Monday, July 21, 2008

Providing A Little Cultural Diversity

I intended to blog last night, but a thunderstorm struck down our hotel's internet access until this afternoon. So, I will say a bit about yesterday's ventures in the DC area. Even when I/we are on vacation we attend worship. There have been only very few occasions in my adult life when I have avoided worship on a Sunday morning, and when I am on "vacation" I enjoy worshiping with others in a place where I do not have specific responsibilities. It's an opportunity for me to worship God, of course, but also to see "how others do it." Fortunately, Kyle is always agreeable. Fortunately, over the years, Kyle has been a willing worshiper in our family. From the beginning he saw it as important, and even through college he was almost always in worship somewhere. (Of course, during college it helped that Claudia and I provided incentives for him to worship, but that's another story).

On Saturday night I took a look at several websites and decided that we would worship at Gethsemane UMC in Capitol Heights, MD, a church not far from the hotel where we are staying and relatively "on the way" to Annapolis, where we intended to spend our afternoon. (When on vacation I usually find a United Methodist Church to attend because I enjoy the marvelous diversity of my denomination; each time I am in another part of the country I experience how richly diverse the Methodist movement is).

Kyle and I left the hotel at about 9:30 in order to reach the location in time for the 10:00 service. We arrived in the parking lot by about 9:45 and Kyle said, "It looks like there will be less people in worship here than in our church today." The location is quite lovely, with plenty of green space and a nice sanctuary, with a parsonage nearby. I said to Kyle, "This is when you can tell whether you are at heart an introvert or an extravert." (He and I have parried over the years as to whether he is an introvert or an extravert. I contend he is an introvert, but he's not convinced). "What do you mean?" he quizzed. "I mean, it's at a moment like this, when you arrive in a place as a perfect stranger and you ask yourself whether you should just leave or stay. That's what an introvert does. An extravert can't wait to get out of the vehicle to meet new people." He smiled knowingly, tacitly acknowledging what I have been contending over the years (that he is, indeed, an introvert). I said, "How about we wait a few minutes?" "Yeah, that sounds fine, Dad."

So we sat in our rental vehicle and waited. Vehicles continued to arrive, though at a fairly relaxed pace. We observed. And Kyle said, "Yeah, and it looks like we will be the only white people here, too." "I think you're right, Kyle."

Five minutes later we were walking from the vehicle toward the sanctuary. Reaching the first door and stepping into the entry area we were immediately greeted with a "Good morning" and a double-armed, cheek-to-cheek hug from a friendly female greeter. While very welcoming, she was momentarily perplexed because she couldn't find a visitor card for us to complete. I have to chuckle to myself in retrospect, because emblazoned on their church bulletin is the mission: "Church growth." And while visitor's cards are not essential to church growth, they do assist in the process. Frankly, it was comforting to know that other churches anticipate the arrival of newcomers about as well as my own. Eventually I simply wrote our names and addresses on a sheet of paper she found for us to use, and we walked to the sanctuary. Along the way we were cordially welcomed by a number of other church regulars.

We found our pew and waited for the service to begin, glancing through the bulletin's liturgy to anticipate what was to come. Judging from the liturgy I could tell we would be worshiping in a UM church. The four-fold pattern of worship (Entrance -- Proclamation -- Response -- Sending Forth) was clearly evident, as were the traditional elements of worship. All three of the lectionary readings were present, as well as a fourth sermon text Scripture. There were seven congregational hymns identified and three special numbers from the choir. I could tell we were going to be engaged in worship for some time. But I had no idea how long.

Having worshiped in African-American contexts before (but admittedly on a very limited basis) I anticipated a lengthy service, a call-and-response pattern of sermonizing, and worshiper involvement, so I was ready. Or so I thought.

Just before the service the congregation's Lay Leader came to where I was sitting and said, "Our Pastor would be happy for you to join with him in the pulpit this morning." I said, "Thank you," but declined the kind offer. I had already noticed that Kyle and I were woefully underdressed. We had on shorts and casual shirts, while all of the women were dressed in dresses (some with beautiful hats) and many of the men were adorned with suits and ties. It pleased me to see worshipers take their Sunday more with such serious reverence; it's been a long time since I have experienced that.

