Despite the fact that I also grew up in Summit, I didn’t really get to know Mark until the summer after I graduated from college, when we worked together at Camp Aldersgate.
Getting to know Mark came as something of a revelation to me. Up until then, everybody I had been close to was pretty much two things: They were all on the liberal arts college track; idealistic types, not especially good at dealing with practical stuff, fixing broken cars, building furniture — that kind of thing.
This wasn’t Mark.
The other thing that defined all of my friends up until that point was that there were all, to various degrees, “people persons”, or more accurately “people pleasers.” When we met someone, with our great sensitivity we would tune into what that person needed from us to feel comfortable and reassured, and then we’d try as best we could to provide it, and if we found the person doing the same thing back towards us, well, then, maybe we would become friends.
But Mark wasn’t a people pleaser.
Despite the pride I felt having just recently graduated from a demanding little liberal arts
College, my life was, nonetheless, extremely insular and I was, in fact, pretty clueless.
Basically, I divided the world into two kinds of people. There were the nice people like myself who played by the people person rules — the people I could be close to, who were,
more often than not, somewhat incompetent in regards to the ways of the world.
And then there were the assholes.
And then I met Mark.
It’s not that Mark lacked sensitivity. He was, in fact, one of the most perceptive people I ever knew. He could read people like a book.
But rather than instinctively reassuring the people he met, Mark would make a point of tormenting them with the sharp knife of his wit, calling attention right from the start to their arrogance and hypocrisies.
Now, there‘s some irony here, because I was at this point in time just beginning to make my way back into the church, having for all intents and purposes left it in my early teen years because of guess what: the hypocrisy and fakery I had perceived there with my adolescent hyper-sensitivity for such things.
In college I was a religion major, and had begun making my way back to Christianity, though not the church. A large part of what had been attracting me to Christianity was the discovery that within the tradition there was a great deal of wisdom about the nature of us human beings.
The words I had used to divide the human race: the assholes and the nice people, well, they had their corollaries in Christianity: the tradition referred to them as “sinners” and “saints.” But Christianity, rooted in that Jesus guy, had a much more profound understanding of how these categories related to one another.
Jesus, for instance, got along wonderfully with the people that were generally considered in his day to be “sinners,” (the assholes), whereas the people commonly regarded as “saints” — the nice guys — he was constantly in their faces calling them “hypocrites,” and it was these very same nice guys who managed to work out a secret deal wherein Jesus got his mouth shut by nailing him to a cross.
In our imaginations, we often make Jesus into another nice guy, but listen to a few of the words he served up to those who incurred his wrath, which I invite you to imagine rolling off the tongue of Mark Hoffman:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For they clean the outside of their cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For they are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth… You snakes, you brood of vipers!”
And so, Christianity, at least Jesus’ brand of Christianity, understands that there is sinner and saint, asshole and nice guy, in all of us, and it declares we’d all be much better off if we’d quit the pretense and admit the whole, messy truth about ourselves.
And so here I was fresh from college at a Church Camp of all places, and here was Mark Hoffman. Mark’s approach was bit intimidating, but ultimately refreshing. Instead of presenting the saint part first, the nice guy, only later to deviously slip in the sinner part — the asshole — Mark’s strategy seemed to be to put the asshole right out front, first off, as if to say,
“Let’s get this clear, I’m an asshole, and I’m going to help you acknowledge that you, too, are an asshole, and once we’ve got that clearly established, both of us can get on with being saints as well,”
of which Mark had a lot of inside him too.
He was loyal, helpful, kind. He was smarter and more competent than those of us with our liberal arts degrees; a great person to have on your side. And when he cared about you, you pretty much knew it was real, because Mark simply wouldn’t tolerate that kind of fakery, which was ultimately much more reassuring than the nice guy strategy.
All of this was something of a revelation to me.
I had a lot of contact with Mark over the next ten years or so. He was a good friend.
A big theme in my life at this time was that I was lonely — pathetically lonely — longing for woman to love and be loved by, and seemingly helpless to find one.
At that point in time, Mark was also single, but okay with being single. I remember once saying to Mark something to the effect of “loneliness is the problem with life,” which, in my self-absorption, I figured that since it was my problem, it must be everybody’s problem.
Mark was quick to set me straight. “Loneliness is your problem, Jeff, not mine. For me, the problem in life is the bullshit you have to put up with.”
That too, was something of a revelation to me. Mark wasn’t especially lonely. He’d been raised by Sally and George, who had done a good job making him feel loved. And he had his large posse of good friends as well.
And then Mark went off on this great adventure for a year serving as the engineer on a tall ship on the high sea, and when he came back to land, he brought with him this really beautiful woman named Marcie, who was smart and funny and kind and pretty and well grounded — just about perfect. And he hadn’t even been actively looking for a mate, let alone playing the games of the dating world. (For Mark, dressing up to look good was putting on a clean tee shirt.)
And that too, was a revelation for me: that chicks dig men who are real, who know who they are, who have no pretense about them.
Marcie found the real deal.
So I ended up becoming a Methodist minister, which was pretty strange in itself. And I think Mark’s voice has always been there in the back of my head, in a certain sense saving my soul as a minister, because the biggest temptation we clergy undergo is that we somehow lose track of who we really are as we carry this strange mantel of being ordained, so that we end up becoming the kind of frauds that ticked Jesus off so.
And so throughout, Mark’s voice has been there, saying, “If you don’t really believe it, Jeff, don’t say it. Don’t be a fraud.”
And that’s been a pretty wonderful gift to carry along the way.