malcolm marler

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Born Into New Light

Sermon  preached by Malcolm Marler at St. Mary’s on the Highlands Episcopal Church in Birmingham, AL on Sunday, March 16, 2014.

New LightThe Gospel reading today from John 3:1-17 contains one of those verses that I, and maybe you, memorized as a young child if you grew up in a Christian church cut from the evangelical cloth, if you know what I mean.

Or even if you have never memorized a verse of the Bible at all, chances are if you have lived here in the deep South for anytime in the heart of the Bible belt, you have seen the reference John 3:16 written on hand held signs at college football games where we mix and marry our metaphors regularly with religion.

I first learned the King James version — John 3:16 – King James Version (KJV)

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

And then the Revised Standard Version — John 3:16 – Revised Standard Version (RSV)

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This verse has been called the “Gospel in a nutshell” by Wikipedia because it is considered a summary of the central theme of traditional Christianity.   It is personal, decisive, and it is clear.

I remember an experience like that in my own life.  When I was eight years old, I went to the pastor of my Baptist church, who also happened to be my daddy, and told him I wanted to become a Christian.  Thankfully, he took my request seriously, and invited me to his office during the Sunday School hour to discuss the matter.  It was a private confirmation class with my beloved father.  It was personal, it was decisive, and it was clear — as any 8 year old could understand.

Shedding a little light

Like any story or important event in our lives, understanding the context of a story is the key for shedding light on its meaning for our lives and today’s Gospel reading is no exception.

We know that Nicodemus was a Jewish leader and teacher (today we would say he was a seminary professor), and that he was mentioned three times in John’s Gospel.  All three encounters were respectful, seeking to honor, and to understand who this Jesus was.

The two major images in John’s Gospel are darkness and light.  Nicodemus comes in the night, in the darkness, and is seeking the light, seeking more light, a new understanding, a fresh way to understand God.

‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’

Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ statement,

 “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” 

He uses an example that is so hard for Nicodemus to grasp given his way of viewing the world, which was following the law, the guidelines, in order to draw close to God.  It stops Nicodemus in his literal tracks, “how could this be so?” he asks.

Have you ever had a conversation when both of you said what you thought, and you had no idea how what the other person just said was connected to your statement?  It was as though you were speaking two different languages.  That was Nicodemus’ experience.

To paraphrase Jesus …

Nicodemus, in order for you to know God, you will need a totally new language as well as perspective from how you have always thought about and experienced God.

Nicodemus, you cannot see this perspective on your own.  No matter how much you think and reason.  It has to come from God, because it is so radical you couldn’t think of it by yourself.

This understanding of the kingdom of God, is not about what happens in the future after you die, but rather it is about how you begin living now, it is a call to a fresh start today.

And by the way, this is a gift, it is grace, and it is from God. 

A New Understanding, A New Way to Live

And if you have not guessed it yet, you and I are like Nicodemus in this story coming from darkness searching for more light.

Like Nicodemus, most of us here are respectful, seeking to honor, and to understand the teachings of Jesus.

For us, maybe we’ve been thinking that our faith, our beliefs, our creed, our prayers alone are what make us a part of the family of God.

We have thought that what we have believed in our heads and said with our mouths have made us a part of God’s kingdom.

And like Nicodemus, most of us are respectful, we honor, and want to understand who this Jesus was.  And you and I can even say the personal, concise, clear words of our belief that Jesus is God’s only begotten Son and that we believe in him, therefore we will not perish.  We believe we are safe, we believe we are saved, and we believe that is all there is.

But we would be wrong, dead wrong.

 Jesus is calling us to something deeper than being safe or saved. 

He calls us to something we cannot see by ourselves, it is called living by grace, a gift, and it is from God.  It is a new way of seeing the world, and all the human family.

We have to confess we cannot see God’s kingdom with our own clever thinking, we cannot understand it on our own.  And so we open ourselves to God.  This is a first step, but it is not all the journey.

Jesus calls us to see the world like his beloved Father, the Creator of all life, who never gives up on the human family.

You see, we cannot be in right relationship with God if we are not in right relationship with others, and we cannot be in right relationship with others if we are not open to God.