And so the service began. After a call to worship there was a choral introit in African-American style. As the choir moved to their appointed spot behind the pulpit and altar area, they sashayed while singing. It was not a speedy entrance, but their sound was heartfelt and uplifting. We worked our way through the Act of Praise, the opening hymn and a special from the choir. There were plenty of "Thank you, Jesus" responses, including one choir member who was so very blessed by God that she just couldn't stop shouting. (I have heard of "shouting Methodists," but it's been a long time, like since my childhood, that I've worshiped with shouters). After a good two or three minutes, those closest to her were able to fan her into submission (literally, with hand-held fans), and the liturgist of the morning shared announcements. We were at the one-hour mark when Kyle leaned over and whispered, "Looks like it's going to be a long service." I smiled knowingly and said, "Isn't it great?" To his credit he simply smiled appreciatively.

It is the tradition of this congregation to have visitors introduce themselves, so after we were introduced we were asked to remain standing. The other guests introduced themselves, and it was our turn. I spoke on behalf of both Kyle and myself (I don't think he minded). I said, "Good morning. We are happy to be with you in worship this morning from Minnesota, where I am an Elder in the Minnesota Conference. ["Thank you, Jesus" resounded through the congregation]. And," I said, looking around, "we are happy to provide you with a little cultural diversity today." [After a brief second for my words to sink in, and then recognizing that ours were the only white faces in the service of 100+, the response was friendly laughter and clapping]. I took a moment to rejoice that as United Methodist brothers and sisters we have so much rich diversity to share. Then I sat down.

The choir had two more special numbers, the third of which sent another choir member into spasms of spiritual expression. (Not the same choir member). She cried out to God, thanked Jesus and praised God's name. For the minutes as she continued rapturously proclaiming God's goodness the congregation lifted thanks to the Lord. She, too, was fanned into submission and the service continued. With a baptism, using the precise liturgy we would have used in my congregation were I baptizing that day.

At the two hour mark the Pastor stood and offered some apologies to his congregation for the length of the service, to which the congregation responded, "It's OK, pastor. Preach the Word." And so he did. For the next twenty-five minutes the Word was preached. God's love was explained, expounded, experienced. An invitation to pray at the altar was given and a number went forward to pray as we sang "Soon and Very Soon."

By the time the words of benediction were spoken at 12:35 it was time to go. But there would be no quick and easy "we're visitors" escape for us yesterday morning. We were individually greeted by at least twenty different individuals, who asked us to return next time we were in the area, who inquired about our plans, who offered kind words of welcome. By 12:45 we were able to reach the door where the First Lady (pastor's spouse) of the church was wishing all exiting another blessing. She pulled us to herself, hugged us warmly and left us with these words, "I hope you found something this morning from God that will help you in the days ahead." I thanked her and we walked to our car.

"Now that's one of the reasons I'm a United Methodist, Kyle," I said. "What do you mean? There's African-American churches all over." "I mean," I said as patiently as I could, "that while there are many denominations and many African-American churches, there are not many denominations as diverse as ours, with so many worship styles and so many cultures." Unconvinced, Kyle simply muttered an "Oh."

What a great morning for worship. And what a great opportunity for two white boys from Minnesota to provide a little cultural diversity in the heart of our nation's African-American community.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Without a Breeze Stirring

The past few days have been such a blur it's difficult to blog interesting or relevant details. For at least two of those days I was able to walk more than 22,000 steps per day (for purposes of the "team goal" I am part of the daily amount this week is 4,000), and my feet are showing the damage with several blisters.

Yesterday we took the metro back into DC to the Smithsonian stop, transferring and then getting off at Arlington National Cemetery. On what was probably the most humid and hot day of our experience here, we sweltered in the heat. Even Kyle, whose athletic, 21-year-old body scarcely perspires was drenched in sweat, so you can imagine what it was like for me. The Visitor Center was packed with other sweating, panting bodies so there was little relief, even though it was air conditioned. We walked to the graves of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When I was last there in tenth grade it was simply John F. Kennedy's grave to visit. The flame which was lit in 1963 still burns day and night, a reminder of JFK's idealism.

JFK is an enigmatic figure. Since his death forty-five years ago so much more information has come out about his personal life. In so many ways he was his father's son. In spite of his spattered personal record, JFK has always intrigued me. Perhaps it is because his assassination took place just seven months before my birth and so much of my early life (whether I recognized it or not) was formed with that national trauma in the background. Or maybe it is because he was such a young man in such a significant place of power. I suspect, though, that my attraction to JFK has more to do with his spoken words. After viewing his gravesite the visitor turns around to a large marble semi-circle with quotations from Kennedy. I have always been touched by this one:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

We walked away from the JFK gravesite, stopping briefly at Robert Frances Kennedy's gravesite, another casualty of the tumultuous 1960s. Kyle was struck by the simplicity and the starkness of the grave, although that's not quite the way he put it. (I believe it was something like, "That must really suck to have such a small tombstone"). I, of course, had to remind him that sometimes there is significance in simplicity. He nodded, but I'm not sure if it was in understanding or simply to quell my soliloquy.

