Going Beyond the Music

Last night's rehearsal for our June 11 concert at the Buttermilk Jamboree with Ed Englerth, Alan Dunst, and Don Cheeseman was much more than a shared creative time with three of my favorite musical droogs. Life has been pretty intense lately--financial pressures, Mom recovering from a knee replacement, Lisa struggling with what appears to be a ruptured bicep, physical concerns of my own--and I'd be lying to say that I've born it all with a smile on my face. I haven't. I've felt weary, discouraged, and depressed. So reconnecting with the band and working on Ed's music gave me a badly needed release. I needed to just forget about the rest of life for a while and play my horn with some friends with whom I've shared a love of music for many years now under the auspices of Ed's songwriting. Speaking of which, the guy just keeps getting better and better, and so does the band. Ed's upcoming CD may be his best effort yet, which is saying a hunk considering the benchmark set by his last CD, Restless Ghost. I hope to finally hear the final master tonight, and then I'll know for sure which album is my favorite. What's certain is that we pulled out a few extra stops in the studio with this project, including the use of multiple sax tracks to create the effect of an entire sax section. Also, in an unprecedented departure from my die-hard devotion to the alto sax, I played my soprano on a couple tunes. I may have even played it in tune; I'll find out soon enough. But I was talking about how much I needed to tune up, blow some notes, and forget about the rest of life for while. Music is as much a part of life as anything else. In my case, it's a very good part and a very large part, and I needed to be reminded of that. When I forget what "normal" looks like, nights like last night help me draw back to the center of who God created me to be and reclaim some parts of myself that I sometimes lose track of. It seems that I wasn't the only one. Don and his wife have been going through a difficult, hugely demanding time with their new baby son, who has Down Syndrome and has struggled nonstop with acute allergies. Ed has been dealing with the advancing, age-related health problems of his beloved mother- and father-in-law, who reside with him and his wife, Panda. Alan was the only guy who didn't seem to have heavy stuff going on in his life at the moment, or if he did, chose not to share. But he's been through his own fires. We all have, and last night at least three of us were feeling the heat. So it seemed that the right thing to do, after we had finished practicing, was spend some time talking and praying together. It's so easy to just pack up the instruments and head home without ever thinking to pray. But there's power and healing in the honesty, faith, earnestness, and hope of collectively conversing with our heavenly Father. I would go so far as to say that a band of Christian musicians that bypasses the opportunity to get real with each other and with the Lord is missing what may well be the most vital part of their time together, more important even than the music (though that's important). Real is what the four of us got last night, and it was good. I left feeling not only connected with God and with the guys, but also reconnected with myself. Something about standing humbly and openly in the presence of Jesus has a way of doing that, of reminding me who and Whose I really am. The gloom lifts, the lies and warping influence of the world's nonstop millrace lose their grip, and I discover once again that quiet place where I can hear God speak. It is a place of peace and a place of power. When David spoke in Psalm 23 of God as the one who restored his soul, I understand what he meant. I think, I hope, that all of us last night discovered the potential of prayer and our need to incorporate it into our rehearsals more often. More even than the songs we play and the creative passion we share, the Spirit of Jesus Christ draws us together, and it's the thing that can take our band to the next level--possibly the next musical level, but more certainly the next level of what God has in mind for us. Lord, I thank you for last night's blessing of connecting with you and with my brothers Ed, Don, and Alan through the gift of heartfelt, down-to-earth, unpretentious prayer. Please look after each of my friends. You know their needs and you know mine. Care for us and our loved ones as a shepherd cares for the sheep of his pasture, for that is who you are: The Good Shepherd. Give us to hear and treasure your voice--for in it, and it alone, is life.

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.

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.

