Carissa Herold, Presbyterian Women marketing associate, on Lesson One.
Read the Gospel of Mark (especially Mark 1--8)
Have you ever considered just how deeply the church year guides your life? Advent and Lent, of course, World Communion Sunday, yes, but what about those special seasons of your local church that cannot be found on the Presbyterian Planning Calendar? These special days still carry us through the seasons of our lives, as people and as a community. Consider, for example, such days in my home church, rummage sale Saturday (always in May), the blessing of the animals (October), Thank Offering breakfast (September), and book club Thursday (which always falls on the second week of each month). One of the special seasons in my church occurs each year as summer begins to fade. On a Sunday morning in August, instead of congregating in our church building, we convene in a nearby park. We arrive in capris and flip flops, t-shirts and golf shorts, jeans and sneakers. Despite our relaxed attire, this is holy time. We are outdoors of and with God’s creation, we are in community, we are worshipful, and we are together again in this time and place as we are every year, rain or shine. A few of the musically gifted among us sing or strum a guitar (or both). Potluck goodies are packed in coolers and baskets. But the focus of our time is when our pastor steps forward for his yearly recitation of the Sermon on the Mount. Reading the Sermon on the Mount is moving; hearing the Sermon on the Mount adds yet another level of immediacy and consideration. We, as a community, based on body language and yearly attendance, find much to ponder in these spoken words.
The human voice draws attention (who could ignore even a whisper?) and the act of listening is forcibly linear: no skimming pages to quickly move through a story, no easy check of the last pages to find tidy resolution for a whodunit. The human voice also connects us one to another and affirms our shared humanity. Lynn Miller, the Suggestions for Leaders author, illustrated just how potent listening to a history of people can be when she presented the lead up to the first lesson on Mark, during the 2016 Alabama/Mississippi Women’s Conference.
Let me set the stage. We gather just before dusk in the glorious sanctuary of the historic South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. The rays from the setting sun softly bathe the sanctuary, filtering through the lenses (I couldn’t resist the lens metaphor!) of tall stained glass windows. Candles gently flicker. Lynn Miller comes before us and begins to speak gently about . . . atrocities and migrations, fears and tumult, war crimes and deep defeats, cruelty and darkness. No skimming these pages! Her words are unhurried as she gives testimony to the destruction of Jerusalem, genocidal campaigns and public humiliations. Her words hang in the air with a rightful solemnity and continue for many, many, many minutes. We are stunned, we are silent. Finally, a pause. We will hear no more stories tonight and yet heaviness permeates this sacred space. That’s when we see Greek words appear on the large screen. We sit with these written words as we remain in silent reflection from the spoken words and all the heartache they conveyed. Our hearts break for first-century humanity. After a few moments of heavy silence, Lynn clicks the button so that the slide advances for the English words:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1
What a balm. Good news, indeed. The sun has just set and the candles warmly illuminate the sanctuary. The large wooden cross reminds us of the terrors of this world as well as the good news of Jesus, who chooses to be with us through the valley of sorrow, peril, and death.
In the study, Judy Siker writes, “So, who is Jesus according to Mark? He is the suffering Son of God, and he will meet you in your suffering. For an audience undergoing persecution, for a group of Jesus’ followers in the late first century, this must have been good news indeed.” (page 17, page 27--large print)
When Lynn gave voice to those who suffered in the decades leading up to Mark’s gospel, none of us in the assembled community would have dreamed that a madman would willfully drive a multi-ton truck through a crowd just a day or two later with the intention of killing and maiming as many people as he could, sparing not even children. Injustice and atrocities and heart-break are not just the stuff of the ancient near east. The truth is, none of us live a life free of suffering, even those of us who are blessed to enjoy conveniences and opportunities and freedoms that our modern, wi-fi-enabled, high-tech world enables. A quick glance at my local newspaper this morning confirms that suffering is just around the corner:
- City’s shooting spike a ‘public health crisis’
- Indiana could have avoided HIV outbreak, study shows
And suffering is just an airplane trip away as a glance at CNN yields these headlines:
- People scared and hungry as troops circle Aleppo
- At least 12 killed in twin suicide bombings near Mogadishu airport
And one need not bother clicking through newspaper headlines because suffering is right here, in our lives and in the lives of family members, friends, circle members, coworkers, neighbors: broken promises, cancer, job loss, depression, unrealized dreams, financial strife, dangerous work, addictions.
Judy Siker’s third question under questions for further thought and discussion asks us to consider our need for Mark’s Jesus, even centuries after Rome’s persecutions ended. “What good news does Mark’s portrait of Jesus bring to you today?”
For me, Jesus choosing to live the fully human life is a gift of unbelievable grace for humanity—and his gift of being with each of us through these valleys is beyond fathomable. Mark’s Jesus has trod this path of suffering and is beside each of us as we make our way in this world. I see Mark’s Jesus as a light, a beacon. I am reminded of an Anne Lamott quote I once read, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Mark's Jesus is a guiding light, a beacon, providing each of us with a point to which to navigate through tranquil seas and perfect storms. All that is required is for us to decide to look up and chart our course toward this Light.