This Election Cycle: What Jesus and John Have to Say to Christians

The temptation for Christians to polarize against each other over politics has never been greater than this election cycle, and it's only going to grow stronger. Here's what it's coming to for many:
  • If you vote for Clinton/Trump (pick one), you're not a Christian and you're not my brother or sister. You're my enemy.
  • Not voting is actually a vote for the other candidate.* Therefore you're my enemy.
  • Voting for a third party or a write-in is a wasted vote. It's pretty much the same thing as option two, so once again, you're my enemy.
Lots of enemies out there, according to the above logic. I'm afraid a lot of us who call ourselves Christians are going to be become tremendously embittered against other Christians—except, of course, those "other Christians" aren't really Christians. If they were, they'd see things our way. The right way. God's way.
Where does Jesus actually enter into this mess? Consider these words:
 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:43-48 NIV)
That is a tall, tall order. Thankfully, most of those whom we consider enemies because their politics and priorities differ from ours are nothing like the Romans of Jesus's day, or the Nazis of yesterday, or ISIS today. If you were drowning, your "enemy" would throw you a lifeline, and you'd do the same for that person. The truth is, many of those "enemies" are in fact brothers and sisters in Christ. Granted, an awful lot of people who call themselves Christians are not Christians, and some truly do behave in hateful ways. But that still leaves countless followers of Jesus who simply see things differently from us, and our vilifying them may say more about the condition of our own heart than theirs. What if the one who acts most like an enemy is us?
The apostle John minces no words about what our attitude should be—and should never be:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. (1 John 2:9-11)
The Scripture quotes above are the words of two men whose motives were utterly trustworthy and untainted by any political self-interest. Their statements don't require fact checking; you either believe them or you don't. The question is, do you believe them—and in this political season and following, will you do your best to adhere to them? That doesn't mean you can't feel strongly and even indignantly. But will you guard your heart? Because in this world, intense sentiments all too easily step across the line and become self-justifying hatred.
Remember: The real battle isn't about who will sit in the Oval Office. It's about whom you will allow to control your heart.
* Actually, it's a vote of no confidence in either candidate. But let's briefly consider this thinking of "Not voting is a vote for the other candidate." Some of my friends like Trump and others support Hillary. So which "other candidate" would I be voting for by not voting? Both, apparently. Since it's a self-cancelling exercise, the impact on either side is precisely zero.

Should Church Musicians Get Paid?

