Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Open Space Musings

I probably should have been in a pre-meeting open space gathering yesterday when, instead, I slipped into the sanctuary at National Presbyterian Church to sit in the quiet for a while. Sometimes one needs sanctuary more than one needs open space.
An organist was practicing. She or he was quite good, but not willing to finish a phrase. It was mildly disconcerting, especially because it was a familiar hymn tune -- Out of Deep Unordered Water -- so my brain wanted to finish it. The music would run right into the final line "there is water in the font" but stop right about where the word "water" would fall leaving me wondering what was to come of the water. It left me hanging in the balance.
Which is where I always find myself in the sanctuary at National Presbyterian -- balancing between amused and annoyed. I'm in my 12th year as a member of National Capital Presbytery, so I've been to countless meetings at National. It's the largest centrally located church in NCP.
It's a high modern Neo-Gothic cathedral built in the 1960s. Its cornerstone was laid by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1967. It was a monument to the Protestant establishment whose cultural hegemony was an unquestioned fact of mid-20th-century American life. Yet by the time the building was completed, in 1969, the foundations of that establishment were cracked open to the core.
The great exodus from the pews of the Mainline Protestant churches was well underway if only beginning to be noticed by church leadership.
There remains something beautiful in the worship space of National, just as there does in the open space of the Mainline church. Dimly lit by late afternoon, weak winter light filtered through the modernist mosaic of stained glass, the sanctuary at National is peaceful and full of grace. The towering windows in blues, reds, yellows, greens and in-betweens are lovely, and the organ -- broken up though the tune may be -- still soars and echoes off the wall that rise a good 60 feet to the slightly arched ceiling. One can hear the echoes of the church gone by in such a space even if one can't quite discern the strains of a new day dawning.
I suppose such dawning could have been percolating in the open spaces in other parts of the building yesterday, but sometimes one needs some time apart in a beautiful space in order to contribute meaningfully to the other spaces where one is called. Not that I expected, this time yesterday, to contribute much more than a healthy dose of social media commentary (aka, snark) from the cheap seats during the evening's meeting, but my time in open space was a prayer for the church.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Near and dear ones,
And so this is Christmas. What have we done….
Can it really be that our cohort has now outlived John Lennon by about 15 years? As his old chestnut spins on iTunes I’m looking at the decked halls and wrapped packages beneath a lovely little tree and counting the blessings of another trip ‘round the sun in the company of friends.
This one was less tumultuous than the one before. Only one new school. No significant losses. No great changes in work. In middle age, even those of us who enjoy change can give thanks for a certain stability!
If it’s true, as Winston Churchill said, that “to improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often,” we remain imperfect. That’s fine, because I’m Calvinist enough to embrace my imperfections as the lot of humankind in the state of total depravity!
By Churchill’s measure, Martin probably experienced more perfecting than the rest of us this year because he transferred from the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. While he enjoyed UMW well enough, he craved a more diverse community and VCU certainly offers that. It also offers the best social work program in VA, and Martin seems destined to follow in his grandma Ensign’s footsteps at this point, although he’s only a sophomore so there’s plenty of time for changing directions. Oh, and VCU also has Delanie, Martin’s girlfriend of the past several years, and that is certainly a major point in its favor! Martin spent another summer on the staff at Camp Hanover, extending a family tradition of service there that dates back to the camp’s founding in 1957.
Hannah also enjoyed some time at camp over the summer as a camper. She seems destined to take a turn on the staff there, as well, a few years down the line. In the meanwhile, she is a bright and busy high school sophomore whose classmates, convinced that she’s heading for Harvard, have taken to calling her “Ivy.” She’s way more interested in the day-to-day than the long term at this point, and fills her days with a healthy mix of study and sport. She ran cross-country in the fall, is on the swim team at the moment, and plans to run track in the spring. Despite all that running around, she almost always rolls her eyes dismissively when her father invites her to join him on a run.
Once in a rare great while, Bud will accept such an invitation, though only to a track workout. He keeps in good shape for playing as much Ultimate Frisbee as possible. Over the summer, when he was home following his first year of grad school at UC Santa Cruz, he drafted Hannah to join him on a local rec league Ultimate team. Out in California, his play has been stunted a bit by the combination of graduate studies (he’s in his second year of Ph.D. work in computer science) and the extreme drought that led the school to close almost all of its athletic fields. He’s home for the holidays, catching up with friends, playing lots of games with his siblings, and spending as much time as possible with Monica, his long-time girlfriend, and her adorable Yorkie, Pretzel.
Cheryl continues to love her work as an education outreach specialist at the Library of Congress. We’re all grateful that she had no government shutdowns to endure in 2014, and have hopes for another uninterrupted year. She still loves teaching teachers, and helping them learn how to use the library’s unfathomably huge online collections in their classrooms. She still gets a kick out of her institution’s public exhibits, and we took a busman’s holiday on Veterans Day to tour the LoC’s exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, and its adjacent display of one of four existing copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. You should come check it; we know a good, cheap B&B.
If you visit over a weekend, you can join us at the wee kirk, where David continues to serve a vibrant little community of faith. After almost a dozen years, the work there remains filled with all the joys and sorrows of pastoral ministry, and the laughter and challenges of life in community. Beyond the work-a-day, David added lots of miles to his now 55-year-old legs, completing a 4-miler, 5-miler, 10-k, two half-marathons, and his 17 mile sections of a crazy 200-mile relay as part of a 12-person team that spent 30 hours making its way from the pan-handle of Maryland to National Harbor in metro DC.
As most bi-vocational families know, getting away is a challenge, but we met it a couple of times last year. We visited Bud in Santa Cruz last spring, and explored red wood forests, surfed (ish), hit boardwalk amusements, got a wee taste of San Francisco, and generally soaked in the left coast as much as one can in one week.
Over the summer, Cheryl, Hannah and David checked out the Wild Goose Festival in the mountains of North Carolina, and then David and the kids got down to Chattanooga to visit that branch of the Ensign clan.
So…another year over, and a new one just about to begin. Sadly, war is not over despite the fact that we wish and work for it. On the other hand, light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. We hold you in the light, with gratitude for friends and family during this holiday season.
Grace and peace from Arlington,
Cheryl, David, Dylan, Hannah, & Martin

