Thursday, August 28, 2014

beautiful not only because of what it was, but mostly because of what it was not.

After the celebration, we shared in a potluck meal provided mostly by local guest, including a LOT of tamales made by one of Sarah’s coworkers. It was an amazing feast, followed by a variety of ice cream choices.  It reminded me of the wedding feast at the end of time Jesus once described. It was once again a “gulp” of God’s kingdom, or in this case, a “mouthful”.
The beautiful week and special day ended with a time for “open mic”. Everyone was invited to perform a song, give a toast, read a poem, or tell a story.

One couple sung a beautiful lullaby with affirming words to remember.
Several of Sarah & Ali’s students sung solos. 
Ali’s high school friend shared ways in which Ali influenced her life in school and out of school.
My wife, Lori, shared one of her favorite stories about Sarah’s childhood creativity.
Ahmed graced us with a song on his trombone.
 One of the highlights for me was two young neighborhood children who were excited to beat their drums. We all joined in by clapping to the beat.
Lori described the wedding:
It was beautiful not only because of what it was, but mostly because of what it was not.
It was not traditional songs highlighting modern society and its view of love, it was drums played by children, trombones played by youth, and songs sung by students.
It was not dress lifting up formality, proclaiming one’s success in the world, it was simple distinction of who was being celebrated and comfort for everyone else.
It was not competition to see who could dance the longest, drink the most, or look the most breathtaking; it was simplicity, sincerity, and complexity at its best.
It was not a ceremony repeating promises that have been easily broken through the ages; it was expressions of promises challenging to keep, spoken with determination to do so.
It was not filled with justifications for who anyone had become; but filled with acceptance of who everyone was.
It was not your typical marriage ceremony where the minister’s presence was highlighted; it was a celebration highlighting community, inclusivity, and the presence of God.
It was beautiful not only because of what it was, but mostly because of what it was not.

I thank God for our daughter, Sarah, and our new daughter-in-law, Ali, who shared their beautiful community with us. I thank God for Sarah and Ali making a space for us all to experience ‘a big “gulp” of God’s kingdom.’

Engaging in the Gulp

When we arrived for the wedding we were told to go to a table holding over 100 drinking glasses. On this table there were a variety of glasses, one for each of the 175 guests. Our name was found on our glass as well as a personal message from Sarah and Ali.
My glass said, “Dear Dad, We’re so grateful you’re part of our family. We love you and are consistently appreciative of your support. Love, Sarah and Ali.”
I will always cherish this glass.
The wedding itself was the most unique service I’ve ever attended in my life. Sarah and Ali introduced the service by talking about the ‘priesthood of all believers’. They based the structure of the service on the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer wedding/commitment ceremony. It included prayers, litanies, and Scripture readings.
They adapted the service to include parts for over sixty different people. These were people they had contacted ahead of time to take part in the service. Each of us had a few lines to say. Seated in the round, with Sarah inconspicuously at one end of the pavilion and Ali at the other, we stood up at our seats and spoke our lines loudly.
What a joy to listen to everyone share their lines of Scripture or prayer! I especially appreciated the four year old little boy who said very deliberately, “And God is love.” His sister said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The three sermon-lessons were shared by different lay people who spoke with such wisdom and knowledge about the Scriptures.
The Psalter reading was a unique experience. There were many people present from the bilingual Montessori public charter school where Sarah teaches in Washington D.C. Therefore, half of our Psalter reading was in Spanish and half of it was in English. 
The end of the service featured Sarah and Ali moving from their seats on the opposite ends of the pavilion. They met and shared very simple, heartfelt vows they had written for each other. Sarah and Ali each talked about the specific ways they were committing to share their love for each other as 175 people listened, many with tears sneaking down their cheeks.  It was so simple, yet so beautiful; so different from any other wedding, yet inspiring to all—encouraging us all to do better, to be better, to be who God meant for us to be…to be more real…to engage in the “gulp” of God’s Kingdom.

