Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Happy Christmas

To everything there is a season, and the calendar says it’s the season to say, “season’s greetings, and God bless us, everyone!”
Hannah at the Hall of Fame
 Hard to fathom, but it’s almost Christmas again according to the calendar on the kitchen wall. That particular calendar came from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown where Cheryl and I took Hannah last June to celebrate her 13th birthday. Yes, having failed miserably to pass along to two sons my lifelong love affair with the summer game, I have raised a baseball-loving daughter – and what a great year it was for that in these parts!

We live our days, as you probably do, according to many calendars and the baseball calendar is one among them. Of course, according to the Mayan calendar, you might never get to read this at all if I don’t rush on quickly and get this year posted to the blog. So, according to the calendars …

Mike, Cheryl and Clark
The travel calendar was full of lots of small jaunts: the five of us spent a grand long weekend at a house on Virginia Beach in early spring; Martin and I journeyed down the Crooked Road to record what became his senior project; Cheryl and I joined a couple (Clark and Mike) from church for a long weekend on the Outer Banks where Clark and I ran a half marathon (while Cheryl and Mike created a fantastic breakfast for the conquering heroes!); Cheryl and I had another lovely short trip through Virginia’s wine country to celebrate our 30th (!) anniversary; I attended General Assembly in Pittsburgh in early July; and the whole family journeyed to Chattanooga in later July. Other travels crossed onto other calendars, as you’ll see.

The academic calendar saw one major milestone: Martin graduated from Wakefield High School in June! With appropriate fanfare – which is to say very little for our introverted middle child – we trooped down to Constitution Hall on a steamy summer evening and witnessed Martin march across the stage that famously barred Marian Anderson from performing. Wakefield has to be one of the most racially and ethnically diverse public schools in the country (and the one where President Obama delivered his Faux-News-controversial“back-to-school” speech a few years back), so it was fun to sit in those seats and imagine the 1930s Daughters of the American Revolution revolving in their graves! One of the “just-plain-cool” aspects of life in metro DC is how often the ordinary parts of life intersect with momentous pieces of American history.

Immediately after graduation Martin headed of for a few days at the beach with his girlfriend’s family and then decamped for camp. He spent the summer on the staff at Hanover, following in his parents’ footsteps as a counselor on those sacred 600 acres outside of Richmond. At the moment, Martin is taking a gap year before entering the U of Mary Washington next fall. The gap year is filled with a fantastic, crowd-funded film project documenting the music, musicians and instrument makers along Virginia’s CrookedRoad. This father-son filmmaking project has taken us to the stage of the Carter Family Fold, the workshop of internationally renowned guitar-maker WayneHenderson, and the dance floor of the Floyd Country Store. Early in 2013 it may take us all the way to meet and interview Ralph Stanley. We thank many of you for supporting the project and look forward to a red-carpet debut next spring!

Bud at the beach!
Martin will be following his big brother’s footsteps at UMW from which Bud will graduate next spring. He has spent a busy, focused year of study and work. He spent the summer living back home while completing a fine internship experience at a small, DC-based tech firm. During the summer he had a paper accepted at an international academic conference, and traveled to Melbourne, AU, to deliver the paper the week of Thanksgiving. Those experiences may point him toward graduate school, and his Christmas break is being filled with applications to Georgia Tech and UC Santa Cruz. He’s focused on those schools first for their digital gaming programs, but also high on the qualifying factors: good ultimate teams! The lad is mad for Frisbee, and travels extensively to play tournaments up and down the East Coast as president of UMW’s men’s team club. He is also mad for Monica (as are we), his girlfriend of several years, and the two of them joined us for a trip down to Chattanooga over the summer to visit with the southern grands, aunts, uncles and cousins. A truly lovely time was had by all, as the bucolic pics indicate.