Should church musicians get paid, or should they be expected to provide their talents for free to the body of Christ? I have no hard, fast answer. I'm simply putting the question on the table because it deserves more consideration than it is often given. In the past, no church ever offered to pay me for my services as a musician, and I never expected nor asked to be paid. I was happy to do what I did gratis in service to God. However, the church I now attend does pay me--not a large amount, but a meaningful amount, enough that it adds up and helps me pay the bills. More, it provides a tangible expression of appreciation and respect. As the old adage says, it's the thought that counts. My musical abilities haven't come to me freely, quickly, or easily, and it's nice to have that fact recognized and valued My involvement with this church started over a year ago with an invitation to sit in with their contemporary worship team. I received fifty bucks for doing so and was invited to sit in again whenever and as often as I chose. The openness of that arrangement has been ideal for where I'm at in life. I've found myself playing with the team more often than not, and in the process, I've been drawn to other aspects of the church as well, relationships being foremost. When I first became a Christian more than thirty years ago, the presiding attitude toward musicians in the churches I attended was that we were to play strictly "the Lord's music." If it didn't have an overtly Christian message, then it wasn't appropriate material for a Christian musician. Not anytime, anywhere. That worldly stuff just didn't fly. From a practical standpoint, this theologically flawed taboo on anything other than Christian music and any venues other than church and Christian events was disastrous. The only halfway decent money I made back then as a budding jazz saxophonist was from "secular" gigs. But, wanting to please the Lord--and at the time, I naively mistook the conventions of religious culture for the will of God--I dropped out of the local music scene at the precise time when I should have been forging connections, learning my craft on the bandstand, and making at least some semblance of money. The sacrifice was one I made willingly, but its financial and vocational implications weren't understood by those who expected it of me. Churches wanted my musical skills, but none of them thought to compensate me for them; yet they'd have looked at me askance had I used my talent to make a buck or two playing in the clubs. The result was a catch-22 both monetarily and developmentally. And my situation was far from unusual. In that religious culture, it was the norm for musicians. I've told you this story not to whine about the past, but to shed a little light on the realities of being a musician in the church. In doing so, it's practical to point out that not all church musicians are the same. They have different perspectives toward their craft and invest their time into it accordingly. For most, music is simply a hobby; for a few, however, it is an avocation and even a vocation. For many, music is one small facet of a multifaceted life; but for a handful, it's a lifestyle and a livelihood. Most church musicians develop enough skill to do a good job meeting the needs of their praise team; but a small percentage practice daily for hours, year after year, to develop abilities that can transform how a praise team sounds. My purpose in drawing these contrasts is not to create some snobbish and divisive musical caste system. In the words of the apostle Paul, "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corinthians 4:7). There is no gift any of us is given that doesn't come from God, and humility is the only appropriate response. However, it's still up to every musician to cultivate his or her gift, and some do so to a greater degree than others. That's how it is in a life that requires prioritization and trade-offs. Those who invest themselves more deeply into the pursuit of musical excellence often pay dues that others know nothing of. As a hobby, music is fun; as a vocation, it is costly in terms of time, finances, and relationships. To pursue music seriously is deeply satisfying, but it can also be disappointing, frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking, demanding much of one's life and returning little in the way of making a living. All this to say that musicians are worthy of their wages. Does that mean churches ought to pay their musicians? That's for every church to determine for itself based on the realities of its size and budget. If you can't afford it, then you can't afford it. But if you can, trust me, it will be much appreciated and well-deserved. Worship is not a commercial venture. It's an act of the heart, and I've never met anyone in worship ministry who has approached it with any other attitude. No one is in it for the money, any more than pastors take up pastoring because it's such a lucrative profession. It's a matter of calling, not cash. But it still takes cash to make house payments, buy food, and keep the car running and the utilities operable. That's why Paul wrote,
If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more?...Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:11–14)
While Paul himself chose to forego the privilege he describes above, he makes it plain that those who invest their lives into preaching the gospel have the same needs as anyone else and deserve to have them met. You could argue that Paul was referring exclusively to pastors and preachers. But of course, the early churches didn't have music ministries, or children's ministries, or teen ministries, or any of the other ministries and programming that we take for granted today. So I think there's room to apply the principle to a church's musicians, at least as much as is practical. It's certainly not unscriptural to honor a musician's investment of time and dedication by helping him or her pay the electric bill. That kind of tangible care and appreciation can make a real difference, not only in the pocketbook but also in the heart.

A Blessed and Merry Christmas from Stormhorn

In a world that has become bewilderingly complex, may the simplicity of faith in the person of Jesus be yours today and every day. I don't think it's any secret that Christmas is almost certainly not the actual calendar date of Jesus's birth. What's important about Christmas is, it reminds us that Jesus indeed was born at a specific point in time, at a certain hour on a certain day, really and truly. If eternal life were just a matter of sound moral teachings, he need not have bothered. But he came to provide something far more than one more model in the display case of spiritual teachers; he came to offer us himself as the object of our trust in matters far too vast for us to comprehend. Look around you. Look inside you. Is it really so hard so hard to believe that what we need is not merely answers, but a Savior? "For God loved the world with such unfathomable depth and passion that he gave the Son whom he himself sired--God, reproducing his very heart and character uniquely in human form, clothed with flesh, emotions, personality, a voice, appetites, and a name--so that whoever puts his or her trust in the Son may possess an entirely different quality of life: eternal life, today and forever."--John 3:16, my rendering A blessed and gracious Christmas to all my friends. Politically incorrectly yours, Bob