Our Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori said this about understanding John 3:16:

When we insist that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus, that individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.”

In other words, using this verse as a quick prayer and being done is like  being in a spiritual womb and saying to the world, “I’m good, I don’t need to do anything else” while all the time God is wanting us to be born into the world as new people.  All along we were thinking the spiritual womb is all there was, just being safe, or saved.

“No my child,” our beloved Creator says to us, “that is not all there is, there is a whole life to live in a new way and I am ready to do the hard, painful messy part of birthing you, of giving you new life.  This is my gift to you.”

Only through the hands of the Great Physician can we be delivered, so that we see the world in a way that we could not have imagined before.

Be born anew, right now.  That is the Great Physician’s call.

God calls us is to see all of the people in the world, red, and yellow, black and white, for we are all precious in God’s sight.  Every single one of us.  Regardless.

And like all births, it is a gift, it is grace, and it is from God.

A Witness

When we listen to another person’s perspective of an event you both attended, it is like turning a beautiful piece of cut glass to see the many different hues sparkle and often we appreciate them even more.  My friend Bil Hitchcock from Montgomery, AL, shared his perspective when he attended my ordination as an Episcopal priest recently.  Thank you Bil.
Mary Bea Sullivan and Malcolm Marler

Mary Bea Sullivan and Malcolm Marler (Photo by Frank Brower)

I just witnessed one of the most amazing things….but first, you need to know that I have a friend named Malcolm Marler.

He and I have known each other for years, working on different projects. The thing you also need to know is that Malcolm is a minister…an ‘in the trenches’ sort of guy.

He ministers to those suffering not only in spirit, but body as well. I suppose all ministers do that to a certain degree…but he does it at UAB Medical Center in Birmingham, AL. And that is what he has always quietly done. And done well.

Picture this. A couple of hundred empty chairs here…a couple of hours after they were set up, they were filled. Malcolm’s friends from all over the planet and deep recesses of UAB were there to celebrate his becoming an Episcopal priest….he had always been ordained, but not as an Episcopalian.

One of the things that I love about the Episcopal church is the liturgy…the very careful way that we conduct services. Bishop Kee Sloan was there to officiate…the North Pavilion at UAB for a few moments was a sanctuary. We used our fine Episcopal words…we sang our fine Episcopal songs, but there were some different sounds.

“Malcolm, you understand that as an Episcopal priest you will have certain….” And then Kee’s voice was drowned out by a siren of help on the street below us…once I heard four sirens of help at the same time….it was when a woman with one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard was literally singing her heart out. As she built the cadence of her singing higher and higher, I heard the sirens of help…and then that sound that really bothers me…it’s the one where a very quiet tone is repeated five times…sort of like the sound they had at Montgomery Fair growing up…telling someone they had a phone call…that sound has never been a good sound in a hospital. And as she continued singing, I saw someone on a gurney the next level up from the Pavilion being wheeled somewhere….the person on it lifted their head to see what we were doing. I wish they could have stayed.

So…while all of these sounds are going on…and we are quietly going about our orderly Episcopal service…it dawned on me…welcome to Malcolm’s world. There will always be sirens of help in his life…and the dreaded five-dull-tone calls… and people on gurneys.

It takes a special person whose ministry is literally ‘in the trenches’…as the woman so poignantly said in her sermon…”People like YOU”….she was looking him in the eye…”know that they are called to do this work”.

He is and I am glad…so glad…that I got to attend Malcolm Marler’s “church”…sit in his sanctuary…and watch him minister.

I don’t think I will forget this any time soon. Neither will his wife, Mary Bea Sullivan, or anyone else in the room.

Being Salt

Rev. Sarah Jackson Shelton and I were classmates at seminary, she was my pastor when I was a member of the  Baptist Church of the Covenant, and the officiant at my wedding to Mary Bea Sullivan.  Most recently, she was the preacher at my ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Thank you Sarah Jackson Shelton for who you are. (Photos are by Blake Britton).  The bulletin for the service can be seen here.  An article in the Birmingham News can be read here.

