Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Miss Markhams of Life

I started a new book this week, "How Starbucks Saved My Life." It is an extraordinary story, written by Michael Gates Gill, that speaks of one person's remarkable success, downward spiral, and then rediscovery as he becomes an employee (Partner is what Starbucks calls it) at Starbucks. I am not even halfway through the book, and I have already caught glimpses of my life and the life of the church in Gill's writing.

On page 63, Gill tells the story of Miss Markham, an elementary school teacher who told Gill who he really was.

"'I have made a decision, she said. 'You, Michael,' she continued, as though making a formal, public statement, 'are destined for greatness. I don't care what you do, or what you don't do. I don't care if you go to some prestigious college, or don't go. I just know: You are great.'

She sat back, dropping my hands, smiling at me.

I did not know what to say. I really didn't understand her point.

She leaned forward and spoke again. 'I almost never do this,' she sad, 'but once every few years I see some young person I feel has exceptional qualities. I want you to know that you are worthy. You. Not just what you do.'"

At church on Sunday, we started a new study in the 9:45 Sunday School class about spiritual gifts. As a result, I have been thinking about my gifts more this week. And, I have been especially thinking about the people who have named my gifts for me, giving me the courage to claim my gifts. I have thought about the Miss Markhams in my life - the people who have told me I am great - not for what I do but for who I am.

This morning, I give thanks for these individuals. I give thanks for Harold Bossaller, the person who told me I was a great public speaker as my FFA advisor in High School. I give thanks for Kathy Krafka Harkema, my first real boss who told me I was dynamic and capable as my work supervisor at the National Suffolk Sheep Association. I give thanks for my mother who always told me I was beautiful even when I was horribly overweight with acne all over my face. I give thanks for Hugh Cameron, my first field education supervisor at Benson Memorial UMC in Raleigh who told me I was a gifted pastoral leader. I give thanks for David Argo who told me I could be a lay leader for a church even though I was not yet 25 and some 10 years later told me that I had what it took to bring a declining church to life again. I give thanks for my Grandma Ivy who always told me how special I am. I give thanks for Wannie Hardin who told me I was one of the most gifted young pastors he had ever worked with. I give thanks for the members of First UMC in Hendersonville, NC who continued to name my gifts for me, entrusting me with so much, as their pastor in 2000-01. I give thanks for the students at Duke Divinity School who told me what a difference I had made in their admission process.

These people - all of these people - are the great cloud of witnesses that surround me each day. These people are the reason I had even ten percent of the courage needed to return to Washington and be a pastor. These voices are the ones I listen for when the voices around me seem to be filled with critique instead of encouragement. These faces are the ones I see smiling at me when others disagree with me. These people are the reason I am Reverend Donna Claycomb Sokol - a child of God trying hard to be faithful as the pastor of Mount Vernon Place.

Thanks be to God for the Miss Markhams of life. Who are your Miss Markhams?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My Easter Sermon - A Whole New World

A Whole New World!
John 20:1-18
April 12, 2009 Easter Sunday
Donna Claycomb Sokol
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington

There have been a few times in my life when something appeared to be so solid, so unbreakable, so much a part of life that I never dreamed it would change – only to later find myself living in what seemed to be a whole new world.

I remember well the first time I experienced the loss of a friend. Randy Gross is the person who stepped in when my father stepped out. He was a gifted businessman in our community and active in our local church. My sister and I regularly babysat for his children, and Randy would often drive us home filling the car with a listening ear and a voice of encouragement. In many ways, it was Randy who had tucked the pillow of God under my head when I was prepared to give up on God. Randy was fit and trim. He played basketball almost every day. And still, Randy’s life was stripped short, stopped in the middle of an ordinary game on the basketball court when he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 42. At that time, the world as I knew it seemed to be turned upside down. I learned that life is not always fair – that bad things happen to good people – that some questions arise that will never be answered.

For many of us, the times we are experiencing in our nation are unlike anything we have experienced before. Each week I learn of someone else whose economic security blanket has been pulled from beneath them. Individuals who have worked for the same company for 15-20 years are being asked to leave. People who thought there was no doubt that they would be retiring from this same company have been given pink slips. Women and men with master’s degrees and extensive experience in a myriad of fields are working for minimum wage. Countless others are pounding the pavement, resumes in hand, eager to see what door might open. And while all of this is happening, those who have retired are wondering if their hard-earned investments will ever rise to the level where they were before the economy started to weaken. Our nation’s economy that once seemed to strong – so indestructible – has been spun around with us all holding on tight, praying that we have seen the worst of it and that recovery is on the way.