Living in a Rainbow

         God’s kingdom is one of diversity. God created us with such a beautiful diversity and God loves the way we continue to express that diversity. The participants of the wedding week highlighted inclusivity and diversity.
A middle aged couple travelled from New Zealand. It was Sarah’s host father when she was an exchange student there as a youth. Keith was a chef and prepared our Sunday morning breakfast with his wife, Ro.
A young lady who lives in South Korea joined us. Sarah met Salgu with Teach for America in Mississippi. Salgu,  one of our wedding photographers, brought her friend, Maryam.   Maryam is a beautiful Muslim young lady whose family is from Pakistan.
Sarah’s former co-worker in South Africa also travelled here for the wedding. We all enjoyed getting to know Pinky and appreciated her hard work and calm spirit.
There were friends returning from visiting family in places like the Netherlands and Israel. A couple was heading out to live in Jordan after the wedding. Others travelled from California, Washington, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Nebraska, Tennessee, New York, Connecticut, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Illinois, and many other places across our country.
The diversity included people of different religious traditions including Buddhism, Islam, and agnosticism. It included different races and cultures including African-American, West Indian, Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and more. There were all ages represented from babies, young children and up to my parents in their eighties. All were made to feel welcomed and valued. The week was full of storytelling, laughter, teasing, and a light-heartedness. We all had the chance to interact with people who are different than us. We experienced a "big gulp" of God’s kingdom.
My wife, Lori, wrote about it, saying:
As I continue to process the awe-inspiring commitment celebration of my beautiful daughter, Sarah, and her life partner, Ali—I have concluded the surreal experience was akin to living inside a rainbow for 3 days.  There were people of many colors, ages, abilities, faiths, languages, life orientations, values, socioeconomic levels, and geographical areas.  As people came to know each other, lines disappeared, blending one person into another, becoming a loving, cohesive community.  And it was an experience I have seldom found in our world.

            Sarah and Ali are so gifted at honoring people for who they are—not what society says they should be.  I found myself feeling in awe of these two beings who live in the heart of grace and pray I can steal a bit of their approach for my own life.

Michael described it not as “a taste of God’s Kingdom,” but as “a gulp of God’s Kingdom.”  Lord, Help us to erase the lines society has drawn between us and others, blending together into a loving, cohesive community.  

  God’s kingdom is one of diversity.

Johnnie with an "ie" at the end

On Sunday, the wedding day. Sarah sent me out early that morning to check the porta-johns by the Liberty Pavilion at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. While I was there picking up trash around the area, I noticed a man sitting in the pavilion. It looked like he lived there or at least spent most of his time there.
 “My daughter’s getting married here today.”
 “Congratulations,” he said.
“Wow, the garbage cans by the pavilion are overflowing.” I observed.
 “You ought to call the city to tell them to pick that up.”
“Maybe I will,” I said, “You’re welcome to join us at the wedding this afternoon.”
I drove back to Sarah’s to report.   Sarah told me, “The city won’t pick up that trash today. You’re going to have to bag it up Dad.”
I told Sarah about the man at the pavilion and how I invited him to the wedding.
 “What’s his name?” was her first question, immediately giving him value.
“I don’t know.”
“You need to ask him his name, Dad. Then he can come to the wedding.”
I went back to the park with garbage bags. While I was working on getting the trash from the cans into the bags, my new friend came over.  “Let me help you,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“It’s Johnnie, with an ‘ie’ on the end.”
“Johnnie, my daughter  really wants you  to join us for the wedding and dinner right here at 4:00 this afternoon.”
“I’ll get my suit jacket and be here. Thanks.”
When I arrived back at the pavilion in the afternoon, Johnnie was there with his suit jacket on. He watched us as we set up the 150 chairs for the wedding. As the guests waited for the ceremony to start, Johnnie was in one of those chairs.
After the ceremony, we all enjoyed a potluck of food provided by Sarah’s many local friends and guests. Johnnie ate next to me. I asked him, “Did you get a chance to meet my daughter Sarah?”
He said, “I sure did. She came over and talked to me for the longest time. She made me feel so welcome."  I thought about my daughter doing this on what was probably the busiest day of her life.
"She’s a good girl, you know.”
I fought back tears as I experienced another “gulp” of God’s kingdom.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Time Freeze in the midst of celebration

