Mark Meeks' StoryAt a celebration of his Ministry by Capitol Hill United Ministry Mark told his story in his own words.
Reflections Recovered from a Quiet Life . . .Thanks
Explanation of text
My vocation, of course, has the workof preaching at its heart. For mepreaching has always been like a race, with the issue being who reaches the endfirst; generally, I come in second at best, so it’s always a challenge to stoptalking before people stop listening, and that’s a good challenge because evendeeper than the work of preaching in my vocation is the art of listening, andthat, of course, is proceeded by becoming quiet. So before I get quiet again, I want to saysomethings about a long journey that seems so utterly brief that take intoaccount things I’ve observed about myself, the work common to us all, and thehumanity of us all.
When I got ordained, so to speak, I hearda criticism of the service from a close family member who said there was toolittle recognition of Jesus in the service. Now, I did not doubt that he was there, nor did I think he wasespecially bothered by mention of him or the lack thereof, as I remember himsaying that when you’ve recognized the ‘least of these’ you’ve engagedhim. I had done something of that in astory I shared, which I’ll tell you more about later, but, after all, I wasbeing recognized that day and whateverelse has been true there’s always been something incredibly small aboutme.
Once on a Saturday when our churchfills up with folks attending 12-step gatherings one participant saw me thereand asked our administrator if I was intheir group, trying to follow someone to the meeting. She found that funny, and smiling said, ‘No,he’s the minister here.’ Now she couldhave more aptly said, ‘No, he’s the minister here; he’s not part of any one groupcause he needs them all. He’s theneediest guy here.’
Which is true but my problems includethe fact that a big part of my need is to not be with groups. I’m like Boo Radley, one of my literaryheroes, who was ‘more comfortable in the dark’ and who ‘with his shy ways’ did not need theconsidered attention of the good women of Maycomb. I’m like Greta Garbo in that I do ‘want to bealone’ much of the time. Now this isawkward when in my Texas upbringing I’m virtually raised in church, enjoy goodpreaching a lot, even with the fires of hell in view, and know the only chanceI’ll likely have to amount to much is as a preacher.
And I hadthe good fortune of getting to know more closely some of those star-preachers,some of whom I found needing to be quiet as much as I yet thrust on a stage formost of their lives in a process of being that seemed to carve out their innerlives and leave them a shell of a human being. So I got loaded down with an ego that wanted to shine while housing itin a life that wanted quiet and never really minded the darkness. I still rise early everyday to see the beautyof night before the dawn.
So I was drawn to preaching early onwhile always warned it could get me in a heap of trouble. But I’m in my own way here telling about Godand God’s ways because I’ve always found in a rather marginal setting a ‘placefor me’, a ‘promise’ that I’m not left alone. When I was a kid we spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas Day in Plano,Texas, at the home of my grandmother, Mama Chaddick. I’d spend time playingball with my cousins, opening presents and playing with those things, somewhatlistening to the talk of the men, swinging quietly on the porch swing, andwaiting for lunch, the big table set for us all with a feast of richenjoyment. Mama didn’t ask for myattention, she rather wanted me to just have a good time, and with the otherwomen set a table of welcome and love that centered everything else and gave itjustification. I’ve seen God like that,setting a table, desiring a feast, and letting go of obvious control but doingso much essential to helping us find a place with one another and in a world ofrich, blessed inclusion.
So those early years of being drawninto an understanding of call and witness and service got me started on a pathI could not leave. I’ve provided you apoem from George Herbert on ‘Prayer’, and I’ve come to think the first word andthe last two sum up for me my spiritual quest, or, my understanding of praying- ‘Prayer . . . something understood.’ But I’ve had to find out that getting to the understanding may be abouta ‘straight and narrow path’ but it does have turns on the way and you can findyourself on the path while feeling utterly lost. Have you ever used the words, ‘Well, it’scomplicated’ as a means of not telling a story - too complicated to try totell. But of course, ‘it’s complicated’is the start to a story usually begging to be told and heard.
