Friday, September 24, 2010

Peace Like a River

The word peaceful is rarely one that we would use to describe the movement of water in a river. And yet it is common to associate peace with a river in our minds. But if we stop and think about it, is it the peaceful lazy portions of the river that we tend to find most fascinating? Or is it rather the turbulent uncertain sections where the water is breaking upon the rocks and cascading through gorges that we are drawn to? I know that for me it is unquestionably the latter.

The awesome power of water is significant to behold. We have only to look at places like the Grand Canyon to see the powerful changes that can be wrought by water, the way that a "peaceful" river can forever alter the landscape that it passes through.

I was reminded of the power of water and the value, beauty, and wonder of turbulence this past Wednesday as I sat overlooking the Potomac River as it passed through the area known as Great Falls several miles north of Washington. This area is clearly marked by the passage and turbulence of water. It is a region filled with evidence of the sheer undiluted awesome power of water. It is also an area of unspeakable beauty, wonder, and majesty. It is an area of peace, of quiet, of tranquility, and of reflection. But it is a peace that comes only as a result of the turbulence that has preceded it.

It is the turbulence that shapes us, that forms us into who we are, that brings out the beauty and wonder that otherwise might be hidden inside of us. Without the crashing tumultuous power of water the area of Great Falls would be quite unremarkable, but with it, it is a place of inspiration.

It is easy to see the effects of tumultuous and tempestuous turbulence in that kind of setting, but much harder in our own lives. When turbulence comes across our path we tend to shy away, if not run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. And yet, it is often the case that we cannot fully appreciate the beauty and the wonder either around us or within us without it.

I was reminded of this at Great Falls as well. As I sat with Alison, overlooking the river from the heights above, watching a falcon soar on the breeze and the water cascading through the gorge the sky began to rumble. The rumbling quickly grew into a full symphony of booming acclamations, culminating in lightning crackling across the sky as thunder cracked directly above us, jolting me in surprise.

Most sensible people would have ran for cover, knowing what would soon follow. We, however, stayed exactly where we were, continuing to watch the water, and the sky changing around us, welcoming the rain as it soon came falling down upon upon us. It was a glorious moment, a transcendent experience, a divine kiss, a breath of the eternal caressing our souls. And it would have been missed entirely had we run from the tempest as we are often wont to do.

When I was told seven weeks ago that I would be cut at the end of September I quickly did all I could to take advantage of what appeared to be the final opportunity for me to give special programs here on the mall. That action has resulted in a very busy schedule for me over the past several weeks as I have been engaged in giving some kind of special program nearly every weekend day this month. I have my final program coming up this weekend, culminating a fascinating month of learning and teaching what I have learned to others. It has been and continues to be a challenge not to be overwhelmed at times, but it has also been a splendid opportunity to capture moments of divine inspiration.

With the exception of the last couple of days (when it has gone back up to the mid-nineties with high humidity) the weather has been superb this month, so I have been trying to take advantage of any possible opportunity to be outside and enjoy it. Thankfully my job involves me spending a substantial amount of time doing exactly that!

One of the best examples of taking advantage of the wonderful weather came not through work though, but rather through a splendid opportunity to enjoy Lord of the Rings in a rather unique way. On the night of September 11 Alison and I joined hundreds of other people on the lawn of Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts in their presentation of "Return of the King." The film was shown in HD on a huge screen, underneath of which sat an orchestra, who played the entire score live as we watched the film. It was absolutely brilliant! I thought I loved both the movie and the soundtrack before, but I came to a whole new appreciation for both that night.