The last night on the backpacking trip featured another memorable “gulp…” A few others drove out from the city to join us that evening. Over twenty of us were gathered around the campfire.
As many of us who had been together for 48 hours began to draw in the new arrivals, Rich quieted us all  with his words, “We all have experienced Sarah and Ali lighting up our lives and lighting up the world around them. Let’s symbolize the sparkle of this light by lighting sparklers.”
Rich passed out a large sparkler for each person. We all put our sparklers into the fire at the same time. There erupted an explosion of bright lights as our sparklers came to life simultaneously. The darkness of the night was brightened by everyone waving their sparklers through the air.   Some wrote love notes to Sarah and Ali and tried to photograph them.  Others just enjoyed the journey to past celebrations in their minds.   As they died out, Rich passed out more.  Repeatedly, the night was lit up until Rich had exhausted his pile of 100 large sparklers.  We took pictures of each other writing the names of Sarah and Ali in the air and of Sarah and Ali waving their sparklers. Time seemed to stand still in celebration.

The next morning, after packing up, we all hiked the three miles back to the cars, different than we were just three days ago. We had walked  and lived happily together…young, old, Asian, black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Agnostic..a new melting pot of happiness bonded together through a few miles on the Appalachian Trail. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Diversity in inclusion

I was in the caboose group with Robert for the next five miles. They were challenging because we were under the impression it was going to be just a mile or two. I kept saying to Robert, “Harper’s Ferry and the ice cream shop is just around the corner.” When we finally got to Harper’s Ferry, Robert sat down and said, “That’s it. I’m not going any further.” The campground was another three miles away.
Fortunately, we had a chance to take a break in Harper’s Ferry. We swam in the Potomac River. We visited the ice cream shop. Robert decided to get a big cheeseburger, a large coke and a root beer to help him make it to the campsite.
Sarah didn’t organize for a ‘caboose’ for the last three mile leg of the journey so I asked Robert to leave the ice cream shop earlier than the others so we could get a head start. I walked with him for about a mile and a half. But then I got distracted talking to one of the others who had caught up with us.
After a while, I looked back to see where Robert was and I noticed that Ahmad was walking with Robert. Ahmad is an African-American teenager who has relatives in Sarah and Ali’s neighborhood.  He was the youngest person on the hike. Ahmad walked the rest of the way with Robert. Those who had already arrived clapped when the two of them made it to the camp that night. This time Robert was not the last. He was no longer the ‘caboose’.
The next day, Sarah and Ahmad were walking back to the car together. Sarah asked Ahmad, “How was the hike for you?”
Ahmad said, “Miss Sarah, I remember you telling us how we all need to help Robert. I saw your dad walking on past Robert. So I decided to be the person to walk with him. We talked. I asked him questions. We rested at certain spots. We made it to the campsite last night together. I’m glad I was able to help him.”
When Sarah told me that story of inclusion that involved both Robert and young Ahmad, I was moved to tears. It was once again another “gulp of God’s kingdom.”

A short hike in the woods?

The next day, we started gathering in the dining room for the pre-wedding backpacking trip. All of the backpacks were laid out around the room. Water bottles, tents, food and other camping items were distributed to each pack.
Sarah announced, “There’ll be seventeen of us going on the trip. Just last night my nephew from Indiana called and asked if he could come along. I told him, ‘Sure, Robert, we’d love to have you.”
Robert showed up about an hour later. He had just been to the store to buy new tennis shoes. He was looking forward to this ‘short hike in the woods’. Robert had never been on a long hike. He was a bit overweight and out of shape, but he was willing, and Sarah was excited to see him.
Sarah and Ali’s inclusion of Robert was a sample of the “big gulp of God’s kingdom.” Instead of saying, “Robert this was going to be a backpacking trip designed for the fit and strong.”  Sarah said, “Sure, we’d love to have you Robert” and she meant it!
By 5:00 that afternoon, Robert realized this was not going to be a ‘short hike in the woods’. While some of the stronger hikers were reaching the end of the day’s trip at the Shelter, Robert was only at the halfway point. He started out the day with a big backpack. Then he traded out for a smaller backpack. Now, he was relieved of that burden by Nathan, who returned from the Shelter to check on those at the back of the line. And who was back there with Robert? Sarah. A couple hours later they finished the four mile hike together.
The next day was a ten mile day. Sarah, and her friend came up with a plan to help Robert succeed in completing the hike. She assigned different groups of people to be the “caboose” for a time and walk with Robert. This gave Robert the opportunity to talk with many more people and feel more included and it allowed others the opportunity to get to know him as well.

