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Archive for November, 2007

Outcaste

Monday morning, November 26, 2007

It’s hard to underestimate the power of a person with a real live vision; one who’s been touched by a serious need and visualizes a direct connection between the needy and the potential resources to meet that need.  Don’t misunderstand.  It’s not the person who is powerful.  It’s the message that possesses him (or her).

This week, a major newsmagazine explored the striking evidence emerging in neuroscience.  There are clues in the activity of the human brain that may well be a predictor of moral character.  Scientists view the brain as a vast unexplored territory.  New high tech tools enable us to see the human organ in action; in ways never before possible.  The research focuses on the factors that cause some to choose the noble good and others ignoble evil.  On one end of the moral spectrum, we have Mother Theresa.  On the other – Adolph Hitler.  It’s all right there on the color coded chart.

While scientists look for some way to predict and prevent immorality by analyzing brain scans, the rest of us, in the mean time, rely on more traditional methods.  Certainly there are environmental factors.  Hunger and poverty breed anti-social behavior.  Brutal tyranny may maintain some semblance of civil order.  But it ultimately backfires when revolution breaks out.  Oppressive governments like stern religious hierarchies enjoy some measure of tranquility and relative affluence.  But it is short lived.  As soon as the oppressed figure out a way to communicate and mobilize, insurgency erupts.  It happens in nations.  In neighborhoods.  In families.

But there is another way.  It may not be as quantifiable or predictable as a pure scientist might demand.  It does not involve chemistry or operant conditioning or mind altering substances.  It’s a matter of the heart.  It happens when vision is transferred from one open heart to another.

And that may be one of the most powerful agents of change of them all.

When Matthew made his first visit to the Dalit people of India, his heart broke over the conditions of an entire people group who lived in squalor for generation after generation.  He remembered his comparative religion class where he learned about the Hindu caste system.  Right out of the textbook, it was a particularly sanitized version.  He studied and learned the five levels of hierarchy (see NOTE) seemingly harmless social structure and had them memorized for the mid-semester exam.  He thought about the plight of anyone labeled “outcaste,” or “untouchable.”  It made him think of the flannel-graph Sunday School stories when Jesus broke the mold and touched the untouchables.  It was a lesson he took with him.

He also learned that in this modern global era, the current Indian constitution bans the ancient principal of “untouchability.” 

But three years ago he found himself in community with those Dalits – that is, “untouchables.”  The sights and smells of the real place, the open sewers and bad water and the isolation and the children (they laughed and played just like back home and wanted to be noticed and held). It all put a crushing weight on his shoulders.  He and his travel team shared a message of hope – and teamed up with a group of folks who have the audacity to believe that the terrible oppression of the caste system will one day be eliminated altogether.  With God’s help.

They claim William Wilberforce as their hero; the Brit who by his belief in amazing grace pioneered a movement in the United Kingdom that banished the slave trade forever from the marketplace.

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So just this month after a recent visit to his friends called Dalits, Pastor Matthew shared his vision with his people.  It was a moment of true nobility as he stood tall; in the tradition of the great reformers.   Emotion welled up from somewhere deep inside.  He spoke in clear tones.  On behalf of an oppressed people.  In the name of the greatest liberator of all – Jesus Christ.  Let freedom ring.  Let’s do something to change the world.  Together.  For good.  Forever.  Tears filled his eyes.

And the money rolled in.  And the people stood tall alongside with him.  And a new journey begins.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  Maybe you think we can’t go over there until we fix what’s wrong over here.  If that’s your view – then folks over there are in for a long wait.

I wonder what scientists would have found had they scanned Matthew’s brain at that one moment of clarion inspiration.  What would the color coded imprint suggest?  I suspect nobility.

Science will always be fascinated by its capacity to find new ways to map cause and effect.  And that’s a good thing.  I think, however, I’m much more interested in how leaders can tap into a God-given vision of real world issues – and then play a vital role in designing and implementing grand solutions.

I think I witnessed one example of just that this week.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, November 2007


NOTE: The Bhagavad Gita lists four caste levels – the Brahmins (teachers, scholars and priests), the Kshatriyas (kings and warriors), the Vaishyas (traders), and Shudras (agriculturists, service providers, and some artisan groups). The Parjanya or Antyaja was a group excluded from the main society – “untouchables” (now called Dalits); was considered either the lower section of Shudras or outside the caste system altogether.  The ancient system conflicts with the onset of a global economy; but remains a seeming insurmountable barrier to millions.
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Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 

There is something about the feeling of gratitude that chases out all the others.  You can’t feel fear when you are thankful.  You don’t feel angry, or sad, or depressed when you are truly filled with appreciation.