My Father’s Horn: The Final Note

(Continued from part 4.) Over thirty years have passed from the days of God's Family Band until today. Dad's horn has been a constant companion in that journey, though I have not always been constant with it. There were times when I set it aside for a season, and other times when I thought how much simpler life could be if I put it behind me forever. Yet every time I have set down the saxophone, I have returned to it. I have kept at it--because I must. It is more than a passion; it is a calling, integral to the way God has designed me. There are many other stories besides the ones I have told in this brief series, more than I wish to share here. The long and short of it all is, Dad's horn has shaped me both as a player and as a person. Thus far, I have talked about the journey my father's horn has taken me on. Now I would like to tell you a little about the horn itself. I own two other saxophones beside it: a Conn tenor that is even older than my alto and has long been in drastic disrepair, and a Yamaha soprano that I sometimes play. But the alto remains my voice, and I have always owned only the one, Dad's. I've had no need for any other. Not that I haven't tried other horns. I've sampled a fair cross-section of altos over the years. But the one I learned to play on is the one I play today and the one on which I will someday play my last note, and then, I hope--though I have no children of my own--pass it on to someone else as a legacy, just as Dad passed it on to me. Of all the saxophones I have played, my father's horn sounds the most resonant, offers the greatest flexibility of sound, and blows the freest. It is an amazingly open horn. It will take as much air as I can supply and convert it into a sound that fills a room. Not that the Conn 6M is a miracle horn; it has its drawbacks. While I can get around reasonably well above high F, the altissimo is not as responsive as on other saxophones. Manufactured before the introduction of the high F# key, Dad's sax does not feature uber-high notes as one of its strengths. Also, my repairman tells me that the rolled tone holes--a hallmark of the 6M--are beastly when it comes to getting pads to seat properly. When I have pads replaced, I usually need to visit the shop more than once to get the sax sealing tightly. But once that job is accomplished, oh, man! Dad's alto is a dream to play, and I fall in love with it all over again. It has a sound and a response like no other, and it has served me well for over four decades. Dad was always the greatest fan of my playing. During the last three years of his life, he, like me, had an encounter with Jesus that changed him--not a little, but drastically. The anger that seemed to lurk below the surface disappeared, and while his feistiness remained, it was tempered with humility, even a sweetness, and above all, a peace I had never seen in him before. The ghosts that I think had haunted him from World War II seemed to lose their grip. There is a verse in the Bible that reads, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." (II Cor. 5:17) Whenever I read that verse, I think of Dad. I was 28 years old when Dad passed away. That was nearly thirty years ago. Several years ago, I wrote a letter to my father. I thanked him for all he had done for me and for our family. I told him how, now that I was older and wise enough not to know as much as I did back in my twenties, I wished I could sit down with him and listen to him tell me about his life--how it was in the Great Depression, and in the War, killing and watching his friends be killed. I told him that he was my hero, and how glad I was, how very glad, for the peace he had found. The transformation that had begun in him when he first encountered the Lord was now complete. When next he and I would meet, Dad would no longer be a white-haired man crippled by a back injury, short-winded from a chronic heart condition and breathing from an oxgyen tank. I envisioned him striding toward me, grinning, his arms outstretched, his face that of a vibrant young man, his eyes filled with a spark that can only be found in one who has looked into the very face of Love and Life, and in its Presence found his home. On Memorial Day, I took my letter to the small cemetery out in the countryside where Dad is buried. A tiny American flag fluttered by his marker beneath a tall fir tree. It is a beautiful little place, and Dad, who loved trees, would have been pleased with the location. I cleared away a few sprigs of grass that were encroaching on his modest gravestone, and I dusted off its surface. With a piece of Scotch tape, I attached my letter to Dad's marker. Then, standing up, I fulfilled one last, important part of the letter. "Thanks for the saxophone, Dad," I had written. "It was your legacy to me, and I've brought it with me. Perhaps, just for a minute, the Lord will roll back eternity and let you get an earful of me playing it just for you." Taking the horn, setting its mouthpiece in my mouth, and wrapping my fingers around the golden, pearl-covered keys that I had first seen and admired when I was a little boy, I began to play. With his old Conn alto sax, I played for Dad the song I had performed on the day when I was baptized at Bethel--the song that over the years had become my theme song and was a fitting description of Dad's own life. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind, but now I see. A saxophone cannot verbalize those words, but it most certainly can communicate them. That day, I played them with all my heart. Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. 'Twas grace that brought me safe this far, and grace shall lead me home. The legacy of my father's horn lives on. I love to play it, and while I am no Kenny Garrett, I continue to practice regularly, and thus to grow as a jazz musician. Today, I realize that Dad's gift to me of his saxophone was ordained by my heavenly Father--by my father's Father and mine. I am his son, his man, and his musician. And with gratitude, until a day known only to him when my last song shall end, by his grace, for his pleasure, and in honor of the Master Musician, I will continue to play my Father's horn.