After about two miles we came to a beautiful overlook called Weaverton Cliffs. It was a large rocky outcropping that overlooked the Potomac River. The whole group hung out there for over an hour. Someone brought out a ukulele and started singing. Robert came up with a verse to the song talking about how he was from the flat lands of Indiana. We gathered around and enjoyed listening to Robert share this unexpected talent. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Big Gulp of God's Kingdom

            Sometimes I refer to an experience as a ‘taste of God’s kingdom’. Love is expressed in a meaningful way. The Holy Presence is felt deeply. God’s amazing grace is made visible. It points to God and God’s coming reign over the world. But it’s only a “taste”, a “foretaste” of what’s to come.
            Last weekend I discovered a “big gulp” of God’s kingdom, not just a “taste”. God’s kingdom was made real in ways I’d never seen before. Love was expressed. The Holy Presence was felt. God’s amazing grace was made dramatically visible.
            It was my daughter’s wedding, but it was so much more. It was the Kingdom. It was God’s Community. It was the church as God intended. 
            The United Methodist motto is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” I saw that lived out last weekend.  Everyone was valued and honored. Amidst a diverse group of God’s people, all were welcomed and included. Inclusivity plus diversity equals true community.
            My daughter’s wedding day, last Sunday, was one of the three best days of my life. I am blessed far more than I’ll ever deserve.
            The wedding week started for me on Wednesday. I flew into Baltimore early because our daughter Sarah and her partner Ali planned a two day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail as a prelude to their wedding. We were in their kitchen on Wednesday afternoon talking about wedding details.
I asked, “How will the pavilion in the park be set up?”
 “We’re setting up 150 chairs in a circle under the pavilion roof,” Sarah explained.
 “Where will the two of you be sitting - in the center?”
 “We haven’t decided yet, have we Ali? But it’s possible we’ll just be sitting in random seats on opposite sides of the pavilion.”
I retorted, “You won’t be sitting together? Why would you do such a thing? The whole ceremony is about the two of you and your relationship with each other. You two should be in the center together.”
“Dad, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not about us” Sarah said. “It’s about ‘the community’. It’s about everyone in the community having an equally valued place,” she explained passionately.
I just shook my head. This was not going to be your ordinary wedding!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

          The wedding of our daughter Sarah to her partner Ali is getting close. It starts next week! Every day I receive another e-mail from Sarah giving me more tasks to do during the wedding events. Among other jobs, I get to be the taxi driver between the train station and the house. It will give me a chance to meet many of Sarah's friends.
          I'm also looking forward to the two day Appalachian Trail backpacking trip that will be a part of our pre-wedding celebration. I bought new boots for the big occasion since my old boots are now about thirty years old. I bought them for my first backpacking trip back in 1985 on the AT in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Lori and I got those boots broken in with a ten day hike over challenging terrain.  We cherish many memories from 1985 - what an adventure! I'm sure we'll be making more memories next week.
         Sarah sent me the details of the wedding service she and Ali are planning. It will be a unique and amazing celebration involving over fifty people. They believe in the "priesthood of all believers". I will play a much smaller role than what I usually have at weddings.
        I've been praying and discerning and talking about whether I should sign the marriage license for Sarah and Ali. I have sensed God saying to me, "You have to do it, Michael." God help me.