Hannah on the beach
The academic calendar saw Hannah begin her final year of middle school, which means we’ve now attended the last school music concert that will include beginning musicians – no more Hot Cross Buns! In the way of gifted and talented 8th graders, Hannah is a busy kid: soccer, band, model UN, honors society along with various volunteer service activities keep the family calendar a crowded mess. Add the baseball schedule to that (and we are counting the days till spring training) and you’ve got some joyous chaos. Hannah and I made it to about 10 Nats games last season, and we were in the seats for the sad end of the season as the hometown boys came up just a bit short in their last playoff game. The girl suffered a couple of bouts of “baseball fever,” a strange malady whose only known cure is skipping school to ride bikes to a big league game.

the whole crew
The work calendar continues more or less apace for Cheryl. She is now in her 10th year at the Library of Congress, and still calls her work “the best job in the world.” Even as I jot these musings, she is anticipating a call from the Library’s human resources department with news that her job – a “not to exceed” appointment that expires soon – has been made a full-time, permanent position … at least until the whole institution falls off the fiscal cliff! (UPDATE: she got her job!) Cheryl continues to teach teachers how to use the Library’s massive on-line resources, to write and edit content for their blog, and to represent the Library at various conferences around the country. She spent some quality time in Vegas this fall, but we heard nothing about it because what happens in Vegas …. Actually, she was impressed by the sites, amused by the lights and saddened by the hopelessness that feeds the place and that the place feeds on. And work was, well, work.

My work calendar has changed rather dramatically this fall. Beginning in September I went to 3/5 time at the wee kirk. That freed up the church’s budget such that we were able to hire, for the first time in anyone’s memory, a church administrator, and, beginning next month, we’ll add a part-time Christian educator to the ministry team. More changes are coming, and I believe we’re finally living into the promise that drew us to Clarendon almost a decade ago.

in Seattle
It’s amazing to me to write that … a decade ago. Now my own calendar has turned to a new page. I don’t know what the next page will look like. The transition to a new schedule kicked off with a month-long study leave in August. The highlight of that time was an amazing writing retreat out on Vashon Island. It was the first time I’ve ever been to the great northwest and I loved it! No humidity! No mosquitos! Volcanoes! Oh, and coffee shops on every corner! I got a huge amount of writing done, and this fall I completed the first full draft of a novel. In addition, I’ve been recording a cycle of songs (with Martin playing a variety of instruments including violin, mandolin, banjo and dulcimer), and trying to get through a long list of house and garden projects. At some point the household budget will make demands on this calendar and I’ll be looking for a second part-time gig, but for now I’m taking the time to do some creative work that I’ve longed to do for years.

The liturgical calendar continues to be the dominant one in our lives. This season of Advent, of preparing our lives for the coming again into them of a light that no darkness can overcome, challenges us to seek out the light that shines forth in each soul, including our own broken ones. As the great Leonard Cohen put it in Anthem, “there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” So, as the calendar turns to another year, pay particular attention to the broken places because, as the story of Jesus reminds me, that’s where the light will shine. Let your light shine brightly, because the world needs still more light to break forth.

Grace and peace to you all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hymn for the Storm

Here's a hymn I wrote after coming home from Katrina cleanup. It seems pertinent this week. Feel free to use it.

Amidst the Storm (copyright David Ensign, 2006)

When raging storms push forth a rising tide,
When rain and wind leave nowhere left to hide,
We cling to branches of the tree of life.

Foundations crumble on the shifting sand.
We search for hope across a broken land.
Amidst the raging storm we seek God’s hand.

The homeless wonder through the city’s street.
They seek small shelter from the scorching heat.
Amazing grace would be so cool and sweet.

When on our own we cannot seem to start,
But neighbors are God’s feet and hands and heart
It is as if You’ve made the waters part.

The captives will taste liberty again.
The suffering find a balm for deepest pain.
The blind will see, the voiceless lift the strain:
Alleluia. Amen.