It does not take much for the world to be changed.
One senseless death.
One lost job.
One parent leaving.
One diagnosis at the doctor’s office.
One closed company.
One plane hitting a tower.
One broken heart.
One accident.
One empty tomb.

It is early, on the first day of the week, John tells us, when Mary Magdalene first arrives at the tomb. As she approaches the tomb, she notices that the stone has been rolled away. This moved stone is enough to fill Mary’s head with questions and conclusions. Instead of looking inside, we are told that Mary Magdalene takes off running. She runs to Simon Peter and the other disciple who Jesus loves, telling them how “they” have taken Jesus out of the tomb. With this announcement, we are told that Simon Peter and the other disciple also take off running, with the disciple whom Jesus loved reaching the tomb first. He looks in, notices the wrappings, but does not go in. Simon Peter, however, runs right in when he arrives at the tomb. Seeing the courage of Simon Peter and recognizing that nothing has happened to him so far, the other disciple also walks in. They are in a tomb that contains only the linens that once covered Jesus’ body. One disciple sees and believes, we are told, while Simon Peter does not seem to react. Neither of them, however seems to comprehend how the things that Jesus has told them are true – how he would die and then rise again. The two men do not jump with joy when they see the empty tomb. Instead, John tells us that they returned to their homes.

While the two disciples have returned home, Mary Magdalene remains outside the tomb weeping. And, her remaining there allows her to be the first to not only see Jesus standing in her midst.

The man originally thought to be a gardener calls Mary by name. When Mary hears her name being spoken, Mary believes. And then Mary rushes off to tell others what she has seen. I have seen the Lord!

Three people were there that day. One disciple did not seem to be touched by the empty tomb. Another disciple saw the empty tomb and believed but still went home as though nothing had happened. Mary remained, filled with doubt and concluding that the worst had happened. But when Mary hears her name, she believes, and she runs off to tell others what has happened, how she has seen the Lord.

We can catch a glimpse of ourselves in each of these characters. There are some of us who will linger outside the tomb all day. Along with Mary, we will not believe until we have a personal, upfront encounter with Jesus.

Some of us accept the story at face value.

Some of us will rush out and tell others how we have seen the Lord while others will remain silent.

And yet, no matter which character we identify with in this particular account, there is power in the message of Easter that gives us hope unlike anything else. When the world as we know it seems to be turning around or falling apart, it is this message that offers us a whole new world.
Like every church’s resurrection window, Jesus is the focal point of our church’s window. But something else stood out to me as I looked at this window earlier this week. What stood out to me are the knife and the piercing sword. The knife is laid down, and the sword seems to have lost its power. The sword is still pointing towards Jesus, but it is not piercing Jesus. These weapons and those who hold them have lost its power. At the same time, the cross lost its original power and was given a whole new meaning.

Long before Jesus came into the world, the cross had a symbolic meaning in the Roman world. The cross was used to kill many individuals long before Jesus was killed. People were crucified, one after another, for doing something wrong. For many people in Rome, the cross meant, “we Romans run this place, and if you get in our way we’ll obliterate you – and do it pretty nastily too,” N.T. Wright explains. He continues, “Crucifixion meant that the kingdom hadn’t come, not that it had.”[1] The cross meant that some greater power was in control. There was authority, and it rested with the Roman leadership. If you crossed paths, deviated from their plans for society, or went the wrong way, then you were crucified. Wright explains, “Death is the last weapon of the tyrant, and the point of the resurrection despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated. Resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it.”[2]

Every time we gather in this place, we pray the words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” On Easter morning, this prayer was answered. The kingdom did come as the tyrant’s weapon was destroyed. And, the kingdom is still breaking in all around us as God’s ways continue to triumph over the ways of those who seek to rule in ways contrary to the spirit of God.

As Christians, we tend to put so much emphasis on what happens when we die. We tend to believe that the only message of Easter is life after death. And while this message is so central and so mysterious and so beautiful, if we only believe this message then we, too, can go right on home today without doing anything else just as the two disciples did. We can get busy dying, praying that death will come sooner rather than later. But the message of Easter is that we had better get busy living!