Survivor Guilt: The Unseen Tornado Trauma

"The thief comes only to rob and kill and destroy; I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full."--Jesus (John 10:10)
Forty-five years after he lost his younger brother in one of the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornadoes, Pete Johnson still finds it hard to talk about what happened that dreadful evening in northern Indiana. He feels responsible for his brother's death. The name Pete Johnson is fictitious. I doubt the man I interviewed yesterday afternoon would mind if I shared his real name or that of his brother, but my conversation with him is so fresh, and my topic so potentially sensitive, that out of care and respect I'm calling him Pete in this post. Pete was with his family visiting an aunt and uncle in Dunlap, Indiana, when the deadliest tornado of the entire six-state outbreak swirled into view outside the picture window. As his relatives sought shelter indoors, Pete's parents packed the kids into their car and took off down the road in a frantic attempt to outrun the tornado. They didn't succeed. Pete's dad told him that a house hit the car. All Pete remembers is experiencing a blow to the head and then regaining consciousness out in a field, where he'd been blown by the wind. Rescue workers rushed him off to a hospital. It would be some time before he learned that his younger brother, Mark, hadn't survived. Mark's body wasn't found until a week later, buried under debris in the devastated Sunnyside neighborhood. Pete wants to believe that his brother's death wasn't his fault. But still, after all these years, he wonders: What if...? What if he'd gone straight to the car instead of hiding in the closet, as his aunt had told him to do? Maybe those few extra seconds would have saved his brother's life. What if his family had ridden out the tornado at his aunt and uncle's house, which sustained only minimal damage? What if...? There's no satisfying the what-ifs of survivor guilt. You can respond to them with your head, perhaps, but your heart doesn't buy the answers, not when the wound goes as deep as the loss of a loved one taken by a disaster. There's seemingly no closure, no tying off of the open ends, no last stone to turn after which the supply of unturned stones finally ceases. At the bottom of it all lies a tyrannical, perpetually haunting lie: "I'm to blame." People with survivor guilt suffer--and "suffer" is an appropriate word--from a form of self-imposed penance for not having been the one to perish instead of their loved one. Reliving the incident year after year, they blame themselves for failing to foresee the unforeseeable and stop the unstoppable, for not preventing things over which they had no power. Really, for not being God. Tornadoes are quirks of the atmosphere, not so much objects as unfathomably powerful processes dependent on an ironically delicate balance of ingredients. Earlier this year I watched one take out the heart of an Illinois town, then disappear into nothingness seconds later. Like lions and Alaskan brown bears, tornadoes are magnificent but also deadly and unpredictable. As a storm chaser, I'm captivated by the beauty and drama of tornadoes. Yet I'm also keenly aware of their dark side. Who isn't? The human impact of tornadoes, when it occurs, is seldom conservative and often it's wholesale. Homes blown to pieces. Trees debarked, debranched, uprooted and thrown hundreds of feet. Vehicles crumpled into balls of metal. Worst of all, bodies mangled and lives ended. But there's another kind of damage that can't be seen. Long after the dead have been buried, long after houses and neighborhoods have been rebuilt, years after people have gotten on with their lives, a sadness lingers. And for many, survivor guilt haunts them. You can build a new home, you can buy a new car, but you can't replace a loved one, and what do you do with your own wounded heart? I believe there's healing for those who struggle with survivor guilt. I don't mean the sorrow of losing someone close; that will always remain, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. But the sting of guilt which serves no good purpose is exactly the kind of thing Jesus came to put an end to. Let me be clear, as I share from a Christian perspective, that I have little interest in dogma, any more than Jesus did. The wounds that life can inflict are too real for game-playing. But just as it's possible to glibly quote the Bible in a way that misses its meaning and heart, it's equally possible to lightly dismiss the Bible and so miss not only its unnervingly pinpoint assessment of the human condition, but also the power and hope of the gospel for some very practical life issues. The life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus reveal the heart of a God who desires that we should find true, deeply rooted peace in our souls that flows from the peace we have with him. For those who trust in him, Jesus has resolved the issue of guilt in all its forms, including survivor guilt, with a power and effectiveness that extend beyond the unpredictable events of our lives to a deep and certain, eternal foundation. In his execution on the cross, Jesus took everything that runs counter to the character and will of God and, absorbing it into himself as the eternal scapegoat for mortal mankind, put it to death. Then, in his resurrection, he opened the doorway to a new kind of life that is not subject to the values and limitations of this world. This is fancy language, but for those who struggle with survivor guilt, the bottom line is simple: God looks at you and says, "Not guilty." His heart toward you is that you should have life, not death; peace, not self-recrimination. That's no mere religious proposition--it's the living, breathing, passionate longing of God for your best, your freest, and your highest. Given the reality of what God desires for you, the question isn't whether you could have done something that might have saved your loved one. You'll never know. That question is a deception from the devil, who loves to torment people with issues that have endless complexities and no resolution. It's really no question at all--it's a prison sentence and a distraction from the simplicity of faith. The true, powerful question is whether you'll stop holding yourself accountable when God himself doesn't, and stop beating up an innocent person whom he loves very much: yourself. As you consider that question, here's another one to contemplate along with it: If the situation had been reversed and you had been the one who perished while your loved one lived, would you have wanted your surviving loved one to live the rest of their days with the guilt that has haunted you? Wouldn't you rather have desired with all your heart that he or she would think of you with love but not guilt, and fulfill the gift and potential of their life in freedom? What you would want for your loved one would surely be your loved one's desire for you. Love does not condemn, but frees and blesses. I realize that what I've proposed is easier said than done. I just want to put the possibility before you--the seed of a new way of thinking which, I hope, can make a difference for you. I'm well aware that I haven't experienced what you've experienced. My struggles have been my own. Yet they have been significant in their own right, and in the face of them, Jesus has made me a freer man as only Jesus can. So my words to you are spoken both humbly and frankly, with a longing that you should know peace at last, peace that only the love and grace of God can bring. One of the titles by which the Scriptures call Jesus is "Prince of Peace." The peace he offers rests not on life circumstances, but on an interpersonal relationship with him in which the quality of life that resides in him flows to us. It is a life in which guilt, shame, and torment can't be found. If you belong to him, then the peace which is native to that life is more than his will for you--it is your very birthright as a child of God. My prayer for you, if you struggle with survivor guilt, is that your birthright will become real to you in a way that frees you from a weight that is not really yours to carry. Bring it to Jesus and trust him with it. You don't know what to do with it; he does. Letting him do so is a journey he's eager to make with you if you're willing to make it with him.