Without a breeze stirring we felt the heat index as we trudged up and down hills (the Arlington Cemetery is quite hilly) toward the Tomb of the Unknowns. At 96 degrees with what I would estimate to be 80% humidity we ascended the white marble. In scorching noon-day sunlight, the heat enriched by the marble everywhere, we observed the changing of the guard. It is a longer ceremony than I remember (but perhaps that's the heat talking) but always an impressive one.

Drenched in sweat we began our walk toward the exits. Originally we had planned to view the gravesites of other notables (William Howard Taft, Joe Louis, Pierre L'Enfant and others) but we opted to depart while I could still walk. I told Kyle that if I were to collapse to just let me go. It would be OK for me to die in Arlington National Cemetery. Fortunately we were able to get to the metro stop and enjoy some cooler air (the metro is climate-controlled) until we disembarked again at the Smithsonian stop.

We walked to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and viewed their special exhibition about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Excellent exhibition with detailed signage and interesting artifacts. The rest of the museum required time-controlled tickets (though free of charge), and we decided not to wait for the two hours it would take for us to tour the remainder. We walked around the side of the building to the Museum Cafe, where we had a lackluster lunch. Kyle had a three-cheese panini and I had an egg salad sandwich on croissant. (It's a vegetarian cafe with kosher options). High-priced lunch and slow line, but it was nice to sit in air conditioned comfort.

Originally we had planned to visit Jefferson Memorial, but the intensity of the heat had overtaken me. We walked a bit more and then decided to cal it a day early. By 3:30 we were back in our hotel room, where I read for a while before falling asleep and Kyle watched (what else?) television until he, too, had a nap.

The afternoon of rest helped my feet and my attitude, so we went out for dinner and then came back to our hotel. There is a reason why July is one of the least visited months in DC. I cannot imagine what it would have been like two hundred years ago without air conditioning or even electricity to move the hot, languid area of this swampy place we call our nation's capital.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Walk on the Mall

A few further details, with some photos, from last night's walk on the Mall in DC. After Kyle and I came back to the hotel to recuperate from our busy day we departed in the evening via metro for the Mall area to view several of the Monuments. Editorially I simply have to say how much I appreciate a city that has public transportation. As much as I like the community where I live, we are not big enough to have any kind of reliable, efficient public transit, so every time any one of his needs to do something it involves getting into one of our three vehicles and driving for minutes across town. I cringe when I think about unsustainable this kind of lifestyle is, yet there are few options for us. I love the opportunity to walk to the metro station in a city like DC, hop on the metro and pay relatively little for a worry-free ride into the city. But I digress.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have discovered that travel with a family member can create important opportunities to develop, renew or assess a relationship. While I enjoy simply have a companion to travel with, I have become more intentional over the years in utilizing these opportunities to build depth of relationship. This has historically been the case with our son Kyle, my current travel companion. In fact, now that I think about it, it may be the times we have traveled together that have helped us develop the relationship we currently have.

Last night's walk on the Mall reminds me that even at the "adult" age of 21 Kyle and I have a good connection; it is relationship I have worried about over the years, so I feel good to see evidence that it still exists, that I have something to offer him, and that he is relatively willing to allow me a continuing place in his life. Not all parents of 21 year-olds can say that, so I feel grateful to God.

Upon exiting the metro we walked toward the Washington Monument, that distinctive obelisk erection sundering the sky. It is simple, but hardly subtle, a continuing reminder of the depth of connection our country has had with founding father George over the past 250 years. It was fun to be able to tell my college-graduate son the account of why the Monument has two distinctive colors. His degree concentration was in social studies, a topic near and dear to my heart, so anytime I can share some tidbit of knowledge with him that he does not know it makes my heart glad. Fortunately we have developed the ability over the years to have a reciprocal relationship, so I am equally as interested in what he might know that I do not. It is not a personal ego trip for me to "know more," but simply an opportunity to add value to his life. He accepts it, asks questions of me, and isn't afraid to disagree if it's not as he has understood it.

One of the most serene and dignified Memorials in DC is the World War II Memorial, with its cascading fountains of water, remembered theaters of action carved into marble, and pillars for each state or dependency of the United States. Kyle adds a little personality to his pose by our state's pillar. The World War II Memorial has about a sense of completion, significance, gratitude, peace.

We continued down the Mall, headed for the Lincoln Memorial (which is more than a short hike down the Mall, let me tell you). We mounted the multiple steps and entered the sacrosanct area which houses an enormous Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by several of his most important public proclamations.