Gratitude may well be one of God’s greatest antidotes to those destructive emotions.  We all know that resentment and bitterness and the desire for retribution all feel so satisfying for the moment.  So justified.  And yet, all of them have the power to destroy – inside out.

So I come to the end of the week with a new sense of thanksgiving.  We’ve been given such good gifts.  It’s important to dwell on the memory and the meaning of those gifts; long enough for appreciation to do its good work.

I’m looking forward to this year’s celebration.  We’ll be in the mountains with some of our favorite people.  My brother and his wife have opened the door to their new mountain place.  The table will be filled with appetizing abundance. 

The guest who will bring the greatest sense of joyful celebration will be Bear the Marine (as we call him) who has just finished his first tour of duty in the dangerous streets of a small village in Iraq.  Barrett (my nephew) returns as a hero to the family… but he’s not at all comfortable with the label.  He’s doing his duty.  He’s dealing with the stuff of war.  He’s bonded with his band of brothers.  He’s learned a whole new language that includes faith and loyalty and preparedness and training and discipline.  We get to hug him and high five him and when we pray on Thanksgiving Day, we’ll thank God that he is home and whole.  And we’ll pray harder than ever for the families who can’t say the same on this blessed holiday.

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Then there are those grandchildren.  They light up when we appear at the door way or they appear at ours.  We’ll see four of the five.  We’ll take a mountain hike – slow enough for them to discover and explore.  We’ll long for the fifth; who will celebrate well on the other end of the continent.  By Valentines Day 2008, if all goes well, there will be two more.  They bring us inexpressible joy.

Then there was the three days with Bill Butterworth last week and along with nine other aspiring speakers who grew under his scrutiny and tutelage at the Hyatt in Irvine.  And before that the weekend up in Vancouver, BC with the head of a powerful ministry (Carson Pue, Arrow Leadership) to some of the best and brightest emerging leaders all poised to take us into the next generation.  And the reunion with my old friend, Doug who along with his wife Merri lead a growing church in the same town; and my niece and her police officer husband dropping roots along the Sound in the Pacific Northwest with a little boy and his curly hair.

Just yesterday, sitting beside a lake called Sabrina above eight thousand feet of elevation with Carolyn on a big boulder we named “Inspiration Rock,” we laughed and cried and held each other as we asked God, in the shadow of a mighty and jagged peak, under a deep blue sky in a gentle high mountain breeze with a creek splashing water nearby on its way down the hill and into the blue waters below, we asked God to guide us through this current passage in our lives; just like we have through all our years together.  We are learning to trust him.

And we laughed, remembering the walk around this same lake when our three were barely in elementary school and we wondered where the years went and how we could be so blessed.

Gratitude.  It’s soul food.

It’s Tuesday morning.  You are a leader this Thanksgiving week.

How ‘bout you?

Kenneth E Kemp, Copyright November 2007

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Guardian Angel

Monday morning, November 12, 2007

Roger Bielasz, MD is a popular physician.  He and his wife Dena were known up and down Highland Valley Road.  The view of the San Pasqual Valley just down the way from the Wild Animal Park was a source of pride.  Roger prepared for potential fire danger the way he prepared for a surgical procedure.  No detail was left unexamined.

As he took his friends to his viewpoint over-looking the valley below to the ridges off in the distance under the clear skies of North County, they would often ask, “Do you ever worry about the fire danger?”  Roger had an answer.

His house was a model of fire safety and preparedness.  All the windows were replaced with fire-safe dual pane fire-resistant materials.  The same with the roof.  And the decking surrounding the house.  All of it state-of-the-art non-flammable synthetics.  He was ready.  He surrounded the property with succulent ground cover and kept it irrigated.  He cleared the dry brush around the house.  His insurance agent told him that everyone in the neighborhood should follow his lead.  In the risk management business – the doctor’s house was Exhibit A on how it should be done.

So before they went to bed that late October night with the television set on, they monitored the fire’s progress on round the clock coverage, switching stations one after the other to see if maybe the flames might head their way.  Satisfied they were in the clear, they shut off the lights and the noise of Breaking News and drifted off to sleep.  At one thirty in the morning, high winds slammed against those dual pain windows in the bedroom and woke them up.  Roger raced to the large window in the living room.  A horrifying orange and yellow light filled the room – just outside, racing up the ridge were twenty foot flames heading right for the house.

“Dena – we’ve got to leave!” he called out.  They began stuffing two suitcases they kept in the closet of their master suite.  But it was too late.  They could feel the heat of the flames outside, already lapping up against the house.  Roger grabbed Dena by the hand and barefoot, they raced outside.  Flames surrounded the property.  There was nowhere to go.  “In the pool,” Roger cried.  And the two of them jumped into the swimming pool and waded through the embers and the howling wind to a shelter beneath a rock overhang at the spa.

