Mark Sandlin currently serves as the minister at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Greensboro, NC. He received his M. Div. from Wake Forest University's School of Divinity and has undergraduate degrees in Business Administration and English with a minor in Computer Science. He's an ordained minister in the PC(USA) and a self-described progressive.
Posts By This Author
A Prayer for the Nation on the Event of Another Shooting
Good and Gracious God,
our nation grieves.
the life of a child
has been cut
we all rally to our
to cry out
for our guns,
for our rights,
for our safety,
for rational thought...
To the Dying Church: Maybe Death Is a Blessing
To the Dying Church,
I hardly know what to say. Watching someone you love, who helped raise you, who cared for you when you weren't well, who partially defined who you would be, slowly perish before your eyes is difficult to say the least. I love you. I don't want to lose you.
But, this is life. These things happens. Those you love do die. It's just how it works. I mean, there were churches before you. They may not have looked like you or sung songs like you or taught exactly what you do, but they all had Love – just different ways of expressing it. They changed people's lives. They made some people better people and, sometimes, they made people worse people. Then, they died.
In all of it, Love was there somewhere hoping to be valued, hoping to be expressed, hoping to be shared.
Standing at the foot of your bed as you struggle to hold on, fight to catch a few last breaths, is uncomfortable and wonderful, all at the same time. Remembering the twinkle in your eye from my childhood, the liveliness of your step is as beautiful and heartbreaking a thing as I can think of in this moment.
A Prayer for Fred Phelps
Editor's Note: Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church — best known for anti-gay demonstrations that include picketing soldiers' funerals — is reportedly near death. The following is offered as a prayer.
Good and gracious God,
We lift up a prayer
for the misguided –
for those who hate
in your name.
who wish to see
the hate go on,
the anger be fed,
the world continue
on its unsustainable path
of division and judgement.
10 Things You Can't SAY While Following Jesus
If any list has been overdone in the Christian blogging world, it's this list.
Just about every Christian blogger has done one, and if they haven't, they've thought about it and then thought better of it – because just about every Christian blogger has done one. (See what I did there?)
And yet, here we are.
You. Me. And my list of things Christians shouldn't say. Hmmmm – must be God's will. (And I just realized this list should have had 11 things on it. Oh, well. I have no doubt that it's on one of the lists out there!)
Ten Things You Can't Do at Christmas While Following Jesus
Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year. A time to gather with family and friends, and, with a smile on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which relative really, really needs to stop drinking. A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and a time to hang up our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year. Such a joyous season!
The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it. For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we celebrate this season. So, I give you my “10 Things You Can’t Do AT CHRISTMAS While Following Jesus.” As with my other “10 Things” lists, this is not intended to be a complete list, but it is a pretty good start.
A Call to Reclaim Our Immigrant Roots
“I didn't come here because I wanted a job ... I came here because I wanted to live.” These words from an undocumented immigrant came early on in Church World Service's Summit on Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. They could have easily been the words of Mary, mother of Jesus, as they fled to Egypt during his childhood.
“We just wanted to live.”
The reality is, as Christians, our tradition, our faith, our roots, are all tied up in an immigrant identity – or at least they should be. Reaching as far back as Adam and Eve, and Abraham and Sarah, we are a people who are on the move. We are typically found in places other than where we began. Even parts of the texts we use to guide us on our journey to/toward/with God were put together as the Israelites were living in a foreign land.
As Christians, we must recognize that we are truly a people with immigrant roots which reach all the way back to our Jewish spiritual ancestors. In that recognition, we need to learn to fully embrace the call of Deuteronomy to show hospitality to sojourners. It's a call that is about so much more than being welcoming and offering drink and food (although it does include those). The “hospitality” we are called to is one of seeing someone whom we may identify as “other” and loving them.
I'd make the argument that in his teachings, Jesus takes that concept a step further and tells us we shouldn't see them as other, we should see them as yet another image of God – another opportunity, another invitation, to not only share God's love but to know it more fully.
The Book Every Christian Needs to Read This Fall
Every so often a fiction book makes a splash in the swamp of Christian literature, which is predominately ruled by non-fiction reads. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young would be one modern example and, reaching back just a bit more, In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon would be another.
It's happened again.
Frank Schaeffer's And God Said, “Billy!” is a work of Christian fiction that just barely fits into the “Christian” sub-category of fiction. That's not to say it doesn't come with a heavy dose of Christian characters and culture (it does) as much as it is to say, unlike the other must-read fictions of the past that I just mentioned, this book could and should have a much broader appeal. So much so, I almost titled this review, “The Book Everyone Needs to Read ...”.
10 Things The Church Can't Do While Following Jesus
The Christian church is full of Christians, right?
Sadly, the answer you'll get to that question is heavily dependent on whom you are asking. Certainly, the church should be seeking to follow Christ, seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus. However, increasingly, there are those who claim the church is full of hypocrites. They are not saying the church only has hypocrites. That's clearly not true. They are simply pointing out there are surprisingly high numbers of people going to church, calling themselves Christians but whose actions run counter to what Jesus taught. I believe we can do better.
