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Archive for December, 2007

Serenity

Monday Morning, December 31, 2007

Some words, just by their sound, carry a certain appeal.  Serenity is one of those words.  Serenity is a place of quiet; of peace; of contentment.  A walk in the garden or alongside a still pond with a swan floating by.  Lots of color.  A gentle breeze on a balmy afternoon.  Ah, serenity.

We describe a face as reflecting the serene when it exhibits an inner peace; tranquility.  It’s a rare find in our high pressure, fast-paced world.  Most faces betray the stresses of a day filled with high expectations, staccato decision-making, information overload, the shrill of relentless demands and the screech of tires squealing as they start and stop and peel around the bend.  Serenity seems like a distant, unattainable dream.

And so we close out another calendar year, us leaders.  I wonder how much serenity we’ve known in the last twelve months.  Some, I hope.  Probably not enough.

Reinhold Niehbur, the son of an evangelical pastor, along with his brother (Richard), pursued the ministry as their father did.  One thing they took from their dad was an unyielding commitment to build a bridge between what they believed and the real-life conditions of the world they lived in.  So when, as a young seminary graduate, Reinhold took a church in Detroit during the Roaring Twenties, he saw the conflicts in the work-place of his blue collar auto-workers.  Violence, and strife and poor working conditions created all sorts of social ills.  Niebuhr challenged Henry Ford to consider the needs of his people.  It was straight talk.  Ford yielded.  The workplace improved.  The church grew.

The Ku Klux Klan wielded influence in Detroit, too, spewing racial hatred and bigotry into the streets and on the assembly lines and even in the political process.  Niebuhr exposed the Klan, which worked best in secret.  He wrote stinging critiques and preached powerful sermons proclaiming a God of justice and a gospel of peace.  His church and his influence grew more.

Later, from his post as a seminary professor, his influence stretched into Europe.  A young Dietrich Bonheoffer studied Niebuhr’s writings and sat in on his lectures. When Hitler rose to power and Bonheoffer opposed him, Niebuhr’s influence gave him a theological foundation and moral strength.  Later, a young seminarian named Martin Luther King, also an evangelical preacher’s son, developed his life mission in part, by exposure to Niebuhr and his work. 

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Niebuhr is complicated.  There is much to disagree with.  But his efforts to live out a Christian faith in a world of conflict, political strife, economic injustice and corruption set a high and compelling standard.

In 1942, Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, ran across an anonymous prayer attached to an obituary in the New York Herald Tribune.  He was so taken by the powerful message in the simple words that he had the A.A. office reproduce the lines on hundreds of small cards; distributed out of the famed Vesey Street offices to all the A.A. groups in Manhattan. 

“With amazing speed,” Bill later wrote, “the [prayer] came into general use and took its place alongside our two other favorites, the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer of St. Francis.”

Once it was published, the simple prayer gained national attention.  As the U.S. Government made plans to provide a written copy to every GI in the armed forces fighting in both the European and Pacific theaters, the hunt began to find its true creator.

Soon, the author was identified: The Rev. Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr.  He wrote the supplication as a “tag line” to a sermon preached in his Detroit church:

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

While there remains to this day, some doubt as to the authenticity of the attribution, no one has successfully offered an alternative, though many have tried.

No matter who was the author, the prayer expresses a powerful longing in the heart of every true believer.

* * * * * * *

It’s the last Monday morning of 2007.  You are a leader.  It’s time to say goodbye to another year… a year that brought successes and surprises and disappointments and rewards. 

The Serenity Prayer, as it is called by many, is an invitation to reflect on that tug-of-war that pulls us in both directions just about every day.  We’re stuck with some realities over which we have no control.  We need serenity to let it be.

In contrast, we’ve got opportunity and freedom and responsibility to take action; to say yes.  To say no.  To commit.  To decline.  To embrace.  To let go.  To affirm.  To deny.  To initiate.  To refuse.

Niebuhr’s prayer sums it up.  Folks in recovery know it well.  Funny (don’t you think?) how we obsess over the things we can not change.  Funny, too, how we step back from the very decision-making that could make all the difference.  We need serenity in the first instance.  And courage in the second.

And most of all, we need wisdom to know the difference.

In 2008, may God give us all three. 