My Father’s Horn, Part 4

(Continued from part 3.) Writing this article has opened my eyes to just how immense a legacy my dad left me when he put his alto sax in my hands as a boy. I never intended to pen a lengthy, multi-part personal history, just a brief tribute to Dad and the shaping force his old Conn 6M has been for me. Now, four parts into "My Father's Horn," I realize that I could write a book and still not tell the full story. But writing a book was not, and is not, my intention. I see a need to condense, to say much in few words. Yet I am not sure how to do that. Dad's horn has been as pervasive an influence in my life as yeast in bread dough. It has been a source of tremendous satisfaction and great frustration; a creative outlet; an intellectual challenge and stimulus; a doorway of faith; a parable portraying truths about God's kingdom and how He designs individuals; a song of joy, a wail of pain, a voice of my soul; a catalyst for insight, choices, and growth; a blessing to many listeners and, first and foremost, to the player; a gift, a discipline, and most certainly, a calling. When I was 24 and playing in the Aquinas College Jazz Band, I got a call one evening from a guy named Rick Callier. Would I care to play in a musical that the Bethel Pentecostal Choir was presenting called "The Beautiful Story of Jesus"? I learned that Rick's cousin, Kimball Owens, had recommended me to Rick. Kimball was my buddy in the jazz band--a non-stop chatterbox, funny, super-likeable, a fine tenor sax player, and my friend. I knew nothing about either Rick or Bethel, but, while I wasn't a Christian, I had grown up knowing about Jesus and was glad for an opportunity to offer my talent in His service for an evening. That event was my introduction to Rick, to Bethel, and to a number of talented black gospel musicians and vocalists: David Jennings, Chico DeBarge, James Abney, Craig Tyson ... the list goes on, too many to name. Even more important, playing for the Bethel musical ushered me into the beginning of my walk as a disciple of Jesus.* Back in the 1980s, white churches in West Michigan didn't have much use for the saxophone. Not so black churches. I knew nothing about the foibles of religious culture and cared even less about racial distinctions. All I knew was, I had fallen in with some people who loved Jesus, loved music, projected joy, and welcomed me and my horn wholeheartedly. And my heart was open. I had been seeking God for a long time, searching for meaning; searching for something bigger even than the music; searching for Life. And I found it. Or rather, I found Him--because throughout the years, He had already long been seeking me. Thus it was that a few days after Christmas in December, 1980, I was baptized at Bethel Pentecostal Church. On that day, I had an encounter with God. It was, as best I can describe it, a sense of being overwhelmed by joy and praise. The experience was almost physical in nature and one I have never forgotten. From there, I played often with the Bethel Pentecostal Choir. As a white kid from a German family, I was a salt grain in a pepper mill, but it didn't matter. Love of the Lord and of music made ethnic differences something to be appreciated and enjoyed, and a source of insight. At that time, I also joined the horn section of a gospel group called God's Family Band. The band was co-led by Rick Callier and David Jennings, with Rick doing the arranging and David working with the vocalists. Both of these guys were incredibly talented. In partnership with a friend named Larry Rhodes, Rick also used the horns in studio sessions for other gospel artists, notably the Grammy-Award-winning group Commissioned. It was under Rick and Larry that I gained experience both as a horn section player and as a studio musician. I've never played for more exacting producers. They would do take after take, striving for perfection. Rick and Larry set a benchmark for excellence. Working with producers of their caliber was an eye-opening, rewarding, and hugely valuable experience. All the while, I continued to study music at Aquinas College and play in the jazz band. My college education equipped me with the tools I needed to grow as a musician. To be honest, though, I wasted my first years in college, and I only really began to learn my horn after I got out of school. As a result, I'm mostly self-educated as a jazz saxophonist. One influence from my college days to whom I will always feel a debt of gratitude was Mel Dalton. A wonderful Grand Rapids area tenor player, Mel was the closest thing I ever had to a musical mentor. For a brief but memorable semester or two, I use to get together with him on a weekly basis at his home. Mel didn't exactly teach me how to play jazz; mostly what he did was spend time with me listening to Coltrane records, talking about music, playing with me through solo transcriptions, and encouraging me. Mel modeled what jazz musicianship was about. He was a beautiful player and a warm, wonderful human being, and I wish he was still here today. At this point, I need to fast-forward. There's a lot of story I could tell, but it wouldn't serve my original intent in writing this article. It's enough to say that my father's horn has opened up doors of relationships, opportunities, and experiences. That's enough for now. I'll save the rest for part 5, which I think will be the conclusion of "My Father's Horn." ------------------------------------ * I'm cautious about using the word "Christian" to describe myself. I am a Christian; however, these days the word has become a label freighted with meanings that have nothing to do with what it means to follow Jesus. The word "Christian" has become politicized. It has become a marketing niche. It has come to stand for a subculture that in some ways misrepresents what Jesus and Christianity are truly about. So I prefer to be thought of as simply a disciple of Jesus--a fallible man who seeks to know Him, love Him, and live in a way that reflects his Lordship in my heart.

