Why does Mark’s story intrigue me? Why do I feel the need to parse this out, to interpret it? I wouldn’t do this for many people. I’m saddened when I hear of suicides, but I do not often rush to find out the reasons, the source, the stories. I let others do that. But this one is different. Mark was (is) my friend. But more than that… I feel a familiarity with him and his journey, his spiritual struggle, his creativity, his desire for people to see and experience the love and glory of God with the whole self, unafraid. He compels me in some ways because in hearing him, I see something of myself. I’m interested in getting into his world as he’s laid it out, to go the brink, to see if suicide can make any sense, and see, if I was in the same position, what word or person or anything I would need to pull me back from the brink.
Would I have an answer? This overlaps into our ministry at Soulation. We get into other people’s shoes to evaluate the real pebble in their shoe, which is often more than what someone is saying. I’m an apologist, among other things, and these kinds of dilemmas need more than textbook answers and impersonal lists of rebuttals. Doctrines are not merely at stake in the world, but souls in God’s image seeking after a God who seems to them too easily hidden.
Repairing the world. That’s the Jewish idea. And our faith is a Jewish one. It is what we are to do. In Mark’s last sermon at Elevate (where he was co-founder and pastor and returned to speak a couple more times–at least recorded and available), he spoke of this Jewish idea. And the only way we can bring heaven into other’s lives is by knowing the hell they are in at the moment. Cures are only available when the sickness has been properly identified.
Some simply cannot understand this approach. They want it all clear and simple and on the surface. Life isn’t like that. In books it often is, and in sermons. But on the street… only the complexity of suffering on the Cross can give us access on what it means to endure evil to the bitter end and to be that guy next to Jesus who simply says, “I deserve nothing” as Jesus loves him.
My hair stylist friend asked me this question yesterday: Why are you doing this? I was having a melancholy day. And if you cannot speak to your stylist, get a new one. That’s what they are their for. Doing hair is incidental.
I had someone write me that they could see themselves in a situation like Mark’s… reacting similarly if not for certain events that pulled them back.
I read another open letter about Mark, letting people know to look to the past Mark and not the present one. To look to the Message as unattained by the messenger. I’m sure this helps some. But why does this rub me the wrong way? Because I believe it too easily dismisses what Mark is saying, it keeps us from listening to what he has to tell us, if anything.
On his 1000 Days website, Mark lists his four values: truth, beauty, justice, community. After piecing things together, I discovered these are the values that originated at Elevate when he co-founded it. After Sarah died, Mark got inked in a beautiful full-sleeve Japanese-style tattoo, filled with symbols. He included the four values in Japanese. And on his trip to Agra, India, during his 1000 Days, he mentions practicing three of the four values while he was there.
Mark seemed to hold to them, to the end, perhaps clinging with the tips of his fingers, like a drowning man. But why was he drowning?
I suspected abuse in his past. A friend told me that Mark had spoken of that before. Yesterday I found that Mark is explicit about it in this talk, five months after Sarah fell. She’s on stage with him, offering support. Sarah’s fall tipped the first domino that he never recovered from. He doesn’t mention the relationship, but he has a music video of a series of cause, starting with actual dominos, that spans the length of the video, one little thing after another, banging and bashing around a warehouse. Maybe that’s the metaphor of Mark’s darkness.
Abuse does something to you when you are a child. And it does something to you as an adult. Suffer enough of it and it will twist your soul, lead you to believe what is untrue about the world, about yourself.
I wonder if this is why the Mark that I knew was often conflicted. He’d lie and then confess. He wanted people to think a certain way about him to avoid rejection. He was larger than life to make friends. He loved fun and his humor often caught me breathless with laughter.