Serenity.  Courage.  Wisdom.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2007 – Posted in Melbourne, Florida

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Rediscovery

Monday Morning December 24, 2007

We may be in an economic downturn in the housing market; oil prices are at an all time high and the dollar is worth less than ever outside the United States.  But the folks down the road in Eagle Hills must have had a very good year.

The electric meter on these elegant homes spin like the gyroscope on an Ariane 5 solid fuel rocket.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was filmed in 1989.  As out-of-control as Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) was in the installation of a preposterous assortment of lights, enough to blow even the most heavy duty circuits, the Griswold house was a tame cinematic precursor to the current Eagle Hills extravaganza.

But it has become a magnet for community life and holiday spirit.  Traffic lined up in all directions as Christmas Eve approached.  We took our grandson and Golden Retriever for a look on foot.  The streets filled up with cars and trucks with Christmas music playing through the sound systems.  Sidewalks were lined with pedestrians, looking this way and that, taking it all in.  Musicians filled the air with lively carols.

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Emerson’s eyes widened.  “Look Grandpa,” he would say, “a snow man!”  Or a reindeer.  Or Santa Claus.  Or a Christmas Tree.  Or presents.  Or the baby Jesus.  Up and down the street; lights blinking and music playing.  Folks bundled up for the evening chill and a full moon shone bright.

So now, after all these years, with a grandson on my shoulders, it’s as though I’m seeing it all again for the first time.

The choir on Sunday morning broke into a high octane version of Handel’s Messiah.  One after another, just as in the tradition of King George II on opening night, we all rose to our feet at the majesty and wonder of the claim: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!”  We’re getting ourselves caught up in the season.

The gifts are under the tree.  The LGB train circles the base.  The candles flicker on the mantel.  The smell of cinnamon and spice and cookies baking permeate the house.  And we reflect on the goodness of family and friends.

It’s Monday morning.  Christmas Eve day.  You are a leader.  You’ve got some time to think about what matters most.

Take a sip of that hot coffee there on the table next to you.  The business of the day can wait.  Worries about the New Year can be put safely on hold.  There are “tidings of great joy that will be for all peoples…”

And that includes you.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, December 2007

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Longings

Monday Morning, December 17, 2007

This is the season of hopes and dreams and anticipation and wonder.  The demands and the busyness (I wonder if the words are related – business and busyness) certainly are effective deterrents to the realization of the ideals we embrace.  We can sing all the familiar songs, sit long enough to go through all the classic movies, sip on holiday nog or Grog, light the candles, gather in a candlelit house of worship – and still miss it.

That doesn’t keep us from trying.  We hear all the warnings – but they have little effect.  The clichés all roll past us like the morning SIG alerts.  They are our year-end bumper stickers.  Don’t forget “the real meaning of Christmas.”  “The reason for the season.”  “Keep Christ in Christmas.”   “Don’t get caught up in commercialism.”  “Christmas has its roots in ancient paganism.”

You can hear them coming.  The Christmas cops.  Those who indulge in these well-worn platitudes seem to think they originated them.  Are the bromides just expected?  Do they make us sound clever?  Maybe a good old fashioned scolding is what we need.

But I don’t think it works very well.  Predictable complaints about missing the point of Christmas don’t have much effect, really.

So I’m left to wonder.  What is it that cuts through the noise and penetrates our hearts?  Charles Dickens wondered, too.  Ebenezer Scrooge was born.  Frank Capra pondered the thought.  George Bailey was born.  In 1983 Jean Shepherd thought about it too; Ralphie Parker was born.

I think it has something to do with longing.  The human heart is capable of many things.  Among the most powerful is longing.  Pastor Steve posed the question to a packed chapel this week.  When you were young, what did you long for as a child?  Not just a wish.  Or a fantasy hope.  A longing.  A genuine, bona fide longing.  You wanted it so badly you could feel it.  Can you remember?

Young Ralphie Parker (A Christmas Story, 1983) longed for a Red Ryder BB gun.  His mother said absolutely not, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”  Jean Shepherd’s tongue-in-cheek yarn has experienced a come-back of sorts since it was first released well over twenty years ago.  A pioneer in radio talk shows, Shepherd’s edgy comedy didn’t break into mainstream, until now.  The irreverent independent movie has achieved near cult status.  With spectacles that pre-dated Harry Potter, Ralphie’s longing for the BB gun drove every line, every scene of the entire film.