Loving God and trusting God for mysalvation has been a complicated story for me. I’ve never been able to leave the quest, but I’ve found problems allalong the way with how we represent that God and understand ‘being saved.’ When I was a kid in Dallas, we had a a youngman who was black and a preacher speak to our church men’s group one Mondaynight, and he was a great success, speaking to one of our largest crowds andfully engaging everyone with delight in his telling of almost the whole of thebiblical story. But, of course, he wouldnever have been invited simply to attend our church for worship some Sunday,and when finally the community surrounding the building became mostly black, wesold out and merged with another, larger congregation, knowing we could notsustain our church in a black neighborhood. It’s complicated.
It took me a long time to see how Ihad in me this sacred barrier against dancing, and movies, and smoking (I’mglad for that) while I was also being taught a similar barrier against otherpeople like me in so many ways, just not white. The people who brought me to Jesus and showed me love as richly as any I’veknown taught me, by their attitudes and behavior, racism. On the night of the day in which Dr. King waskilled I was a speaker for the Youth for Christ Rally that had beenscheduled. We went about our rally as ifgetting to heaven were the only agenda and heaven getting to earth was not somehowon notice, and when I spoke, having quietly learned a deep regard for Dr. King,I could only cry out my pain and sense of loss, while wondering who we were andwhat’s God got to do with us now. Aformer friend, active in the movement thought out loud that the founder of theseminary where we had the rally would be turning in his grave with mydistortion of the gospel, and so I knew the margins held something more of whatwould be safe for me.
If you ask why someone like me wouldwant to be a preacher, preaching since the age of 13, I’d have to admit itwould have a lot to do with seeking approval, wanting to shine, to be liked, tobe found helpful. Reading something ofthe story of John Perkins, the incredible community organizer and minister inMississippi, I came across the fact that early on when he was seeking to createa new ministry of reconciliation and inclusion he found a white pastor wholiked his vision and wanted to work with him. But when the pastor offered this chance to his church, they wantednothing to do with it and so they rejected him along with his vision. And Perkins says simply, so he took his life,because he could not stand their rejection.
That is telling for me about a depthof longing I’ve known to be accepted, to be valued, to have a vision othersfind engaging and redemptive. But whatif they don’t accept it or like it or think it’s about God? Well, for me I was saved by a love of scenicbeauty. I first saw a National Park,Rocky Mountain, when I was 7 or so. AndI’ve wanted to see more of them ever since, so when the time came to settle inmore of a longterm home, I came back to the Rocky Mountain west, drawn bybeauty and wanting to live in proximity to it as much as I wanted anything. That meant nobody knew me, much, no SouthernBaptist Church would want to be bothered by my services, and I had little or nochance for a stage. But I did happen tomove down the block aways from this odd assortment of Christian practice that Ifirst visited in terms of the Catholic Community and then the next Sunday Ifound the Presbyterians who had been growing small since the 1960s, for goodreasons, and I thought that little gathering looked quite promising. Quite surprisingly, there as a change ofleadership, as one of the Pastor’s said, it’s time to let the church die, and Ifound there an exciting opportunity, not nearly so scary as a large Baptistchurch, and becoming the ‘Interim Pastor’, not being Presbyterian and all, 33years later under my dynamic leadership we’re still often growing small.
Which brings me to something of whatI’ve learned about ministry. Ministry inGospel work requires a near proximity to what’s the matter, not only withothers, but first, with yourself, and finding your own way, again and again, inthat context to the table of blessing, set, rich and free. If I’m there as a regular, knowing it’s aboutmore than I deserve and can do on my own, then when someone else finds theirway to me, and maybe goes into the complications of their story, they too willfind what I’ve found and taste it with me. Ministry, this work we do in agencies and churches, dressed up ordressed down, with brooms and boxes of food, and heart-felt yeses and verytroubling nos, we do with others. Itutterly requires them, for whatever understanding I’ve come to bear can’t becommunicated beyond me unless someone else makes the effort to hear and doesthe difficult work of sitting with the complications until, in a frequentlydark place, something of light appears. I’ve learned even when I tell someone I can’t give them what they feelmost they need, I remain utterly dependent on their gracious acceptance andrespectful bearing still with their burden while bearing with me.
