Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Finding Joy

One of the fruits, one of the “you'll know them by...” marks of a Spirit filled life, we're taught, is joy.
But for many of us, even after coming to faith in Christ, a prevailing joy is not our default setting. Like other “Spiritual disciplines”- regular time in the Word, consistent times of prayer and meditation, loving those we don't like, selfless generosity to those in need of resources we have, these things take intent and effort on our part to become our nature. We don't, at least not most of us, enter into relationship with Christ as our Lord on one day, and wake up the next filled with Christlike love, compassion, gentleness, and joy. The transformation, the manifestation of the new creation we have become, develops over time, a lifetime, as God incrementally convicts and steers and enlightens and reveals, then refines and polishes the jagged edges of our human nature. Sometimes, these transformative steps are only a matter of changing perspective-seeing the same reality a new way, from a different angle. Such it is with joy.
Consider Route 322, the route many take to State College. The stretch of highway from roughly Newport to Thompsontown is, perhaps, one of the most spectacularly scenic drives in all of Pa. The road runs adjacent to the Juniata River, and from the Northbound lane, high above the river, you can see the brown ribbon of river winding into the distance, and the forested, rolling mountains stretching toward the far off horizon to the west. I've made that drive at least a hundred times, probably more. Most times I see only guardrails, tractor trailers, the white broken stripe between the lanes, and the green interstate style signs. Most of the time I just want the drive to be over with. Most times if I could teleport past the whole thing and just arrive I would do so. But every once in a while, on those unfortunately rare times when my mind is focused on the here and now instead of the next place, the view out the driver's side window is stunningly majestic and beautiful.
Joy, I believe, can become a more frequent reality when we bring our mind back from some imagined destination, look out the driver's side window, and allow the “getting there” to be, at least, half the fun. We aim our awareness, too often, on some as yet unrealized future place and time where we might find joy- when that promotion occurs, when we're finished school, when I can finally afford a new Softail, when we retire. Or we “live” in some idealized past time, our “glory days”, when we were the star running back, when we had no bills other than gas in the Camaro, when there were far more years ahead of us than behind us and our life was mostly a blank sheet of paper. We travel through the present, the only Earthly reality truly available to us, seeing only the guardrails, the stripes on the road, and the exit signs, missing the spectacular scenery, the fountains of joy all around us.
At almost any moment, regardless of the ambient stresses and worries that may underlie our present circumstance, we can pause, take in our surroundings, and allow ourselves to be thrilled by them. We are, round the clock, all our lives, immersed in generous beauty and wonder that we need only notice to begin having joy as our default setting. Look around. There are comfortable homes, the company of family, indulgent food, too many clothes, sunshine, storm clouds, a wet nosed dog, majestic trees, Famous Hot Wieners, a star filled night sky, the smell of baking, beaches, a motorcycle ride, toys, the magic of modern communication, mowed lawns, friends, cool sheets, an endless variety of music, medicine, people who need us, people on whom we depend, uncountable books, the collective knowledge of all mankind for all history at our fingertips, and the means-a plan-where by we can live forever with the Creator of the Universe.
Surely, all of us, at any given time, can cite reasons why joy, for us, is a distant concept. And all those things, the trials and torments of life, are very real. But I believe, with practice and intent, and the help of our tranformative Savior, we can develop the ability to notice, and experience, and savor, and find joy in the abundant, infinite, spectacular world we, for now anyway, must live in.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Symphony of the Universe