Sarah Shelton

Rev. Sarah Jackson Shelton (Photo by Blake Britton)

This feels really different, Malcolm.  The difference is not because you are becoming an Episcopalian.  The difference is not because we are in a hospital.  No, the difference is that most of the ordinations in which I am asked to participate are for recent seminary graduates awaiting their first pulpit.  They have only had their orthodontia removed a few months while you, Malcolm, you are on your third round of reading glasses!  Maybe that is why the mantle of this service feels so seriously joyful.

You KNOW to what you are committing:  the long hours, the minimal salary, the delight of unexpected inspiration, the constant heartache of loving people, and the amazing grace involved in forgiveness and acceptance.  If ever there were a shepherd who is compassionately willing to bear the burdens of his flock, it is you, Malcolm.

You and I were raised uniquely in order to receive this calling.  Our fathers were not only colleagues in ministry, but they were friends.  Because of their absolute conviction of calling and devotion to ministry, they modeled for us what it meant to be anointed and clothed with righteousness.  Their willingness to teach and bear good news, to be laborers in fields white with harvest, grew within us the insatiable longing to be like the elders in Numbers and the shepherds as mentioned in Matthew and I Peter.

Because of Lamar Jackson and Lewis Marler, you and I, Malcolm, knew and understood one another long before we ever even met.

Technically we met at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as students.  And while I have memories of you before that fateful January, I think the only class we ever had together was that January term class that was taught by Jim Blevins and Alan Culpepper.  It just so happened that our classroom was in Israel, where we worshipped in temples and walked the hills of Galilee.

I remember one day in particular that had us sitting on a hillside looking down to the Sea of Galilee.  Dr. Blevins was reminding us of how Jesus gathered his disciples around him in similar fashion.   That as He tried to teach, the crowds interrupted.  Jesus was ever-ready to cure their every disease and heal their every sickness.  Then, as we considered how Jesus proclaimed the good news, these verses were read:

5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
5:15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Sarah sharing salt with Malcolm

Sarah sharing salt with Malcolm (Photo by Blake Britton)

After reading, Dr. Blevins reached into his overcoat and took out a box of salt.  He poured it into each of our hands to encourage us to allow it to season and bring flavor to our ministry.  Not only have you done that, Malcolm, I know that you will continue to do so.

Like salt, you, Malcolm, will be a preservative that keeps the traditions of the church and faith with integrity.

Like the presence of salt in tears, you, Malcolm, will weep with the sorrowful and laugh with the joyful.

Like salt, you, Malcolm will continue to be just the right amount of seasoning to keep hope alive in the despairing and comfort to the bereaved.  But beware, you may also be the salt that sends blood pressures soaring for those who prefer flatness and blandness, control and manipulation, you may be their heartburn.

Like salt, you, Malcolm will promote healing in the sick, lost and lonely.

Allow salt to make you thirsty for righteousness, justice and faith, and may your deep parching provide a model for others to desire and thus quench.

Allow salt to rise on your forehead as you perspire from the rigors of work and play.

Use salt as the medium that keeps your body in balance so that you remain healthy for service.

And in keeping with such phrases as “you’re just an old salt,” do not lose sight of how you season our world with your humor, graciousness, wisdom and sometimes, frankness.

You are the salt of the earth, Malcolm.  Take a pinch and put it on your tongue.  Now, go and be it.  Amen.

Prayers of the People

The bulletin for the ordination service for Malcolm Marler can be seen here.

chairs for ordination service

The UAB Hospital Atrium being transformed into a sanctuary.

In many worship services in the Episcopal church, there is a time in the service called, “Prayers of the People.”

This is a time when one person or many, speak prayers out loud and the congregation as a whole responds with “Lord, hear our prayer.”  For special occasions, like my ordination as a priest coming up on January 15, 2014,  prayers are sometimes written that are specific to the particular situation.

The Rev. Mary Anne Akin, an Episcopal priest and Chaplain at St. Martin’s in the Pines, wrote the following prayer that will be read by many persons from their seats in the congregation during Prayers for the People.

I wanted to share it with you, and to express my gratitude to Mary Anne.

Yours, O Lord, was a ministry of compassion, strength and newness.  You know the healing needs of many in our world. Let us hear your call to attentiveness and action,

Lord, hear our prayer.