Halfway through our college years, he shifted, becoming a “spiritual” leader. I believe he was really hunting for God, but he played into the fundamentalist trap of his youth, the trap that brings approval from family but leave you dishonest and hollow. He said to understand his upbringing, to read Frank Shaeffer’s book, “Sex, Mom and God.“I know many who fell hard away from God after going through fundamentalism. That is often a pack of spiritual abuse, which twists your soul, just as any abuse. And it distorts your view of God and yourself and how you think God thinks about you so that you end up seeking after a God who is very different than the one in the Bible. The abuse is so blinding because the Bible itself is used to perpetuate the abuse… you cannot go to the Bible as a defense for you interpret the text as the abusers taught.
It was later that Mark discovered that God loved him and he called that day the most important of his life. He posts Kim Walker’s moving rendition of “How He Loves Us” so we can feel it press against our chests. Prior to knowing God’s love, it was an unpracticed doctrine. It’s a doctrine to exploit and fear in fundamentalist circles.
But the real Mark, under that, was sincere. At least I believe so. That’s why we were friends, we connected on things that cannot be faked. I listened and shared the message of Rich Mullins often in our college years and one of Mark’s friends said he was unsure if Mark paid attention to Rich before knowing me. I was tickled to find that the very last post on Mark’s 1000 Days blog was a video about Rich Mullins being Mark’s most spiritually influential figure.
On one occasion, Mark had an opportunity to pray in college chapel, one of the few times in all of campus experience that a student got to speak in front of the student body without a pre-approved script. Mark came to me and asked what I would pray. He wanted to make an impact with that small opportunity and get it right. After a while, I told him that I’d pray that God would distract us with himself during chapel that day. It was a play on words… we are supposed to think of other things as the distraction away from God.
The next morning in chapel, Mark prayed. And he prayed this very thing, “God, we ask that you would distract us with yourself today.” My eyes popped open and I smiled down from the balcony, across a sea of heads, down at Mark praying in earnest. I looked around at 3,500 students to see if anyone was paying attention, to see if anyone was distracted from the suffocating routine of spiritual puppetry.
Through those years and beyond Mark touched many. He was gifted at bringing you close. I’m guessing that was the start of his doing ministry in a way that he owned it for himself, beginning to risk following Jesus beyond the establishment. Perhaps he had to become a fundamentalist, to start with what he knew, in order to climb out of it.
In his last sermon at Elevate, he spoke about the history of fundamentalism as a movement of excuses and hiding.
Yeah, he had climbed out of it, seeing it for what it was.
After college, I had heard rumors that Mark had become “charismatic” (which is next to become a devil, when you are in fundamentalist circles). But Mark was exploring and expanding. And he was willing to throw all his passion into whatever he did. I also heard he had speed bumps along the way, but I’ve details too few and sparse to piece that together. But I’m sure it was deeply felt, whatever the struggle, whatever the choice.
Part of that passion was a drama… almost as if he was watching himself in a play. It was that way in college. And now piecing more together, I see it was that way afterwards. He knew how to draw a crowd, to listen to people, to be liked by them. Even at the end, in his 1000 Days blog, he set another stage for his departure. He was a public guy and wanted it that way.
I think all the staging stemmed from living in unexamined beliefs from the abuse of the past. In his talk I linked above, he mentions these deep-seated issues that a therapist helped draw out of him. He says he was unaware of the damage of his childhood.
The abused often take responsibility for things that are not theirs to take. Guilt piles on guilt. The victim ends up blaming himself. And I can imagine the victim is trying a myriad of ways to make up for it.
Perhaps that’s why his life was a stage. Perhaps that’s why when Sarah fell, he took so much guilt upon himself. You can hear it in his voice. With his background, that’s how you are supposed to respond. And he was undone.
And when she died… just imagine…
My wife told some of Mark’s story to our therapist yesterday, to recap our week. Our therapist said it sounded like PTSD. Sure enough, Mark was indeed diagnosed with PTSD. Read about it. Many heal from it. Some do not.
Then mix these ingredients together: physical and spiritual abuse as a child, added spiritual abuse from a rigid institution, causing the fall and death of his beloved… how would you respond to this cocktail of difficulty? That may explain his hollow eyes in his “intro” video, staring at the camera, as a shell whose spirit had already departed.