My Father’s Horn: A Grown Son Reflects on a Priceless Musical Legacy

Most of my music posts share technical exercises or theoretical information. This post is different. I want to share with you something very personal. It is the story of the saxophone that I play: my beloved Conn 6M Ladyface. When I was a small boy living with my family in Niles, Michigan, my dad kept his alto sax in its original black case up against the wall by his bed. He had bought the horn back when he was a young man, and was learning to play it until service in WWII interrupted his musical aspirations and a bout of tuberculosis finished them off entirely. He met my mother in the TB sanatorium, where she worked as a nurse. Dates followed, letters, a ring, marriage, and then me. My parents moved from Chicago to Niles when I was a year old. The sax sat quietly in its case, all but forgotten. Once in a great while, though, Dad would take that case and open it up, and it was on one such occasion that I got my first glimpse of the horn. There it lay, cradled in the case's rich, purple velvet lining: a shining complexity of rods, springs, pearl buttons, pads, and palm keys, all neatly arranged on that deeply golden, sensuously curving body. It was beautiful, fascinating, and to me, impossibly complicated. How could anybody take something so bewilderingly engineered and make music with it? Ever after that first glimpse of my father's horn, I wanted to see more of it. From its aureate luster, to the resonant sound of its bell pads thumping against the tone holes, to its mysterious, brittle reeds, that saxophone captivated me. I was far too young to play it, but it was already beginning to play me. In the summer after my sixth grade year, my family--which had grown to include my brothers Pat, Terry, and Brian, and my sister, Diane--moved to Grand Rapids. Junior high school loomed on the horizon. No longer would I be attending a private Catholic school; the Forest Hills public school system awaited me in the fall, including its band program. Band? I was going to be in band? Yes, that was the plan. In September, when I climbed aboard the school bus for the first day of school, that black case containing my father's horn was in my hands. Private lessons with my band director, Richard Streng, commenced soon after. And I took to my dad's alto sax as naturally as if I had been born for it--which, of course, was the case. The first note I learned to play was A. The second was D. After that came G, and then, I think, C; after that, I don't recall the order. What I do remember is stopping between each note and carefully inspecting my fingers to make sure they were positioned properly. It seems amazing that the fluidity with which I get around on my instrument today got its start with such painstaking deliberateness. But I didn't mind. I was learning to play music, learning to play my dad's saxophone, and I was absolutely thrilled. I could do this! No one needed to tell me to practice; I couldn't wait to get in my daily time on the sax. Mr. Streng seemed to enjoy my private lessons with him as much as I did. He recognized in me a genuine desire to excel. I came to my lessons prepared and ready to play, so he consistently had something he could work with. I still remember his baritone voice after every lesson: "Bob, as always, it has been a pleasure." From Mr. Streng, I learned a life lesson every bit as important as those first music lessons, and that was the power of praise. Never underestimate what a good word can accomplish in a person's heart. A child's heart, a young adult's heart, a heart of many years' experience ... it doesn't matter. Praise empowers; praise instills vision; praise nurtures an inner voice that says, "Yes, I can!" (To be continued)