For those who are ill in our society, that persons of faith will respond to the Gospel’s Call to care for those who suffer,

Lord, hear our prayer.

Under the roof of this hospital are many healing ministries, grant O Lord, that we care for people from all walks of life in your ways of love,

Lord, hear our prayer.

Many are required for the ministry to each person who comes as a patient.   We pray for administrators, physicians, researchers, nurses, advocates, social workers, ancillary health professionals and other technicians,

Lord, hear our prayer.

For those in guest services who welcome and guide, for those who cook and serve, for those who clean, for those who provide security,

Lord, hear our prayer.

For all patients and those who love them, that they may know your healing presence, especially those who find themselves lost and alone.

Lord, hear our prayer.

 For those in Pastoral Care who minister to those in many denominations, of all faiths, that Chaplains may seek the face of God and be God’s eyes, touch and Word to all they serve,

Lord, hear our prayer.

For Malcolm, called to be a leader in pastoral care, that he may keep the call of healing body, mind and spirit close to his heart,

Lord, hear our prayer.

That he may continue in gentleness, courage, truth, hope and wisdom throughout the days of his work,

Lord, hear our prayer.

That he may know quietness of Spirit in times of frustration and moments of deep joy for celebration, and guided daily in prayer for the challenges of this institution and for the decisions of his life,

Lord, hear our prayer.

That he may know rest and renewal apart from his ministry, fulfillment in his family life, and the continuing love of his wife as they embark upon service to God’s church and world,

Lord, hear our prayer.

For all members of your Church in their vocation and ministry, that they may serve in a true and godly life.

Lord, hear our prayer.

For the peace of the world, that a spirit of respect and forbearance may grow among nations and peoples,

Lord, hear our prayer.

For all who have died in the communion of your Church, especially Lewis and Martha Lou Marler, Jimmie Ruth Dodson, and those whose faith is known to you alone, that, with all the saints, they may have rest in that place where there is no pain or grief, but life eternal,

Lord, hear our prayer.




When in Doubt

20131206-190419.jpgWhen you are in doubt as to whether you should love someone or not, risk love.

When you are in doubt as to whether you should judge someone or not, choose the higher ground and love.

When you are in doubt as to whether you should forgive someone or not, offer grace which is love.

That’s where we find God.

For God IS love.  This is the path each of us have been called to follow.  Let us walk it together.


20131205-211045.jpgWhen your dreams take longer than you expected, it means you are on the right track.

Otherwise they would just be plans.

Hang in there, dream on.

An Open Letter to My Mother

Note:  On August 5, 1965, Malcolm Marler’s mother (41) died suddenly.  You can read more about that here.

Dear Mama,

Martha Lou Marler in her early 20's.

Martha Lou Marler in her early 20’s.

It is hard to believe that 48 years ago today you took your last breath on this earth when I was 10 years old.  You would be 89 if you had lived this late in life.  I want to give you an update on how things are going, but most of all to say thank you.  This will be the first of several letters because there’s just so much to cover. All of this comes from unspeakable gratitude for what you gave me in ten short years.

I want to focus on three themes today:  love, faith, and how to connect with others.

First, thank you for the way you loved me unconditionally.

As a psychology major in college, I  learned how important it was/is for a child to experience love early in one’s life.  I already knew this intuitively from my life experience.  The love you gave me was planted deep within and your death could not take it away.  Holding and hugging me close to your breast repeatedly throughout my first decade of life planted a seed in my soul that has grown over the years.  You taught me how to hug full bodied with both arms, and how to forgive others by the way you forgave me.

You held my face in your hands and told me how much you loved me.  I believed your encouraging words when you said, “you can be anything in the world you want to be.”  Your son is still dreaming new dreams at 58 years old.  Thank you.

Second, thank you for talking about your faith with me, but most of all thank you for living it.  I heard your prayers, but I also saw your love for people regardless of skin color or one’s socioeconomic status in the early 60’s in Alabama.  I noticed how you listened to others going through difficult times.  I remember how you loved to write, how you were creative in everything you did, and how your belief in a loving God was the foundation for your life.  Thank you for showing me what a loving God is like through the way you parented me.  All these years later, I believe in a loving God who will never leave me, and One who will sustain me through any difficult times in my life.

