand–be it clearing dishes, developing a retreat, listening to beautiful music, picking flowers from the garden, sinking toes into the sand, napping on the couch, serving food to tornado victims, …..She is there beckoning, “Sink in, breathe, smell, taste, touch; your very existences is meant for this one moment.”

Hmmm we are on to something here folks, I may linger in this space for awhile. Probably, you arrived long before me. Thank you for waiting.  This is a healing place, a softer place, yielding, and inviting.  Oh my, for weeks I have been wondering, Where is God in all of this? Right here, right now, in this place. I think I’ll stop writing and give myself a few moments to just be.

Thank you for walking with us on this journey.  How have you experienced simplicity as a way of being?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Note: “Pour Your Heart Into It” Day 10 in  Living AWAKE Forty Days Toward Renewal offers an exercise that fits well with this theme.  Blessings.

A Box of Chocolates

This is the ninth in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary.  Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.

“He Said,” by Malcolm Marler.

Forrest Gump’s momma was right, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Sometimes, life does not always work the way we expect, does it? I don’t know why we are so surprised, but we are.

For just a moment, I thought I was in charge in how things were going in my life.  I thought if I planned it, that is the way it would happen.  Silly me.

We had signed a contract to sell our house on the lake. There were just a few small details to work out.  It was perfect timing in our plan as we prepare for Mary to go to seminary.

But then the deal fell apart.

The problem is I had already made the move in my head. I had already moved into our loft in downtown Birmingham that is 1.16 miles from my office.  I was even educating myself about new bicycles so that I could pick out one that would be my new transportation to work in lieu of my 50 mile one-way daily commute.  My life would be simpler.

But we never know exactly what we’re gonna get, do we? We choose a chocolate from the box and it may be exactly what we hoped for, while other times there is a new texture, or a new ingredient that may or may not be our new favorite.

As hard as it is, I’m going to lean into this disappointment and feel it for a little while.

I want to let it soak into my skin like a long, hot bubble bath. I want to resist trying to fix it with positive self-talk and rationalizations.  Instead, I will sit with it and trust that somehow the very God I talk about to others on a daily basis is already working in my life.

Most church signs or billboard messages are entertaining to me as I drive by and usually shake my head.  But the other day one caught my eye that said, “Prayer without faith is wishful thinking.”

Hmm, “Prayer without faith is wishful thinking.”

My prayer is that I can respond to this disappointment with more than wishful thinking.

How about you?

When did things not go the way you had planned in your life? How did it work out for you?  I hope you’ll share in the comments section below.

Pass me another chocolate, please.



Bless and Release

This is the eighth in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary.  Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.

“She Said” by Mary Bea Sullivan  

“We released our prospective home buyers from the sales contract,” I tell my family and friends. Malcolm is more direct, “The deal fell through.”

We weren’t totally surprised with this turn of events; there were warning signs along the way.  Still, it was disappointing.  On Saturday we received what seemed to us, an unreasonable request. Sad and mad, I threw a 5-star pity party with all of the furnishings–temper tantrum, whining,  and the coup de grace, a recounting of many of my life’s major  disappointments.  I guarantee you, the only guest at the party, Malcolm, wasn’t have such a great time.

Like a dog with a bone, I carried my anger with me to church the next morning. Some dear friends listened, assuring me they cared.  When I demonized the buyers (people whom I had never even met) I only felt worse.  I tried to couch my poison with piety, “We really do wish them well….”  “Our prayer is that they will love this home for years; but they are so demanding!”  Eventually, even I was tired of myself.

By Sunday evening, Malcolm and I had come to terms with the fact that we would be ok either way. Our happiness, our lives, did not depend on selling this house.  Before turning out the lights we prayed for our answer to be “abundantly clear.”

During the next morning’s run, I thought of the buyers and in my mind chanted a version of the Metta (Loving-kindness) Prayer for them. The prayer followed the rhythm of my steps, “May you be happy.  May you be healthy.  May you be peaceful.  May you know love.  May you be happy.  May you be healthy.  May you be peaceful.  May you know love,…” I believe it is Rachel Naomi Remen who reminds us that we cannot send blessing and curse someone at the same time.  After 3.5 miles of chanting,  I was blessed–with peace. 

And our prayer was answered. Upon receiving another correspondence from the buyers, it was abundantly clear, we were not their sellers.  We needed to release them to find their lake home.  We needed to release ourselves too.