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I tried to recall a gift so important to me.  In my aging mind, those elementary school days in a small mid-western town exist in a misty long ago.  I do remember a Roy Rogers twin holster with dual silver pistols, pearl white handles and each with a revolving barrel and hammer that popped and smoked on a red roll of caps.  It was my Christmas wish.  I dreamed of it from Thanksgiving to Christmas.  Me and Ralphie.  A shared longing.  And on Christmas Day, there it was.  Joy to the world!

Longing.  As we grow up, those longings change.  They mature.  I remember when I courted Carolyn how I would sit there in my dorm room and stare at her portrait on my dresser – filled with longing.  Later, I recall the two of us, wondering if we would ever be parents, and together we longed for a child. 

Not all longings are healthy.  We can long for the very things that will do us in.  Take us out.  We call them obsessions.  But in the best sense, longings motivate us.  They focus us.  They energize us.  If dreams are going to come true, it’s because the longing within us pushed us in the direction of those dreams.  Those longings governed our choices, they cultivated the disciplines, and they got us over the barriers.

Can God use longing?

So Pastor Steve drew us in.  The whole nation of Israel longed for the day when Messiah would appear.  A Savior.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  There was a heart full of yearning.

It informed their prayers.  It peaked anticipation.  So in the fullness of time, when he came, a humble baby in the manger, “the hopes and fears of all the years… were met.”

* * * * * * *

On this Monday morning, you are a leader.  Do you possess a longing?  Is there a yearning – a yearning for something more?

It’s the kind of child-like yearning that gets expressed on Santa’s knee.  A fire engine.  A tow truck.  A Red Ryder BB gun.  A two story doll house.  But this is only a hint of the yearnings to come in a grown-up heart.

It’s a yearning for Emmanuel.  The anticipation of a Savior.  Hope for a world that longs for peace.

It’s in the longing that we find the meaning.

Be still just long enough to feel it.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2007

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Scotty’s Gold

Monday, December 10, 2007

The folks over at TIME magazine are all buzzing over their year-end tradition: the selection of the famed “Person of the Year.”  They assembled an all-star cast to make their proposals and defend their nominee.  Brian Williams, Emilio Estavan and Adrianna Huffington were invited to the offices of TIME.  Their lively conversation was recorded.

The predictable names came up – George W. Bush (the President is almost always a front runner), Al Gore (for his Nobel Prize winning efforts to broaden global awareness of an inconvenient crisis) and Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (the nominee is not necessarily recognized for a positive contribution) among others.  And then both Williams and Huffington proposed persons who are not persons at all.

Williams proposed that TIME’s Person of the Year be “You.”  Huffington, a bright, accomplished woman who makes an attempt, at least, to be rational, made an even more daring suggestion.  Her Person of the Year?  “Reality.”  That’s right.  Reality. 

Williams made his defense in a nearly sermonic tone.  We are, as a society, preoccupied with You, he said.  We aim our marketing at You.  Self-help is a cottage industry.  This laser beam focus on the immediate gratification of You is killing us, he added.  Something must be done.  So let’s call “You” Person of the Year.

Huffington went a step farther – “Reality” should be Person of the Year, she said, because Reality always trumps fiction.  The fabricated, popularized version of the truth so often embraced will forever be exposed as the perpetrated fraud it is; and Reality wins out.  There you have it – “Reality” – Person of the Year.

Ever since TIME copped out on naming a real live human being (up until 1999 it was “Man” of the Year), the whole notion of what it means to be human, much less a “great” human, has been up for grabs.  In 1982, TIME named the Computer as “Man of the Year.”  When Henry R. Luce died in 1967, something of the hard nosed common sense died with him.  What would he think if he listened in on this post-modern, new millennium, de-gendered discussion of his cherished “Man of the Year”?

So it was that Ms. Huffington raised the question of reality, elevating it to the status of personhood.  It conjures up to our memories that biblical moment when Pilate pondered the fate of the accused Rabbi who stood before him.  “What is truth?” he asked.  Hypothetically.  So, Adrianna, what is reality?