It was barely two in the morning.  From their place in the cold shallow water they watched.  The dream home they occupied together for nineteen years succumbed to the flames.  The roof collapsed.  The walls fell.  The fire-retardant windows melted, as did the deck and the wrought iron railings twisting into a tangled mass of molten metal.  Later they talked haltingly about the destruction that followed.  For three hours they held each other in the water as the heat intensified.  “Keep your hair wet,” Dena shouted over the deafening noise of the fire.  “Don’t let your hair catch fire,” she warned Roger.  Over and over, they dunked themselves in the pool under the rocks that gave them shelter.  Burning embers, flaming debris hit the pool water before them hissing and steaming just inches away.  The scene was devastating.  Finally the kitchen was exposed, and the refrigerator stood as the last bastion against the intense heat.  They could hear cans exploding in the pantry and their collection of fine wines popping like firecrackers as glass shattered.  The steel refrigerator melted as they watched, disappearing into the flames like candle wax. 

As Roger stood in the protective waters of the pool next to his shivering wife, he thought about his mother.  She died just a year before.  She was a spiritual woman who took pride in her son’s considerable success.  “My son is a physician,” she would tell her friends with a smile.  But Roger knew her well.  He knew she prayed for him regularly.  He knew she cared more about his soul than his impressive collection of stuff.  And just before she died, she told him that she would be his guardian angel.  She handed him a tin box.  Inside were a Book of Prayer and a tiny New Testament.  Shortly after he buried his mother, he placed the box on the mantle over the fireplace in the living room of his fire-proof house.  There was a strange and unexpected reverence about that box that gripped the hardened scientist who rarely allowed himself the indulgence of reverence.

Roger and Dena pulled themselves out of the water in a state of shock.  They survived.  Their house did not.  Up and down the street, that wonderful street with the wide vistas, neighbors shared their fate.  The homes were gone.  Three days later, they learned that investigators confirmed their fears.  The couple next door did not escape.  The remains of their bodies were found in the ash somewhere near their bedroom.

As they sifted through the ruins, still smoldering, the heavy smell of smoke lingering over their property, the pool black with soot, charred debris still floating on the surface, they wandered into the garden.  An angel stood there, the angel Roger put there in memory of his mother.  Strangely, it was untouched, not even singed, looking up just as it did before disaster hit.  Arms wide open.  Roger remembered.  His Guardian Angel.  He called Dena over.  She took one look.  She reached for her husband.  Tears filled her eyes.

Next to the angel in the garden was a page from a book.  The edges were charred.  But the page remained in tact.  Roger reached down and picked it up; the text was clear.  He could only reach one conclusion.  It was a page from the prayer book in the tin box on the mantel.  Somehow it drifted through the heat to the garden and found its rest next to the angel.  The scripture read, “Be strong of good courage.  Be not afraid.  The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Pastor Jim, a good friend of mine, went to high school with Roger.  Roger told this riveting story to his old friend and said, “You know, Jim, this whole thing has got me thinking.”

Jim answered, “I guess so, Rog.”

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  Once in a great while, circumstance calls all our values into question.  The things we assume, the path we follow, the process we employ all of them are up for review.

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Roger and Dena’s story caught the media’s attention.  They were interviewed by CNN and CBS.  They were featured in the Los Angeles Times, the North County Register and the San Diego Tribune.  Jim called his old high school pal, and they spoke for nearly an hour.

There’s a newfound humility in the good doctor’s voice these days.  He’s thinking about his mother’s prayers; and the reality that transcends the scientific method.

As you and I contemplate those three unscheduled hours in four feet of water in the middle of the night; when survival hung in the balance; we re-evaluate, too.

It’s a restoration of the soul.  Somewhere, a mother smiles.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2007
Posted in Vancouver, BC 

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Common Ground

Monday morning, November 5, 2007

Terror is terrifying and fascinating all at the same time.  In the seventies, as my generation settled into adult life in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the downfall of a Presidency, I read a troubling little novel back then by Paul Theroux called The Family Arsenal.  Set in London, it looked hard at the underbelly of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its centuries’ long conflict with Great Britain.  The United Kingdom wasn’t.

Theroux created a penetrating portrayal of young, smart radicals with no money, no political influence, no military sophistication or cache of traditional weaponry.  In spite of their lack of resources, they wreaked havoc on their adversaries by planting and then detonating concealed bombs in public places.  Their strategy empowered their cause.  It was a new and devastating kind of warfare.  Terror.