Finally, thank you for the way you showed me how to connect with others.  I saw this in the way you loved my Daddy.  I noticed the way you looked at and loved my father with that spark in your eye.  I remember the times I caught the two of you hugging one another in the kitchen, or saying kind and loving words to the other in front of me.  And thank you for the way you related to the family of God from the youngest children to senior adults with your natural warmth, gentle humor, and humility.  I’ve tried to learn that from you.

I wish you could have known and connected with my wife, Mary Bea Sullivan.  Oh my, the two of you would have loved each other’s company so much!

I know that you audited every course with my Dad in seminary because you desired deeply to have the same  theological education, but couldn’t get academic credit for your hard work due to women not being treated equally.  I want you to know that Mary Bea is finishing her Master of Divinity degree this year to become a pastor.  I know you would celebrate that accomplishment with her as if it was your own.

Most of all, I want you to know that I am married to the love of my life and I have two amazing, loving children who are now 21 and 22 years old headed towards careers in the helping professions.  I am a Chaplain in a hospital in a job that I love where I get to help people when they are going through hard times and believe that this is where God has called me to be.

I am the happiest I have ever been in my life.

I’ll write more later, I love you,




That We May Be One

Sermon preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Cullman, AL, May 12, 2013.  Seventh Sunday of Easter.  By Malcolm Lewis Marler

John 17:20-26

Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

That We May Be One

On this seventh Sunday of Easter, a week before Pentecost when God’s Spirit will be poured out for all persons, we are reminded of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples just before he faces his own death.

Jesus had taught his disciples how to pray, and he had prayed for himself before his final trip into Jerusalem, and now he prays for those who are his followers.

Father, I ask not only on behalf of these,” (his disciples) “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” and that’s you and me.  So let us listen carefully to this prayer, because Jesus is praying for us.

His prayer describes his hope for us, his vision, and his picture of how we are to live on this earth.

And what exactly does he pray?  What does he say?

He says, “Father, the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be ONE, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

So that we may be completely ONE.  What does that mean, that we might be completely ONE?

The Rev. Lucy Hogan, an Episcopal priest and preaching professor says, this “is a prayer that focuses on unity, on all being one.  It is a prayer for community. To be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole. ”

Some of us in the Church think Jesus’ prayer means that we will all be a member of ONE Church one day.  We will all say and believe the same creed, recite the same prayers together, and all sing out of the same hymn book and even agree on our favorite songs.  Episcopalians and Pentecostals, Baptists and Lutherans, Methodists and Catholics will all be united together.

But Jesus didn’t seem as interested in such matters.  

Rather, his prayer which was reflected in the way he lived showed that ONENESS had more to do with washing one another’s feet than singing out of the same song book.

Jesus’ life had more to do with how we love each other than the type of building we worship in or what the sign says outside.

Jesus’ prayer that we would be one has more to do with eliminating from our vocabulary the words “us” and “them.”  We are all connected, Jesus prays, as members of the human family.

This oneness is serving one another.  If we are looking for a place to start, all we need to do is look at Jesus’ ministry to the poor, or those who are outcasts, or the ones that organized religion shuns.

Mary Fisher is HIV positive and became particularly noted for a speech she gave before the Republican Convention in Houston in 1992.  On that night she urged the Republican Party to handle the AIDS crisis and those who are HIV positive with compassion.

I came to know Mary when I was the Chaplain at the HIV/AIDS Clinic at UAB where she is a patient and has made that public knowledge.  I have always been inspired by Mary’s words, but even more by her life.

The clinic recently celebrated it’s 25th anniversary and Mary was the speaker at the Memorial service to remember former patients who had died of HIV and its complications.  She spoke of the grief and the loss of so many persons, but she also emphasized how this virus changed us as a people.  She said,

“But out of our sorrow has come a common bond, Africans call it “abataka,” which means oneness, community.  We are strangers no more, but servants with a calling.  Out of our grieving has come our common memory of loving and being loved, of grieving and being comforted.  Out of our history, we have gathered flowers from a thousand funerals, and we have worn them in our hearts – stained by the ash of grief, fragrant with the aroma of hope.  We are a community groomed and ready to serve.” (Mary Fisher, Ashes on the Flowers)

As a Chaplain at the clinic for a decade and half, I learned as much about community and ONENESS there, as I have from the churches I have served.  It was a glimpse of oneness where you meet people where they are in life, a place where we check our job descriptions as people of faith and discover that judgment is no where to be found.  It showed me a way of being that realizes all of us need to be loved, and all of us need to forgive and be forgiven.

