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

September 11: Ten Years Ago Today

Last year on this day, I wrote a post commemorating the horror and heroism that unfolded on September 11, 2001. I cannot improve on that article, and so I invite you to read it, and to remember what your own day was like 10 years ago. If you were old enough back then to grasp the magnitude of what happened, I am certain that you will never forget it. Like me, you will relive it every year until your power to remember is no more. My post written last year speaks for me again today with undiminished vigor, and will do so for years to come. There is, however, one aspect of September 11, 2001, which that article did not consider. It is something I've found myself musing on lately, a phenomenon that is inevitable as generation follows generation. It has to do with our capacity to remember--not to merely observe a date on the calendar, but to recall how that day unfolded for us; what we were doing at the time; how we felt as we watched the Twin Towers burn and collapse, and as news poured in of another plane crashing into the Pentagon, and yet another plunging into a field in Pennsylvania. While millions of us today can never forget those events, a growing number of Americans are incapable of remembering them with the same stark emotions. This seems incredible to those of us who were adults back then. Nevertheless, it is true: Ten years later, a generation is entering adulthood for whom the tragedy of that fiery morning is but a dim recollection from childhood; and a post-9/11 generation has been born, and is being born, which will contemplate this date from no more than a historic perspective, not with the grief, fear, and fury felt by those of us who witnessed militant Islam's attack on our country firsthand. It is that way for all of us. Each generation has its own indelible landmarks. Whatever lies outside those milestones necessarily produces a less visceral, secondhand frame of reference. Living memories belong to those who have lived them. Those who have not can only embrace--and must embrace--such defining events as part of our beloved country's spiritual DNA, which the sheer force of being Americans compels us all to honor. I am 55 years old. I was in second grade on November 22, 1963, when the mother superior at my Catholic school entered the room and informed us that President Kennedy had been assassinated. We children gasped--I remember that. But I don't remember much more. I was only seven years old, too young to feel the pathos of that defining time in our nation, or to process its significance from an adult perspective. My father fought in World War II. He was on the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge, killing men and watching his friends being killed. On August 6, 1945--his birthday--Dad was in a boat bound for Japan when the "Little Boy" bomb detonated over Hiroshima. That was, he said, the best birthday gift he had ever gotten. To those who maintain that the atomic bomb was an atrocity perpetrated by our country on thousands of innocent Japanese civilians, let me remind you that Japan was the one who first attacked us. And you weren't on that boat with my dad, headed for what you were certain would be your death. You weren't around back then. But neither was I. Nor was I there to feel the joy of V-E Day on May 7, 1945; or to celebrate the Japanese surrender to America on V-J Day, September 2, 1945. No, I was not there. My father was, not I. The closest I could come to even remotely sharing those times with him was nearly 20 years later in the early 60s, as a boy sitting with Dad in our living room in Niles, Michigan, watching the ABC series Combat on our Zenith black-and-white TV. Decades later, in 1998, I watched the intense motion picture Saving Private Ryan. I did so out of a desire to better understand my father and the war that had shaped him. The movie was powerful, wrenching, and helpful. But it was not the same thing as being there. My dad had been where I could never go. Nor will my father ever be where I have been. Each generation ultimately hands off this nation and its history to the generations that follow. Those generations cannot experience what we have experienced. We can only hope they will learn from events which for them are historic, but which for us older Americans have been all too real--learn in a way that wisely balances hope-filled idealism which makes life worth living with a realism that recognizes evil for what it is, and stands against it. Hitler is dead. Bin Laden is dead. But neo-Naziism lives on, and so does Al Qaeda. The enemy is always with us, on foreign shores and in our midst. Perhaps the worst damage he could inflict on us is that in fighting him, we should become like him. Let us therefore look to our own souls, and hold up a higher standard--an enduring nobility of character which only God can empower us to carry onward, torch-like, man by man and woman by woman, from one generation to the next. In Christ, Bob

Between Idolatry and Joy: Some Thoughts on Life from a Jazz Saxophonist and Storm Chaser