And I’ve learned this about ourhumanity - we want so badly to be justified, to be of worth, to have answers,to be safe, and to win, and none of our circles are free from judging those whodon’t meet our standards, and so we, at best, live with a vision of what’s notyet so, and hope we can get closer there, running sometimes from our ownfailures, bothered by those with whom we’re never very helpful or successful,condemning of those whose failures we really must see if we’ve any chance tosee our own, until we learn more of the lesson the Kotzker Rebbe, ‘No heart isso whole as one that’s been broken.’
And this brings me back to 1972 andthe summer I spent at Fort Logan Mental Health Center, then a model of mentalhealth services known well throughout the world. I was a chaplain intern on a team of mental healthprofessionals with nothing by way of professional credentials or much of anyskill I knew. A very angry, deeplytroubled young man came to us full of mysteries to his family and the helpingcommunity regarding why he was so troubled and so very difficult at home andwhy he was obsessed with cars and going driving. It was clear he could not return home, butwhat troubled him so was not something understood. He had suffered severe brain injury at birththat left half of his body under-developed and weak, so one arm just hung byhis side, tiny and unusable, and he walked with a limp. He was slow of thought and speech, and seemedcompletely unable to explain his emotional reactions. He came to help me a lot by giving mesomething to do with my time, since I lacked a clear role or understanding ofwhat to do. We’d play basketball orping-pong, largely just passing time hanging out together. Then he started to talk. Slowly he told me the complicated story ofhis pain. ‘My mother told me once thatshe felt sorry for me because I’d never get much out of life.’ ‘Whenever I walk into a room it feels likepeople think there goes that ugly guy who’s all crippled and dumb.’ ‘Whenever I drive a new car, it feels like,that’s part of me, and I’m fast and look good and people can see that and thinkdifferently about me.’ We spent about 6weeks together, him talking, me listening, and a story emerging that was notfound in any of the professional notes or parental understanding, somethingnever shared in much of a public, never told at a table of inclusion. Whenever he spoke of his feelings he did sowith ‘it feels like’, as if somehow there was no ‘I’ there, no ‘me’ who got tomatter. Just before my time of trainingwas up and I was to move to Louisville for my last year of seminary, and justbefore Tom was to move on to a new setting that hopefully would welcome hislife, we went out to shoot some baskets, and after a time, he stopped and justlooked at me, the sign that he had something to say. “When I’m with you”, he said, “it feels likeI like me.”
Approval, yes, I need that, butmore. People liking me or finding mehelpful, sure, when it happens it feels good. But what I need Mama gave and Tom and many, many others, the chance tobe there in the midst of a presence who won’t quit, who sits with thecomplications, sometimes figuring out a helpful action, and sometimes presentwithout words and not frightened by the silence, a sacrament of ‘being with’ ismy calling, and while success and enough money and having enough folks involvedto make it viable have always been serious questions, the promise of thepresence has always been fulfilled. “When I’m with you . . .” it makes a difference - a table - somethingpossible, something understood - a prayer. Sam Wells in his little book with Marcia Owen, Living without Enemies, recounts the three promises ofChristian faith:
“His nameis Emanuel . . . God is with us”; “Nothing can separate us from the love of God. . .”; and, “I am with you always, even to the end.”
My fundamentalist heritage which taught me much that’s proved wrong set me on a course towards deep fulfillment. It’ s about presence, a table set with broken things, even a broken life, and the fact that welcome is there, and the ever strong desire for a God Who is truly worth our worship, for an inclusion that hears us all, and in a place that however quiet or out of the way is on the way to beauty and goodness and love. Let me conclude by saying, that when I’m with you, it feels really quite blessed, and I will always be grateful for that.