10 POLITICAL Things You Can't Do While Following Jesus
In response to my last article, “ 10 Things You Can't Do While Following Jesus,” I was accused multiple times of being political. All I was trying to do was follow Jesus. So, I thought it'd be interesting (and generate tons more hate mail) to show what a list would actually look like if I were being political intentionally. Like the first list, this is not a complete list, but it's a pretty good place to start.
There will be those who comment and send me messages berating me for “making Jesus political.” It's OK. Fire away. Jesus didn't worry much about stepping on political toes, and the Bible insists that governments be just toward the least of these (the books of the prophets alone make this point very clear). Frequently, people who are the most vocal about not making Jesus political are the same people who want prayer in school and laws based on their own religious perspectives. By a happy little circumstance that brings us to my list:
10 Things You Can't Do While Following Jesus
Lots of people claim to be “following Jesus” and then they do stuff like this. Sure, people who follow Jesus do these things all the time, but you can't say you are doing them because you are trying to follow Jesus' example.
(Clearly, this is not a complete list but it's a good place to start).
10) Exclude people because they practice another religion.
Jesus was constantly including people, and he did it with a radical disregard for their religion. We do not have a single recorded incident of Jesus asking for a person's religious affiliation before being willing to speak with them or break bread with them. We do have several records of Jesus seeking out those who happen to practice faith differently from him. There was even this one time when he used a hated Samaritan as an example of how we are supposed to take care of each other.
King, Clowns, and the Third Way
"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice," proclaimed the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It may bend towards justice, but it does not bend gently. It bends behind sweat of the brow, creativity of the mind, and love from the soul of those who believe that every living soul not only desires justice and equality, but has a right to it. You see, justice is not a passive pursuit. The moral arc will not bend without encouragement.
Dr. King was a living example of the kind of person who encourages the moral arc of history to bend toward justice. He is also an example of the only effective way to bend that arc — non-violently. We cannot hope to bring about justice by unjust means. Might, physical confrontation, and other forms of domination will ultimately only result in nurturing an understanding that domination is an ineffective way to resolve issues of justice — and domination is the exact opposite of justice. As King says, "Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love."
War On Christmas? Sign This Minister Up!
Ah — I LOVE this time of the year!
Some people wait with bated breath for duck season, some for deer season, but for me it is all about Christmas season. That's right, I'm one of those lefty liberals that have declared a War on Christmas. Yes! Sign me up for the War on Christmas!
But maybe not for the reasons you might imagine.
While I am signing up to help in a War on Christmas, I'm not on, what by default gets called, the “non-Christian” side. I’m also not signing up for the side that news pundits falsely purport as the “Christian” side. If anything, I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.
A Prayer for the Anniversary of 9/11
Good and gracious God,
Today we come before you with heavy hearts
as we remember the events of 9/11.
For some of us today is a mixed bag of emotions.
We hurt deeply for those who lost their lives
and those who lost their loved ones.
We mourn the nearly 3000 who died that day.
We are humbled by the bravery of the first responders.
We continue to grieve with our neighbors
in the loss of our national innocence -
our false sense of constant safety.
Church No More: Part 6 — Back to Church Again
Editor's Note: This is the sixth and final installment of Presbyterian pastor Mark Sandlin's blog series "Church No More," chronicling his three-month sabbatical from church-going.
They say you can never go home again.
The thinking is that, having left and experienced new things, you have changed and the people back home have continued in their lives just as you left them. Your experience of going back home again necessarily will be very different from your experience of home as you remember it, even though it may have changed very little.
In many ways, Church is one of my homes and I left it. I walked away for three months and experienced a bit of life outside of it. The three months are up and I'm going back home. This coming Sunday (Sept. 2) will be my first Sunday back.
The saying “you can't go home again,” probably originated from Tom Wolfe's novel, You Can't Go Home Again. It's the story of an author who leaves his home, writes about it from a distance and then tries to go home again. It doesn't exactly go well. The folks in the town are none-too-happy about him airing their dirty laundry so publicly.
So, you can't go home again? Well, I'm going to try.
Church No More: Part 5 — Far Too Little Sabbath in the Sabbath
Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of Presbyterian pastor Mark Sandlin's blog series "Church No More," chronicling his three-month sabbatical from church-going. Follow the links below to read his previous installments, beginning in June.
- Church No More: Part 1 — Walking Away From Church
- Church No More: Part 2 — Church That Doesn't Steal Your Joy
- Church No More: Part 3 — The 'C' Word
- Church No More: Part 4 — I Don't Want to Go Back
A little over two months ago, I decided I'd spend my three-month sabbatical not going to church. Which might seem like a perfectly normal thing to do – except that I'm a minister. I've had some strange and wonderful experiences which I've written about, but possibly more strange and more wonderful than the experiences are the responses I've received.
From the very beginning the most frustrating response I get is not folks telling me I'll lose my faith if I leave church (and they have), or the ones telling me I can't begin to understand what it's like to be Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) in three short months (lots of those were also disturbingly aggressively worded), but rather the ones that say, “Oh, 'sabbatical!' Thanks. Now I have a word to call what I do! I stopped going to church years ago.”
