It's my wedding day. In about eight hours, I'll be Mrs. Donna Sokol. (I suppose that this reason is the reason why I have not written on my blog for a very long time. I'll be back on schedule soon!)
It has been a time of celebration. It seemed as though everywhere I turned yesterday, I was gazing upon another person who means the world to me. Father Joe, one of the clergy assisting with our wedding, said it best when he said, "This time is the only time the two of you will have all of the people who love you the most all in the same room." We have been so blessed to see many of these faces arriving in Durham for the weekend - college friends and church friends, relatives and parents' friends, neighbors and dearly beloved people in our lives.
I have been reminded often in the last few days of how it takes a village to not only raise a child but to also enable a marriage to last a lifetime. One of the cards we received this week said it best when a friend took time to say, "We will not only be with you this weekend to witness your wedding, but we will also be here as a resource for you anytime you need it." I know this woman well enough to know that her marriage is one worth imitating - that her marriage is one filled with life and joy. They have already taught me much about what it means to seize life and enjoy life -- together.
But what if we all had this approach, particularly in the church? What if we all said, "I am not just going to be part of your wedding day, I am going to be part of your life. I am going to walk alongside of you. I am going to mentor you as a couple. I am going to be there in the good times and in the bad." Can you imagine what might happen? I can.
I am going to make vows to Craig today. I can hardly wait to tell him today how I will be with him always. I am so thankful for Craig. He is a big gift from God who is filled with so many wondrous surprises and points of joy.
I am also thankful for the witness of the church, our friends, and our family - a gathered group of very special people who will be in the church with us today and for all of the people who will be lifting their hearts up in prayer in different places around the world - as we take our vows at 3:00.
We welcome your wisdom. We welcome your prayers. We invite you to walk alongside of us - in this precious gift from God called marriage.
I spent a portion of last Wednesday with someone who is about to turn 100. This man was in the hospital, and when I asked him what I could do for him he responded, "You can feed me like a baby." With these words, I started to cut up the spaghetti on his plate and feed him. Needless to say, he loved it. We then started to dream together about our futures. I was dreaming about getting married. He was dreaming about his 100th birthday party. Together, we planned the events - thinking about all of the ways God is blessing us. It is a privilege to be a pastor.
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to talk with someone who is entering the process that leads to ordination. We talked about our callings, our hopes for the future, and the nature of the church's ministry. We laughed together. We prayed together. We talked about how frustrating it can be to be a pastor but most of all about how much life comes with this vocation. It is a privilege to be a pastor.
On Sunday morning, I did one of the things I love most. We have started a practice at Mount Vernon Place where two lay people serve the bread and the cup while the pastor and the intern are available to lay hands on people and pray for them. This part of the service is now my favorite. It has been holy ground to stand and pray for people - praying for new jobs and new babies, for broken relationships and broken promises, for job prospects and housing prospects. I have learned so much about the people I serve through this practice. It is a privilege to be a pastor.
And then today I received an email from a member of our congregation. It is one of those emails that tell you even more what a privilege it is to be a pastor. With permission, I include a portion of this email here:
I also had a bit of a revelation last night regarding faith and religion. My small group watched 'The Bible Tells Me So' and I was reminded of all that drove me from attending church, the prominent conservative evangelical Christians that judge and condemn more than love and serve. I have been so worried that if I proclaim my faith and embrace Christianity, I will be confused for one of them. But it seems to me that I am running from a calling, a calling to represent another way to be Christian, another way to have a relationship with God. The easy path would be to leave organized religion and berate it for being intolerant and exclusive. The difficult path is to stand up for one's faith and beliefs and demonstrate what it means for one to be a tolerant and loving Christian community. And lastly, I am scared of truly embracing my faith, because I think deep down I know that it will radically transform me, and that's frightening. Again, it's easier just to think that I am already a changed person, that I am already doing all I can to be in service to others, that I am already working hard to live like Jesus. I think I'm on the cusp, and I don't know how long I will be here, but I don't think I can step back from this edge. It's just a matter of time before I take the plunge.