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Wise Ones: A Christmas Story

It was dark and dusty. That’s mostly what I recall. That’s when the dream first started. We were in a circus – doing an act called The Wise Ones. It was a clown show, honestly.
Maybe you’ve heard of us. We used to be called the Wise Guys, but one of the founding members, whose name was actually Guy, dropped out and we replaced him with a woman. So we weren’t the guys any more. You work with what you’ve got.
We do a Christmas Eve show for street people somewhere around the country every year. We raise some money for shelters, and that sort of thing, but mostly we like to bring some smiles to faces of folks living on the streets when we can. We’ve been doing if for a long time.
There are three of us: Joe, Mary and me.
Now I know what you’re thinking: it’s Christmas Eve and here’s another Joseph and Mary story. But it wasn’t like that. For one thing, Mary was not great with child, and she and Joe were not about to bear God into the world in those days. That just happened to be their names, and this stuff just happened to happen around Christmas.
But we were thousands of miles, not to mention thousands of years, from the little town of Bethlehem.
We were, in fact, a lot closer to the little town of Flagstaff. Winter there is not like here. It’s probably a bit closer to winter in the Middle East, at least in terms of temperature. There was no “snow on snow” or ground like iron. Like I said, it was dusty.
I didn’t pay much attention the first time I had the dream. Just a weird passing fuzzy dream about a young woman who seemed to be living on the streets. I remember waking up like Ebenezer Scrooge, but instead of the ghost of Christmas Past or Present or Still to Come, it was more like the ghost of Chris Farley had visited me and the phrase, “in a van by the river” kept ringing in my mind.
It wasn’t like I had been watching old SNL reruns, either. Just out of the blue, this vision of a young woman, living in a beat up old van, down by a river somewhere.
I paid a little closer attention the second time around. The same dream: young woman, on the streets, in a van, by a river. But this time another detail stuck with me upon waking: this young woman was great with child.
That afternoon, as we were doing yet another run-through of our act, I told Joe and Mary about the dream.
“You mean you’ve had the same dream two straight nights?” Mary asked. “Weird.”
“Yeah. I don’t ever remember having the same basic dream on two consecutive nights. What do s’pose it means?”
“That you had the same cold pizza after the show two straight nights,” Joe said. “I’ve been warning about that stuff.”
“Guys,” Mary said, “we are the Wise Ones. Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we’re s’posed to figure out?”
“Uh, Mary,” I said, “that’s just an act, and we’re clowns. Remember.”
“Hey, you work with what you’ve got,” said. It was kind of a motto with us.
Still, her comment got me to thinking.
Our shtick for the show was that Mary played a “seer” and Joe and I played a couple of dunces who came to her seeking wisdom and direction. We’d take suggestions from the audience about our “problems” and then do an improv skit where Joe and I were always the butts of the jokes. At some point, one us would inevitably say, “hey, you work with what you’ve got.”
The dream was like a bit what someone might call out from the audience: “save a princess who’s down on her luck.”
That was about all the thought I gave it, until waking up the next morning in a cold sweat having had the exact same dream for a third night in a row. This was getting downright spooky. The exact same dream: young woman, on the streets, sleeping in a van, by a river, she was pregnant. Every time I dreamed, it seemed, a bit more was revealed. This time I noticed, quite clearly, the Washington Monument in the background.
“What do you think it means?” I asked as I finished telling Joe and Mary about the dream’s recurrence. “And, no, I didn’t have pizza last night,” I said in Joe’s direction.