“No!” I'd think while unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to reach through my laptop screen and shake some sense into them, “You are not on sabbatical! The sabbatical I'm taking about has to do with taking a rest, not leaving. It's rest and recuperation — communion with God in a way that is restorative. It's not about leaving! Sheesh.”
More than two months into my sabbatical, I now have to say, “Boy was I wrong.” They are on sabbatical, more so than I am.
Church No More: Part 4 — I Don't Want to Go Back
I love the Church. I have literally been going to church my whole life — that is, until two months ago.
Then I stopped cold turkey. You can read about it in my post "Walking Away From Church."
Masses of people responded. It astounded me. Most ministers expressed concern saying things like, “My Brother, I am worried that you may be on a dangerous journey,” or, “I fear you may lose your faith.”
Frankly, what I heard them saying was, “Faith is so fragile it needs the Church to enforce it,” which only made me more certain I was making a remarkably healthy spiritual choice.
Former church-going folk frequently told me things like, “There is a large disconnect between the 'Church' of today and the teachings of Jesus,” and “I have found God in a dynamic, deep way and I love God so much more and for real now than when I was unwittingly trying to fit in with my church culture.”
I've been away from church for two months now and I have to say, I am more at peace than I ever have been. My faith is stronger than it ever has been. My family life is healthier than it ever has been. My desire to seek out God and follow the teachings of Jesus is stronger than it ever has been.
I do not want to go back to Church because life outside of Church is better. It just is. There's no dogma complicating the path to God. It is more than refreshing to escape the games church-folk play with the intent of establishing control and “rightness” on their part; it is life-giving to escape it.
Church No More: Part 3 — The 'C' Word
I have a confession.
(That's rich, right? A minister confessing.)
I have a hard time telling people I'm a minister. Yes, really. I actually tend to handle it this way:
Person: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I'm a minister... (appropriate pause)... but not the kind you just pictured in your head.”
Sad, I know.
Honestly though, it's worse than that. I'm even very resistant to calling myself a “Christian.” And I'm not even close to the only Christian who feels that way! It's so bad that I have this very conversation with people all the time. There seems to be some kind of “Believer-like-me Radar” which tells people it's safe to talk to me about not liking the“C” word — CHRISTIANITY.
Take From Me These Myths: A Prayer
Good and gracious God,
Today, like the rest of the world,
when I woke I wrapped myself in myths.
They are comfortable and warming in what can seem like such a cold world.
Yes, they are old and worn but they are familiar
and even the most fashion forward find comfort in this thread-worn garb.
They tell me that while it may not be fair
that 1,600 children die from hunger everyday,
I can do nothing about it.
They silence my own judgment of myself
when I put a quarter in the cup of a homeless man
as I walk on by the lack in his life
to live into the abundance of mine....
Church No More: Part 2 — Church That Doesn't Steal Your Joy
I lost my joy. I suspect there are a few of you who feel the same way. Not that you aren't happy, but there is this deep place of celebratory joy which you once knew that really doesn't come around much anymore.
There was a time when I was a pretty joyful guy. Not “blind to the world's problems” kind of joyful, just “blessed to be blessed in the midst of this mess” kind of joyful. Lately though, I've found joy to be an increasingly difficult thing to come by.
The thing is, I have every reason to be joyful. I'm lucky enough to be married to an amazing woman – truly amazing. I couldn't be prouder of my kids who, in an age of “be different just like us” are very much their own kind of different simply because they aren't afraid of being themselves. My personal interests, like my blog, just keep getting better. I have some of the best friends in the world. Yet, I'm not the generally joyful person I once was.
It's a dull malaise that I just can't quite shake. I don't like it. Not one bit.
Recently though, I've been catching little glimpses of my joy making cameo appearances in the storyline of my life. I like it. A lot.
The question is, why now? Why not back then?
How the Wild Goose Cured My Heebie-Jeebies
A few weeks ago I (an ordained minster who has gone to church my whole life) walked away from church — for three months. It is what I've decided to do with my sabbatical. You can read about my initial thoughts on my blog or on The Huffington Post. As the journey unfolds, I will be blogging about it in this series entitled, “Church No More.” I hope you will not only follow along, but add your voice to the reflection by commenting or joining the discussion on my FB page.
It might be that the thing which concerned me the most about leaving the church was losing my spiritual community. It's not that I thought the spiritual-but-not-religious folk were helplessly lonely people wandering around seeking a spiritual community. Not at all. I just assumed that it might be immensely difficult to find and plug into a community like that in the course of three months. I also couldn't help but think it would be just a bit — well, fake to seek out a community for the sake of observing them and then leaving a few months latter. Not just fake but somewhat mean spirited and completely missing the point of community.
Here's the thing, I am a minister. I understand myself to be a person who ministers by following the lead and teachings of Jesus. (I also happen to follow the teachings of many other spiritual and/or thought leaders from Buddha to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but that's for another post some other time). Because of that, the idea of life without a spiritual community gives me the heebie-jeebies. (I apologize for using such a technical term, but a duck is a duck is a duck).