There is an art to pursuing the things we're most passionate about without letting them consume us. I certainly find this to be true of my own two interests, jazz saxophone and storm chasing, but the principle applies to all of us in whatever our preoccupations may be. Without fascination, energy, focus, and joy to drive us wholeheartedly in our pursuits, there's no point to them; yet without restraint, self-awareness, and awareness of the broader world around us, it is easy to become a mile deep in our passions and an inch deep in life at large. Between these two realities, for me and I think for many of us, there lies a dynamic tension. As a disciple of Jesus, I have to reckon with the issue of idolatry. In Old Testament times, an idol was easy to identify. It's hard for us today to fathom people fashioning gold calves and graven images, both human and bestial, and then worshiping the things that they themselves had crafted. Yet that's exactly what people did back then, both in pagan nations and in apostate Israel. The funny thing is, we're no different. We still bow down to the works of our hands, to things that are capable of becoming our gods if we let them. Things that blind us to truths bigger than ourselves and hinder our capacity to love God and others. The problem with our modern idols, however, is that they're not readily identifiable as such in the same manner as, say, a brazen bull or a figurine of Marduk. Anything in our lives can become an idol--our careers, our pursuits, significant relationships, the desire for love, our injuries and disappointments, our causes, our appetites, our emotions, our cars and other possessions, even our ministries and charitable occupations. Idolatry today is not usually something that is innate to the things in our lives, but is a matter of our attitude toward them and God. In ways subtle and not so subtle, it's easy for us to invest ourselves in what we have and what we do in such a way that we allow it to define life and purpose for us. That's a problem, because any of it can be taken away from us at any time, and sooner or later all of it is going to go. Then where do we find meaning; then where do we find life? Moreover, we can become irresponsible and selfish in reaching for what we've defined as life, setting our pursuits above people we love and who love us. When we're frustrated in those pursuits, we can become downright nasty, even destructive, toward persons who seem to inconvenience us, challenge us, or obstruct us. We'll sacrifice others to our idols and justify ourselves in doing so rather than deal with our own hearts. All this in the quest for life on our own terms. Well do the words of Isaiah the prophet speak to us today: "[The idolater] feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him. He cannot save himself or say, 'Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'"

Is there a flip side to this coin?

Of course there is. If God never intended for us to enshrine the things that we enjoy and love to do, neither does he want us to smother those things in sackcloth. In the Bible's book of Genesis, in the Creation story, God from the beginning gave Adam and Eve something meaningful to do. They were gardeners, caring for the trees and flowers in Eden. Ironically, after they sinned, the man and woman's immediate response was to hide from God behind the very things he had assigned them to cultivate and protect. The problem lay not in the shrubs and trees and vines, but in Adam and Eve. The greenery in the garden was the same as the day when God first looked on it and called it good; it was the human heart that had changed. Ever since, in various ways, we've had a tendency to conceal ourselves from God and from each other behind the things we do. Yet those same pursuits also have the potential to express the robust life of Jesus living in us untamed and unfettered. There's nothing at all winsome about Christians who are so paranoid about idolatry that everything they do is constrained by a gray, lackluster religiosity. Many well-meaning believers confuse holiness with a boxed-in, sanctimonious, hermetically sealed existence that is about as invigorating as paper pulp. It hardly mirrors God's exuberance in the act of creation, when with a decisive word he spun the visions of his heart into being--planets, suns, galaxies, luminous gas clouds, multiplied quintillions of celestial objects, all whirling across the velvet-black vastness; ocean tides pulsing and surf crashing against craggy shorelines; wildflowers waving in vivid, multi-hued pointillism in meadows and forests, knit together, unseen, by untold millions of miles of subterranean roots and rootlets. Talk about a hobby! It was no dour, stuff-shirted God who created this fabulous world around us, this universe that awes and fascinates and humbles us; no, it was an eternal being who throughout the ages remains forever young--smarter than the most brilliant scientist, wiser than the wisest sage, yet passionately, perpetually, and unapologetically a child at heart. God created us to live our lives as wholeheartedly, creatively, lovingly, generously, fearlessly, and beautifully as he lives his, in ways unique to each of us. Failure to do so is in itself a form of idolatry, a lack of trust that the One who hardwired us with our personal interests also supplies the grace and wisdom to express his life and fulfill his intentions through those interests. The overarching principle is love--love of God and love of others. Love is ultimately what separates between idolatry--which is about pursuing our own independent way on our own terms--and the abundant, God-dependent life that Jesus offers. Christianity is not about good morals and rock-hard dogma; it is about nothing less than the life of Jesus himself living inside us, energizing us, guiding us in the pathway of his character. That is no weak, wan way of living. To be sure, it is a way that is often marked by self-sacrifice, pain, loneliness, misunderstanding, prayer, struggle, and self-control. But it is also a way infused with immense purpose, remarkable potential, endless fascination, and a joy that can be found in nothing else this life can offer.