Evening of the Gentians

Welcome to September Land. It's not a location you can pinpoint on any map, but it exists just the same. It's a place of being; a juncture of time and mood; a coming-of-age of the summer when the sun's lengthening rays gild the late-day hills, clown-colored maples stipple the forests, and yellow hues infiltrate the long, green rows of corn. September Land is where the year goes to receive its golden crown of wisdom; and where, as the hazy, blue sky of early autumn stretches, glowing, over meadows filled with asters and birdsong, you and I arrive to contemplate with nostalgia the months that lie behind us, and to quietly adjust our souls for the ones to come. Now is the season of the gentians. Here in mid-September, they dot the wetlands with pointilistic splashes of purest blue, as if God had strewn pieces of sky like confetti over the fens. I love the deep purple asters, the burnished goldenrods, and the bright, butter-yellow wild snapdragons. I've been a sucker for wildflowers ever since I can remember. But of all the autumn flowers, I like the gentians best. A number of species inhabit my state of Michigan, but the fringed gentian is the one I see most often, and the one I fell in love with as a boy roaming through the wetlands of southern Kent County. The fringed gentian opens only in the sun. On bright days, it quietly unfurls its cerulean gown, and, like a shy young woman unaware of her own breathtaking beauty, captures the eye and heart of every beholder. Among the many who, over the years, have been smitten by the gentian was the 19th-century poet William Cullen Bryant. Like me, he sought for words that could pay adequate tribute to the gentian's loveliness, and set them down in his jewel-like poem, "To the Fringed Gentian": Thou blossom bright with autumn dew, And coloured with the heaven's own blue, That openest when the quiet light Succeeds the keen and frosty night. Thou comest not when violets lean O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen, Or columbines, in purple dressed, Nod o'er the ground-bird's hidden nest. Thou waitest late and com'st alone, When woods are bare and birds are flown, And frosts and shortening days portend The aged year is near his end. Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye Look through its fringes to the sky, Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall A flower from its cerulean wall. I would that thus, when I shall see The hour of death draw near to me, Hope, blossoming within my heart, May look to heaven as I depart. Here in Caledonia, Michigan, the woods of September Land are not bare nor are the birds yet flown. As I write, the hummingbirds still flit about the feeder out on my balcony. But frost has already visited counties to the north, and in these shortening days I, like Bryant, sense that "the aged year is near his end." Yesterday, Lisa and I enjoyed a spontaneous picnic out at Gun Lake State Park. With Labor Day behind us, the crowds of summer were gone and we had the park to ourselves. We sat at a picnic table, eating and talking and watching a great blue heron patrol the shoreline a stone's throw away. Then, after strolling a bit through the southern tip of the park's peninsula, we hopped into the car and headed back toward Caledonia. However, I had one stop-off to make in Middleville: a small but diverse prairie fen on the south end of the town. While Lis drowsed off in the car, I hiked down the trail into the fen with my camera to photograph fringed gentians. With the sun waning and occasionally disappearing behind tufts of cumulus, many of the gentians had closed. But a few flowers remained open. I set up my tripod next to a likely looking cluster and began snapping photos. This page contains a few of them. Click on the images to enlarge them. "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow," said Jesus. "They don't work themselves to a frazzle, nor do they weave clothes for the wearing. Yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his splendor was not arrayed like these humble wildflowers." (Matthew 6:28–29, my rendering.) I suspect that if gentians had been at his disposal, Jesus would have pointed to them as his object lesson of the grace God bestows on quiet, lowly hearts that look to him. In these times of great national and worldwide distress, may you and I, like the gentians, learn to turn our heads upward with trust and a willingness to let God determine for us what life is truly about--and in so doing, find a peace rooted in something, in Someone, far more steadfast than the changing seasons of this world.

A Hot-Weather Sunday Sermon

The heat wave is here. Today inaugurates it in West Michigan with the temperature moving up toward 90 degrees in the afternoon and dewpoints from the low to mid seventies. Ecch! Lacking both the ambition and the time this morning to write a full-fledged post, I've once again rummaged through my archives. I haven't had to look far to find something thought-provoking for musicians and storm chasers alike--or for anyone who's passionate about any kind of life pursuit--and fitting for a Sunday morning. From last October, here is a post reflective in its tone, which I titled, "Between Idolatry and Joy." Its concept is one I've had to remind myself of during a storm season whose frustrations challenged my attitude sorely. So if parts of it feel uncomfortable, bear in mind that I'm in the same canoe paddling with you. It's a matter of being human and fallible, yet also thankful for Someone bigger than me who calls me to set my heart on things higher than what I can see and feel.

A Christmas Meditation, Revisited

Good morning, and Merry Christmas to you! Thank you for spending a few minutes of your day with me. I don't take lightly the fact that, amid the helter-skelter of this Holiday, you've taken the time and interest to drop in. I'd like to offer you something of real worth in return, and having checked my traffic stats, it seems that my readers have already been pointing the way for me. My readers are wise. They've been finding their way to a post I wrote a year ago today, in which I shared a still older writing of two years previous. I was 51 when I wrote that piece, and dealing with a broken heart, singleness, and loneliness. Yet, sitting alone in my apartment, I experienced a deep comfort and contentment that transcended my circumstances. That was in 2007. Last year was different. Two years had elapsed, and my beloved friend, Lisa, had entered my life. In the midst of a new set of circumstances, I added a prelude to account for the time that had passed and then shared my original writing for the first time on Another year has now come and gone. Lisa and I have weathered a lean financial time in the face of what some have called The Great Recession. Since our needs are simple and Lisa has a practical attitude that flexes with life's realities, we've managed to stay afloat and feel grateful. Along the way, we've made choices concerning each other and ourselves that have demonstrated our love for one another. It hasn't always been easy for either of us. But it has been rewarding, and the gift of who Lisa is continues to shine more brightly in my eyes. What a unique, brilliant, talented, good-hearted, godly, and most beautiful woman the Lord has blessed me with! Yet, knowing her heartaches as well as my own, more than ever I understand that the words I first wrote on Christmas Eve of 2007 are relevant today, and will remain so through the long years. Today, I reaffirm that Christmas--not "The Holidays," as political correctness now insists that this occasion be called, but Christmas--is not about warm traditions, wonderful though they may be, but about a living, deeply invested Love that has reached out, and continues to reach, to those of us for whom this time of year seems anything but warm, or rich, or wonderful. I cannot add to what I wrote three years ago; I can only introduce you to it from the context of today and hope that you will find meaning and encouragement in its message. Without further ado I now direct you to that writing, together with its preamble, in last year's Christmas Eve post titled "A Christmas Meditation on Jesus." Whatever the realities of this season may be for you, may the great grace that is the driving force of true Christmas touch and uphold you in ways seen and unseen. Your friend, Bob