From the Lincoln Memorial we headed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose entrance is flanked by this trio. My photography doesn't do the emotion of the grouping justice. There is a grim sense of awkward determination on each of the person's faces, a haunting look in the eyes that connotes the ennui of the era. It is a heartbreaking preface to the nearly 60,000 names carved on the stark black marble columns. Name upon name upon name. We passed family members tracing the names of their loved ones of sheets of paper. There were aging veterans of the Vietnam era looking for the names of buddies killed or lost in action. It is a grievous reminder of the ravages of a war machine ravenously unsatiated, doomed to something much less than "success." I said little as we walked along, feeling in my heart the emptiness this Memorial evokes. My quiet mental meanderings were interrupted by my son's adroit summation: "What a waste. Thousands of people killed for nothing." I didn't challenge his assertion, believing that he was speaking not of the brave men and women who gave themselves (willingly or unwillingly) as persons, but rather to the Vietnam era itself. The contrast between the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is hauntingly palpable.

Walking away toward the Rainbow Pool we heard a group (obviously a church-related group) singing a contemporary praise and worship tune, accompanied by a zealous guitarist. They were singing together, fifty-strong probably, but there was no one else around. Kyle had begun to hum the music when I said, probably too sarcastically, "What's the point?" Looking at me with surprise on his face he said, "What do you mean? They're worshiping." "But why here?" I said. "There's not even anyone else around to benefit from it" (betraying my personal philosophy that public demonstrations of spirituality should be connected to witness of some sort or it's more about those present and not to the larger culture for whom Christian faith needs to be directed). "Why not here?" he challenged me. "I mean, how is that different than Sunday morning in a church with walls? Really, Dad, I'm beginning to question your faith." "Well, excuse me, Pastor Kyle, thank you for correcting my faulty theology," I tried to say as humbly as possible. He smiled knowingly, and I within, since it opened the opportunity for us to discuss some faith-related matters. I thank God that Kyle maintains a spiritual sensitivity and sensibility that while, by his own admission, he needs to act upon with more intentionality, is a solid part of his life. I consider that the most important role I have had in my son's life, instilling in him the values of Christian faith with an open-minded ethos that isn't afraid to question.

By the time we stumbled back into our hotel room, tired from the day's activity, I had many reasons to thank God for this time together with my adult son.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Didn't Come to DC to Sit in the Hotel

I warned Kyle before we came to DC that I pursue my vacation plans rather aggressively. I like to plan my daily itinerary, get up early and work hard at accomplishing my goals. It's funny how much of a type "A" personality I have at various moments in my life. There are some things that really matter to me, and when I'm on vacation I want to make the most of my time (and money). Kyle was a bit wary when I warned him a couple of weeks ago, mumbled something about needing to "pace ourselves" and then said little more. What more can you say when your dad is taking you on an all-expense paid trip to a historically significant part of the country?

So today was our first real foray into the area. We were on the road by 7:30 this morning (having eaten the meager hotel breakfast) on our way to Mount Vernon, Virginia, estate of George Washington. It was a blistering hot day in this part of the world, typical for this time of year with temperatures in the 90s and high humidity. We walked much of the estate, visited the tombs of George and Martha, took the yacht tour of the Potomac, toured the Mansion and then spent some time in the beautiful museum associated with the Estate.

The highlight of the museum are its interactive theaters, one of which details the years of Washington's life as a Commander in the Revolutionary War. The theater shakes with cannon volleys, snow comes in the air when Washington's forces are crossing the Delaware on Christmas Eve. The effects make the experience popular with kids, but even adults find it alluring (well, at least I did).

We ate lunch at Mount Vernon. I went the healthy route with a cup of peanut-chestnut soup (historical sort of thing that tasted like a bowl full of creamy peanut butter with crunchy things in it) and a spinach salad. Kyle had the turkey "pye" which was nothing special, he reported.

Departing Mount Vernon we traveled to historic Alexandria, Virginia, where we visited Christ Church, the parish which both Robert E. Lee and George Washington called home while they lived in that city. As was the custom of the day, their pews are still "marked" with their identities. They both would have "purchased" their pews. Here is what their pew identifiers look like today:

We didn't spend much time in Alexandria, as it was getting late (nearing 5) and most everything historical closes at about that time, so we walked back to our parking place and set out for the hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel I had clocked about 12,000 steps on my pedometer (my daily average has been more like 4,000). I sat down to read email, Kyle grabbed the remote and we both disappeared into an electronic world for a couple of hours.

"So, dad, is there anything to do around here at night?" Kyle asked, breaking the monotony.

"Umm, yeah," Kyle. "This is the nation's capital. There's always something to do here."