Tune: Engelberg

Monday, October 29, 2012

Storms Make Theologians of Us All

That’s the Facebook heading this morning on a link to an article about a conservative preacher who is blaming Hurricane Sandy on gays and lesbians.
Chaplain John McTernan (and I can’t quite figure out where the title comes from) opens a blog post with this broadside: “God is systematically destroying America.” He goes on to recite the litany of drought, heat and major storms of the past year or so, pausing to note that “last August, Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans seven years later, on the exact day of Hurricane Katrina. Both hit during the week of the homosexual event called Southern Decadence in New Orleans!”
In the manor of those who troll grand conspiracy waters, McTernan is big on date coincidences, noting also that Sandy is striking precisely 21 years after the “Perfect Storm,” and helpfully pointing out some numerology along the way by dividing 21 into 7 X 3 to remind us of something about the Trinity.
I do love a good “hand-of-God-conspiracy,” especially when it comes with dates and numbers that can sound vaguely Biblical!
Sure, the guy is nuts and massively offensive, and it’s remarkable that he can get any attention at all. I know plenty of crazy people with nutty ideas who never make the news, so hats off to the chaplain for figuring out how to grab attention.
But, seriously, what’s wrong with some folks?
Actually, nothing at all. In the midst of storms, most of us become theologians of what sort or another depending, of course, on the nature of our God and our sacred texts. While the chaplain is an offensive jerk on so many levels, he is also just playing into the fundamentally human desire to understand events whose power defies human scale and human control. If we stand under some satisfactory explanation of the event then we have at least the illusion of control. The explanation doesn’t have to be true or accurate, it just has to provide a mental or emotional shelter from the storm.
The chaplain’s rant does not surprise me at all. Neither did the next thing that appeared in my Facebook feed after the link to his craziness: an appearance by Bill McKibben laying the blame for Sandy on climate change.
"It’s really important that everybody, even those who aren’t in the kind of path of this storm, reflect about what it means that in the warmest year in U.S. history, ... in a year when we saw, essentially, summer sea ice in the Arctic just vanish before our eyes, what it means that we’re now seeing storms of this unprecedented magnitude," McKibben says. "If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it.
I’d certainly choose that explanation over the chaplain’s, and it does have the advantage, as an argument, of conforming to the predictions of climate scientists. Of course, those same scientists almost universally say that it’s impossible to identify climate change as the precise cause of any specific weather event.
I believe climate change is happening and that human activity is driving it. I also know it matters not a bit to the weather whether or not I believe it. But whether or not climate science is correct, appealing to it in the way that some activists do in the midst of storms is not that much different from what the chaplain has done. Sandy is huge and beyond our control. Any explanation provides at least an illusion of shelter from the storm.
Just as climate activists reflect the image of scientists in their arguments, McTernan is reflecting an image of God in his. Activists will turn to the image of disinterested researchers and peer-reviewed scripture, whereas McTernan lifts up an image of God reflected in the scriptures of his people. It’s not the only image of God in scripture, to be sure and, I’d argue, not even the prevailing one, but it is an image of God found in the Bible.
Scripture carries multiple images of God, which should come as no surprise because scripture is written in many voices, by many authors, in a range of social contexts over the course of centuries. Whatever one thinks about the nature of God – the same yesterday, today, tomorrow … or the God of process theologians – it is surely in the nature of human beings to lift up the image of God that most conforms to their own worldview. Moreover, the nature of human being – if one can speak of “human nature” at all – is surely complex and contradictory, and thus it should come as no surprise that the Bible is also complex and contradictory.
As my friend Tim Beal put it in his recent book, “The deep biblical contradictions between liberation and oppression, love and hate, cure and poison, are also deep within us” (TheRise and Fall of the Bible, p. 160).
Tim makes that observation just before asking, “Why is there undeserved suffering in this world? This is not a problem for nontheological people, who can justifiably respond, why wouldn’t there be?”
Why is Sandy blowing the hell out of the East Coast today? Why have more than 60 people been killed by this storm? Storms make theologians of us all, because we all want a more satisfying answer than, “why not?”

Monday, October 08, 2012

In Case You Missed It ...