The Field, Final Chapter: Tornado Heart

This is the last installment of my account of the drama that unfolded for a number of storm chasers, including my group of four, on May 22, 2010, in northeast South Dakota. I've waited to share this part because it's personal--not a deep, dark secret, but something which until now I've kept to myself and a few friends. It is, however, an incident I've wanted to write about, and with seven months passed and Christmas just a few days away, now seems like an appropriate time to do so. If you were one of those who were out there in the field that day, you'll agree that we were fortunate to have escaped without injury when the outcome could easily have been quite different. Perhaps the greatest gift we have this Christmas is the fact that we're all here to talk about our experience. You were there; you know how it was. It was a hell of a ride that has made for a story we'll probably tell and retell the rest of our lives, but at the time there was reason to wonder just how much longer our lives would last. For the rest of my readers, you can read my detailed account including photos here. I'll summarize by saying that a routine move to reposition east of a violently tornadic supercell near Roscoe turned into a trap when the road--which showed as a through-road on our mapping software--dead-ended where a farmer had recently plowed it over. As tornadoes began to spin up just west of our contingent and head directly toward us, all seven or eight vehicles drove madly south along a fenceline in a desperate attempt to outmaneuver the worst part of the storm. A quarter-mile down, blocked by ponding, we turned into the field and drove another hundred yards or so until we could drive no farther. Then we parked, braced ourselves, and hoped for the best. And those who believed in a loving, watchful God, prayed. I was one of them. I'm writing this post to thank my heavenly Father for not only responding to those prayers, but also, as I have intimated above, for letting me know in a personal and moving way that He was there with us in that field, present and protecting us all. Spiritual topics trigger different things in different people. So let me make something plain. I write as a disciple of Jesus; I do NOT write as an emissary of contemporary Churchianity. Jesus I love, but I don't care for much of religious culture, any more than I care for boxes of any kind. So whether you're a Christian or a non-Christian, kindly resist the urge to stick me into a nice, tidy category that would likely say more about you than about me. I know the questions that arise surrounding answered--and unanwered--prayer. I also know the conclusions people easily arrive at, both pro and con. My purpose isn't to address any of that in this post; rather, I am here to tell you a story and let you make of it what you will. As Mike's Subaru Outback bounced along the fenceline behind the vehicle in front of us, grinding its way into and out of muddy potholes, I had a good view to the west from the passenger's seat. Rain bands spiraled and braided, hinting at unseen vortices. At one point, to my considerable consternation, I saw twin funnels wrapping around each other like a pair of dancing snakes, moving straight at us. They reminded me--I kid you not, so please don't shoot me for saying this--of the "sisters" in the movie "Twister." I'd estimate that their distance from us was around 150 yards. My buddy Bill Oosterbaan saw them too. That was the moment when I realized we were not going to outmaneuver the storm, and the words "seriously screwed" took on a whole new dimension. It dawned on me that now would be an excellent time to pray, and I did, earnestly. I don't remember my exact words, but the gist of them was that I asked God to protect us, all of us. The scenario was bathed in a strange sense of unreality, and it seemed incredible to think that I was praying for my life. But that was in fact what I was doing. Whatever happened to those serpentine vortices I don't know. Evidently they dissipated before they reached the fenceline. But their image lodged in my mind, and it got called back the following day in an unusual way, as you will see. At length our caravan's flight for safety ended in the manner I've already described above, and the storm descended on us in full fury. On Stormtrack, a chaser recently shared some radar images of that phase of the storm, and in one of them, you can plainly make out not just one, but two eye-like features passing directly over and just north of our location. Suffice it to say that the rotation above us was complex and broad. I remember a fierce wind that seemed to constantly switch direction, and mist driving along the ground at high velocities along with the rain. A tornado spun up briefly about a hundred feet from one of the vehicles; I didn't see it, but Adam Lucio captured it on video* and my eyes just about popped out of my skull when I saw the clip. Daaaaamn! Any closer and...well, who knows, but it probably wouldn't have been a pretty picture. Fast forward past the rest of the storm and the miserable drama that ensued. It was the following day and I was sitting in a hotel room in Aberdeen. I fired up my laptop, logged into my email, and...hey, what was this? A message from my friend Brad Doll. Hmmm, cool! Brad and I rarely email each other. Curious, I opened his note. I wish I had saved it--I thought I did, but I can't locate it. Otherwise, I'd quote it exactly. But it's easy enough to recreate the essence of it: "Hey, brother, just thinking of you and your love for tornadoes and thought I'd share this picture with you.