September 12 was that Nation's triathlon, a race in which more than 5,000 people competed. It was mass insanity down on the mall that day and I found myself right in the middle of it as I was stationed at FDR, which is just south of the area they were using to stage the race. Though there were thousands of people in the area, very few actually came through the memorial and ever fewer were interested in talking to a ranger, but I had two particularly memorable interactions that day. The first was when a young woman saw me and immediately identified me as the ranger who had given a talk she listened to at Lincoln two days previously. Her friends then inquired, "that's the guy?" and told me that she wouldn't stop talking about that program. They were surprised to see me at FDR instead of Lincoln and even more surprised to learn that I knew about that memorial as well, quickly asking if I could give them a tour. I proceeded to do exactly that and after an hour as we came to the end of the memorial they asked me if I could just come with them for the rest of their trip.

A little while later when I came out to give another talk I encountered another young woman and her family. She had just completed the triathlon, her fifth in the last year. As they were from New York they were especially interested in FDR and the way that the things he did while president are continuing to impact our lives today. What could have been just another standard talk turned into a wonderful conversation on a splendidly beautiful day.

Last Friday was the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. In recognition of this anniversary I gave a special program on both that day and the next on the significance of that battle in shaping both the outcome of the Civil War and the identity of this nation. I did it as living history, telling the story from the perspective of a soldier who had viewed the reality of the battle, and rather than running away from the carnage, was inspired to continue to fight, embracing the new vision of freedom and equality that began to emerge from the fires of Antietam.

The program was rougher than I would have liked. I simply didn't have enough time to prepare for it the way I wanted to. But even so, there were moments where a connection was made, a connection between a moment in history and the country we live in today.

On Sunday I gave the same program that I had on September 11, a program centered upon "moments that defined a revolution," moments in which not only the revolution itself, but the nation that was born from it came to have a new and distinct identity. I had thought that the program went well when I gave it the first time, but what happened last Sunday entirely eclipsed any program that I have done before.

I gave the program three times, at 11, 1, and 3 that day. The first program (including questions) ended at 12:52, giving me just enough time to grab a drink of water before giving it again. The second ended at 2:38, giving me about 15 minutes to use the bathroom and eat lunch before the final program. That time I didn't end until 5:26, nearly an hour after I was supposed to leave the memorial to head back to the ranger station.

Something clicked, something connected, something drew people in to what I was speaking of so much that they stayed and talked with me for two and a half hours. Amidst the busy turbulence of life we experienced a moment of transcendent beauty on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, a moment which superseded any other needs or issues, a moment of understanding and clarity as to who God created us to be.

That last presentation I gave that day was, bar none, the most effective and thrilling presentation of any kind (sermons, lessons, programs, lectures, tours) I have ever given. Something happened, something that emerged from the turbulence to create a moment of wonder. There is power in dynamic force of turbulence, uncertainty, and the storms that so often surround us. Power to shape, to change, and to uncover that which we could not see before, allowing us to appreciate and understand in entirely new ways.

There are many uncertain storm clouds surrounding me at the moment. The long awaited permanent announcement finally came out. The long months of waiting are over. That is certainly good news. The bad news is that it really doesn't help me much at all. It is released all sources to everyone across the nation and there is not one single question of the 84 being asked that is specific to this park or that gives me an edge because of already being here. That means my only chance to be competitive is to have an incredibly descriptive and compelling resume that addresses each of those 84 questions in some fashion. So that too is clamoring for my attention as I attempt to do anything I can to make myself look like I should be hired for the position.

I don't know what will happen here. The way the job is announced does not look good for me. The way I see it, it will take divine intervention for them to even see my name. So that is exactly what I am praying for.

But either way, no matter what may come, I know that through the tumultuous storm beauty and wonder will emerge on the other side. I know that if I embrace the shaping power of the flow surrounding me that something new will be drawn forth to shine as a previously unseen beacon of light,a light that shines only if I am willing to let it be uncovered through the formative action of the peace of the river.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

With a Firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence

This is the ninth time I have sat down to write a message on the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. A lot has changed in the last nine years. Much has changed on an international level, much has changed in this nation, and much has changed in my own life. In many ways each of these elements are distinct, but in some, they are intimately intertwined. As I reflect on my own journey over the last nine years I am reminded of my role in the larger picture, the larger story, the story of America, the story of planet earth, and the story of God. 