and really, I don't see how you could have, my middle child has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in support of a documentary film project that expands on his student film, Crooked.
Crooked explores the music, musicians and instrument makers along Virginia's Crooked Road heritage tourism trail that winds through Southwest Virginia.
The culture of Old Time music, along with Bluegrass, is thriving in small towns and crossroads throughout the area, and Crooked tells the stories of the folk who keep folk music alive.
I served as "producer" of Crooked, which meant that when there was a bill to be payed I produced the wallet! But this time around, because it's no longer a school project, I'll get to help out with some of the writing, editing and interviewing that go into documentary film making. More than that, I'll get to spend a whole lot of time with our middle child, who is a talented, funny and fascinating young man. I'm really looking forward to that part of the journey!
To make this film on the level we believe it can be made we need some better tools than we had last winter -- refurbished, low-end video camera and borrowed computer! That's why Martin launched the Kickstarter campaign.
I won't be using this blog in relation to Crooked, but we have launched a film blog -- Crookedfilm -- where we'll chronicle the making of the movie, share footage and photographs and stories from the road, and generally keep in touch with folks who have supported this project.
Check back on that blog from time to time to see how we're progressing. And, if you like and are able, please support us on Kickstarter right now. That part of the project closes out in two weeks, and the way Kickstarter works, unless we meet Martin's goal (just $4,500) he won't receive any funds at all. So support the film if you like, and please share it with as many folks in your networks as you can.
Thanks so much!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

If I Could Carry a Sword I'd Never Be Bored ...

Or, why I watched Robin Hood instead of the debate last night!
First off, kudos to my old friends, The Four Guys Standing Around Singing, for the best song ever about Robin Hood, from which I shamelessly stole the title of this post. Other lyrics I recall from way back then include, "Oh, I wanna do good like Robin Hood, I wanna be a tree swinging man."
I'm willing to bet that if you gave either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama the choice to be Errol Flynn instead of president, they'd be pulling on green tights in a New York minute. After all, who wouldn't rather be Robin Hood than just about anybody else?
So, when presented with the choice of curling up on the couch with my beloved and our two still-at-home kids to watch Robin Hood or going off alone to watch the presidential debate on line, it was a no-brainer. Truth be told, I would have taken a far lesser offer. Maybe even a trip to the dentist.
I hate the debates. I don't learn anything useful from them and I don't think anyone else does either. No presidential debate has ever changed my preference or even my opinions about candidates.
I watch them knowing who I prefer and what my vote will be. Because of that, I find watching somewhat akin to watching my favorite baseball team try to hold on to a lead in the ninth inning. Will my guy hold on, or will he blow it? Except, debates are no where near as entertaining as baseball. When was the last time you saw Mitt Romney stretch a double into a triple? Oh, sure, he stretches the truth like Bryce Harper stretches an extra base, but it's simply not as much fun to watch.
When was the last time you saw Barack Obama break off a knee-bending curve ball? Sure, he's thrown his supporters more than a few curves over the past four years, but it's just not as much fun as watching Stephen Strasburg strike out the side on nine pitches.
If the debates had some other value, like maybe helping create a more informed citizenry, then they would be worth my time. But they're just made-for-TV spectacle, and they're not even very good at that.
So it was on to Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood, which carried more political clarity than most debates. The Robin Hood myth is, of course, all about equitable distribution of a society's resources in a time of radical, structural inequality when the rich have set the rules to fix their position on the top of the social hierarchy.
Sound familiar?
Robin takes the time, in Errol Flynn's version, to show the effects of a skewed tax and finance policy on the poor and destitute. Romney and Obama both try to pitch their case to the broad middle class, and neither mentions the poor very often at all.
I was, by the end of the evening, much more well entertained by Errol Flynn than I would have been by the debates. More than merely entertained, I was more informed, as well. At least, that is, informed in the way that the prophetic voice informs.
As Walter Brueggemann suggests, "odd voices of discernment, mostly poets and unwelcome dissenters who had a sinking feeling in their gut [...] found words that unnerved the city; because they offered a shrill reminder that even slick logos do not change or nullify the facts on the ground in the city" (from the essay "Every City a Holy City," in Disruptive Grace).
No, Errol Flynn did not set out to be "prophetic," whatever we take that to mean. But Robin Hood at least shed light on the facts on the ground: poor people who are victims of an unjust economic system.
The facts on the ground all around us remain unchanged and unaddressed in the current campaign: a broken economic system, a broken political system, and millions of broken lives. To say nothing of drone warfare, climate change, and a host of other deep and structural problems that neither candidate wants to address. These are the most pressing questions of our age, and the silence about them is remarkable.
Maybe, if I could just remember the rest of the words to that song ... something about taking from the One Percent ... no, that's not quite it. Oh, well. Never mind all that. We only made it about three quarters of the way through the flick last evening. Maybe tonight we'll find all the answers to the questions that Jim Lehrer couldn't ask last night.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Rant Too Long for Facebook