After dinner last night Malcolm said, “It’s hard to know what to do now, I’ve been so focused on moving.” We talked about how we didn’t regret giving away or throwing away anything, and that we still had some work to do in that department.  We affirmed our choices to sell/ lease the lake house, and for me to go to VTS.  We wondered if some of the lessons of simplifying and letting go didn’t include letting go of our desire to be in control of these outcomes.  We sat in silence for awhile.

“I think I’ll cut the grass and weed the gardens in the morning.” I said.

“Maybe we can go for a swim after work.”  Malcolm suggested.

“That would be nice.” I replied as I snuggled in close.

Thank you for sharing your experiences.  Blessings!

Note:  We are very aware that this unexpected change of course is very minor in light of the many people who are currently dealing with the after affects of tornadoes and floods. We are safe in a home with running water, power, and a bounty of beauty.


Love Letters

This is the seventh in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary.  Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.

She Said… by Mary Bea Sullivan

Packing blissfully slowed to a crawl as I waded through a lifetime of memories. The pace first tempered while clearing out the filing cabinet when I opened the file labeled, “Brendan Patrick.”  Ever since he was born nearly 20 years ago, I have placed notes, pictures, or particularly cute comments in this folder.

Laughing and crying, I lost myself in the essence of BRENDAN. I pulled out a home-made card–blue construction paper tied together with a yellow ribbon.  On the cover was an interesting rendition of me, drawn by 4-year old Brendan while attending pre-school in Tokyo.  I caressed the cover remembering the day Brendan proudly ran up to hand it to me as I came dashing through the door, late for the Mother’s Day Tea.

Kiki had been very sick that day and I didn’t think I could attend the tea. I had frantically called one friend, sitter, neighbor after another to see if they could stay just a few hours with Kiki.  I don’t remember who made it possible for me to go, but I send thanks to that generous soul because squishing myself into that pre-school sized chair and sipping green tea with my little man is one of the highlights of my 48 years.

Opening the card I laughed out loud as I read,

“My Mother…

My mom, she is a good mom.  She has nice curly blonde hair-like golden and other colors mixed up, a color I don’t know how to make.  She likes to eat…French toast!  Her favorite color is pink.  She’s a good car driver and bike driver because she never crashes into the other cars and we never fall over either!  Even when she was driving with her American driver’s license she was a good driver.

I love my mommy’s smiles.  Happy Mother’s Day.  I love you very much.  Love, Brendan”

And so it went–for days I gave myself permission to take breaks from shredding old tax returns, carting family members and dogs to appointments, to savor the memories. Kiki’s folder was equally heartwarming.  Malcolm and I read our love letters together–a sweet reminder of the surprising gift of finding one another.  Most precious were handwritten notes from those who are no longer here.

In the last 11 years I have thrice moved unorganized boxes of pictures. As I tackled this project, it was no chore.  The time was finally right.  I made five piles…one for Brendan, one for Kiki, one for their dad, one for Malcolm and me, and one for “trash.”  I purchased a purple album for Kiki and a blue one for Brendan and created books that they can one day  share with their husbands, wives, children.  Memories of their beginning… A love letter from me to them.

There is a lot of dog hair around the house right now, and the kitchen could be cleaner. I really “should” be farther along on other endeavors.  But this has been healing.  Besides, maybe taking time to look back–all the way back to my grandparents wedding in the 1920’s, will help give me perspective when I feel stressed out.

Some aspects of this move–particularly dealing with the sale of the house, have been very trying.  If I can appreciate this moment in the spectrum of the many moment’s that comprise a life, perhaps I can lighten up a bit and trust that God is present in this experience; same as every other one.

Blessings to you this Pentecost Sunday. May you sense the Spirit dancing with your soul.




The Busyness of Simplifying

This is the sixth in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary.  Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.

He Said… by Malcolm Marler

Ok, simplifying my life is wearing me out this week.  “She said” I needed to write another blog post, so here goes.  A list of why I am tired:

  1. Supporting a family member through a major life transition.
  2. Trying to sell the family member’s car.
  3. I sold the car to the first customer.  Everyone was excited.
  4. Oh wait a minute, no I can’t sell it because the title hasn’t arrived yet.  It may take another week (or two) before we have the title.  Everyone is sad.
  5. Other interested persons call about the car, I tell them, sorry, I advertised too early.
  6. Our dog Daisy had major surgery and came home today. Mary and I are sad to see her feeling bad and have become her caregivers.  Packing for our move will be at a slower pace.
  7. Final negotiations on the sale of the house are happening.
  8. Inspectors and contractors are crawling all over the place.
  9. We need a vacation, but we don’t have time to plan it.
  10. We are supposed to move by June 30th, but did I tell you we haven’t secured our new home yet?

I could go on, but I’m too tired.