When I first sat down to write this email I was a sophomore at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. I was seeking to find and establish my own identity in the midst of a nation searching to redefine its own. I write here today from a computer in the basement of the Jefferson Memorial, writing from an American icon in the heart of our nation’s capitol as a National Park Ranger, charged with interpreting and giving meaning to the American identity.

My perspective has certainly changed in these last nine years. It has greatly changed in the last year alone. A year ago I wrote this email sitting in the back of my truck in the shadow of Chimney Rock in Nebraska before spending the remainder of the day following the steps of the pioneers on the Oregon Trail. It is a fitting symbol for my own journey across the country that has brought me to the heart of the United States of America with the charge of bringing meaning to the same.

Much has changed in this city and this country since 9-11. In many ways we now live in a different world. The significance of what has changed since September 11, 2001 is very evident in my daily life here in Washington in a myriad of ways. Every time I walk up to the Washington Monument I have to take a circular path alongside walls built to keep vehicles from approaching the Monument and pass through security before actually entering the Monument itself. Much about the approach to the Capitol, the White House, and many other Federal buildings has been changed as well. It is strange to think that a single event can have such a dramatic effect on a national identity.

There is great power in an idea, and the idea that we, as a nation, are vulnerable to attack is a significant influence on our approach and policies to issues ranging from immigration to celebrating Independence Day. 

Ideas are what this nation is founded upon. Ideas centered upon the unalienable axiomatic rights shared by all citizens of humanity. This is not the first time that events that occurred in September  have influenced the course and identity of this nation. On September 11, 1777 the American army successfully stood its ground against the British at Brandywine. Although the British ultimately won the fight, the American defeat was a result of poor intelligence rather than poor fighting ability and it proved that we, as Americans, could and would stand up against the most powerful military force in the world. Eight days later, on September 19 Johnny Burgoyne launched the first of two attacks against Horatio Gates along the Hudson River that would culminate in the surrender of Burgoyne’s entire army on October 17, proving that we could not only stand up and fight, but that we could win.

Four years later Washington launched a coordinated attack against Cornwallis at Yorktown on September 28, leading to the surrender of Cornwallis three weeks later. That action effectively ended the military action of the Revolution, a sentiment which was made fact two years later on September 3, 1783 with the signing of the treaty of Paris. Four years after that the now united states came together and successfully produced the great compromise, a document we now know as the United States Constitution, officially ratified on September 17, 1787.

At this point you may be asking why I am telling you all of this. What does the American Revolution have to do with September 11th anyway? Everything. It has everything to do with it. Writing in June of 1776 John Adams stated that,
           "Objects  of the most stupendous magnitude, measures in which the lives and liberties of millions, born and unborn are most           essentially interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world.” 

It is this revolution that has come to characterize and bring definition to the identity of this nation. It is the unity that came out of this revolution that was so intimately touched by the events of nine years past. It is this revolution that causes us to believe that an attack upon one of us is an attack upon all of us. It is this revolution that gives meaning to the symbols of America across this nation.

I have been immersed in American History for the last eight months, not only reading a great deal, but also being privileged to see much of it first hand. Among the many things I have seen include both the Pentagon and Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. It isn’t just a distant picture in my mind any longer; it is something tangible, that I have seen right in front of me. But I think the greatest and most lasting significance is not to be found in the physical locations of the attacks or in the details of the events that took place nine years ago, but rather in the impact that these events have had upon the American psyche.

Yesterday as I stood at the top of the Washington Monument directing people as they exited the elevator I noticed that five of the men that were exiting were dressed in the attire of a firefighter. I looked closer and saw that the patches on their arms bore the letters FDNY. I had the opportunity to talk to two of these men and asked them what brought them to DC. I was expecting the answer to be something about 9-11. Instead I was surprised to hear that they had come for a softball tournament that just happened to be this weekend. They went on to tell me that, though could not be in New York, they had gone to visit the Wounded Warriors at Walter Reed Medical Center the day before and would be at the Pentagon today.