--Brad" I opened the attached file. It contained the obviously Photoshopped picture you see here of two mirror-image, snaky-looking tornadoes with a funnel dividing the clouds between them, forming a heart. You can find the image without much trouble on the Internet, but I had never seen it before. As I looked at it, the snaky double-funnels I had seen yesterday popped into my mind. The similarity was weird--not that the previous day's very real tornado resembled a heart; the only thing it looked like was scary as hell. No, it was the overall shape of its twin vortices and the way they had appeared in relation to each other that struck me. Then it hit me. Brad didn't have a clue where I was. He had no idea what I'd just been through. And he had never emailed me an image file before. Not only was the communication in itself unusual, but the timing of it was...well, it was incredible. I could feel the tears coming to my eyes as the realization sank in. This email wasn't from Brad. Not really. Brad was just a humble and available scribe; the message was from my Father, my wonderful heavenly Father. It was His way of saying, in a simple but powerful way, "Bob, I love you!" What I've just written is something I believe with all my heart. God knows us through and through. He knows what makes you, you, and me, me; and He knows how to speak to each of us intimately, in ways that touch us in deep places if we have ears to hear. Here is what I believe He was saying to me: "Bob, when you, Tom, Bill, Mike, and the rest of the guys were fleeing along that fenceline like scared rabbits, I saw you. I heard your prayer and the prayers of all who called on Me. And I was with you. My hand covered you and my presence protected you all--because I love you all, every last man of you who was there. Today, Bob, I'm letting you know that I truly was there--that yes, it was Me--and that I carry you in my heart." I am not one who calls every unusual thing that happens a miracle. I believe that genuine miracles are rare, and I dislike devaluing their reality by sloppily misapplying the word. But I also believe in grace, and from time to time I have witnessed extraordinary examples of what it can do. After receiving the email from Brad, I am convinced that what happened in the field on May 22 was one of those occasions. Things could easily have turned out far worse for those of us who were there. Instead of a joyous Christmas, this year could have been one of great sadness for our loved ones, and of an empty chair at the dinner table--a chair that once was ours. But this Christmas will not be that way. We will sit down once again with our families, and we will eat, and we will exchange gifts. We will get on with the rest of winter after the holidays. And we will return to the Great Plains this coming spring to enjoy another season of chasing the storms that we love. Just about anything can be written off as coincidence, just as almost anything unusual can be written in as a direct act of God when it wasn't necessarily so. It's a matter of one's worldview. If, having read my account, you're inclined to consider my experience just a peculiar fluke, perhaps not even all that strange, then so be it. I can't prove differently to you and I don't feel that I need to try. But I most definitely believe otherwise, as does my friend Brad, and Tom, and Bill, and, I am sure, at least a few others who were there in the field. It takes faith to see God's kingdom, and faith is perhaps best described as an extra faculty, a sixth sense that augments the first five senses. It perceives and understands differently, and sees a different and higher reality behind the stuff of our lives. It is believing, but it is also a kind of knowing that I've never been able to describe satisfactorily. Like the color blue, once you've seen it, you know what it is; but whether you've experienced it or not, blue is blue, and so it is with the kingdom of heaven. However accurately or inaccurately, faith is the eye that sees it. To my wonderful Lord, Brother, and Forever Friend, Jesus, whose birth I gratefully celebrate this season: Thank you--for so much more than I can begin to tell. And to my friends and fellow storm chasers, brothers and sisters of the skies, saints, sinners, seekers, wherever your worldview stands: May your Christmas be marked by grace. And may there be great steak and good beer in store for all of us this coming year. Merry Christmas, Bob __________________ * You can see Adam's clip along with more footage from the field, plus a whole lot more, on the DVD "Bullseye Bowdle," produced by the lads at Convective Addiction. If you enjoy storm chasing videos, this one's the real deal--and no, the guys haven't paid me a solitary cent to plug it here.