Depression, Gospel of Mark, Lent

Things we know but cannot explain in a sound-bite (Mark 1:29-45)

A lot happens in the first chapter of Mark. Early in my ministry, I preached a sermon on this section entitled “The Magical Mystery Tour,” both because I thought it sounded a little sassy, and because Jesus seemed to become a regional rockstar in a hurry; today we might say he went viral.

But it does seem like people are mostly showing up for the transactional aspects of his ministry.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed.  The whole town gathered near the door.  He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him. (Mark 1:32-34, CEB)

It’s a straightforward thing, healing those who are broken in body. But whatever the underlying spiritual condition or psychiatric diagnosis of those afflicted by demons takes us into territory that is less measurable, some kind of super-natural wilderness journey. Does Mark mean that the evil spirits are silenced, or the people who have been troubled? Further down, Jesus also calls upon a man with a skin disease to be silent, but the man doesn’t listen; he goes on his way and tells whoever he feels like telling! Jesus asks him, but doesn’t prevent him. I guess it’s because this guy with refreshed skin and a happy new outlook on life knows he has been healed in body, and could point to the person who healed him, but has no real idea who has done it for him.

Some evangelical voices have gotten pushback over the past week or so for suggesting that mental health issues are entirely spiritual issues. I’m not going to link to them, but I will say one made a statement on Twitter and some others made remarks during a women’s conference. As a person who lives with chronic depression, which is sometimes no problem and other times a significant factor in my daily life, I can testify that there are times when my life in a faith community and my personal spiritual practices help, but there are others when they do not, and I’ve long since moved past thinking that how well I do the practices or how active I am at church can make all the difference, or that God is not helping out enough, but I also know that most of the time, in most situations, it helps that I have those resources, except for the times when it really, really doesn’t.

That’s a terrible attempt at a sound-bite.

Recently I heard Suzanne Stabile say that she has noted a trend among church leaders in her circles to have a semicolon embroidered on their stoles or to have a semicolon tattoo on their wrists, so that people in church who struggle with mental illness will know it’s safe to talk to their pastors and other faith leaders. The point of the semicolon, as described by Project Semicolon, is that you are the author of your own life; like a sentence punctuated with a semicolon, it’s not over.

I’m glad that my story did not end when I was most depressed, more than twenty years ago, and at serious risk of dying by suicide. I’m grateful for the people I was able to trust, somehow, who understood that brain chemistry was no reason for shame and that my identity as a person of faith both helped and made things harder. They were so good to me, and along with the medical and mental health professionals who treated me, they saved my life.

Jesus is going to move on to other territories; he has more to do than heal people in one neighborhood or one community of their physical or mental or spiritual afflictions, which sounds okay if you don’t have any of those challenges, I guess.

He’s going to move on because he has something else to say, and a story to reveal about himself, even though he’s not ready yet for anyone to know it.

Healing God,  it’s hard to put you into a few words, but let me try. Thank you for coming among us. Help us to remember that the story is not over

I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible. Tomorrow I’ll be reading Mark 1:29-45. You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts..

Gospel of Mark, Lent

Change your hearts and lives! (Mark 1:1-15)

On this first day of Lent, our family woke up without our cell phones on our bedside tables. In collaboration with our 13-year-old, we agreed that in the hour or so between the arising of pets and his departure for school, we would not be sucked into social media, or email, or online news, or video games (him). A few exceptions were made for the adults – yes, the parish pastor in the house can be sure there were no texts or voicemails related to pastoral emergencies, and yes, I could check Facebook messenger for overnight messages from our daughter in Japan.

We have made some other commitments for this season of penitence and preparation, this study I have scheduled out through Easter Monday among them. There is one self-discipline I have not mentioned aloud to anyone in its particulars, which I guess means no one will know whether I “win” Lent or not. Whatever I’m not mentioning is a very small sacrifice in the larger picture of life, but a hard thing for me.

I’m pretty sure it’s not what Jesus had in mind at the end of this introductory portion of Mark’s gospel.

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, CEB)

In just 15 verses, this earliest of the gospels has referred to Isaiah, introduced John the Baptist, and given us a thumbnail origin story for Jesus that includes his baptism, an announcement from God that only Jesus hears, and a mere two verses devoted to his 40 day sojourn in the wilderness, in which Satan, wild animals, and angels get equal time. Now Jesus is ready to get to work, and he is not holding anything back!

Wait, isn’t this the gospel with the Messianic Secret? Won’t he tell the disciples to hush about who he is? Yet he is saying it from the word “now.” “Here comes God’s kingdom!”

He is talking about himself.

He is God, and God’s kingdom is walking into our midst in his person.

“Change your hearts and lives” has to mean more than any exercises we can manage for up to 40 days, minus Sundays. That doesn’t mean I won’t do them … small, measurable changes can support a changed heart and a changed life.

But what gets us into this in the first place has to be bigger.

Holy One, when I am tempted to think that following you is only two verses or forty days worth of commitment, help me to hear your voice in a new way, to change my heart and my life, and trust this good news. Amen.

I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible. Tomorrow I’ll be reading Mark 1:16-28. Full schedule can be found here.

Lent, Mark, Reflectionary

Mark read-along for Lent

Reading Mark duringLentI’m planning to read the Gospel of Mark during Lent and invite you to join me. You’ll find the schedule here.

Reading through Luke and writing about it was a great discipline for me last year. As a preacher, I found there were certain sections found in the Revised Common Lectionary that I knew well, and other parts to which I had never paid close attention. I *think* I know Mark better, but I look forward to finding surprises and new insights.