Both of the men I was talking to had gone into the WTC towers that day. Both had risked their lives to save others. The one guy was stationed at a firehouse in Lower Manhattan in the immediate vicinity and was among the first to respond. He was the only one of the members of his engine company that walked away from ground zero that day. That was a deeply sobering thought. Here was a man standing in front of me for whom the events of 9-11 will be forever associated with sacrifice and loss, not only for the nation as a whole, but in the midst of his own brothers.

This is not a distant chapter in our history books. It is a deeply personal and life changing tragedy for many Americans. So let us remember those who lost their lives nine years ago. But let us also remember that it is but one chapter in a larger story, a story of a people united together in common purpose, through great adversity, in the sight of God.  

As George Washington put it,
           No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.

There is a higher purpose in the values upon which this nation is founded. I don’t mean to say that Americans are God’s chosen people. Rather that as representatives of these values we have an obligation to both hold true to them and to bring them into tangible application. There is nothing more important that the unity of the common bond of humanity, uniting us together as a free and independent state firmly relying upon God and his values as we seek to live them out in support of one another. That, like our fathers before us, “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Touched by the Breath of Heaven

It is often the little moments in life, the moments in which the touch of a whisper brushes against our cheek or the soft breath of a kiss caresses our skin, that we are truly changed. There are times that God works in torrents, but it has been my experience that it is far more frequent that he works through gentle drizzle. It is not the situations we find ourselves in that define who we are, but the way in which we respond to them, the way in which we allow such moments to reach within us and permeate our being, transforming the way in which we view the world we live in.

I have been blessed by several heavenly "kisses" in the last few days, moments that transcended time and space and for a moment transported me out of myself and into a different way of looking at the world. It is so easy to miss such moments, but they are always there if we have the eyes to see them.

This past Saturday I rose early to drive down to the mall in the dark in order to be out at the Vietnam Wall at 6:00 to meet a group of volunteers that had come to wash it. It would have been easy to focus on my fatigue that morning, and had I done so I would have likely missed out on a whole series of moments that touched my soul that day. As I drove a golf cart in between the WWII memorial and the reflecting pool I glanced East and as I did so brought the cart to a stop so that I could get a better look at the site that greeted my eyes. It was just before dawn, with just enough light to bring peace and solace, but not enough to take away from the majesty of the WWII Memorial and Washington Monument as they were lit up as beacons in the darkness. I was entirely alone. There was not another person in sight. The moment was for me and me alone. It was a majestic picture of sacrifice and love as they rose out of the darkness up to the heavens. In that moment I knew that I was resting in the hands of the father.

When I arrived at the wall I remained alone. It was not until I was laying out the second hose that two men walked up. For a while it looked like they were going to be the only ones there that day. Eventually several others did come, but it was a smaller group, which meant that I was able to actually assist more directly than usual. As the sun rose into the sky over the United States Capitol that morning I held a brush in my hand, scrubbing a panel that bore the names of more than 500 men who never came home from Vietnam in 1968. The rays of the rising sun lit up the panel as it was covered in suds and as it was washed clean by the streaming water it glistened in the light of a new day, a day of hope, a day of beauty, a day that was marked not only by sacrifice, but also by a new birth of freedom.