Walter Scott was born in Kentucky in 1872.  Adventure drew him west.  Outgoing, flamboyant, he honed his skills as a promoter traveling with the Buffalo Bill (Cody) traveling wild-west show.  But the prospect of discovering gold pulled his attention away from the corral and grandstands and on up into the hills.  Turn-of-the-century wealth wet the appetite of investors to chase after the dream; and Scotty was there to help.  He convinced one investor, and then others to fund his chase in the bluffs over-looking Death Valley on the hunt for the mother lode.

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Investors wrote checks.  But Scotty just couldn’t help himself.  Discipline was never his strong suit.  The money went for other things – like week-long parties in San Francisco, dazzling apparel and extravagant cuisine.  Appearances and Wild West excess and aw-shucks stories won him more investors.  Scotty was on the road to legendary status.

Albert M. Johnson, a Chicago Insurance magnate, became the only real gold-mine Scotty needed.  As the money poured in, Scotty convinced Johnson to set up camp just down-stream from the most productive natural spring in the entire Death Valley region.  Convinced that the gold in those hills was plentiful, Johnson continued to pay all the bills Scotty submitted; and then some.  When Johnson made his first long trip from Chicago to Death Valley, it was love at first site.  Johnson convinced his wife – they would build a winter home in the hide-away oasis hidden above the valley floor.

And what a home it was.  The twenties were roaring back in the Windy City and Johnson’s insurance company exploded.  Johnson poured two million dollars into the project (imagine the value today) and the result was a collection of towers and adobe structures with desert charm – gardens and palm groves and green lawns surrounded the “Castle.”  Albert’s wife Bessie came to visit; her aches and pains went away in the dry desert air.  They moved a theater organ into the great room and arranged evening concerts for their guests.  They filled the rooms with exquisite treasures from all over the world.

Scotty convinced the world that the magnificent property was his.  All of Death Valley and California believed the money to build came from a secret gold mine in the hills above the spring.  But there was no mine.   There was no gold.

The house introduced hundreds, maybe thousands of guests to the wonders of the desert.  They were entertained by fine cuisine, surrounded by art and music and books.  They would wander through the gardens and in the afternoon hear a Bible lesson from the indefatigable Bessie Johnson.  At night, they would listen as Scotty spun his yarns – with stories of bandits and gold and heat-stroke and mirages and critters and the days when Buffalo Bill Custer ruled the west.

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To this day, historians, visitors, Park Rangers – all speculate.  Did Johnson know that Scotty was a fake?  If he did, when did he figure it out?  Scotty was a world-class fraud.  But Johnson never complained.

He kept the secret.  In 1947, when Albert Johnson the insurance magnate died, the secret went into his grave with him.

Scotty’s Castle, as it is called to this day, stands as a monument to the mystery.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  If you are like me, it bothers you when TIME side-steps the challenge and names something other than a person as “Person of the Year.”  It’s a worthy goal, I think, to identify someone who has made an indelible mark on world events.  Give us a name.  Give us a human being.

Toward the end of his life, as speculation grew over the truthfulness of Scotty’s extravagant claims, Johnson was asked point blank, “Is Scotty indebted to you?”

Johnson smiled and replied, “No.  Not at all.”

Then a pause.

“Whatever he may have owed me, he’s more than repaid in the currency of laughter.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, December 2007

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Good Samaritan

Monday Morning December 3, 2007

Somewhere out in the rolling hills of South Carolina there lives a hobby farmer by the name of Sampson.  You might think he was named after the biblical strong man except for the letter “p.”  The Hebrew name means “bright as the sun,” which this Sampson appears to be – and he may well be a distant cousin to that long haired Old Testament champion.  After you read his story, you may make the O.T. connection.

Sampson’s three children would roll their eyes if you asked them about their dad’s farm implements.  His bread and butter job is a Kershaw County construction supervisor.  He owns just enough land to farm on the weekends.  His primary crop is the kind of throw-away corn hunters buy to bait deer at the height of the season.  But Sampson loves the land and everything it produces.

Out behind the house is dad’s aging collection of equipment.  The corn-picker is a rusty relic that Sampson Parker kept running long after its useful life would otherwise have been declared over.  The kids considered it a living relative of Tow-Mater – the rusted out, dented, squeaky tow truck who befriends Lightening McQueen out there on Disney’s Route 66 in Radiator Springs (Cars).  But this is South Carolina, and this dad looks too young to have an oldest child in his thirties and two more in their twenties.  They’d often say, “Dad’ll fix anything.”