It seemed that the world had learned something diabolic from the jungles of Southeast Asia.  Conventional warfare was turned upside down over there on the other side of the world.  The power of terror emerged.  The traditional, “civil” rules of engagement were summarily dismissed.  The element of surprise.  The power of concealment.  Maximum damage at minimum cost.  Civilian damage.  Direct and bloody attacks on complacent populations.  The psychological damage – bringing business as usual to a nerve shattering standstill.  By creating a fictional account of what was clearly non-fiction, Theroux postulated that the IRA embraced a strategy that would become a world-wide nemesis for decades, maybe centuries to come – terror.  The new art of war.

Here we are, some thirty years later, and the novelist seems to be a prophet.  In 2006, John Updike also tackled the subject.  In his novel, The Terrorist, he attempted to get inside the mind of an American high school student named Ahmad, half Irish-American, half Egyptian.  He falls under the tutelage of a New York imam and becomes a suicide bomber. 

On April 15, 2002, Newsweek put two young women side by side on its cover.  They look like sisters.  But they are not.  Rachel Levy, seventeen and an Israeli teenager, ran a pre-Sabbath Friday afternoon errand for her mother.  The wrong place, the wrong time.  Ayat al-Akhras, eighteen and a Palestinian teenager, ran a different kind of pre-Sabbath Friday afternoon errand.  Her mission would end both of their lives in a very public way.

Terrorists don’t consider themselves terrorists.  They lay claim to a principal of retribution.  Philosophers call it consequentialism.  Others quote the maxim – “The Ends Justify The Means.”  There are two major approaches to dealing with terrorists: 1) eliminate them and 2) attempt to understand them.  Which approach works best?  Ayat presented the world with a whole new set of questions. 

Ayat, who grew up in the challenging and war-torn streets of Dehaishe, a Palestinian ghetto just outside Bethlehem and inside the Israeli concrete wall, became enamored with the literature of revenge.  Her people suffered dislocation and perpetual intimidation and aggressive military suppression.  In secret, after a shattering explosion of violence in her neighborhood, she prepared to be numbered among the martyrs whose portraits decorated the walls of her home, her school and the public square.  We know now that her parents and her fiancé knew nothing of her plans.

Rachel lived in California and then Israel.  It was a challenging life; little excess for her single mother and two brothers.  But she reveled in the company of her high school friends; listening to music, watching movies and socializing at the local mall.  That fateful Friday afternoon, getting ready for Sabbath dinner, her mother Avigail asked her to run to the Supersol Market near Kiryat Hayovel in south Jerusalem to pick up some herbs and spices for supper.  As she entered through the ever-present security gate, past an armed, uniformed guard, she noticed another young woman, her head covered, whose face looked strangely like her own reflection in a mirror, but then so very different, she an Israeli and the other a Palestinian, girls so young and beautiful with such promise.  The guard, sensing some ominous presence, yelled and pushed the Palestinian girl away. She reached across from under white garment and at 1:19 in the afternoon triggered a concealed detonator.  The explosion ripped through the market.  Ayat, Rachel and the guard were torn to pieces.  Twenty-eight others lay in torment, seriously hurt.  The sirens sounded the alarm.  Too late.

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Hilla Medalia, a graduate student in film at Southern Illinois University, needed a topic for her master’s degree project.  The Newsweek cover captured her interest.  She read the expanded story and wondered – how were the two mothers of these striking young women coping?  There were all the political dynamics of the story – but the personal aspect even more compelling.  And then it came to her – what if I got those mothers together in the same room?  What might their encounter tell us about the irreconcilable differences in this volatile part of the world – the part of the world Joel Rosenberg calls The Epicenter?

What has emerged is a powerful documentary called “To Die in Jerusalem.”  Medalia succeeded in bringing the two mothers face to face.  But political realities and security demands allowed for only a video conference.  The region remains too explosive for a personal encounter.  Avigail Levy and Um Samir al-Akhras talked for four intense hours over a satellite link.  It is an illuminating, disturbing conversation.

But sadly, at the end of the day, the two could not find common ground.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  The world is in turmoil.  We move ahead.  In spite of the risks.

Sometimes a powerful, personal story rocks our world.  My sister and brother-in-law have the audacity to believe that the power of the Gospel to bring reconciliation is the only hope for an estranged world.  They’ve seen it first hand.  They call the author of that good news Yeshua ha Meshiac.  They live in Mount Carmel, just outside Haifa, Israel. 

Theirs is a ministry of reconciliation.  And it’s working.  Israelis.  Palestinians.  Lebonese.  Jordanians.  Europeans.  All in increasing numbers are finding hope, forgiveness, mercy, grace and love in a world of brutal confrontation and endless retribution.  It’s something that has illuded two mothers and a maker of documentaries.  It’s revolutionary.  It’s real.

Seek, and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened.  Ask, and it shall be given.

Copyright 2007 Kenneth E Kemp

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