"Like what?"

"Like, let's walk down to the metro station and go into the city. We can walk to some of the monuments and be on the Mall for a while."

He wasn't sure that was such a great idea. It would, after all, involve a lot more walking, so I was preparing myself for the "pace ourselves" look. Pre-empting any words I reminded him (and myself), "I didn't come to DC to sit in the hotel."

He was agreeable, and so we took the subway into DC, got off at the Smithsonian stop and visited Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the World World 2 Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial, before hopping back on the subway and returning to our hotel, all within the span of three hours.

It has been an exhilirating day. I feel my time has been well used, and my feet are telling me that the 22,800 steps I walked today were purposeful. Tonight I am tired but fulfilled.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A New Relationship or More of the Same?

There was a time in my life when I saw travel for what it was ... an opportunity to leave familiar surroundings and experience something new. Perhaps travel could be an opportunity to learn, or to sample new food, or to immerse oneself in a new culture. Now that I am feeling the reality of middle-aged living, I understand travel has the opportunity to transform relationships. Maybe I have known that intuitively for some time, since I have always enjoyed taking a kid (or more) with me when I travel on church- or adoption-related travel, or travel for pleasure. And my most faithful traveling companion son has been Kyle, our oldest son.

Early this morning (the taxi picked us up at the hotel at 4:30 AM) Kyle and I left Minneapolis for Washington, DC. It has been at least two years (and longer since it was just Kyle and I together) since Kyle and I have traveled. The last time was after his second year of college, he was still living at home and we had our share of both good and conflicted times. Historically Kyle and I have traveled together quite a bit over the years. When he was younger (twelve and thirteen) I took him with me on overnight trips simply to get him out of the house so that he and Claudia could survive one another. In time he and I developed a good relationship, and I have grown to enjoy Kyle very much over the years. He is now a college graduate, twenty-one years old, and not living in our home (which, according to him, he hopes he never has to do again). Come to think of it, maybe Claudia and I agree with him on that assertion, too.

While I have enjoyed and celebrate with Kyle his continuing steps toward independence, it has also been challenging for me for let him go. I have given so much of my life to him over the years since he came to live with us at the age of eleven that the past couple of years have felt disconnected. There is a distance that was not there previously, and I have had a hard time assessing what is normal young adult behavior and what is complicated by attachment issues related to older-child adoption. Regardless of causation, I have to acknowledge my own feelings as I understand them. And I have missed Kyle.

Part of this first day together has caused me to ask the question if he and I will develop a more mutual, adult-like relationship, or if it will be more of the same. By "more of the same" I refer to his naturally critical, caustic observations, most of which are pointedly personal. He has learned to be more socially appropriate over the years, for which I am grateful, but asking him to serve as my navigator in an unfamiliar city (and especially an "undriveable" one like DC) was an exercise in "more of the same." I have to say, though, that he redeemed himself (as he pointed out) by helping me figure out how to open the liftgate on the back of the rental vehicle we are driving.

Kyle's love of electronic stimulation has abated little over the years. We arrived at our hotel an hour or so ago, and his first step was to pick up the remote to see what was available on television, a selection which he found abysmally disappointing. Not one prone to conversation, Kyle spends much of his time, even with his significant other, being electronically stimulated, so I do not feel bad to spend our first hours on vacation with a television in the background as my laptop keys clatter. There is little conversation, but that's not something that conveys meaning to Kyle. I asked him a week or so ago about what conveys meaning (I think I said "how do you know someone loves you?") to him, and he said, "When someone spends time with me." So, I am reminding myself that I am spending time with Kyle, and even though it is not exactly via an enriching conversation, it conveys meaning to him.

But I can live with that. I'm to the point now, chronologically, of knowing Kyle more years than I have not known him. I think that's kind of an adoption-related emotional tipping point. Once a parent has known a kid longer than they have not known them there is a sense of attachment that did not exist previously. I don't know how to elucidate that, and it's only my intuition speaking, but I can sense the difference.

And, truth be told, even if the relationship Kyle and I share is only more of the same, it's OK. I have watched the transformation in his life from an angry, sullen, solitary, resentful, embittered, unattached eleven-year-old to a young man who is at peace, while still enjoying moments of introverted distance, occasionally grateful, content and maybe, just maybe, attached to the people who have called him son for well over a decade.

While I will continue to hope for opportunities to strengthen and renew our relationship into something more akin to adult mutuality, I am also learning the value of what we have now, a complicated connection fostered over years of intentionality. I think it's what some people call a "father-son" bond, and I am grateful to God that it is enough. Perhaps not forever, but for today it is.