After we finished cleaning the wall I returned to the ranger station whereupon I was sent to open up the WWII Memorial that day. When I walked out to give the 10:00 talk I was met by a wonderful older man who told me that he had served on the ground grew for American Pilots flying out of England from 1942-1945. He was joined that day by both children and grandchildren and I had the pleasure of leading the whole family through his memorial. It was one of the longer talks I have given there, coming it at just over an hour and including a discussion of the bas relief panels that lined that Atlantic side. I chose that side because I rightly figured it would mean more to him. It wasn't until I got partway down the wall that I remembered that one of the panels on that wall portrays the crew of a B-17 gathered around the bomber just after it had returned from a mission. I was about to begin to describe the panel when I thought better of it and asked him to talk about his experience instead. He spoke of the B-24s he served and the 214 missions they flew into France and Germany, and what it was like to see the boys come back safely. The panel wasn't just one more sculpture in a memorial any longer. It was a window into his story, the story of a man who had brought his family with him to see through that very portal and glimpse the role their father/grandfather had played in the story of America and of WWII.

That same day I was sent to FDR to help cover the 12:00 talk. This time I had a family of four who were so interested that although I tried to keep the talk down to less than 30 minutes, held me engaged for more than an hour, helping them to see how that era fit into the larger story of America. The combination of those two moments made it abundantly clear to me why I am here in this place, doing what I am doing.

I went from work straight to the Capitol Hill Baptist church to help move food and supplies for a wedding reception. Upon arriving at the reception hall I was drafted into helping with food preparation, finding myself helping to cater a wedding for people I did not know, joining with Alison and others from the church in serving in a way I never had before. I have been to a lot of weddings and seen them from quite a variety of perspectives, but that was unlike anything I had seen before. I felt like Cinderella as I snuck upstairs to get a drink or to bring a new bowl of fruit out to the guests of the wedding. Sometimes a change in perspective helps to understand ones own position in life a little more clearly.

I remained with Alison far too long that evening and slept very little before having to rise once more to work at the Washington Monument all day. Not only was I working my normal 8 hours there though; I was also going down to work another 5.5 at the capitol for the Labor Day concert. I didn't know how I was going to make it through the day. By chance I happened to be assigned to "relief" duty that night, which meant I simply had to wonder around and talk to the concert attendees and help to relieve any rangers at the entry gates if they needed it. That meant that I not only got to watch and enjoy the entirety of the concert, but also that I was able to view much of it along wish Alison and other friends who were there. It was a beautiful evening and the music included the theme from "Apollo 13," music from "Exodus," a tribute to hollywood that included 20 different films, and the Raider's March. It was like a concert designed to bless my soul! This Saturday, on September 11, I am going to go to Wolf Trap and watch Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as it is projected in high definition on a giant screen while the entire score to the film is played live.

Sometimes amidst the exhaustion and fatigue of life we find moments of great blessing in which the breath of heaven brushes against our consciousness and lifts us up to a higher plane of existence. Life is filled with such moments if we have the eyes to see them.

Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln

I had intended to write this email a week ago, but have not succeeded in actually finishing it until now. So I apologize for the news being a little dated! There will be a second email about more recent events coming in the imminent future as well! 

The last weekend in August was characterized by some great moments with Mr. Lincoln (images of the "ride" at Disneyland anyone?). I actually worked at Lincoln on August 26th, 28th, and 30th so my life really was centered upon that memorial for a few days! Though I was working at the same location each of the three days brought very different experiences. 

The first talk I gave on Thursday was to a pretty large group (about 25) which included three folks that had come from Washington state across the country to visit Washington DC for Glenn Beck's "restoring honor" rally on Saturday. I spoke to them briefly before the talk started and they not only stayed for the entire thing, but also made a point to talk to me afterwards. The conversation was not unlike others I have had following programs I have given, but it stood out to me largely because of how deeply moved the one gentleman in particular was. The first thing he said when I approached me after the program was to ask me if I had every taped the program. When I responded in the negative he told me I needed to video it so that my grandchildren would one day be able to see what their grandfather had done and the impact that I was having upon this nation. It really took me aback and I took it to be a significant compliment. 

