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.

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