The truth is we have a ton to be thankful for and a sense of humor is a great tool for survival.

Trusting that all will be well and that this is a great life adventure together makes it possible.

What tools have you found that help during life’s busyness?

It’s Not That Simple

This is the fifth in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary.  Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.

She Said… by Mary Bea Sullivan

If simplicity were the only measure we used to make our life choices, we would never have children, bring puppies home from the pound, or attend seminaries far from the ones we love.

Life is never that simple. Competing values, interests, goals, and demands are usually in the mix.  Oh, and then we have the frequently inconvenient nudgings of the Holy Spirit.

For me, there has never been a “one size fits all” formula for making life decisions. When Brendan and Kiki were small and my ex-husband and I decided to move to Tokyo, it seemed like a very complicated choice.  Surprisingly, the novelty of experiences like riding my bike to the market, taking the train for outings with the kids, and learning Japanese provided the framework for a beautiful life focused on enjoying one another and exploring this exotic, and new to us, world.

In order to make space for the Tokyo experience, I had to let many other things go: my career, ability to easily see family and friends, and drive-through lattes (OK that is really shallow, but honestly it was one of the things I missed most those first few days).  For me, walking away from what “is” toward an unknown “what may be” requires fluidity, trust, and perhaps most important, clarity around why I am letting go.

The choices Malcolm and I are making aren’t really that simple. Living in two different states (again!) and returning to school with the energy and memory of a perimenopausal woman, these are not the first ingredients you would pull of the shelf to mix up a batch of SIMPLICITY. And yet for us, at this time, they seem to be steps in the “right” direction.

Why?  I keep asking myself the same question. Attending seminary is a dream that I have picked up and put down many times for over ten years.  I am running out of excuses.  If I truly want to seek ordained ministry, and I do, the time is now.  When Malcolm and I visited Sewanee, VTS, and Yale in February we knew they were all excellent choices.  VTS simply caught my heart.  I loved the urban feel and energy of the faculty and students.  From the ashes of the recently burned down chapel the community is creating dialogue around “what does ‘church’ mean today?”  I want to be a part of that discussion.

Is this the “right” decision? We don’t know, but having made it, we hope to live into it as if it were so.

Given the complicated landscape we are painting for ourselves, we feel the need to limit the colors on the palaette. If I am only going to see my beloved husband and children on weekends and holidays, I don’t want to be pushing a Dirt Devil around a big, albeit beautiful, house.  If leaving some furniture behind means Malcolm won’t spend 10-15 hours per week in the car, may the new owners love and enjoy those pieces as much as we have.  (Don’t even think about touching the framed giraffe Kiki drew or Brendan’s 4th grade face jug, I have my limits!)

We are all required to implement “big issues first” decision-making. Sometimes the major decision is starting a family, or perhaps reducing work hours to help with disaster relief, or working a second job to support a family member in need, the possibilities are endless.

In my experience, if I stay true to the practice of being still and acknowledging the love and support of that Divine Imminent Presence many call “God,” I am better able to remember the WHY.

What choices are you weighing now?  How do you discern which are the “big issues?” 


Learning Again

This is the fourth in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary.  Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.

He Said… by Malcolm Lewis Marler

Have you ever had to learn a valuable life lesson more than once?  I have, and I am.

I learned a lesson the first time on January 10, 1982.

I got a call at 5:30 a.m. that jarred me from sleep, “Malcolm, get to the church, the church is on fire.”  I only lived a few blocks from my first full-time church job.  The temperature was 10 degrees below zero in Louisville that day.  I gasped when I saw the huge red sky as I rounded the corner.  I stood and watched the church building burn down.  Every book I had read in seminary, and every note I had taken from 1977-1980 was turned to ashes.  For months, I would reach for files that were no longer there.

And then . . . I eventually forgot the lesson.

I learned something again in March, 1995 when I was going through my divorce and the only thing I took with me were the clothes in my closet and the debt I owed creditors.  I completely started over at 40 years of age. I slept in a sleeping bag for awhile in my one bedroom apartment, embarrassed to invite anyone over.

And then . . . I eventually forgot the lesson and built a house on a lake that could hold more stuff.

Now, I’m learning new lessons as we sell our house with all of our furniture.  But this time I am excited about it.  Well, ok, most of it.

What did I learn that I soon forgot?  Good question. I know it was important.

I do remember that it is easy to write about simplicity.  It’s harder to live it.

Just like faith. Easy to talk about, harder to live.

This time, as I make a positive choice in my life, I hope I will remember what I need to learn.

When did you learn something that you forgot?

Got any tips?  We invite your comments below.

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