Writing John Mark

November 06, 2013

Bishop C. Christopher Epting's Keynote at the National Episcopal Cursillo Conference, Chicago
October 25, 2013

I can’t remember exactly when, but it was sometime around 1985 when I began to consider the fact that prayer might be a two-way street! I had prayed for most of my life, taken on several different Rules of Life over the years, used the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer as a kind of foundation for my prayer life.

But, with rare exception, I had never experienced God talking back very much! My spiritual director suggested that I might want to spend more time in “meditation” and in “listening prayer” instead of spending so much time chattering away at God (what I think he actually said was that I should ‘shut up’ every now and then…in my prayers!) so I tried several methods, finally settling on a fairly simple one, often identified as the “Ignatian method” of meditation (from St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits):

I would select a passage from Scripture; read it once through for content; another time (very slowly) looking for detail; and a third time attempting imaginatively to “enter” the passage -- to see myself as one of the characters in the story. This works best with the great stories from the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) and, of course, with the Gospels – where I might imagine myself as the person being healed or one of the disciples looking on at the scene or even as Jesus sometimes – wondering how he felt when someone would respond to his healing touch or get a new insight about the Kingdom of God from one of his parables.

Well, I used this method for many years, filling scores of journals – most of which are still in my desk drawers at home with notes from those meditations! Meditating on Scripture like this seemed to ‘complete the loop’ for me in my prayer life. I would not only communicate with God in my personal and liturgical prayers, but I found myself ‘hearing back’ from the Holy Spirit through the words of the Bible and particularly when I would become part of the story during my times of meditation.

I continued this form of prayer and began spending some time in “Lectio Divina” in which one reads a passage, meditates on the passage, prays about any insights received, and then moves even deeper into the silence and beyond words in contemplative prayer. While I was a parish priest, I used to take Wednesdays and Saturdays out of the office –Wednesday as a kind of ‘Sabbath day’ when I would spend more time in my study at home, reading and meditating and occasionally getting some writing done that I hadn’t had time to get to in the rest of the week.

Then, Saturday (when I could get it) was a regular day off where I did what most people do on their days off – mow the lawn, run errands, go with the kids to Little League or a gymnastics meet. I found that this pattern worked well for this “introvert” to keep me spiritually centered and with enough energy to do the fairly demanding work of a parish priest. In 1988, I was elected Bishop of Iowa and didn’t see any real reason to change this rhythm and pattern when I became a bishop. The diocese was very supportive of my taking care of myself in these ways so I continued the Wednesdays and Saturdays out of the office – at least most of the time.

I fell in love with the Diocese of Iowa and with the work of being a bishop in a diocese very different from my home Diocese of Central Florida. The Cursillo Community in Iowa helped in the transition, and I attended every Closing and some Ultreyas and was part of a Reunion Group for most of my thirteen years there. In my sixth year, I began to make plans for a sabbatical.

I had never taken a sabbatical as a parish priest. The one time I had actually been in a parish for seven years and earned one, I decided to do a program called “Summers at General” which was a four summer Master’s Program at the General Theological Seminary in New York in which I studied with Alan Jones and got a degree in Spiritual Direction.

But the Diocese of Iowa had a generous sabbatical policy which was not really used very much, and I wanted to model that for the clergy and lay professionals in the diocese as well as seek some R and R for myself after six years in the job, so in 1994 I took a three-month sabbatical, adding the vacation month to that so that I had four months to be away. The first couple of weeks were spent in Southern Africa for my second visit to our companion diocese of Swaziland. I toured the diocese with Bishop Zulu, preached in various congregations, and participated in a clergy conference.

From there I went on to the Holy Land where I had enrolled in two courses at the Anglican college of St. George in Jerusalem. The first one was “the Palestine of Jesus” and was a basic orientation to the places where Jesus lived and died, from Galilee to the Jordon River to the Judaean desert to Jerusalem itself.

And the second offering was called “the Desert Course” and consisted of a full week in the Sinai Peninsula. We travelled in three jeeps with Bedouin drivers and an Egyptian guide and traced the sacred pilgrim routes all the way to the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai – or at least the mountain range where Mt. Sinai is supposed to have been. We rode camels partway up the mountain and climbed the rest of the way to the top where there was a simple chapel and a spectacular view of the rocky countryside.