“Why don’t we go find out?” Mary said.
“Let’s go. Tonight is our last show before Christmas. We’ve got about two weeks off before the show starts up again. Besides, we’ll be in Florida then, so we’re heading East. Let’s follow the dream.”
“That’s the craziest thing I ever heard,” Joe said, and I tended to agree. “Besides,” he said, “we don’t have a clue where to go.”
“Sure we do,” Mary said. “Washington. By the river. In a van.”
“Yeah. Right,” I said.
“Look, guys, we’re always saying we wish we’d have something happen in our real lives that’s half as interesting as the improv junk that we play with. This may be a dream, but DC is a real city. Let’s go. What do we have to lose?”
The truth was, we didn’t have anything to lose. None of us had real plans for Christmas anyway. All three of us were pretty much circus orphans, and we’d been planning to hang out in Flagstaff until after New Years. The height of the seasonal celebration would probably be Chinese food and a good bottle of wine we’d share in our van.
So the next morning we pulled up stakes and headed east.
As we sipped coffee in the van Joe asked, “so, did you dream it again?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “This time there was a guy with her.”
“Her husband?” Joe asked.
“Boyfriend?” Mary chipped in.
“Not clear,” I said, “but probably one or the other. He definitely seemed like he was trying to take care of her.”
So it went. We drove. We speculated. We napped. We crashed in cheap motels. Each night the dream recurred. Each morning I filled the wise ones in on the new detail. The young woman and young man were definitely a couple, but it was impossible to know if they were married. It was also impossible to know if he was the father of the child. They were definitely dirt poor, because one night I dreamed that they were going from church to church asking for help. Mostly they got some nice words.
One little church had a beat up old manger filled with socks and snacks and hats and gloves, and the young couple got some food and warm clothes from them.
The night before the evening we arrived I dreamed that the baby was born. The young woman wrapped him – the baby was a boy – in some of the undershirts they’d gotten from the little church in the dream from the night before.
“Hey,” Mary said, “should we pick up some stuff for this baby?”
“What baby?” Joe asked.
“The dream baby,” Mary said. “What if he’s real? If we’ve driven all the way across the country following a dream, it would look pretty stupid if it turns out to be real and we didn’t even bring something with us.”
“What should we bring?”
“Well, there’s the obvious,” I said. “Gold, frankincense, myrrh.”
“Yeah. Or we could bring something useful,” Mary said.
“Well, how about, instead of gold, a little cold hard cash,” said Joe. “How much do we have?”
We checked wallets and backpacks and came up with exactly $65.73 in cash.
“Well, if this is for real, whoever sent me the dreams might’ve picked a rich guy instead of a wise guy. It’s what we’ve got, though I reckon we could get some more cash if you want.”
“What else?”
“Let’s take some obvious things: a bit of food and some diapers,” Joe said.
“What’s the dreamer think?” Mary asked.
“You know, they both seem so alone in these dreams. I think that’s why I remembered the first one. Lonely. Sad. I think we should do our show for them.”
“If we find them.”
“If there is a them to find.”
“Hey guys,” Mary said. “I almost forgot: it’s Christmas Eve.”
We’d all forgotten. A hazy winter sun was setting behind us as we drove east on I-66 through the outer suburbs of the capital city. We really had no clue where to go, or what we were looking for.
At pretty much the same time, though, we realized that we were hungry, so we got off the interstate in one of the close in suburbs. I think it was Arlington, and we found a Starbucks still open.
Over Christmas Eve mint-mochas we wondered about the craziness of this journey, and about where we should go next. We’d looked at maps, and realized that with two rivers there were miles of shoreline and plenty of places for a van to park – if there really was a van by the river with a young couple and a newborn baby.