A whole new world made possible thru the resurrection of Jesus has arrived. On this day, heaven came to earth. God’s perfect plan of salvation triumphed over the Roman authority’s last weapon. Christ has won. Violence, war and death do not have dominion. Economic powers no longer have their hold. Political principalities no longer have the final say. The doctor’s diagnosis is not the reason we have or do not have hope. The love of another person is not what provides our security. The presence of a job or lack thereof is not what gives us our identity. And whatever it is that we have been enslaved to, we have been released. What we have, on Easter day, is fresh grass, bright red tulips, and yellow daffodils breaking through the concrete of corruption. We have a whole new world!

We have just finished one of the more intensive times in the Christian year. For many people, Lent can be the only time in the year when we truly try to live a disciplined life. Like training for a marathon, many of us do things or give up things in the six weeks of Lent that we would never do at any other time. We are more focused during Lent and then Easter comes. On this day, some of the discipline goes out the window. We return to life as normal, resuming our usual way of life. Many of my colleagues think, “Thank God, I made it through Easter,” and go away on vacation tomorrow. We say to ourselves, “Lent is over. Easter has come. We can now go home.” But if we let Easter last only one day – if the celebration is a mere few hours long – then we have also missed the point.

N.T. Wright shares how Easter “ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems.” He goes on to ask, “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.”[3]

As many of you know, I spent last week at what has become one of my favorite places on earth. Holy Cross Abbey is nestled in the valley of the Shenandoah Mountains in a place called Berryville, Virginia. It is a place where I can enjoy both the most relaxing and the most productive week of the year – a rare combination, what some would even call an oxymoron. It is the only place where I can consistently put God before everything else in my life and come close to reading six books in one week. One of the books I read last week left me speechless.

The book shares the same title of a popular song sung by REM several years ago, “Losing My Religion.” The author of the book William Lobdell, was the religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He shares his journey in this powerful book that stirs at your heart in the beginning, middle and end. Lobdell writes of how he found God – he found God in a powerful way. God answered many of his prayers, including his prayer to become the religious writer for the paper. And then, the paper commissioned him out to cover one scandal after another in the church.

Lobdell is sent all over the country to interview victims of sexual abuse – abuse by priests – many of whom had a long record of child sexual abuse but were never removed from the priesthood. Lobdell writes story after story of the church he longed to be a part of and the church he found – Catholic and Protestant. And after a while, Lobdell throws his hands up, concluding that if God were real, then surely the people who follow God would act differently. Throughout his reporting, Lobdell has a hard time distinguishing between those who are Christian and those who are atheists. There just is not much difference in their behavior – at all.

Lobdell writes, “It was discouragingly easy – though incredibly surprising – to find out that Christians, as a group, acted no differently than anyone else, including atheists. Sometimes they performed a little better; other times a little worse. But the Body of Christ didn’t stand out as morally superior.”[4] He then goes on to quote research from the Barna Group, a much respected Christian research organization about the behavior of Christians versus non-Christians when it comes to divorce, racism, generosity, and a myriad of other issues. Lobdell then says, “If the Lord is real, it would make sense for the people of God, on average to be superior morally and ethically to the rest of society. Statistically, they aren’t. I also believe that God’s institutions, on average, should function on a higher moral plain than governments or corporations. I don’t see any evidence of this. It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists.”[5]

If Christ has been raised from the dead, triumphing over the tyrant and death itself, then we are given every possible reason to embrace a whole new world – to live a whole new life. My life and the lives around me have not been turned upside down only by the bad things that happen. I’ve also seen lives being turned upside down when God gets involved. I’ve seen it happen when people allow the story of Easter to take control of their lives.

I heard about a whole new world last week when John was sharing his testimony, telling us about dark days and pain-filled nights that even all the alcohol in the world could not diminish. The only thing that could truly bring him from the depths of despair was a God who knew pain, who took on more pain than any of us can imagine, promising that nothing in our lives can have its grip forever.

I have heard about it from one of you who could have gone to law school this year. Instead, you accepted a job in Washington that has taken you to the edge of violence and the trenches of poverty. You have taken breakfast to hundreds of people in this city, recognizing that part of our task as Christians is to make sure that all people are fed – on earth as it is in heaven.