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that you will never read the Bible the same way again once having visited the Holy Land. I had certainly heard that, but strangely never really had a strong desire to visit the Middle East until that time in my life. I used to say, “Why would I want to go there to walk in the footsteps of Jesus? I serve a risen Lord and he is as close to me here as he ever would be there!”

And that’s true, of course, but there is something about walking, if not in Jesus’ very footsteps, at least in the general vicinity where he was born, lived, died, and was raised – seeing the same sunrises and breathing the same air – that really did impact me deeply. There was also this strange sense of “coming home” even though I had never been there before. I cannot imagine what it must be like for a Jew to “come home” to Jerusalem for the first time. It’s powerful enough for those of us who are “grafted” on to the roots of that ancient olive tree, those of us who are spiritual ancestors of the Jewish people. I can’t imagine what it must be like for them.

As some of you who may have been St. George’s College know, often the concluding days of their courses are spent sort of “re-enacting” Holy Week – spending part of an evening in the Garden of Gethsemane, walking down and across the Kidron Valley as Jesus did on Palm Sunday, entering the Holy City itself, passing the Upper Room, and walking the Way of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. I’ll never forget Dean John Peterson preparing us for that experience. He said,

“You’ll get at least three reactions as you carry the cross through the streets of the Old City. You may be spat upon by some who don’t appreciate our re-enacting this drama. Some people may approach you with deep devotion and even kiss the cross if you are carrying it at that time. Most people will simply ignore you. They see pilgrims do this several times every week or maybe even every day.”

“But remember” he continued, “Jesus would have gotten the same three reactions! Some people spat on him. Some people wept and were deeply moved by his suffering. Most people simply ignored him. They saw criminals being crucified several times each week or maybe even every day. It was the common form of capital punishment for traitors and political prisoners, used as a warning lest others try rebelling against the Roman occupation.”

It was that kind of amazing insight and the timeless quality of the place that made such a deep impression on me, as it does on so many who visit that most fascinating region of the world!

When I returned home from the Holy Land, I spent the rest of my sabbatical taking long walks in the country, visiting some much-neglected family members, and began thinking about doing some serious writing. I had kept notes in my journal from my experiences, both in Africa and in the Middle East, but wasn’t quite sure how to put all that together.

Then, I found myself using my old method of Scriptural meditation as I began a cycle of reading the Gospel according to St. Mark. I’d read the passage for content, read it a second time for detail, and then a third time “imaginatively,” trying to “enter” the passage and be part of the action. And it was then that all that I had experienced up in the Galilee, in the desert, and in and around the holy city of Jerusalem began to come rushing back!

I found that the text was indeed much richer and more powerful because I could envision myself “being there” in new ways. So, I spent the next months – even after the sabbatical was over – working my way through the sixteen chapters of Mark’s Gospel and writing out the story in my journal. I decided to tell the story through the eyes of a man named John Mark (who is a figure mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament and who some scholars believe was the original author). To give him a little personality, I envisioned him as that un-named bystander in the Garden of Gethsemane who “ran away naked” after the guards grabbed at him in the scuffle to arrest Jesus. Again, there is a tradition which speculates that he may have been John Mark.

This note from the cover of the published book probably sums up best what I found myself doing: “What would it be like if you could meet one of the authors of the New Testament? In his novel, JOHN MARK, Christopher Epting gives us that chance. His story is the very first gospel ever written, the Gospel of Mark, but told through the eyes, the experiences, the vision of the person who wrote it….we are invited into the story in an intimate and immediate way (and) we are given the rare opportunity to walk beside the figures of the Bible, not as icons from the distant past, but as real people, as people we have known and loved, as friends. JOHN MARK is an extraordinary journey, shared by an extraordinary person, the first person to ever write the life of Jesus.”

Well, eventually, I got up the courage to ask my fine Administrative Assistant, Julianne Allaway, if she would consider adding the transcription of my poor handwriting into digital form to her already overworked schedule, and she graciously agreed to do so. Within a year or so, the “first draft” was completed.