In conclusion

Bringing all of the above to bear in a practical way for those of us who chase storms and/or play music: Whatever you do, do it with all your heart. God is not glorified by a timorous approach to the things you enjoy, nor does he want you to walk on eggshells for fear of offending him. Just keep in mind that there is more to life than your pursuits. Enjoy those pursuits, treasure them, but don't grasp them so tightly that you can't let go, and don't let them give you tunnel vision so that you fail to see and participate in the broadness of life around you. Other people's worlds are as rich and important as yours; to the best of your ability, enter into them, celebrate them, and let them expand you. Harness your interests in a way that makes your life bigger, not smaller--an expression of generosity, not selfishness, and of a Christlike perspective that values God and others most of all. Behind the sound of a saxophone playing now tenderly, now exuberantly, always striving for creativity and beauty...behind the sublimity, the fascination, and the awe of a tornado churning across the open prairie...you can, if you choose, hear the song and see the face of God. If you submit your heart to him, he will in turn release his own magnificent heart in and through the things you love to do. This, in part, is what life, true life, is about: allowing the things that are central to us to become the servants and the expressions of Someone far bigger than ourselves, and of a kingdom greater than our own.

Finding Jazz in the World Around Us

My sweet lady, Lisa, and I took a trip to Meijer Gardens earlier this week. Today, sifting through the photos I took as our tram ride wound along the curvy path through the world-class outdoor sculpture garden, and afterward as we strolled through the remarkable plantings in the children's garden, I'm struck--as I often am--at how the elements of music are woven into the very fabric of our world. Jazz is all around us. Form, space, unity, diversity, rhythm, dynamics, improvisation, color, texture, contrast, creativity--whether in music, nature, speech, literature, art, human relationships, or above all, our relationship with God, you'll find the same qualities working together to create beauty and interest. Consider the qualities of space and contrast. In a jazz solo, the notes you don't play are as important as the ones you do. Too much clutter, too many notes in endless procession, ceases to communicate. As in writing and conversation, well-placed punctuation--held notes, brief pauses, and longer rests--helps to shape musical ideas and gives them breathing room. Yet the furious density of artfully placed double-time passages creates another form of color. Both space and density can be overdone; it's the contrast between the two that helps raise a solo from the doldrums to vitality. The massive red iron piece titled "Aria" is a great visual representation of the interrelationship between music and art. The piece has a rhythm to it, shape, space, contrast--all the aspects of a well-crafted jazz improvisation.
Aria: like a jazz solo cast in metal.

Aria: like a jazz solo cast in metal.

Here are a few more images from the sculpture garden and children's garden that remind me of music and jazz.

What musical elements can you detect? Space? Sequence? Color? Dynamics?

What musical elements can you detect? Space? Sequence? Color? Dynamics?

This landscape sculpture creates unity out of contrast and serenity out of movement.

This landscape sculpture creates unity out of contrast and serenity out of movement.

If only I could play a solo as creative, spontaneous, and cohesive as this!

If only I could play a solo as creative, spontaneous, and cohesive as this!

Lisa: the beautiful song God has brought to my life!

Lisa: the beautiful song God has brought to my life!