Jesus’ prayer describes his hope for us, his vision for us, and how we are to live our lives together. We are called to make that prayer a reality, day by day.

To live with the human family as ONE is the kind of love that Jesus prays for, and the kind of love that calls us to forgive and be reconciled with one another.

Please do not hear me saying that this way of living is easy, because the way of Jesus is anything but that.  Without God’s love and grace and forgiveness for us is impossible.  And without OUR love and grace and forgiveness of others, we cannot get there.

The reason Jesus was praying for his disciples was because they were NOT ONE.

Instead his closest disciples were squabbling with one another and misunderstanding his purpose and ministry.  Peter with his denials, James and John in their competition to be the greatest, and Judas who was willing to sell out are just a few examples.

But most importantly while they were trying to figure it all out, Jesus loved them, he forgave them, and he prayed for them.  And he does so for us.

Not long ago I was visiting a friend who is probably not going to live much longer due to heart disease.  Like many persons, he had hoped to have a heart transplant when he first came to us, but he is now too weak to get a new heart.  Comfort care is the best that can be offered at this point.

I have had several opportunities to to visit with him. Long, deep, sit down kind of conversations about the meaning of life.  Some regrets and many gratitudes have been named.  These conversations are gifts for the giver and the receiver.

One of those opportunities involved being with him and his father, and we talked openly about the days past, and the days ahead.

The patient’s father began to talk to me in his son’s presence about how he had regretted not being as close to his son as he had wished.  He knew that he had favored his other son over the one who was now fighting for his life.

The whole time the father was looking at me but talking to his son.  The son’s eyes were fixed on me, as he listened to his father.  He told his son that he was sorry.  John nodded his head, acknowledging his father’s words.  It was a step on a journey toward forgiveness.

Before I prayed for them, I asked what they wanted me to pray for and I incorporated their requests into my prayer. I rested my hand on John’s chest over his heart, and his father walked around the bed and placed one hand on John’s shoulder and the other on mine.  For the moment, we were one, and I left with the awareness something transformative had happened.

Sometimes the call for us to be ONE with the human family begins with those closest to us, one prayer at a time.

Other times it involves us serving someone outside our own comfort zone, whom we assume is very different from us.

To God, I’m not sure if it matters where we start, but that we do start. because we are all connected to one another.

Jesus is praying for you.  Think about that for a moment.  His prayer is that you and I will realize how we treat one another, how we talk about one another, and how we love one another matters.

In God’s heart, we are ONE human family with no outsiders or insiders, all loved by God just the same.

And as people of faith who count ourselves as followers of The Way, “We are strangers no more, but servants with a calling. Stained by the ash of grief, fragrant with the aroma of hope.  We are a community groomed and ready to serve.” (Mary Fisher)


Mary Fisher – Video of “Whisper of AIDS” Speech 1992 Republican Convention (Part I)

Mary Fisher – Video of “Whisper of AIDS” Speech 1992 Republican Convention (Part II)

A Day to Remember

1917 Clinic 25th Anniversary Logo
Recently I participated in a Memorial Service for persons who have died of HIV/AIDS who were patients at The 1917 Clinic at UAB in its 25 year history.  I was a Chaplain at this world-class, compassionate HIV/AIDS Clinic from 1994-2009.  I was asked to have the opening prayer and you can find it below.  Peace. 
25th Anniversary
Memorial Service
April 27, 2013

Creator of LIFE and God of LOVE,

We gather today to remember those we loved:

Our mothers and fathers, our partners and spouses, our sons and daughters, and our brothers and sisters who are no longer with us due to a virus called HIV.