I have heard about it by one of you who shared how your heart has been broken time and again by messages proclaimed in pulpits about how some people are condemned to eternal judgment. You have sense fought tirelessly and passionately about how to bring about a different kind of love, compassion and welcome in the United Methodist Church – to make our churches known for having doors wide open to all people instead of shut to some people because of their sexual orientation – a church that shares the love of God with all people – on earth as it is in heaven.

And, I saw it all the time in the life of Harry McLean in whose memory we created the Easter Fund. Though the church does not have a food bank, Harry often showed up with a bag of food to be given to the poor. Though many of us gave up on helping make meals to be given to people living with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses, Harry took three buses to get to Food and Friends. Though I still have no idea what to do with the prostitutes who work in our community, Harry said it could be as easy as my inviting them to church. Harry brought heaven down to earth all the time, making sure that others could experience God’s kingdom, God’s ways, on earth as it is in heaven.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband Craig walked into the house. He started talking at the bottom of the stairs that lead to our condo, saying how we were going to be so excited about who he had run into. He continued to share, “You’re never going to believe the person I just saw. It was so exciting to see him. I cannot believe I ran into him.” He then got to the top of the stairs with my excitement peaked, and he handed over a generous bag of very nice chocolates saying, “I ran into the Easter Bunny.”

Today, we run into someone else. We run into an empty tomb. We run into a risen savior. We run into a whole new world. What if our lives told the same story, “You’re never going to believe what just happened to me. You’re never going to believe who I have met. I have seen the Lord! And this is what he brought – promises of how the poor will receive good news, the lame will walk, the blind will see, the sinners will be forgiven, the first will be last, the last will be first, the captives will be released, heaven will come to earth. It’s a whole new world! A whole new world!”
[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, New York: HarperOne, 2008, 40.
[2] N.T. Wright, 50.
[3] N.T. Wright, 256.
[4] William Lobdell, Losing My Religion, New York: HarperCollins, 2009, 204-05.
[5] Lobdell, 271.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I set my alarm for 6:30 this morning but could hardly get out of bed - even when the clock said 8:15 a.m.  My body, mind, and spirit seem to be running on empty - exhausted, stretched to the limit.  I have spent the better part of the day in my pajamas, catching up on things that should have been done weeks ago and putting away things that have been in boxes for almost 10 months now.  In between all of this, I have been listening to music, lighting candles and reading a new book.  

I am exhausted.  I am feeling rather burned-out.  I have been stretched to the limit, and much of my exhaustion is because of decisions I have made - not decisions others have made for me.

I have accepted too many invitations.  I have said "yes" to the request to officiate at weddings for people I have never even met before, thinking that people might come to the church as a result and that the extra money can be really helpful.  I have said "yes" to participating in a book project containing different liturgies for Sunday morning, thinking that the list of coauthors was rather impressive and that the extra money would again be helpful.  I have said "yes" to being the last one to leave the church yesterday, making sure every door was locked, thinking that I could save the church a few extra dollars on security.  I have said "yes" to too many things instead of focusing on the main things.  

This issue is not new - my attention often seems to be consumed by things that are not that important, taking away from things that are really important.  While preaching on Sunday mornings is quite possibly the most important thing I do all week, there are times when writing the sermon gets pushed all the way back to Fridays.  While taking care of my body through eating and exercising is the thing that can help me enjoy life the most, I too often have gym reports that say I was only there once or twice a week in any given month.  While my attention needs to be focused on shepherding the flock whom I am called to serve, my energy can be zapped by committee meetings and administrative details that could easily be taken care of by other people.

I am discerning again today what are the main things in my life.  Cultivating my marriage is at the top of this list.  Taking better care of myself through diet and exercise is moving to a higher position.  Spending time with friends is important.  Making sure I have quiet time to study, pray and listen for God is important.

When it comes to the church, visiting our sick, our elderly and our members is important.  Making time to get to know newcomers in the church and following up on all visitors is important.  Carving out time for reading, sermon writing, and sermon practicing is important.   Planning good worship is important.  Making sure I am casting a vision for the congregation and also working with our leaders is important.  And yet, too often these things are pushed to the back burner.  

Why is it that we do not keep the main thing the main thing?  Why is it that we allow ourselves to be stretched so thin?

My focus is shifting again this week - to the main thing.  