Mary was the one who noticed the flyer.
“Christmas on the streets,” it read. It advertised a Christmas Eve service for street people in a park that, according to our GPS, was pretty near the river. It was supposed to begin in less than an hour.
“Guys,” Mary said, “we have to go to this. Whatever else happens on this crazy trip, let’s go sing some Christmas carols.”
Fortified with caffeine and sandwiches, we followed the GPS, which, if you think of it, is a whole lot like following a star.
We wound up at a park, and it was easy from there. There was a small fire burning in a fire pit, and a rough circle of folks keeping warm around it. In the center of the circle a young woman wearing clerical garb moved from person to person shaking hangs, sharing brief hugs, laughing at quiet asides. She obviously knew many of the folks in the circle.
Then my heart skipped a beat. On the far side of the circle, standing a bit apart from everyone else, was a young couple. The woman was holding a baby. The man stood with has arms wrapped around the young woman, as if to shield her from the cold.
Could it be?
I nudged Mary, who was nudging Joe, who was looking at the same couple. The three of us exchanged glances, shrugged our shoulders, and moved as one toward the small family.
By now the preacher had called the crowd together, and gathered people in prayer. We walked quietly around the circle and stopped next to the man. The preacher was telling the familiar Christmas story, “shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night when suddenly the angel of the Lord came upon them … ‘fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.’”
After another prayer, the preacher invited us to share a word of peace with each other, and that’s when I turned to the little family, not at all sure what I was going to say.
I stammered out, “you’re not going to believe this, you might think we’re crazy, but we’ve driven from Arizona this week to give you some, uh, some stuff. Peace be with you.” We handed the man three big shopping bags stuffed with diapers and baby clothes and bread and peanut butter. He looked utterly confused as we loaded his arms. His girlfriend smiled wide-eyed as we pressed the money into her hand.
By that point, the preacher had the circle singing O Come All Ye Faithful with a ragged beauty.
As the song ended, the preacher looked around the circle and proclaimed, “a light shines in the darkness tonight, and the darkness shall never overcome it. Where ever you lay your head tonight, let the light shine on you, in you, and through you, for you are beloved. Merry Christmas.”
The young woman tugged on my jacket sleeve and asked, simply, “why?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I had a dream. I hope this stuff helps y’all take care of that baby.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“We’re just circus performers between shows; seriously, we’re clowns, but if it helps you remember, we’re called ‘The Wise Ones.’ It’s a great joke. We’re fools enough to follow dreams all the way across the country. We’ve been doing it for a long time, I reckon. It’s what clowns and fools do.”
I hadn’t noticed, but the preacher was standing next us and had apparently overheard the story.
“It’s what followers of Jesus do, too,” she said. “For a long time. Hey, ‘merry Christmas,’” she added with a laugh. “If you guys really are circus clowns, could you do a show for us?”
“Sure,” Joe said.
Which is how we wound up doing our first ever Christmas Eve show for a young woman living on the streets, sleeping in a van, by a river. We’ve done lots of them since, bringing the wisdom of fools and some laughs to people who need them. You can be part of the show if you want to. Help out where you can. Give what you can, even if it’s only a smile. Do what you can where you are with what you’ve got, and together we’ll bring a little light into the darkness. Work with what you’ve got. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