And the other would add, “And he won’t throw away nothin’.”  Mom would smile knowingly in full agreement.

Sampson Parker

On a Saturday last month, several weeks before Thanksgiving, Sampson went out alone on the banged-up picker to harvest a field.  Bouncing high on the steel spring loaded seat, shifting gears and pulling back and forth on the steering wheel, something jammed.  He jumped off to take a look.  A cob stuck in the gears.  With a gloved left hand, he reached up underneath to set it free.  The glove caught.  It pulled his hand irreversibly into gritty, greasy chain gear.  He yanked it back.  But it was wedged.  The glove twisted around his fingers, up into the gears.  Pain shot up his arm.

He called out for help over the banging cylinders.  No one could hear him.  He sat back, in pain.  And that’s when he started to pray.

The John Deere knife in his pocket was all he had.  So he began to chop away at his bleeding fingers.  He called out again.  He prayed harder.

For nearly an hour he sat; engine idling, irreversibly caught in the gears, bleeding.  Growing weary.  Spent.  Surrounded by an open field, the tall forest on the perimeter.  Thinking maybe this could be the end.  He told God he trusted him.

He managed to grab a steel bar and ram it up into the gears, hoping for relief.  Instead, the steel against steel generated sparks.  The sparks ignited the fuel.  Flames jumped up around the engine block, and off to the dry brush surrounding him.

What happened next became the talk of the nation.  It’s too gruesome to describe in detail (though Sampson is more than ready to tell the whole story).  This uncomplicated, church-going, God-fearing man made a choice few of us could imagine.

I think it had something to do with those children.  That marriage.  Those colleagues on the job.  Those friends over at the church.  The neighbors up and down the road and down town.  He just wasn’t ready to check out.  He knew he had no time left.  Now.  Do it now.  If not, it’s all over.  Those were his thoughts.

So with that sharp pocket-knife and indescribable determination, he separated himself from his own left arm just above the elbow.  In the few minutes it took to make the cuts, he suffered some serious burns.  But he was free.  The arm gone – but the man, free.

The story isn’t over.  His pick up truck was just up the road.  He staggered up to it, turned the key and drove back to the highway.  The one armed, blood soaked part-time farmer stumbled to the center line and weakened, signaled the next passer-by beckoning him to stop.  The first car slowed, the driver looked stunned as he stared out from behind his closed window at the awful sight, and then he hit the accelerator speeding off over the rise.  Then another approached.  The same.  Slow down.  Shocked stare.  Then gone.  And then another.  And another.

Sampson prayed again.  From the center of the highway.  On his knees.

Doug Spinks pulled up on what was for him a lazy Saturday afternoon.  He drove down that country road and came upon the scene.  He’s a fire fighter and a trained first responder.  His eyes widened.  He muttered something under his breath, and hit the brakes.  He popped open the driver’s side door and ran to Sampson’s side.  His experience enabled him to assess the pale gray look on Sampson’s clammy skin.  He knew immediately that this injured man lost a lot of blood.  His instincts and training kicked in.

He pulled his cell phone from his pocket.

A helicopter arrived within minutes.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  I seriously doubt that your life has ever been so physically threatened that you came anywhere close to making the kind of decisions Sampson Parker made next to the drone of a rusty corn-picker that Fall Saturday afternoon.

But you do know this.  Danger lurks around every corner.  Even when we are least likely to imagine it.  Boom.  We are caught.  We’re in deep.  We are desperate to extricate ourselves.  But we can’t.

And there we are.  Bleeding.  Hurting.  Faint.

Too many pass by.  Too few dare engage.  And then, like a gift from heaven…

A good Samaritan.

Matt Lauer (the TODAY Show) interviewed Sampson Parker as he stood next to his new friend Doug Spinks and a rusted out corn picker in a field that was harvested by his neighbors as Sampson recovered in a nearby hospital and rehab center.  Lauer, visibly shaken by the story Sampson told in aw-shucks South Carolinian tones, suggested that the picker ought to be pounded into pieces and ground up for salvage.  He offered to help.  “I’ll bring the sledge,” Lauer said, laughing nervously.

“Naw,” Sampson drawled.  “One Sunday morning, I came out here before going to church, said a little prayer, made everything good with God,” he explained. “It doesn’t bother me a bit.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, December 2007

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