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's Raining Again

It's cold and rainy in Washington, DC today.  It is not the kind of day when you rush to step outside, go for a long walk, marveling at the Cherry Blossoms.  Rather, it's the kind of day when you want to stay inside, clear your schedule, put on a teapot, and curl up with a book.  It's a dreary day, a gloomy day, a somewhat sad day.

On days like this, my heart aches a little.  There is something about the melancholy of the weather that makes me think about those who are sick, hurting, broken.  My mind is consumed with thoughts of Dorine who struggles in intensive care.  I think of my mother's first Easter without her husband, Red.  I am praying for those who have lost jobs and for our nation as our debt reaches record levels.  I am thinking of those who are huddled on the porch of our church, unsure of when they will find a home next or even their next meal.

All is not well.  There is sadness, brokenness, sin, loss.

I can imagine how Mary and the other women must have felt on this day.  On Good Friday, they would have watched as their beloved son, friend, teacher, and guide was crucified.  They would have watched as he carried his cross and then died a violent death.  They would have heard the seven last words from the cross - coming from the mouth of Jesus himself.  And, I can imagine that when Saturday came, they had a hard time getting out of bed.  I can imagine that their outlook on life wanted to keep them inside the house instead of outside in the marketplace.  I can imagine that their thoughts were filled more with despair than with hope.

Thankfully, we know the rest of the story.  The sun is supposed to rise tomorrow.  The rain is forecasted to end.  Along with this change in the weather, we will gather to celebrate the only reason any of us can have hope for today, tomorrow and all eternity.  While the tomb is now consumed and the cross is empty, the tomb will be emptied in the morning.  Jesus will rise again.  We will shout, "Hallelujah!  He is Risen!" and then sing together, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."

In the meantime, I am wrestling with what it must have felt like to be in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago on this day.  Hope would have been hard to find.  I'm so thankful that the tomb was not filled for long.  I am so thankful that on the third day, the tomb was emptied.

Our hope has been found.  I'd love to tell you about it in the morning.  Please come join us at 11:00 at Mount Vernon Place.

Monday, April 06, 2009


"But is this not what we covered last year?" Father Mark asked, after a period of silence in which he appeared to be looking deep within his soul.

"Yes, Father.  This is what we covered last year.  But I am still having a hard time.  I am still searching for, longing for balance.  The busy-ness of the church so often invades my space - the space that should be saved and protected for God.  The church so often comes first - long before prayer, reading, rest, confession, solitude," I shared.

"Humm," Father Mark replied.  "A priest was just here last week with the exact same problem.  I told him he needed to get help - to get an associate.  But, let me share something else with you."

Father Mark continued, "When I was about to graduate from medical school (Father Mark was a doctor for 5 years before becoming a monk) and start my practice as an obstetrician, I knew the hard, long hours that were about to invade my life.  The one thing I asked my family for graduation was season tickets to the Boston Symphony.  I knew that the week would be long, hard, and beautiful.  And, I wanted something to look forward to every week.  Every Saturday night, I knew that my soul would find rest and renewal.  I knew that I would find joy in that space."

"What is it that gives you joy?" Father Mark asked.  "If you are making space for joy, then I believe you will also be naturally more inclined to turn to God - to give God thanks and to be in a more intentional relationship with God."

These morsels of wisdom arrived on day three of my retreat at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia last week.  It was my second visit to Holy Cross - the second time I would spend the week before Holy Week in solitude, silence, prayer, praise, and contemplation.  My nights last week were filled with long hours of sleep - going to bed early and rising early.  My days were spent taking long walks along the sides of pastures where cattle graze, eating simple meals, reading some six different books, going to any of the five services that happen in the daily life of the abbey, listening to the monks chant back and forth, hearing the voice of birds and crickets, praying, writing, and discovering more about myself and my relationship with God.

When I got back to my room, I made a list of the things that give me joy.  This is what I wrote, unedited, "Manicures, Bill's exercise classes at the gym, Craig, a good sermon, a good book, a good movie, coffee with newcomers, people from Hendersonville, Mary Elizabeth, the Thursday Bible study, good food, tulips or fresh flowers, grocery shopping, buying cards, family, long walks, blogging."

I then added in my journal, "When I am making time for these things, then I will be more likely to also make time for God."

What gives you joy?  What's on your list?

May we find - discover - make time for joy and for God this week.