Apparently he was quite moved by what I had talked about. The talk had gone nearly an hour and my throat was very dry so I went to the back room to get a drink and sit down for a few minutes, but I had only just sat down when I heard a knock at the door and found the same man outside telling me that had some other people that needed to hear my talk. I followed him outside and found three women that he had brought with him into the chamber so that they could hear what I had to say. I put aside my fatigue and immediately engaged them in conversation. I ended up talking to them for about 40 minutes, but very little of what was spoken of was actually my normal "talk" at Lincoln. We covered American history from the birth of the nation through the Civil War and they seemed to be very happy with it as a whole. It was a great way to start the day!

I was at Lincoln again on Saturday, but it was quite a different experience! That day was the day of the aforementioned rally and I found myself right in the midst of it. I was stationed on the steps on Lincoln and spent the day telling people to keep moving and not stop in the walkway and trying to keep things under control. It was actually surprisingly tiring! There were people absolutely everywhere down there that day. The event itself started on the lower plaza moving East to the Washington Monument, but there were thousands of people in the area surrounding Lincoln as well. None of these people, myself included, could actually clearly here what was said from the stage though. I could hear them talking and saw both Beck and Palin very clearly, but could not distinctly tell what was said. So I really have very little impression on the message of the day in terms of what was actually proclaimed from the stage. 

It was very interesting to see the event from the perspective of a ranger though. The crowd was a very good crowd. There were no significant behavioral issues, which is rare in a group that large. The number of people is hard to calculate, but it was well over 300,000 by all estimates. That is a lot of people on the mall, though nowhere near the number that were there for Independence Day or other large events. I rode my bike into work because I knew the metro would be crazy, and even on a bike had a hard time making it in. When I went down to Lincoln to officially take my post I was quite disappointed with what some of the attendees were doing though. The whole point of the event was to focus on restoring honor to this nation and specifically honoring our forefathers and honoring veterans. Many of the people who showed up Saturday morning were too concerned with their own needs and desires to bother about honoring the memorials to the very people they were there to honor. There were people seated all along the wall at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which is clearly a restricted area, disrespecting the veterans by attending a rally to honor them. Other people had gone right past the cones blocking their way to go and hang off the urns of the Lincoln Memorial in another clearly restricted area. So I and the other rangers had to exert a great deal of effort to dislodge people from these and other areas and to try and get people to respect the memorials and what they stand for and not be concerned only about themselves. 

Beck and his team also dramatically failed to prepare for the crowd. They had speakers and jumbotrons up, but very little water. The people in charge of the water that they did have refused to give it out to people who needed it, which was a significant mistake in the heat of that day. They also failed to have nearly any medical aid anywhere, and none at all in the area between Vietnam and Lincoln, which meant that we were completely swamped with medical casualties of the rally. So many people fell victim to heat exhaustion and dehydration that the Vietnam Memorial kiosk was turned into a triage center with at least seven rangers, including all of our EMT's down there trying to give people aid and get them to the ambulances, which were having great difficulty making it through to the area. 

People did do a good job of picking up their trash and taking it to the cans, but there were no provisions made to deal with it, which meant that there were tremendous mountains of trash all along the reflecting pool simply left behind for the Park Service to deal with. Amongst the trash I counted no less than 40 perfectly good chairs that people had simply abandoned and thrown away rather than take them with when they left. 

So yes, it was a significant event, but I couldn't help but see the way that Beck and his people neglected to prepare and how the federal government that he was preaching against had to pick up the slack. And I couldn't help but see the irony in the  people coming to honor the founding fathers and ideals of this nation and the men who have died to uphold them by disrespecting the memorials to those very same people and the demonstration of American materialism demonstrated by the abandoned chairs, which are now residing in our landfills. Still, definitely a powerful experience to bear firsthand witness to the event. 

And then on Monday I gave what turned out to be some of the best programs I have ever given at Lincoln, connecting the memorial to the larger story of the journey to define equality and freedom in this nation, and using the rally to illustrate the story continuing today. It was a busy and exhausting weekend, but one that was filled with great moments in the shadow of Mr. Lincoln.