This email comes from someone with whom I have been able to journey - telling the individual that it is okay to doubt some parts of our faith - that it is okay to be frustrated with the church - that it is okay to have all of these feelings and still come anyway. The person has kept on coming. The person has joined the church. And, the person's life is being transformed. This person's email captures my vision for this church - a radically open place for all of God's children - a place that practices Christianity instead of Churchianity - a place that is tired of being just another church but instead wants to be a sign - a real sign of how the Kingdom of God is at hand - a place where the blind receive their sight, the lame leap, the poor have good news proclaimed to them and the oppressed are set free. I love standing on the edge with this person. Like her, I am often scared of all the risky places where Jesus leads us - but I have found taking the plunge to be better than anything else I have ever done.
As a child, we learned a song about how all of God's people got love. I do not remember all of the words but I remember how my Sunday school classmates and I would sing over and over again about God's love - how all of God's children are called to love. At the heart of the Old Testament stands a call to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus' words in the gospels are full of love and a call to love. As people of faith, we are called to love.
Why is it, then, that there is so much hatred within God's people? Why is it that there are so many words of division spoken by people of faith?
It did not take long for me to realize today which group is meeting at the Washington Convention Center, directly across from our church. When I got off the Metro at the Convention Center stop, I was greeted by sirens and large tour buses. I knew immediately that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "America's Pro-Israel Lobby" is in town.
Traffic was at a standstill while buses of convention goers were escorted through the neighborhood by police cars.
Armed security guards were everywhere.
From my experience as one with an office directly across from the Convention Center, the AIPAC meeting is the only gathering of convention goers with the power to stop traffic as their buses go through town at the height of rush hour. This gathering is the only gathering that I have witnessed in the last three years with the power to have local police escort them through town, no matter how bad the traffic buildup might be as a result. And every time I hear these sirens and see these buses, my mind takes me back to my journey through the Middle East almost ten years ago.
My eyes were opened as we visited with Israelis and Palestinians who shared stories with us of homes being demolished, of people being moved without notice, of bulldozers coming and clearing the way, all because the Israelis' claimed that the land belonged to them - no matter how many hundreds of years a Palestinian might have been there. My heart ached every time my eyes beheld a red-roofed settlement. I knew that each red roof represented a family that had been moved away - relegated away from their home to another place.
Each time I hear the sirens today, I wonder how it is that the people who are attending the AIPAC convention are more important than the people trying to get to work this morning or get home tonight. Why is it that traffic is stopped for this convention, that the police force are employed for this convention, and not for any other convention?
I also keep thinking about the argument I saw this morning. On one corner, outside of my office, is a group of Hasidic Jews who are protesting. They are carrying a sign denouncing Israel's unjust practices and the unfair ramifications of Zionism. This morning, I listened as these Hasidic Jews passionately argued with another Jewish man, clearly marked by the fabric on top of his head.
And, my heart ached.
My heart hurt.
I do not like to see two people of one faith fighting with one another. I hate seeing two people - two of God's children - shouting words of hatred and judgment against each other.
I am convinced that this disagreement, that people of one faith arguing passionately about justice, is not what God had in mind when he called us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.
But it is not only my Jewish friends who are causing me to question. My own faith and my own denomination has also had its share of people disagreeing in recent weeks. My heart ached more than once at our recent Annual Conference when statements were made about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. My heart sinks when I hear words of hatred being spoken about my gay brothers and lesbian sisters. And every time we argue, I wonder how many people we are sending away. Every time we appear to be at odds, I wonder how many people are saying, "To hell with the church. I'd rather follow Jesus."
I believe that we were all created in the image of God - Jew and Greek, slave and free, gay and straight, black and white, young and old. I believe that we all have God's image stamped across our heads. I believe that we are all called to see this radiance in one another. I believe that God gave creation enough - enough space to sleep, enough food to eat, enough water to drink, enough fiber to wear - for every single person. I believe in God's call for justice, mercy and humility. I pray for people of faith to come together. I pray for people of faith to see how our disagreements hurt the church - mightily. I pray that we will see that no one - not one single person - Israeli or Palestinian, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, powerful or meek, President or pauper - is better than another person.
God, help us to be like you. Help us to love as you love. Take away our divisions. Take away our eagerness to exult some while lowering others. Make us one, Lord. Make us one.