But, as so often happens with projects such as this, “life intervened.” I began finding myself increasingly involved outside the Diocese of Iowa as well as within. I was elected at General Convention to the Executive Council, began serving on the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations, and eventually became chair of the writing team charged with the task of revising the text of “Called to Common Mission,” our full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. My little writing project found its way on to the back shelf!

In 2001, I lost my high school sweetheart and wife of over thirty years to a massive heart attack, totally unexpected. The next year was a whirlwind of grief and confusion and healing and then – out of the blue – the Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, asked me if I would come to New York and serve as his Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. After a period of discernment, I agreed to do so, eventually serving in this position for about nine years (and falling in love again with a dear friend and colleague, Susanne Watson, whom I was eventually to marry!).

So, it was not until I took early retirement and began serving a two year assignment as the Interim Dean of Trinity Cathedral back in the Diocese of Iowa that I dragged out that old manuscript and began the task of editing it for possible completion and publication. I actually had to scan a hard copy and make it into a Word document so I could continue working on it – it had been so long that Julianne’s original computer file was long gone!

After significant revisions, I was ready to look for a publisher. Not long before, I had come across Bishop Steve Charleston’s wonderful book of meditations,Hope As Old As Fire. Steven, as you may know, is the retired Bishop of Alaska and has been Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge MA, as well as a professor at several seminaries.

He is a Native American of the Choctaw Nation, and I knew that he had his own start-up publishing company called “Red Moon Publications,” so I wrote him to see if there was any chance he might take a look at my manuscript. He agreed, read it, liked it very much, and we soon came to terms about publishing it. It was a joy to work with an editor, Lana Callahan, and Steven’s own wife, Susan, who is a fine artist, about doing the cover and a few illustrations for the text.

So, that’s how it came to be, the “writing of John Mark.” Let me share a little selection with you before I close, to give you a little sense of what it’s like. You know, there are no birth narratives in the Gospel of Mark. The book begins with Jesus as an adult and with the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark only takes some five verses to describe Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River and the Temptations in the wilderness. The other Gospels give us a little more detail, but this is what I was able to see, meditating on those five verses: (John Mark, pages 12-16passim)

So, that’s the kind of thing I tried to do in the book. It’s selling slowly, but steadily, and I guess what I hope it might do is to give regular readers of the New Testament a little different lens through which to view the Gospel of Mark, and for those who may find Bible reading a bit daunting, maybe younger people or spiritual “seekers” (you know, the “spiritual but not religious” types), to give them a way into the first gospel ever written.

I guess the most heartwarming “review” I have gotten on the book was from Fred Borsch, who was my New Testament professor in seminary and who was later Dean of CDSP and Bishop of Los Angeles. In retirement, he still teaches New Testament at a fine Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia. A few months ago, he wrote:

“Dear Chris: I have been reading throughJohn Markmorning by morning and have much appreciated your “Gospel Novel” – full of insights and reflections based on informed historical imagination. I liked your strategies for filling in some of John Mark’s ‘gaps” such as giving Matthew a somewhat greater role in the narrative and picking up, at least in part, on the Papias’ tradition that the author of the Gospel would have been able to talk with Peter. The Gospel of Mark always makes for lively, dramatic and, certainly at times, provocative reading. You have made parts of it even livelier – perhaps particularly those last days in chapter fourteen and fifteen.

For the fun of it, I conjured up a picture in my mind of the young Chris Epting (not all that much younger than ‘Dr. Borsch’) and our good days in the classroom at old Seabury-Western. It’s nice to think that some of your intelligence and enthusiasm for learning then kept percolating and helped lead to such an informative and inspiring book. Grace, love, and peace. Fred”

Well, Fred Borsch certainly “got” what I was trying to accomplish inJohn Markand, of course, it’s wonderful to hear from an old mentor and cherished friend. Hope some of you will consider giving the book a read…and perhaps passing it along to someone who might benefit from a little different take on “the greatest story ever told!”

Thanks for listening!

Category: Diocesan News