I’ve felt like a shell before, with meaning sucked from life.
And if you’ve never suffered abuse as a child and spiritual abuse at the hands of “men of God” then you will never know what this is like and you will lack the sympathy to enter in and have compassion. I know the toll spiritual abuse can play on your soul. I’ve had my dark nights. And while some people do not take my warnings about this kind of abuse seriously enough (some who are still trapped in it themselves), I must say, emphatically, that for some, it is a life and death issue. Nothing short of that. How many more lives must be destroyed before we wake up and rebuke the devilishness in our midst?
I can imagine that the only tangible kind of love Mark could find was in romantic love with women. And we see that during his 1000 Days. But I think those feelings were always there, based on his long history. It makes sense to me. It’s not an excuse, but it is a reason. And I believe the intensity of love he had for Sarah was, for him, a free, open door. If it was like the movie, The Notebook, he had something very special indeed, almost transcendent. After watching that movie, Sarah turned to him and said, “You are my Noah.” That can dampen the pain of a million hurts.
Perhaps I’m speaking too candidly or diagnosing where I have no right. Perhaps I have this all wrong. But I suspect that Sarah was for Mark as Beatrice was for Dante. All along, Dante was hunting after Beatrice, her beauty and meaning. And she kept lifting him higher and higher until at least, at the end, he discovered it wasn’t Beatrice he was after. It was God himself. She was the sunbeam to the sun. She was what Dante needed to see him for, she plucked his deepest desires and awakened them for the Great Lover. His longing for Beatrice was really his longings for God. And maybe that’s what Mark meant when he said in his final video that “Sarah was best.” He was chasing Beatrice…
Someone posted on Mark’s wall a poem by John Piper about the dangers of loving your wife too much. I gagged on several levels, not least of which the presumption that Mark’s struggles can be remotely solved in such a way.
In that, I think it is foolish to pass judgment too hastily on Mark’s final chapter. No matter how much you are seeking after God, a tsunami of life may overtake you. You may reach a point where you are not longer willing what you believe or what is happening to you. You just drift, as Mark once said, looking for yourself but unable to find it. You hear it in his 1000 Days song collections… a gnawing that the ache will not go away.
Is our theology big enough to let even the last remaining crumbs of our love for God to buoy us up into His arms?
Sitting in all of this, I failed at getting much work done yesterday. It gnawed at me. I felt deeply for Mark and I had no answer for him. I believe, in fact, that he tried every answer that I could give. I thought Mark was against therapy when I listened to his “explanation” video at the end. He called a therapist a “shrink” which is a derogatory word from outsiders. But he had gone to a therapist and worked with him gladly. He even noted that one of his favorite television programs was In Treatment. I put it on my DVD queue.
As I finished up my work the best I could, I clicked over to Mark’s videos again. Unawares, I had started his “explanation” video in the background, while I hunted for Damien Rice’s song, “Elephant” to play. Mark described himself as the ache in Damien’s voice. Go find the song and hear it.
As Damien began to sing, suddenly Mark’s voice came on in the background, telling his story. The pacing of the two audios was uncanny and haunting and tragic and surreal. Complete and moving sentences between stanzas. Art as Mark would have it, though coincidentally made. And I lost my composure, moving from my chair to listen and pace the kitchen in tears.
And that’s part of Mark’s message. Tears. He admits he was a feeler more than a thinker. And that’s a language most of us need to learn. And when we don’t take time to learn the language of feelings, which his final story is told in, we will miss the story altogether.
“I love a Jesus that cries,” Mark said in this sermon on suffering. Suffering Mark knew. Mark posted up the song by U2. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” And before evaluating the song based on the title, go read the lyrics. The Kingdom hasn’t yet come. And long before he died, Mark struggled to find what he was looking for, a good God that seemed to delight in the suffering of his children, who allowed suffering from his childhood to the day he departed… a suffering Mark knew intimately before God, feeling abandoned often but hanging on.