Speaker’s block (or is it listener’s?)

I like to think of Luke 1 as the prequel to the gospel, a much better story than the ones shoehorned in to explain “A New Hope.” Luke shows us Jesus’ ties to Jewish heritage, scripture, and theology within the context of a family origin that befits a divine birth. In this last section, John is born, the neighbors argue with Elizabeth about the name she gives him, and finally Old Zechariah is consulted.

After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.” At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God. (Luke 1:63-64, CEB)

Back in line with God now, Zechariah is delivered from speaker’s block.

Jacopo Pontormo, 1526 - Note Zechariah getting himself out of trouble - Wikimedia Commons
Jacopo Pontormo, 1526 – Note Zechariah getting himself out of trouble – Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the neighbors got the same information from Elizabeth. They just didn’t choose to listen to her.

Who do I listen to? Whose words carry the weight of authority for me? There are certain people whose words I trust, some I follow closely to learn more about things I used to think I understood but now realize I did not. I may have drifted away from scholars toward people with lived experience, away from white men (dead or alive) to women and especially women of color. They are my teachers, whether they know it or not, in the way they live and the ways they speak truth, the ways they prophesy.

Am I writing for attention? I wouldn’t say that preaching carries the guarantee that anyone is listening, but it’s true I miss the interaction with others. In the space I’m inhabiting as I work from home, I am looking for a place to engage about life and faith.

Zechariah had everyone’s attention when he finally spoke again, and then he prophesied. He summed up what his people sought in a savior, including a light in the darkness, and a dawn breaking, and help in the valley of the shadow of death. He set out the marks the Messiah was to hit; later John would ask if Jesus was really the one, because he hit them, but not in the ways John imagined.

And maybe that’s the takeaway for this listener/reader: what God has in store may not be anything like what we pictured for ourselves, but it will still be good.

Keep me open, Holy One, to see your light on the path of peace. Amen. 

I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible; tomorrow I’ll be reading Luke 2:1-20. Full schedule can be found here.


How *will* this happen?

When I work with coaching clients, I often pray, as we begin, for the Holy Spirit to guide us or nudge us, but I literally never pray for the Spirit to come over us.

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. (Luke 1:35, CEB)

file-mar-02-11-10-42-amI definitely don’t invite the Spirit to overshadow us. Or me.

The angel gives Mary this assurance after she asks a perfectly reasonable question about her predicted conception. “How will this happen?”

How *will* this happen?

Well, Honey, the Holy Spirit will come over you and overshadow you.

I’m captivated by the word play employed in the Common English Bible in Luke 1. Zechariah, who will question the angel, is described as being “overcome.” The angel promises Mary, who will agree with the plan set out for her, that the Spirit will “come over” her. This sent me scampering to the Greek interlinear, since my own facility with Greek is nil.


They both meet the same angel, but in contrast with Zechariah, who the text says has fear “on-falling” him, Mary hears that the Spirit “shall-be-on-coming” and “shall-be-on-shading/overshadowing” her. He is spooked, although he is in the holiest of places when he meets the angel, the kind of place you would expect to meet a messenger of YHWH. She is … nowhere in particular, not even a place the gospel writer describes other than to say she is in Nazareth. It feels safe to say she wasn’t expecting a heavenly messenger, yet she is somehow more open to a visitation.

I want to say I am, too, but it’s a long way from nudging to “on shading,” isn’t it? Yet I want to be more deeply connected to God. I want to, and here I paraphrase Landon Whitsitt paraphrasing Luther, line my (not so little) ass up with God.

How *will* this happen?

Well, Honey, the Holy Spirit will come over you and overshadow you.

May I be more open to Your coming over me, Most High, more open to the ways You might overshadow my life, more in line with You. Amen.  

I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible; tomorrow I’ll be reading Luke 1:57-80. Full schedule can be found here.

Ash Wednesday, Lent, Reflectionary

Charred Hosannas

Sunday before last, someone sitting close wore cologne that irritated a tickle in my throat. In these first months of my unintentional retirement from parish ministry, I have moments of missing the refuge of the chancel, where we have become allergy-sensitive, even ordering stamen-free Easter lilies.

When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. (Luke 1:12, CEB)
Yet Zechariah went into the Lord’s sanctuary for the hour of burning incense, to thicken the air with scent, as pungent as the cloud that startled me the first time I burned the previous year’s palms in my fireplace.
blackened-hosannasSweet and acrid, it filled my head: caramelized palm, charred hosannas.
You can buy a pouch of tidy ashes from Amazon – I have – but I long for those inefficiently rendered fronds, smoldering on a piece of foil while I sat overcome near the fireplace grate.

Holy One, may the fragrance of Your presence never cease to startle and overcome us. Amen.

I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible; tomorrow I’ll be reading Luke 1:26-56. Full schedule can be found here.

Prayers for Pastors

The Lost Hour (a prayer for pastors)

Maybe it’s the lost hour, Lord,
but I woke up feeling
wistful this morning,
eyes blinking, focus
on the day a struggle.

I read too much news
on a tiny screen,
too much bad news,
see too much ugliness
rendered in 2” by 4.”

Things that seemed
reliable, understandings
shared by all, are
thrown down like stones;
some need to be.

Is it fair to pray, “Wake me!”
when you commanded
us to stay woke?
Yet I must confess
it’s tempting to drift off.

Help me. Help us.
Our lids weighed down,
weary with —
O God! I’m awake.
Use me this day, I pray. Amen.