We gather to remember our past:

What it was like in the 1990‘s at The 1917 Clinic, when we received an email almost daily with the subject line, “Angel Wings” announcing that another patient, another member of our human family, had died of HIV/AIDS and its complications.

We gather to remember what’s important:

That compassion, care, and hugs are still the best medicines that we prescribe and dispense.

That taking our medicine and seeing our doctor is our lifeline for the future.

We gather to remember lessons our patients taught us:

That all persons, red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in your sight.

That all persons, all of us, fall short of perfection and if it were not for your grace, your forgiveness, we would all be in trouble.

That judgment is simply not a part of our human job description.

And that all Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and all persons of faith and struggling faith, are called to love you with our whole heart, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.

We gather to remember individuals who have made, and are making, a difference:

To give thanks for an amazing team of persons at the clinic, for our social workers and receptionists, our educators and data managers, our chaplains and interns, our researchers and phlebotomists, our patient volunteers and security guards, our counselors and environmental service workers, our nurses and nurse practitioners and physicians, and everyone who has contributed to this effort in this place, and throughout the world.

All of whom are known to You by first, middle, and last name.

And finally, we gather to look forward to the future with hope:

We pray for a world without HIV.

We pray for a day without stigma in our world . . .

whether it be for persons living with HIV, with mental illness, or those with a different color of skin of our own, or different accent, language, ethnicity, or religion, or for those with addictions, or discriminated against because of their age, or physical disabilities, or sexual orientation, or for any other reason under the sun.

And we pray for a day when everyone can say, “Peace be with you,” as we bless one another.


The Laying On of Hands

This post is part of a series on My Faith Journey.

Laying on of HandsWhen I was a junior in college and “felt the call” to ministry, I had no idea where this path would lead.  I just wanted to be open to God’s call in my life.

I knew I would have to be “ordained” if I was going to follow this path as my vocation and my job.  (More about ordination here .)

Each faith group has its own process that varies in time widely from a few weeks to several years.  I was ordained the first time by my home Baptist church when I was 22 years old as a seminarian.  It took just a few weeks.

My path and professional life over the next 30+ years gave me the opportunity to be a pastor, then an associate pastor and pastoral counselor in two congregations, a Chaplain in a HIV/AIDS Clinic, and now as a director of pastoral care at a hospital.

Along the way I followed my wife, Mary Bea Sullivan, to the Episcopal Church as we searched for a new spiritual home together after our marriage. (More about that here …)

So today, I am ordained (Baptist) in my work (Chaplain), and a lay person in my church (Episcopal). Nothing is wrong with that except I want to align my life professionally and personally.  Or put another way, I want to be who I am.  And so I entered a new process, and it has taken a few years in my new church. 

On Tuesday, May 21, 2013, I will be ordained by the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama at Grace Episcopal Church in Cullman, AL at 6:00 pm  as a “transitional Deacon.”  This is the first of two ordinations in the Episcopal Church to remind me of my humility (which is helpful), and then God willing, ordained as a priest in about 6 months or so.

Grace Church is the only Episcopal Church I’ve ever been a member of, and they are the people who have welcomed me and loved me through this process.  You are invited to join us for this blessing.  If you cannot come, your prayers are more than enough.

I plan to continue at the hospital because this is where I feel called to be for now.  That’s really all any of us can say.  After more than three decades I have no idea where this path will lead.  I just want to be open to God’s call in my life.

Finally, I want to share a secret with you.  We have something in common, you and me, because YOU too have been ordained already.

God’s hands were placed on your head at birth, and God was and is, blessing you, ordaining you right now.  Take a moment and just imagine that.  Breathe it in.  The God of the universe is ordaining you.

Hear God’s voice as God leans over to whisper in your ear, “Come and see what I have planned for you.”

This voice is the path to your vocation.  It is your calling.  It’s not so much about how you earn a living, as it is about how you are called to be a blessing to the world.  Be who you already are, you are invited to align your life and bless the world around you.

Where is your path leading you these days?  Can you imagine it?

Be open, come and see what God is planning for you.  And congratulations on your ordination.


Grace Episcopal Church
305 Arnold Street, NE
Cullman, AL 35055
Directions from Grace Episcopal Church website  
Google Maps turn by turn directions


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