OK, then, just this week I preached the following words in a sermon
Never ever ever read the comments on any even vaguely political article on any web site. Ever.”
I call that “David’s Rule for Internet Serenity,” and I went on to invite the community to refrain from cynicism and hate-filled rhetoric, to find gratitude in every possible moment, and to keep silent unless our voice improves whatever context or conversation we find ourselves in.
Then this morning, in a simple scroll through Facebook, I ran across this comment:
I think the point is that we should not be forced by the government to feed those who are unwilling to work for their food. I regularly give food to those in need, of my own free will. I don't want the government telling me how to spend the money that God gave me. Only God has that right.
As you might guess, the comment came in a response to a status posted in the wake of Mitt Romney’s ill-considered remarks about the 47-percent of Americans who, he said, “believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”
The comment, made at a fundraiser and leaked on tape this week to a reporter, reflects what is, in my experience, a fairly widespread belief among affluent Americans about the unwashed masses of poor folks. I’m not going to try to unpack Romney’s words or the misinformation imbedded in them. Lots of folks have already done so. You can find one excellent analysis at the Atlantic.
I am studiously avoiding the comments on any article about Romney’s remarks, and I’m just as studiously avoiding engaging on Facebook, a social circle I inhabit for fun and to stay connected with friends and family in distant places. Oh, sure, I’ll make the occasional snarky comment in response to a political statement from time to time, but I really try to avoid arguing on line because it goes around in circles and just makes me angry without changing anything other than my blood pressure.
Incarnational theology, if we take it seriously, should teach us that minds only change when hearts have been touched. Hearts don’t get touched in on-line arguments, they only get touched in face-to-face encounters and relationships.
Nevertheless, sometimes writing matters, if for no other reason than to clarify one’s own thinking. I do not for a moment delude myself into thinking that clarifying my own thoughts will clarify anyone else’s; and I cannot resist the snarky insistence that some folks’ thoughts need clarifying.
I’m not even talking about Mitt. I’m actually bothered more by the Facebook comment, and, in particular this part of it: “I don't want the government telling me how to spend the money that God gave me. Only God has that right.”
As I noted already, Mitt’s comments would make me angry if they surprised me at all, but the truth is he’s simply reflecting an attitude that is deeply imbedded in the consciousness of many wealthy Americans. I no longer have the capacity to be surprised by that.
But I remain constantly surprised by the notion that God is a heavenly ATM dispensing cold, hard cash to deserving souls and thus nobody but God can tell a deserving soul how to “spend the money that God gave me.”
To be honest, my first question is always, “where the hell is the line for that, ‘cause I gotta get me some!” Seriously, where is God handing out money?
I should also be fair and note that the Facebook comment does not say, explicitly, that the person is deserving, but I am going to extrapolate from the idea I so often hear in such arguments that “God helps those who help themselves.” Accordingly, a just God would not be giving out money to the undeserving, who, at least according to the gospel of Mitt, seem to believe they are victims entitled to food and are doing nothing to help themselves. 
I extrapolate because if God is just handing out money willy-nilly to any old soul lucky enough to know where the line is then the money is an undeserved gift, that is to say, a handout.
So, is God handing out gifts willy-nilly to any old soul?
In a word, "yes." Everything I have is a gift, beginning with life itself and a planet that sustains that life. We call it grace, and it comes in all kinds of forms. The God I know as the author of that life, the giver of the gift, the God of grace, has, in fact, already told me, as it were, how to spend what I’ve been given: give it to the poor. Scripture is pretty decidedly clear about that.
In a secular, more-or-less democratic society one of the ways we do that collectively is through public programs that support the poor. In an obviously different context, that's more or less the case that Calvin made in favor of civil government. There is plenty of room to argue about the best and most effective ways to do that, but to suggest that the government has no place in the process of providing for the least of these our fellow citizens seems, at best, unrealistic in a nation of 300 million people, and, at worst, a pernicious, selfish deception based on an equally pernicious self-deception.