I met Mark at a church picnic. Some of my friends and I were playing flag football with the teenagers in the youth group. Everyone noticed Mark. He was taller than any of us and he was missing a tooth. Plus, he didn’t play like someone at a church picnic. We were goofing around. Mark played like something was on the line. Later I was told that Mark had only recently been released from prison.
After Mark and I became friends, I would drive him places since he no longer had a license. In exchange, Mark would talk to me. This was usually worth more than the gas money. Sometimes it felt to me as if he had just climbed out of a time capsule.
“What do you think of Woody?” he said one time while we were shooting hoops. “You think he’s got game?”
I looked at Mark blankly. I thought Woody must be a high school player that I wasn’t aware of.
“Woody Harrelson. White Men Can’t Jump.” Mark bounced the ball. “He can really play.”
It dawned on me that I was playing basketball with someone who had been behind bars since before I had completed puberty.
Even without a car, Mark still managed to get all over town. If he couldn’t get a ride he would just start walking. I would see his lanky frame strolling down Route 5, usually headed towards the mall, usually with miles to go.
“I was praying that someone would come,” he would say, climbing into the passenger seat. “How did you notice me?”
“You’re 6’5″, Mark.”
“You read the Word this morning?” he would say, after a pause.
“Um. I read last night.”
“What’d you read?”
“Um. Hebrews. Hebrews 12.”
“Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that one.”
“Have you known the Lord for a long time, Matt?”
I looked straight out the windshield and concentrated on the traffic.
“Since I was a little kid.”
I had been going to church, as the saying goes, for nine months before I was born. It seemed ironic that my friend from prison–the one without a GED who had been diagnosed with a mental illness and studied the Bible at a place called Club Tempo–seemed to know more Scripture than anyone I had ever met.
Mark always assumed that I was some kind of spiritual titan. When I dropped him off he would squeeze my hand.
“Pray for strength. I need strength.”
And I would pray for Mark. Eventually this became our habit and I came to expect it, which helped–especially when he would grab my hand in public.
Sometimes, when he came over to my house, Mark would start to dream aloud over a slice of pizza. He would tell me about his old girlfriend who had miscarried years back, or about how he would still like to play basketball someday. It was hard to respond. Mark and I played basketball on the church team. Neither of us was about to be recruited. I would listen restlessly while Mark spun off into a world of love, basketball, warm weather, and a good-paying job. He was on parole now, after serving off and on again, for eighteen years.
“But I’m just trying to get my business in order,” he would always conclude. “I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
“That’s good, Mark. That’s good.”
One Sunday after church I was taking Mark back to his house along with a couple of his friends. Since I wouldn’t let them smoke in my car we needed to stop at the gas station for coffee. Mark had gotten paid on Friday, and the money was clearly burning a hole in his pocket. He wanted to treat everyone.
Making coffee was an elaborate ritual for these guys. I had a football game to watch, and I started to get restless while they fixed their drinks. They added creamer and sugar and tinkered with their cups for what felt like an eternity. This group did not spend money on many things, not even coffee, and they were going to get their money’s worth from the experience.
I paid for my own black cup while I was waiting just to speed up the process. Mark made about seven dollars an hour, when Friendly’s would give him a shift, and I didn’t want him to have to pay for me. He was irritated later when he found out that I had gone ahead of them. He was always offering me something–a stick of gum, a piece of candy. Sometimes he’d suggest that “maybe” he could get me a discounted cup of hot chocolate at Friendly’s–if the right manager was there. Mark would make this offer as if he was hooking me up with box tickets to a Knicks game. It took me a while to realize that he didn’t like being charity any more than I did.
One night Mark had a fight with his mother. His parole officer had to get involved. Mark came to prayer meeting that night looking very depressed.
Pastor George took me aside. “He got in an altercation with his Mom. He’s very down, and he’s talking about ending it all.”
One of the wonderful things about the people in my church is that so many of them love to pray. As the people crowded into the room, we began to pray for Mark. The Russian women mumbled in other languages and people praised the Lord and declared that Mark was free, free in Christ, free through the blood of Jesus.
I would be so curious to know how God feels about these prayer meetings. He certainly sits through enough of them. I would love to ask whether all the invocations, the funny voices, and the declarations started to feel hokey a long time ago. Or–and this is the way I prefer to think–maybe He smiles and nods. Maybe He feels touched–the way you do when a three-year old gives you something they colored and says, “I love you.”
We finished praying and sat back down.
“We need to see people with eyes of faith,” someone said. “That is what God does for us. He doesn’t look at us the way we are. He sees us the way that we will be.”
I looked at Mark and wondered silently. Wondered if we would be making proclamations about faith and new beginnings the next time Mark was sent upstate. I had interacted with him too much to make any proclamations. I had listened to his rambling monologues and knew that in Mark’s world, the universe could tilt upside down or right-side up in a weekend or less. He is the only person I know that could be suicidal on Friday and bring a friend to church on Sunday. It made me wonder what seeing with “eyes of faith” actually looked like. Does being Christian mean that we are required to be optimists?
I don’t think faith has to require playing a trick on your mind. It doesn’t mean we defy facts by shouting proclamations into the face of an overwhelming reality. We think that the Christian’s job is to help patch up other people, make them nice, put-together people, and maybe even make clones of ourselves.
Maybe I need more faith, but in my experience I haven’t seen many people transformed overnight. I see small steps that go both directions. That is why I found a church where it is okay to make mistakes. If you are part of Mark’s life–or anyone like Mark–you have to know that some of us might never be whole, and that the rest of us are hiding a lot more cracks than we would like to admit.
“How many days you got left on parole, Mark?” I asked him one night before prayer meeting.
He looked dreamily at the ceiling. “Two months, and my parole officer says it’s all downhill from here.”
“You coming to the game tomorrow?”
Mark half-smiled, and nodded. “I can feel it. My legs are getting stronger.” He grimaced and clenched his fist, mimicking a tomahawk jam. “Some days I just feel like I can fly.” His hand relaxed. “I love that game.”