DC Northwest

For a moment I thought I might be
the kind of person who would live in such a house
with its slate roof
and its gabled windows
overlooking the embassy courtyard
where the beautiful women
attend to their evening wear at
the soirées with tuxedoed men
plotting their next conquest.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Me and Caesar

So, one day last week I went down to the Arlington County Courthouse, raised my right hand, and solemnly swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Never mind that, with respect to the one “authority” vested in me by the commonwealth, the two documents appear to be in subtle disagreement if not downright sharp conflict, I am now an agent of the state, part and parcel of the reign of Caesar.
“Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar; render unto God that which belongs to God.”
So much of life gets lived out in the tension captured in that deceptively simple-sounding phrase.
For example – a timely one, to be sure – take the whole question of marriage. As the late Will Campbell put it,
What is a marriage license but a legal contract? And what does any legal contract promise and offer except the right to sue one another at another time and place before another of Caesar’s agents? Perhaps such contracts are socially necessary but what does that have to do with us?[1]
What does that have to do with the church, with the community of faith, Campbell wants to know.
Back in 2005, when I renounced the authority to sign marriage licenses for any couple so long as same-gender couples were denied the opportunity to marry, the decision received an outsized amount of media attention. One reporter asked the local presbytery executive what he made of my decision, and he answered quite simply, “we’re in the Jesus business, not the wedding business.”
It was a pretty good summation, and I hope we stay in the same business even when doing a few weddings on the side, because if comes down to it, I’m more interested in the reign of God than I am in upholding constitutions.

[1] Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Continuum, 1986) 213.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

While the Band Plays On …

While many of us would prefer a Virginia reel, marriage equality dances in waltz time in these parts: two steps forward, one step back. In January we celebrated when a federal district judge struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, and, last month, we danced with joy as the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district judge’s ruling. This week the dance got put on hold when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of the appeals court order and blocked Virginia officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples.
The session of the congregation I serve signed an amicus brief filed with the appeals court by People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, and we’ll continue our faithful witness in the public square in the days to come. We trust that, ultimately, love and justice will prevail, but just now that’s of little comfort.
Though the Supreme Court’s order was widely expected, its timing came as a painful personal reminder that so much more is at stake than wedding dances delayed. The single paragraph of legalese staying the appeals court decision was handed down in the midst of days still raw with grieving the sudden and unexpected death of a friend whose husband and partner of 34 years has been a parish associate at our church for almost 20 years.
Robert* was just beginning his pastoral work in the late 1970s when he met William, and faced the choice: follow his heart or follow his vocation. He chose love, and while he has no regrets those of us in the church certainly should. Robert has done significant work in the nonprofit world over the years. He has also preached, led study groups, and planned worship often for our small congregation. The larger church needs the erudite, thoughtful, compassionate leadership he would have offered in abundance had he been able to serve openly. William, who was smart, funny, and creative, would have been a great preacher’s spouse, though I imagine he’d howl in laughter at the thought.
When it comes time for National Capital Presbytery to vote on marriage equality, I’ll be thinking of so many folks who have waited far too long for simple justice, and I’ll be thinking, in particular, of William and Robert.
The two of them loved to dance. They just preferred something a whole lot faster than a waltz.

* I’ve used pseudonyms to protect privacy.