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Thursday, January 22, 2015

What a Friend--RIP Marcus Borg

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter… ©

It was while I was on chemo, under the threat of death by my first oncologist, of “a year or two,” that I discovered Marcus Borg’s Jesus: A New Vision. It changed my life.

I had been a fairly good New Testament scholar, in service of my preaching. I still read some New Testament in Greek each morning. I especially appreciated Gunther Bornkamm’s approach in Jesus of Nazareth. As I have done old-age culling, down-sized living, of my library, that is one of the books with which I can’t part.

I felt I was slightly fraudulent, though, whenever we sang “What a friend we have in Jesus” in worship. I didn’t think of Jesus as a friend. We was the Christ, the Word of God, God’s way of communicating to us what God expects of us in relating to God and the world and others and to our own selves. That’s a bit distant to be called “friend.”

In part, Jesus was not a friend because I never felt need of an intermediary in approaching God, not angels nor the BVM nor saints nor the Bible… not even Jesus. God is God and is always there, always available, regardless of how I feel about it. I still “know” that and feel that way.

In reading Marcus, though, Jesus became more of an historical figure than ever, and in the process, became more of a spiritual reality for me. Stripping away the layers of crust and dust that had accumulated on him over the years made the real Jesus, the real friend, more available.

So when I learned that Marcus would be the main speaker at a conference in Morehead, MN at the same time I was speaking to the staff and the Clinical Pastoral Education students at the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, ND, just across the river, Helen and I immediately signed up for the conference.

It wasn’t our last conference with Marcus. Every time we went to one, he presented the rough-draft of his most recent research and thinking, which would then become another of his books. Every time, a new layer of Gospel encrustation was removed, and we were allowed to see the real Gospel underneath. Every time, Jesus became a better friend.

And although we had not really hung out with him at that conference in Morehead, he always knew us, called us by name, and remembered our circumstances. “What are you doing in Ohio? I thought you were in Illinois.”

We began to exchange books by mail whenever we came out with a new one. He was the loser, as he was far more prolific than I. He told me that his Episcopal priest wife often gave my Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole to patients she knew. Knowing I am a bit of a novelist, he wrote to tell me how proud he was of his first novel, Putting Away Childish Things, said he felt like a new parent. It wasn’t a great novel, as a novel. It was primarily a way for the characters to say what Marcus himself said in his other books. But what Marcus wrote is always worth reading, regardless of the form.

That’s what Helen thought when she mentored granddaughter Brigid for confirmation. They felt the confirmation material was, let’s say… “limited.” So they read Marcus’ Heart of Christianity. Brigid, like most grandchildren, is extremely bright, so it was no trouble for her. Helen knew, though, that other kids might need a less scholarly vocabulary and so wrote to Marcus and suggested he do a version of Heart for middle-school kids, for confirmation. He said he didn’t think he could write that way, but since she was a school teacher, she could do it, and he’d put both their names on it and he’d have his publisher bring it out. Alas, that never happened.

Some people misunderstood Marcus. Especially because of his participation in “The Jesus Seminar,” which tries to separate the real historical sayings and doings of Jesus from the additions of others, some folks thought he did not honor the scriptures. Exactly the opposite. Marcus was a believer. He was a follower who wanted to walk with the real Jesus, the one who is a friend rather than a flannel-board caricature. When you separate the wheat from the chaff, the bread you can bake is far more nutritious.

At those conferences, and in many other settings, we met so many people who said, “Marcus Borg made it possible for me to be a Christian.”

I give thanks for Marcus Borg and his work. He provided me not only his friendship, but that of Jesus.

What a friend we had in Marcus.

John Robert McFarland

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