Imagine, if you will, our universe as the subject of a magnificent symphony, played by an orchestra of ten thousand instruments spread across a massive, curved stage, hundreds of feet across. At the center, all in white, the infinite God, the Creator of it all, conducting. Behind the stage a screen that spreads all the way from stage left to stage right and reaches up seemingly to the stars displays the visual wonders of the cosmos as the orchestra plays. The Conductor sweeps His right arm from side to side, then slowly raises both hands and all the instruments roar to a crescendo as the screen shows the collision of two galaxies. Purple, and gold, and blue clouds fill the screen as a million stars explode, and as a dozen tympani pound and throb, jets of energy, massive geysers of Gamma rays streak out 1000 light years from the collision. The Conductor closes His fists, and at once the instruments are silent and the screen goes empty. As he raises His left arm, cellos and trombones whine and growl rhythmically as on the screen we see a black hole, a dark iris in an oval sea of stars that circle clockwise around the dark center. Nearer the blackness, stars spin in an increasingly furious frenzy. The innermost stretch into semi circle streaks, then disappear, as if down a drain. Again, the Conductor closes His left hand into a fist, and instantly the orchestral sound changes to the bright chirps and tweets of piccolos and soprano clarinets and saxes. The percussionists tingle their triangles and rustle their chimes, and on the screen we see a solitary hydrogen atom, its simple core and its lone electron, like a gnat, whizzing around in circles.The view zooms in toward the nucleus, and the rest of the woodwinds blend in as we see the separate pieces, the proton and neutron. The orchestra takes a mischievous, cartoon like turn, the oboes and saxes honking discordantly, the brasses laying an iambic rhythm as we zoom inside the proton to the realm of the quarks, those specters, those phantoms, those shadows of matter that follow none of the rules the rest of creation must follow. We don't really see them, but we know they're there. The Conductor brings His arms to His chest, pauses, them flings them out to His sides, and instantly again, the music and the screen are transformed. Now all the instruments play together, a sustained C major chord. The drums play gentle rolls, the kettle drums a heart beat. On the screen the blue-green ball that is Earth comes into focus. It slowly rotates, and we recognize the continents and the oceans. As we zoom closer a man made satellite, a tin can with antennae and solar panels zips by. Closer still, and we see rivers, then cities, then skyscrapers. The C chord stops, and the violins alone play just a few bars of a bittersweet melody. The Conductor reaches toward the screen, His arms outstretched in front of Him, His palms up, as if to say “Ahhh, look there...” Then the palms close, the screen goes dark for just a second, and one lone violin weeps. Then ten thousand players are on their feet, their instruments angled toward the sky and blasting out a cacophonous finale as the screen becomes, again, a broad expanse of space, with clouds of galaxies, streaks of color, giant explosions and collisions in every direction. The Conductor waves both arms left to right, then back again. He points at instruments and coaxes still more out of them, and the screen grows more full. He sways with excitement, growing the sound, filling the sky. Dust becomes stars, and stars become dust. The finale will go on forever, just as it has. Forever.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama

Reading this autobiography today is an unavoidably different experience than to have read it in, say,
1996 when Barack Obama was not yet on the public radar. His notoriety, then, was limited to some relatively small academic circles because of his selection as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. There are probably not seven people on planet Earth today without some knowledge or opinions of who Barack Obama is, and, to some extent, his biography. So it becomes necessary to approach this book with an intentional effort not to filter or color his words with what we expect to read. It has to be seen as the honest, forthright words of a young man's struggle to understand the complexity of race, and his own identity and heritage.
Similarly, this is a book that could not be written today. Not by Barack Obama anyway. Since The Speech in 2004, when he went to dead center on the public radar, the handlers, and advisers, and packagers, and pollsters, and consultants would never allow it. The forthrightness would be diluted into the familiar cliches and platitudes the entourage thinks people want to hear, or should hear.
In the narrative, Obama honestly discusses his early realization that his skin color caused people to react differently to him. He suffered rejection and ridicule in the mostly white private school he attended in Hawaii, but when he gravitated toward the other blacks, he found himself an outsider to their perspective as well. He was raised by his white mother and grandparents, and didn't share the disdain for whites he found in many other young blacks. The theme, then, of the book, as we follow Obama through his childhood years in Hawaii, and from age 6 to 10 in Indonesia, through his college years in Los Angeles, then attending Columbia in New York City, then to his years working as an organizer in a housing project in Chicago, and finally to Kenya to “find” who his father was, is the search for personal belonging and truth. The honesty on these pages is engaging. He openly discusses his youthful attraction to drugs and alcohol. There are, of course, anecdotes of white folks' exploitation and rejection of African Americans, but there is also an honest examination and revelation of misguided, erroneous ideas, attitudes and behaviors within the black culture as well.
Arguably, the most interesting section of the book is Obama's time visiting Kenya. His father, also Barack Hussein Obama, was mostly an enigma to him, as other than a month long visit when Obama was only 11, his knowledge of his father, and his entire paternal history, came from stories his grandparents and mother told him. After being accepted at Harvard, he left his job in Chicago to spend a few weeks in Europe, then with his extended family of sisters and brothers (different mothers) and cousins and grandmother in Kenya. As he explored Luo tribal culture and tradition and listened to his grandmother's detailed recounting of his family history, modern African culture, specifically Kenyan, took on a metaphorical parallel to Obama's own blended identity. While the people cling to many tribal beliefs and customs, and there is pride in their heritage, there is an unmistakeable dilution and blending, both from the influence of the colonialist period, and the modern world gradually seeping in. Dress, diet, economics, and attitudes all reflect non-African influence. Barack Obama's ethnic heritage is not singular or pure, but Africa shows there may be no such thing.
There is a temptation when reading from these early Barack Obama thoughts to point to passages as “AHA!'s”, to connect these early, less guarded, developing views as the seeds of an ideology we may or may not agree with. And that may be true. But an honest reader must note the book is 15 years old, and the progression of the experiences cited here much older still. None of us, if we're old enough, would want every idea or observation we expressed at 18, or 25, or 45 years old to define us now, and it would be unfair to apply that to Barrack Obama. Taken as a chance to see race in America through eyes very different than our own, it's a great opportunity and a good read.